A verse from a confessional reading in the Moravian Hymnal reads:

Oh yes, having found in the Lord our delight,
He is our chief object by day and by night;
This knits us together, no longer we roam,
We all have one Father, and heaven is our home. [1]

Echoing this widely held Christian belief that this earth is not home, but rather heaven is, Calvinist author Loraine Boettner writes; “Our citizenship is in heaven,” Phil. 3:20. Heaven is our home. Life in this world is only the preparatory school, the staging ground, as it were, to get us ready for the much greater life that lies ahead.” [2] Indeed, much of Christian teaching has come to emphasize going to heaven, and uses the Bible to instruct people on how to get there after they die. Of course, the Bible itself has been used to reinforce the idea that the world is a bad place, and that Jesus has come into the world to ultimately take us out of the world, and that in the end, God will destroy the evil world. All that will be left is eternal bliss in a wholly alternate location known as heaven.

This post proposes an alternative perspective of God’s ultimate purpose for the world, and for the people who live here. The question guiding this this perspective, reflected in the the following rhetorical question is:

Is the Bible telling the story of how God gets people out of the world (e.g. off of the earth or out of the land) and into heaven?

Another way of asking the question (using the word “land”) is:

Is the Promised Land somewhere else?

Considering the Old Testament mega-theme of land, my conviction is that this world – the Earth – is the land that God is giving us.

Within the entire Old Testament, there are more than 2700 references to land. According to Elmer Martens, “The term ‘land’ is the fourth-most frequent substantive in the Old Testament.”[3]

I hope to show that God has given it to the human race, and that his intention for the world to be ruled by an image-bearing human who governs it on His terms has never changed. More specifically, He has given the whole world to His Son who will ultimately renew and restore it because it always was, and still is God’s intended home for the human race, and will be our home forever (cf. Mat. 28:18).

In order to work through this big idea, I will provide brief surveys within the biblical narrative covering

(a) Land in the past as a very good home,

(b) Land in the present as a broken home, and

(c) Land in the future as a glorified and restored home.

This world always was, now is, and always shall be the place that God has given to humanity. The whole world is the land God is giving to us.

Land In The Past – A Very Good Home

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). This is the beginning of the biblical narrative. Bartholomew and Goheen write,

In Genesis, the God who creates the world sets men and women within it as the crowning touch on what he has brought into being. The creation itself is described as a marvelous home prepared for humankind, a place in which they may live and thrive and enjoy the intimate presence of God and companionship of the creator himself.[4]

Quite contrary to Boettner’s idea that life in the world is a “preparatory school” for our future in heaven, the Biblical narrative seems to be simply saying that life in the world is a gift from God to people, to be enjoyed right here, and that the world itself was always the place in which God humans to live. The creation narrative speaks in terms of God giving the world to the humans for both their benefit and their stewardship.[5] His gift to them is, in part, a gift of land. Hindson and Yates write, “Man and woman were given the role of theocratic administrators who would co-rule God’s creation on his behalf.”[6] As the story unfolds in Genesis 3, the first humans abdicated their God-given role in creation to a serpent, and were ushered out of the garden by God. But God’s intentions with respect to this world did not end there. As fallen humanity spread out over the land, God limited the human life-span to 120 years, and rather than destroying the land itself, God resolved to cleanse it in a flood, and to preserve a remnant of the human race to continue His work in creation:

6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”[7]

As the flood narrative draws to a close in Genesis 8, reference to the centrality of land, life, and human stewardship is emphasized again, along with a covenantal pledge from God to never again destroy the earth in a flood.[8] As Noah’s descendants increased in number and spread out over the land, God’s project continued through Abraham. God’s covenant with Abraham also involved land, as well as a commitment to bless the entire world through Abraham’s offspring.[9]

Roy Zuck Writes:

“Obedience to this call would result in his being made a partner with Yahweh in the process of blessing the world and bringing it back in line with its Creator’s intentions.” [10]

”God’s “land-and-people” restoration and reclamation project began with Abraham and included two basic things: (a) God would raise up a world-blessing nation through Abraham, and (b) they would bless the nations, in part, from their land. The land, according to Zuck, was the place “in and from which the reconciling people would minister to the world.” [11]

From Abraham’s second son, Isaac, and Isaac’s second son, Jacob God continued His project. His promise to them was that He would be their God, they would be His people, and He would give them the same land that He had promised to Abraham.[12] After years of nomadic sojourn, Israel settled in Egypt where they ultimately endured four centuries of slavery. When the Lord God delivered Israel out of Egypt, He reminded them again of His promise of land.[13] As the book of Exodus draws to a close, and Joshua begins, Israel begins the long process of attempting to possess the land that God promised to their forefather Abraham, and to them.[14]

The book of Joshua ends with the Israelites established in the land. This represents a major stage in the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, even though the road to this point has not been easy. The promised land for Abraham’s descendants has now become a reality in the life of Israel. The stage is set for Israel to live as a light to the nations. God’s response to mutiny in his good creation has been to elect one man, Abraham, and then to recover a small sliver of land on the earth, and to place Abraham’s descendants there. Israel in the land is meant to be a taste of what God intends for the whole of his creation.[15]

The remainder of the Old Testament narrative recounts Israel’s difficult history with respect to their divine vocation to possess the Promised Land on God’s terms, and to be the people who show the world what God is like.

