The Heaven Ethic (Heaven Part 4)


The Bible’s cosmology can be weird and hard to believe. What is there for us if we can’t get excited about ruling over angels? Nate and Tim wrestle with this question, discussing the profound and practical strategy that Paul and the early Christians took from all this craziness, which is the ethic of relinquishing power.


Tim: This week we are playing for you the second half of the conversation that we started last week. Got crazy, it got weird, it got long, and Nate cut me off. He just couldn’t take it anymore, so.

Nate: Yes, I did. It’s like the manager coming out and asking for the ball. Uh, okay, anyways, so here’s the rest of that conversation.

[transitional music]

Tim: Now okay, here’s where I joked that maybe the Mormons had it right and a couple episodes in the past, I said if you’re trying to get the simplest, or not simple but most concise summary of the New Testament authors thinking about humans and the heavens and all of this weird stuff, it’s 1 Corinthians chapter 15. So thinking about all of this, let me just read a few verses for you in 1 Corinthians 15 and see if this can start to make some sense. So starting in verse 20,

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits—

Tim: that’s a singular word, but the firstfruit, the first one, the pioneer]

—of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man

Tim: and remember, the name Adam is just about a human or the human] the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man.

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

Tim: Also remember how many, like David Bentley Hart have talked about there’s forty or fifty verses that clearly sound like the New Testament writers envisioned everybody eventually being saved in a kind of Christian universalism? I mean, just listen to this! “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after

Tim: Here we get back to this whole idea of a process.

—after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Tim: And here’s the last verse I’ll read is a quote from Psalm 8:

27 For “he has put everything under his feet.”

Nate: Okay, so connect that to the Mormons then, yeah. So basically we’re going to rule. Not just rule, but we’re going to become elohim?

Tim: So the idea is, and this is why when you get a few verses later in the same train of thought, Paul gets into talking about what kind of bodies we’re going to have, and I’ve heard a dozen different people try to explain this and what the natural body is and spiritual body is, but if you read through this, here’s the basic idea: Jesus began the revolution and has been resurrected through death and now has begun the process—“Jesus will reign until,” okay?—begun the process of enacting the revolution. So this is kind of like, N.T. Wright’s got a whole book on this called The Day the Revolution Began. The idea is the revolution has started. Jesus has been inaugurated to power… kind of. But that power is the power to begin ruling. It’s not the power that means there’s no transition left. It’s like He’s been appointed to begin the process. So Jesus is reigning, that’s the concept, but the idea is He will reign until He’s actually taken control.

Nate: Right.

Tim: So the idea here, you see we’re back to battle imagery. He’s begun to reign but He has foes, He has opponents who don’t want Him to reign. So He’s going to reign until He’s essentially gained control. Now we see other places is that what that means is we now somehow are reigning with Him in, what’d Paul say? It’s not a battle against other people but it’s a battle against empires, powers in this world, and the spiritual powers in the heavenly realm. And why then does Paul get into talking about how we won’t just be raised with our same bodies but we will have heavenly bodies? It’s the idea of Jesus is now in the process of transcending to become the ruler both of earth and of heaven. He’s been given the right to do that, but He has to sort of reign everybody in, so the idea is one day every knee under heaven and on earth will bow to Jesus. One day. Not the idea that that either already happened or it’s going to happen. It doesn’t imply that it’s going to momentarily happen. The idea is—

Nate: So okay, wait, that’s not just saying the same thing? “Under heaven and on earth”? That’s not just saying all the space? That’s not just saying these… clearly these two realms.

Tim: The two realms.

Nate: The heavenly realm and the earthly realm. They’re all going to bow.

Tim: Exactly.

Nate: Okay, so that also is fitting into this worldview. Gotcha.

