“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.” 1Peter 3:10-13
Last night and this morning something that the LORD has been impressing on me lately is coming to a peak. It’s a like a burden in my chest. My heart races when I think of it. It’s a divine disturbance that many of us are hearing. It’s this idea of embodiment – or rather our wholesale turning away from all forms of embodiment. The idea that as Christians we are living disembodied lives with a focus on a disembodied future state. We have turned the Gospel into a flight towards pure spirit. We have forgotten that the summation of GOD’s plan of redemption is not us going to Heaven but Heaven coming to Earth. Jesus is coming back to this Earth not just to judge evil but to enact His Eternal Kingdom. The end of the story and our forgotten future is GOD’s New Creation.
I suspect our incomplete theology and mis-reading of what occurs after the end of this age is informing a broader misunderstanding of how Scripture teaches us to live in the world now. The Church at large is plagued with a kind of fatalism and despising of the created gifts of GOD. We have despised our physical bodies (which Scripture says is the temple of the Holy Spirit) and looked in disdain on GOD’s Creation/the natural world (which in Genesis He calls good). We have also confined GOD to our religious temples – calling our church buildings “the House of GOD” when Scripture clearly informs us that the ‘Earth is the Lord’s’ and no temple can contain Him (Acts 7:48). It’s as if we have wholly misappropriated our entire understanding of the material world.
I believe we have constructed a spirituality that is rooted in a kind of Platonic/Gnostic dualism that is like a thorny vine wrapped around the true trunk and roots that is our common Christian faith. And the fruit often in most evidence is coming from these ancient philosophies that are so tightly intertwined with our beliefs. The fruit of these false roots is a low view of the material world (as if it was somehow not created by GOD as an expression of His love to us) and in turn a faith that seeks escape from it. We have become exiles in a way that betrays GOD as Creator and as Redeemer – it betrays the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus.
One of the primary contemporary prophetic voices speaking to this corruption of our faith is the farmer and agrarian writer Wendell Berry. His voice is like a voice from another time calling us as Modern Christians to a New Materialism – one rooted in a Biblical understanding of this world that GOD has given us – one in which we return to resurrection (of Jesus and in turn Creation and the people of GOD as well) as the central reality of our faith. In his epic essay ‘Christianity and the Survival of Creation‘ he pinpoints the root issue (all excerpts taken from the collection of essays ‘The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry‘):
“I have been talking, of course, about a dualism that manifests itself in several ways: as a cleavage, a radical discontinuity, between Creator and creature, spirit and matter, religion and nature, religion and economy, worship and work, and so on. This dualism, I think, is the most destructive disease that afflicts us. In it’s best-known, it’s most dangerous, and perhaps its fundamental version, it is the dualism of body and soul. This is an issue as difficult as it is important, and so to deal with it we should start at the beginning…”
He goes on to direct the reader to Genesis 2:7 where GOD creates Adam. As GOD forms man from the dust of the ground and breathes life into him, Mr. Berry reminds us that our dualistic minds read it as a bad math formula informed by bad theology:
“The formula given in Genesis 2:7 is not man = body + soul; the formula there is soul = dust + breath. According to this verse, GOD did not make a body and put a soul into it, like a letter into an envelope. He formed man of dust; then, by breathing His breath into it, He made the dust live. The dust, formed as man and made to live, did not embody a soul; it became a soul. “Soul” here refers to the whole creature. Humanity is thus presented to us, in Adam, not as a creature of two discrete parts temporarily glued together but as a single mystery.
We can see how easy it is to fall into the dualism of body and soul when talking about the inescapable worldly dualities of good and evil or time and eternity. And we can see how easy it is, when Jesus asks, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lost his own soul?” to assume that he is condemning the world and appreciating the disembodied soul. But if we give to “soul” here the sense that it has in Genesis 2:7, we see that he is doing no such thing. He is warning that in pursuit of so-called material possessions, we can lose our understanding of ourselves as “living souls” – that is, as creatures of GOD, members of the holy community of Creation. We can lose the possibility of the atonement of that membership. For we are free, if we choose, to make a duality of our one living soul by disowning the breath of GOD that is our fundamental bond with one another and with other creatures.
But we can make the same duality by disowning the dust. The breath of GOD is only one of the divine gifts that make us living souls; the other is the dust. Most of our modern troubles come from our misunderstanding and misvaluation of this dust.” (p. 313-314)
This is merely touching on the tip of the iceberg but he goes on to say:
“When we hate and abuse the body and its earthly life and joy for Heaven’s sake, what do we expect? That out of this life that we have presumed to despise and this world that we have presumed to destroy, we should somehow salvage a soul capable of eternal bliss? And what do we expect when with equal and opposite ingratitude, we try to make of the finite body an infinite reservoir of dispirited and meaningless pleasures?” (p. 314)
Berry also speaks of the modern, secular version of this same dualism – where “the body, along with the rest of the “material” world, must give way before the advance of the human mind”. Clearly we are again finding the fruit of those ancient roots wrapped around both the culture of the Church and the wider culture.
If we are, in our generation, to recover a robust and holistic expression of our devotion to Jesus as our Lord and Master – we must become aware of these entanglements that have reduced the Gospel to salvation as a hyper-individualized flight to a disembodied heavenly state. How you view the future and the end of the story means everything in how you live now. We have been praying: “Our Father who is in Heaven, please send your Son back quickly so we can be home with You” when Jesus told us to pray: “Our Father who is in Heaven, holy is your name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven…”
These are two visions of the future – one is of the Earth being destroyed and the people of GOD ending in Heaven, the other is of Heaven coming to Earth- in a grand climax with the return of Jesus inaugurating His Eternal Reign and the beginning of the Age to Come in a cosmic restoration . One vision of the future leads us towards incarnation and the embodiment of our faith and the other deceives us into becoming ‘holy phantoms” who are neither here (on Earth) nor there (in Heaven).
This is not a mental struggle for academics and theologians – it is the task of every Christian to wrestle for the reclaiming of our purpose as we live backwards from the final day. Which vision will you live out of?