Israel’s story is not a story, and their religion is not a religion emphasizing people trying to learn how to get off of the earth so they can be in heaven. It is the story of God’s people vested with the divinely given vocation to reclaim the whole creation (beginning with one piece of land and working outward from there) for the Creator.

At this point in the discussion it is not unusual to hear Christians say that the Old Testament is merely symbolic of God’s heavenly future for us. “Israel was to possess ‘real’ land here in the fallen world, and so their story is symbolic of our future. But since, it is believed, God is going to destroy this planet, our Promised Land is really in an entirely other place called heaven.” After all, didn’t Jesus teach what heaven was going to be like in the Sermon on the Mount?”[16]

No.

Perhaps it would be better to understand Jesus’ teaching about the “Kingdom of Heaven” as an insight into what the world (e.g. the land or the earth we live on) ought to be like when God’s people are truly being God’s people, and what it will ultimately be like under the reign of God. In the words of N.T. Wright, the Sermon on the Mount is not “a guide-map for how to go to ‘heaven’ after death. It is rather, as it stands, a challenge to Israel to be Israel.” [17]

Land in the Present – A Broken Home

Up to the time of Jesus, Israel had never fulfilled her vocation, and the Gospels begin, in part, with a view of Israel under Gentile (e.g., Roman) occupation. The land that God had given them was being ruled by other powers. They did not fully possess the land, though they did live in it. Therefore, God’s purposes for the world that He created, which were to be carried out by the people He had chosen, and from the land He had given to them, were yet unrealized. Thus, Israel had, up to that point, failed in her vocation. The world was not as it should be, and though Israel was home in the land – it remained a broken home, and they were a broken people. The theme of land does not disappear in the New Testament. According to Paul, brokenness and yearning for wholeness extends over all of creation.

19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies[18].

This echoes the pronouncement of Hosea:

1 Hear the word of the Lord, O children of Israel, for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land; 2 there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery; They break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. 3 Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens, and even the fish of the sea are taken away.[19]

The Apostle John also makes reference to the present state of creation: [t]he whole world lies in the power of the evil one (1 Jn. 5:19).

These texts set up points of tension between Jesus’ insistence that God has handed the authority to govern the cosmos (which includes the earth) over to him[20], and the present state of the world – and the fact that things don’t much look like Jesus is really in charge. This could well be the subject for another post discussing the theology of the Kingdom of God and inaugurated eschatology. But I return again to my first question. If the world is groaning because of brokenness, if there is no knowledge of God in the land, and the land mourns – and if the whole world lies under the sway of the evil one, then what is the Bible’s solution? Is it to take us out of the bad world to another place, or is the Bible telling another story? The final section proposes an answer that fits within the synthesis and scope of the Biblical theology of both the Old and the New Testaments.

Land in the Future – A Glorified and Restored Home

The groaning for renewal in the present creation is not just a New Testament idea. Rather, it is central in the message of several of the Old Testament Prophets (especially Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi).

The promise of the restoration of Land takes on cosmic proportions, so that what is at stake is no longer a geographically limited space that must be reestablished but rather a new creation that restores the original creation. Thus, the entire surface of the earth becomes once again privileged space for intimate relationship between God and humanity. (Marchadour, Neuhaus, and Martini. The Land, xi).

Quoting N.T. Wright, Elmer Martens suggests that land is featured in Pauline theology as “a great advance metaphor for the design of God that his people should eventually bring the whole world into submission to his healing reign.”[21]

Building on what Martens concludes, I am pushing further than he does and proposing that land and world are not only metaphorically related, but that they are, rather, thematically related or complementary words that do not necessarily require a metaphoric relationship at all.

In the simplest terms: Land means land. Land is a reference to land in the actual world, and the world – having land on it as it does, is what has been given to humanity by God. Rather than serving as a metaphor for something bigger, might the gift of land simply be a starting place for something bigger? It seems that God always meant to have the whole world ruled by the human vice-regent of his choosing. The land given to Israel in the Old Testament was only the beginning of a larger project covering the entire creation – which seems to be what God originally had in mind for Adam and Eve, though they failed in their vocation.