Tim: It’s even why go out of your way to say new heaven and new earth? It’s to say both realms. The cosmology is there are two spheres we’re concerned with here, and both of them are included. And so the picture [laughs] the picture is that what Jesus started to do as a human being, He’s the first one of many. All human beings, actually, in part of this logic. On one hand it says those who belong to Him, but then on the other hand it says all humans are going to follow suit. And so then Paul starts to talk and try to picture what our bodies will have to be. Why? Because like we said earlier, we will actually be ruling over heavenly beings. The basic idea here is we are going to become rulers not just as Adam and Eve in earth space but as Jesus in earth and heaven space. So we can’t have just bodies that are made for this space. We have to have bodies that are made for both spaces. So on one side you’ve got this picture of a disembodied spirit, which is the kind of thing that exists in heaven space. But if Jesus were just resurrected with a body, this is the conception, for earth space, He wouldn’t be able to go through walls and He wouldn’t be able to ascend to heaven. So the conception is somehow, that’s why Paul can’t give us a simple explanation and He says basically no one can understand this, but he differentiates a natural body from a spiritual body and a perishable body that decays from an imperishable spiritual body. It’s this whole thing, this heavenly person. “As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth. And as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” Paul literally in clear language, if you understand where he’s coming from, in clear language is saying he believes that human beings are going to become earth-heaven beings. It’s why I used the word extraterrestrial. So we are terrestrials, we are of the “terr,” the earth. We are earthlings.

Nate: I think that actually fits more in with kind of the classic view of heaven that the church has taught, at least in the west, for 100+ years of going to this distant place and being this other type of being. Right? That kind of fits in with that. But not when you put it into this worldview of what that means as far as being a person of the heavens and of the earth. You know what I’m saying? But it does kind of seem like it fits a little bit better in that teaching.

Tim: Right. But I think the piece that I never understood and I think many people miss is that it’s a new concept of a double spaced being. You know? If our skin bodies—

Nate: Right. And what those spaces are, you know?

Tim: Totally. Yeah. So the whole concept is when a human body dies, literally we put it in the dirt and it slowly becomes dirt. So you could see clearly where the conception of humans as of the earth, for the earth, to rule the earth comes from. And then what we’re talking about essentially, I mean it’s okay to admit this, what we’re talking about when we’re talking about heavenly beings is things that we don’t see and essentially are unseen explanations for things that we don’t have explanations for. That is why I’m saying the material scientific worldview is so, so different from Paul’s conception here. Because Paul and everyone around him had a whole cosmology meant to fill in the gaps on things that they knew were happening but didn’t see evidence for. So the whole concept is of invisible unbodied beings. But the point here is that Paul is saying we will somehow fit in both spaces at once. So He’s trying to the best of his ability to imagine a kind of existence in which we’re both human and both on the earth and both ethereal, airy. Like made of spirit, which isn’t material or earth. And so some of this is new, some of this is old because the whole picture of Eden was a space where heaven and earth overlapped and God could be in essentially both realms at one time with mankind.

Nate: Right, right. Walking in the garden

Tim: Yeah.

Nate: But then also not there all the time. He’s in this other place too.

Tim: Totally.

Nate: Okay so let’s get… let’s talk real here for a second. Let’s get back down to earth, the earth realm. So if we don’t think that this worldview is correct because of scientific discoveries, anthropologically speaking, all this type of stuff, new stuff we know, some of the things potentially that Paul and some of the biblical writers were trying to find explanations for we have explanations for as you’ve said. Then… does the biblical story of… uh, this biblical story. I was going to say just of afterlife, but it’s really kind of this whole, you said, this whole worldview that leads to then afterlife and all that. But does this biblical story really have much for us when it comes to end times specifically, which is what we’re talking about in this series? But does it actually have anything for us, if you’re choosing—let’s say someone out there is like, “Yeah, that’s crazy.” You could go either way. You could say, “I don’t believe that’s what the Bible’s actually saying, I don’t think that’s what the biblical writers are saying. Thanks a lot, Tim, for spending an hour talking about that.” Or you could say, “I do think you’re right that that’s what Paul had in his mind and that’s what Genesis was all about; I just don’t believe that, that that’s probably what’s going on really.” And so I’m saying, if you’re in that camp, does the story have anything for us? What do you think?

