Thy kingdom come: A noted theologian discusses heaven

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 7, 2011

Hood Theological Seminary
Dr. Christopher Morse, author, internationally renowned theologian and Dietrich Bonhoeffer Professor of Theology and Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, will be the guest speaker at a book talk to be held on the campus of Hood Theological Seminary on Jan. 13 at 7 p.m. The book talk will feature Dr. Morse’s research on the biblical and creedal references to heaven, and the present day significance of apocalyptic understandings of reality as a coming “kingdom of heaven,” as presented in his critically acclaimed new book, “The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News,” recently published by T&T Clark/Continuum.
The session will be followed by a book signing in the Cokesbury Book Store located on the Hood Seminary campus. The public is invited to attend both events but reservations are recommended, as space is limited. Please call the Hood Theological Development Office at 704-636-6926 by 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 12 to ensure seating.
In advance of Thursday’s event, Hood Theological Seminary’s Dr. Trevor Eppehimer recently conducted the following interview with Dr. Morse.
TE: Part of your research for this book involved reviewing all of the approximately 675 appearances of the words “heaven” or “the heavens” in the Old and New Testaments. What surprised you most about what the Bible actually says about heaven?
CM: I was most surprised by how much more importance the role of heaven has in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments than we commonly attribute to it today. Our common associations of the sky, the hereafter, or a state of bliss can be found there, but these associations are all set within the more crucial and intriguing frame of reference that a kingdom of heaven is “at hand.”
TE: Along these lines you write in your new book that, from a biblical perspective, heaven is “less about a place we go to than one that comes to us, less about a postmortem afterlife than about life here and now, and less about a timeless, static state than about a timely taking-place.” It seems like the only Christians who talk this way about heaven at present are those who subscribe to the kind of end-times scenarios creatively depicted in Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’s best-selling Left Behind books. How does your view of heaven as being “at hand” and “taking place” match up with theirs?
CM: I am tempted to say by being far less profitable! But seriously, the question is whether these scenarios picture the coming from heaven in terms of this present world as we think of it. The Gospel tells of a coming from heaven that is not of this world, thus a literalistic understanding is not in keeping with a faithful hearing of the Gospel. Of course, we have to give an account for what we confess to be faithful, and this I try to spell out in the book. I call it an experiment in thought which I invite the reader to engage.
TE: If then we have some in the church today who interpret scriptural references to heaven too literalistically, we also have, it seems to me, others who think about heaven exclusively as the place one goes to when one dies, rather than the origin of a reality that is coming towards us at present. You argue in your book, however, that the latter view is more biblical than the former. I grew up thinking just the opposite. My Sunday school teachers, for instance, taught us to think about heaven primarily as the place where the faithful go to be with God forever when they die. Was I being misinformed by them about what the Bible actually says about heaven?
CM: No, not so much misinformed as incompletely informed. I am grateful for Sunday School teachers, and we must remember we are, as the Apostle Paul says, to “grow up” from childhood in our hearing of the Gospel unto the maturity in Christ that God’s grace provides for us. When even as little children we are taught to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” something more is obviously being heard by “heaven” than exclusively a place one goes after death. I’m wondering how well you were paying attention to your Sunday school teachers!
TE: I have heard some say that it is no longer credible to talk about heaven’s coming to us, despite what the Lord’s Prayer says. According to their argument, the expectation that Christ would soon return to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth was a first century Christian hope that can no longer be sustained by modern Christians. Two thousand years have passed since then and because Christ has not returned and the kingdom of heaven has not been established definitively, the first Christians were obviously mistaken in their expectations, or so this argument goes. What do you make of this argument?
CM: I find that this conventional argument at first glance appears to make sense, but only superficially. When we look further at what it assumes, namely that the so-called modern mind with its time frames is closer to the real world than is the mind of the first hearers of the Gospel who testified that the day and hour of heaven’s coming is not given to us to know, it becomes far less persuasive. As I observe in the book, it is one thing to ask what is no longer believable or trustworthy in the Gospel talk of heaven, given our modern frame of reference, but quite another to ask what is no longer believable or trustworthy in our modern frame of reference, given our hearing of heaven in the Gospel. Both questions today call for our faithful consideration.
TE: What would you say is the state of contemporary discussions regarding heaven among, on the one hand, seminary and divinity school professors like yourself and those that take place, on the other, in more general, popular contexts, such as through movies, TV shows and bestselling novels?
CM: The reason I titled my book “The Difference Heaven Makes” is that I find that the subject of heaven is trivialized today in both academic and popular contexts. One reviewer has commented that it was surprising to find a professor from Union seminary writing about heaven. When schools of the church cease to explore afresh the traditions of scriptural and doctrinal testimonies regarding heaven other voices in the public media, often with little knowledge of these traditions, presume to speak for Christianity in their place without any accountability. Heaven becomes, as one author has written, whatever we want it to be. But rather than complaining that such popular writings sell many times over our books as professors, we should work harder as theologians and scholars to convey as clearly and vitally as possible how it all really matters.
TE: You have a chapter in your book titled “The Ethics of Heaven.” Many people, upon seeing this chapter’s title, might think that it is about how one should live one’s life so as to qualify for admission to heaven upon death. That, however, is not the direction you take. What is it, then, that you have in mind when you talk about the “ethics of heaven” in your book?
CM: To pray that “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” is to acknowledge that heaven involves a doing. Notice, it is a doing based upon a coming. But what in practice does this mean? In the Gospel this heavenly doing is said to be a coming to us from God that is described as “at hand” but not under our control, not in our hands or originating from us. From this Gospel standpoint what we call ethics, or our human responsibility, is actually our being enabled to respond to what is taking place. Jesus called his disciples to seek this kingdom at hand in the promise that it is the Father’s good pleasure to give it to us. In doing so we are said to become witnesses of what is being done in heaven.
TE: What I found particularly interesting in your book is your discussion of the way in which heaven, particularly its forthcoming, as you put it, calls into question what we understand the “real world” to entail. I wonder if you might talk a bit about the connection you make in your book between heaven and what we refer to as “reality.”
CM: Here I think you come to the core message of the Gospel regarding heaven, and that is that it’s not about religion so much as about what we take to be “the real world.” It’s fascinating, when you think about it, that in the Bible heaven is referred to most often in terms of that which is now coming to pass in contrast to what Paul refers to as “the form of this world that is passing away.” The most real thing about our present life on Earth now is heaven. If that is indeed the news of the Gospel, it’s rather surprising to hear, isn’t it?