The original question at the beginning of this post was, “Is the Bible telling the story of how God gets people out of the world (e.g. off of the earth or out of the land) and into heaven?”

Viewing the question through the lens of Biblical theology requires us to answer with a simple, “No.”

The Bible is not telling us how to leave earth and go to heaven. It is not telling us that heaven is the place that God has given to us – and that we are going to heaven. Rather, the Bible’s story ends with heaven coming to earth and wholly re-pairing to it. Gary Burge describes the end of the Biblical story with respect to heaven and earth, material and immaterial, and world of the Spirit and the land in succinct terms:

“heaven will bring its properties to earth for its final renewal.”[22]

Snyder and Scandrett’s book, Salvation Means Creation Healed proposes that the entire soteriological schema of both Old and New Testamens can be viewed through a “healed land” lens. They write:

God promises to hear humanity’s cries “and heal them” (Isa 19:22). God pronounces “Peace, peace, to the far and near” and pledges, “I will heal them” (Isa 57:19). “Return, O faithless children, I will heal your faithlessness” (Jer 3:22). When God’s people truly turn to him, he promises to “heal their land” (2 Chr 7:14). In fact, the Bible promises a healed, restored “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet 3:13). We recall that the Old Testament word for peace, shalom, means comprehensive well-being—healthy people in a flourishing land.[23]

Land and the whole Biblical Story

Old Testament Theology – The theme of Land is central to the Biblical story, and integral to an understanding of Old Testament Theology. The world (beginning with a small park on a piece of land upon the face of the Earth) was a gift to the first man and woman in Genesis. The land was, for them, a good home. Their vocation was to care for the Land on God’s terms, and to extend its boundaries to cover the entire planet on God’s terms as his co-regents. Their failure resulted in their expulsion from the land. From that time until now, the land, and indeed the whole world, is a broken home.

Through Noah, Abraham, and eventually Israel, God continued his land-reclamation and world-blessing project. The Old Testament tells the long story of Israel’s struggle to fulfill her vocation to be the light of the world and to extend God’s reign over the whole earth by being the people who show the world what God is like.

New Testament Theology – In the New Testament, Jesus assumes the vocation of Israel, as well as their punishment. He presents himself to God as the faithful nation of Israel, remaining faithful to God in the land, and showing Israel and the Gentiles the very nature of Yahweh. Though he is rejected and killed by his own people at the hands of the Gentiles, he is vindicated by God through resurrection, and is given dominion over all of creation.

In Christ, the work of re-claiming, re-pairing, and re-connecting the world to God continues, and will continue until heaven and earth and re-joined.

Eschatology – The land, in the future, will be a glorified and restored home. Jesus did not come, and will not come again to remove us from the world, but to bring the world back under the sovereign and just rule of God. God’s people will dwell securely in the land again, under the reign of their King, Jesus, and in fellowship with God.

Truly, the whole world is the Land God is giving to us. The promised land is actually land. The promised land is a heavenized earth!

———-

Notes

[1] hymnal and Liturgies of the Moravian Church (Unitas Fratrum. Bethlehem, PA: Provincial Synod, 1920), 131.

[2] Loraine Boettner, Immortality (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. 1956), 30.

[3] Elmer Martens. The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People. Edited by John Isaak. (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 225.

[4] Craig Bartholomew & Michael Goheen. The Drama of Scripture: Finding our place in the Biblical story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004),31

[5] Cf. Gen. 1:29, 30 – “I have given you…” as well as the concept of human dominion in Gen. 1:26, 28, and stewardship in Gen. 2:5, 19-20.

[6] Ed Hindson & Gary Yates, The Essence of the Old Testament: A Survey (Nashville, TN: Broadmand & Holman Academic, 2012). 55.

[7] Gen. 6:6-7, ESV, emphasis added.

[8] Cf. Gen. 8:17 & 9:1-3, 11.

[9] Cf. Gen. 12:1-3

[10] Roy Zuck. A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991) 26.

[11] Ibid, 27.

[12] cf. Gen. 35:11-12

[13] cf. Ex. 12:25

[14] cf. Josh. 1:1-6

[15] Bartholomew & Goheen. Drama, 83

[16] cf. Mat. 5-7

[17] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the victory of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996), 288.

[18] Romans 8:19-23, ESV

[19] Hosea 4:1-3, ESV

[20] cf. Mat. 28:18

[21] Martens, Old Testament. 229.

[22] Gary Burge. Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to ‘Holy Land’ Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 96.

[23] Howard Snyder and Joel Scandrett. Salvation Means Creation Healed: The ecology of sin and grace: overcoming the divorce between earth and heaven (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), Kindle Loc. 119.

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