Tim: I actually think embedded in this, and let me try to circle us back there, is one of the ideas related to Christian theology. But it’s an idea that I wasn’t introduced to until late in my Christian life and that I’ll have to try to convince people is a part of Christian theology. But it’s related to all this crazy mumbo jumbo that seems nonsensical, and yet embedded in it is one of the ideas that I find to be the most profound and beautiful ideas in all of Christian theology. And I learned it from a guy named Dallas Willard, and I’ve talked about it on here, but let me try to connect these dots. So part of why I wanted to show all this is not just to complicate things and make everybody feel uneasy. But we’re starting to see, I think understand the conception of… we talked about revolution and now we’re talking about how there’s this sort of cosmic transition, right? The war/battle/reigning imagery is about the process of transition. And what you see in the book of Revelation is, for instance, human beings being invited to join Jesus in this process, in the transition itself. And this transition is called reigning. So here… it’s about power, it’s about who’s going to be elected to power, but then it’s about the process of that power put into play. So let me try to unpack this a little bit because it even makes my head hurt. The idea is the revolution’s gonna take time. Where we’ve conceived of heaven has been entirely about the end of the process.

Nate: Yeah.

Tim: Right? We said, I think most people think the process is instantaneous, or there isn’t even a process, it’s an instantaneous moment. But I think we’ve limited our imagination, most all of us, to what the final result will be. But I actually think as integral in the imagery what you’re seeing even here in Paul’s language, even the language of judging angels is as much about what the process will be rather than the result. So we’re going to do a whole separate episode on this idea of perfection.

Nate: Yeah. Mmhmm.

Tim: Or even sort of like bliss and completion? But it’s also going to contain in it the question of like, is this story that the Bible’s telling, is this about an ideal world that was created and then the ideal was corrupted or broken, fallen, and now we’re trying to return to the ideal?

Nate: Which is how it’s always talked about. That’s how I always taught it, that’s how I’ve always heard it taught.

Tim: Right. Yes. Right. And related, we’ll get to this, is some of I think the most unhelpful and unhealthy and often oppressive constraints on Christian theology are derived from the idea that what we have in the Old Testament and in the garden of Eden is a static ideal to which we are returning to, rather than the creation of potentiality, or the creation of a beginning. So let’s connect this back to this conversation on heaven. What Paul is imagining is a world where we are transformed to have the power to rule the world. What does that mean? What that means is he’s picturing a realm or a reality in which we are given the ability and the authority to participate in the process of restoring the world to something that we would conceive of as heaven or the new creation. In other words, it’s not on one hand that we’re just supposed to build it here and now. There is consistently in the Old and New Testament this idea that God needs to come and do something. We can’t do it on our own. That is there. But it’s also not the idea that one day God’s just going to change everything and we’ll wake up in this beautiful new universe.

Nate: Yeah, we have to become the types of people and the world has to change in certain ways, the cosmos has to change in certain ways. It’s a process. It’s gonna take time for that to happen.

Tim: But it—

Nate: And we have to want for that to happen, right?

Tim: Right, but even more to the point, the world will become what it’s going to become because we have become who we are going to become. Okay?

Nate: Ah, responsibility.

Tim: So in action it is… so just picture the Revelation war thing, right? It’s by human beings and divine angels joining Jesus in this thousand year reign to create peace and order on the world and get rid of death and get rid of these beastly empires and get rid of Satan. That imagery is about how we will fix the world together. And how we will have the power to assert our willingness fix the world. Okay? So remember, here’s where this connects to something really beautiful to me. One of my favorite little vignettes of any theologizing I’ve ever heard was from Dallas Willard in a conversation with one of his friends. Dallas Willard is dead now. One of his friends, Gary Black, Jr., who published some of Dallas’ thoughts at the end of his life about heaven. And one of the questions came in response to the horrible tsunami, I think it was the Indonesian tsunami, years back. And they were musing on how both Jesus and Moses, and sort of Jesus as a Moses type, are presented as characters who have such power that they can actually still water or control the seas, right?

Nate: Yep.

Tim: And they were reflecting on how many thousands of people had died in the tsunami and someone said, “How wonderful would it be if someone was here who had the ability to calm the seas and to stop the tsunami?” And because Dallas had trained himself to think this way, in relation to power and these crazy conceptions of heaven and earth, he was ready on the spot to say, “What kind of person would it take to have that power and not destroy him or herself and the entire world with it?”

Nate: Hmm. Yeah.

Tim: In other words, yes, you’re right. We need power! We need power to be able, not to be done and sit around and play violins. We need power to go about fixing things. Stopping evil from happening. We need power to disempower the Hitlers of the world, okay? That’s the revolution war imagery. We need power for the revolution. But what kind of human being—this gets back to your second concern that you brought up earlier—what kind of human being would it take to have the power to be authorized for the revolution, to come out the other side of the revolution and to only use that power for good and never use it for evil. And that is the question to which Jesus is the answer. So if we haven’t begun to ask those kinds of questions: what kind of person would it take to hold great power? then I think we’ve missed the whole biblical theology of power running all the way through. That’s the point of the testing period in the wilderness, right? That’s the point. Is Jesus the kind of person who can have all the power, the keys to the kingdom and all power in heaven and on earth, and yet not even use it to save His own life? Because that is the kind of moral character it would take to have power and only use it for good. Right? The ultimate test of whether you’re going to restrain your use of power is whether you’ll protect yourself against others. So the story we have of Jesus is someone who had every right. Right, He was unjustly tortured and executed without cause. He had every right to defend Himself, but the gospels go out of the way of say not only did He not battle back like Peter wanted Him to with the sword, but He wouldn’t even speak words to defend Himself. Now that doesn’t mean that what we’re supposed to do in this life is go around and let ourselves get beat up or stay in abusive relationships or stay at abusive churches or any of that crap. The point is that the way we become the kind of people who can hold the keys to heaven and earth is by practicing little acts consistently of relinquishing power over other people. And the epitome of such acts would be to lay down even your own life. So remember you asked last episode, how do we know who’s the rich, who’s the poor kind of thing, and I pointed to the foot washing thing. And I said listen, Jesus found a practical way in His own life to help His friends put into practice relinquishing their social power over others. That I think is the point. So the picture here is multiple stages. It’s not original goodness in the garden, then a bad world, and then we become Christian, and then we wait for this new world. The idea is, and this is again something I learned from Dallas Willard: if—if—the biblical conception of heaven or where this whole thing is headed, new heaven and new earth, is firstly a world in which many Jesus-y figures, many Jesus-y men and women, are transformed or become with our own participation and God’s help the kind of people who can practice perfect love, then a whole army of nonviolent, self-giving people can be given the keys to the kingdom. Then eventually those people could for instance stop the tsunamis of the world, natural or political or otherwise. In the gospels’ depiction it’s by casting out demons and healing sick people, by taking care of the poor. If we are the kind of people who can do that then we can begin this process of transforming the world and restoring it, and not just moving it back to Eden but moving it forward to something we haven’t seen before. And so heaven is firstly, first stage heaven is the place where we are effectively able to be the kinds of people who hold great power. That means that there is a phase two of heaven. Which, who knows how long it will take, which is the result of us using that power. It’s the end of the process. It’s utter peace and shalom. So you have heaven as the process is part of heaven itself, does that make sense? But then secondarily it means, and this is what I tried to trace out what you’re seeing in Paul all over the place, that what it means for us to be Christians here and now, in this life, before the new world has begun while somehow reigning with Jesus; what it means to act as corulers, coheirs to the kingdom in this life, is not to go to war. It’s literally to find every possible example of laying down your power over human beings and to put that into practice. That’s what it means. So that’s why I’ve said the simplest way to deal with the battle warfare imagery is to say that if the ethics, if the consistent, holistic Christian ethic is that what it means to rule with Jesus here and now is to practice completely non-coercive, nonviolent relinquishing of power, then why in the world would we have ever had a conception that either in this life or in some future world where we are given more authority, that then we would go use that for violence or coercion or enforcing our policies on other people? So the picture is that in this life we are to begin becoming the kind of people, with God’s help, who could hold great power in the world and rule with Jesus. And then we as those people will rule with Jesus and and restore peace on earth, and then, only then, after some long period of time, would we sit around and enjoy that peace on earth. So we’ve limited the conception of heaven to that very end thing. And then we’ve said that essentially we have no part in doing that. And then many of us, because we’ve disconnected those ideas, have been able to say, “Well let’s use power for all sorts of awful things in the here and now.”

Nate: [inhales deeply] I’m just sitting here. I think I kind of get it all. It’s not that I don’t get it, and I’ll come back to that question I asked, because I think you kind of answered it, but basically if this worldview, if we don’t have this worldview, why does— why would we be— like, you could be compelled by the story, because it means living a better life now or whatever. But why, what does this story, the Jesus story, what does it have for us, if they just all believed in this cosmic thing that’s going on that maybe we don’t even think is going on, what implication does this story have for us?

Tim: Right. Well so let me just clarify. My point was that everything I just said in the last ten minutes had nothing to do with divine beings. And you could strip that part out if your worldview demands it, and you could get to a point where what I was saying is what the Christian ethic for this life here and now means… to Paul, it was embedded in an idea that we are eventually going to rule in heaven and on earth over divine beings and human beings. But what he did with that idea is he converted it into an ethic, all of the New Testament writers did, that the best way to live lives as human beings in this world is to creatively find ways to give up your power over other human beings to serve others, and by doing that we can create shalom and peace, which is what heaven is, the creation of that peace. So that thing, that ethic, is something I find beautiful and compelling that I can hold even when I really don’t know what I think about all of the divine beings ruling in heaven sort of thing. Does that piece make sense?

Nate: Yeah, I get that. And that’s what I’m saying, you can hold onto this, it’s beautiful and it’s this nice ethic that isn’t actually what they were talking about. And so I’m saying like, that’s nice that we got there, but if that’s not what they’re actually talking about because that’s kind of the worldview they had, but their worldview was a lot more than that… we’re just kind of picking out part of it because that works for us, but not the other part? You see what I’m getting at here?

Tim: Oh. But that’s… what Paul believed, this is what Jesus believed, right? Jesus sent out people to heal sick people. To help the poor. And that, and Brandi pointed this out when we had her on the show, that is how human beings had begun the process of waging war against the cosmic realm. That’s how it was done. So the idea isn’t, “Okay, there’s all this spiritual stuff we’re supposed to do and then there’s some real world stuff, and then let’s just ignore all the stuff that Paul thought about.”

Nate: Right, but Tim, but Tim! If that’s not actually… if the reason they were doing that is to combat this divine realm that’s happening and you don’t think that divine realm exists, then why are you doing it?

Tim: Because—

Nate: Why do you think it’s the good thing to do?

Tim: Gotcha. Because even if Paul and Jesus and all of these people believed some crazy things and accidentally stumbled upon the best philosophical ethic that you can build a life around that the world has ever seen, I’m fine with taking that. [laughs] You know what I mean? I’ve never seen, and I don’t think the world ever will, a better social ethic that communities and cultures and civilizations can build themselves on, and just us as individuals, than self-giving love and specifically an attention to power and the ways that we relinquish power over one another than is in this mindset. So if for Paul—

Nate: Do you think they would still hold that even if their worldview wasn’t what it was? Because they got to this ethic because of their worldview. And I’m saying if you remove that ethic, would they still think that’s the best way, or is that just their strategy for defeating the cosmic divine beings? You know what I’m saying?

Tim: Ah. Yeah, that’s interesting. That’s a good question, that’d be fun to play with. I think initial instinct is that they didn’t get there because that was their worldview. They got here through their worldview. So it almost feels like an impossible thought experiment to ask what would they do with our worldview. But I think the piece that is clear is that their, Paul believes in a battle in both realms. In Ephesians 6 it says very clearly the dark forces, principalities and powers here on earth, and the dark forces of evil in the spiritual realm. The battle is in two realms at once, and yet the tactic in that battle is the same. And it’s because of Jesus’ life that Paul believes this, right? And I think many of the New Testament writers in the early church, they saw the efficacy of it. Just like me and many of my friends and I have seen just from experimenting with what a community can be like when you practice giving away your power over one another. And so if Paul believed that he was operating in two spheres, heaven and earth, and that the sole tactic to take was nonviolent relinquishing of power, and what we’re trying to come to terms with is most of us actually only believe in one sphere, one half of Paul’s equation, the tactic is still the same. So what Paul, my guess is in that sense, if you just do the mathematical piece of this is if Paul just believed in a single sphere and saw Jesus’ life, he would still apply the same ethics. He just wouldn’t say, “Don’t you know you’re going to judge angels?” He would say, “Don’t you know you’re going to judge Julius Caesar?” But his approach to how human beings were to become the kind of people who should and could judge Julius Caesar and not just become the next Roman Empire was to wash each other’s feet.

Nate: Hmm. Gotcha.

Tim: That’s how it’s accomplished. And so that is where I go, yeah, I don’t necessarily need to believe… and I don’t know. I still don’t know. If the language around what do we need to believe or what we want to believe, if that makes people uncomfortable, I think Nate, you and I are just trying to be honest with how weird this stuff all sounds, right? More like don’t even know what we believe. I definitely know I don’t look for spiritual forces behind everything I don’t understand in the world; I google it.

Nate: [laughs] Which, let’s be honest, that’s a spiritual force right there!

Tim: [laughs] Totally! It’s the third realm of the cloud!

Nate: To be able to bring back the world’s information in a second? Yeah, but there are a lot of things we still don’t understand, or that we do understand but they’re just completely crazy, especially when you get to the quantum level. If you want to blow your mind, just start looking at quantum physics.

Tim: Right. Quarks.

Nate: Yeah, quarks and oh man, even, I was listening to this podcast about how trees communicate with each other through the root system, and it gets so nuts.

Tim: Yep. Isn’t it amazing?

Nate: Yeah, there’s these whole other worlds going on. So I don’t actually have a hard time believing some of this stuff. I’m just saying if you didn’t believe in some of this worldview, or even if you believed in part of it or you kind of saw some of it, is there still a story there? And I think you convinced me that there is. But yeah. It’s still kind of crazy.

Tim: Right. And I think your pushback, Nate, is really good, because kind of like what we’re saying, I don’t think it’s intellectually or say, spiritually responsible or helpful for us to downplay how different we are from Paul, to how much of this stuff we might not actually believe or might not practically believe on a day to day basis. And I do believe regardless of where everybody comes out, we can have a more honest and I’d say more real faith. If your faith is based on trying to force yourself to conform to a worldview that at the end of the day you’re just never actually going to conform to, it’s just not going to help anything. So I know this language sounds uncomfortable, and actually having people have a more tangible, real, and where I get passionate about is a more ethical… that’s why I’m excited about this power ethics, a more practically ethical faith. But you gotta sift through the weird stuff. And so some will say it’s divine revelation, what Paul believed is what we have to believe. And others will say no, this is the culture that he lived in and we gotta figure out how to adapt to our own cultural worldview.

[jump to future Nate and Tim]

Nate: Okay! That was… that was intense. We promised it would be intense, and it was intense. And actually, I joked that I took the ball. I was the manager taking the ball away from Tim and we had to shut it down. But he is going to, he just told me that he is going to turn his mic on right now and record an Utterly Heretical episode. Which if you don’t know, that’s our other podcast that we have just for Patreon supporters. And he’s going to talk about, what did you say? How manna is angel food? Which, angel food cake! That made me think of angel food cake. I used to eat a whole angel food cake. Oh, it’s so light and fluffy. I mean, it really is the food of the gods. So is that manna? Is that what you’re saying?

Tim: Yeah, gonna talk about some more of the weird stuff that wears you out and that I could just talk about all day.

Nate: Okay. So to go get the Utterly Heretical episode, you want to make sure that you are a supporter on Patreon,, and join the correct tier over there, and you will have Utterly Heretical. And you can hear about how angel food cake is manna! No, no, no. Manna is angel food.

Tim: … cake.

Nate: Alright, we’ll see you next time, friends. Find out more at, send us your questions, thoughts, your story. We’d love to read your story, we read and respond to every single email we get, so we’d love to hear from you. Alright, we’ll catch you next time.

Tim: Peace, y’all.

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