I found the article “Heaven Can’t Wait” in the April 16, 2012 edition of TIME Magazine to be both enlightening and disturbing. I am a Messianic Jew (a Jew who believes Jesus is the Messiah) and a 60-year-old male who lives in New York City. I reflect both the Jewish and Christian communities’ views on Heaven, as well as those of my generation.
I also lead Chosen People Ministries, an organization founded in 1894, which has been reaching out to the Jewish and Christian communities with the message of a Jewish Gospel for more than a century. This gives me a unique perspective on heaven and hell, the nature of the Gospel, the balance between good works and good deeds, and the Christian and Jewish hope for the future kingdom.
I appreciated Jon Meacham’s insights (perhaps more for their cultural rather than theological value) but was shocked by his misunderstandings about the early Christians – all of whom were Jewish, up to a point.
He writes, “The story of Jesus as interpreted by Paul and as told in the Gospels created a unique understanding of salvation and life after death. No one in first-century Judaism had been looking for a human atoning sacrifice.” (p. 33). Unfortunately, Meacham makes a mountain out of this theological molehill and builds his misunderstanding of the Christian hope upon his under-researched and inaccurate idea.
Inter-Testamental literature and early Rabbinic writings indicate that a substantial group within first-century Judaism believed in the coming of a suffering and even atoning Messiah.
A key passage demonstrating this is Isaiah chapters 52 through 53, which is alluded to by Jesus, quoted in the book of Acts in the early sermons of Peter, and affirmed by Paul in his classic statement on the Gospel found in 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, which Meacham quotes at the end of his article.
Isaiah chapter 53 describes a suffering individual, identified by the prophet as the Servant whose “mission” in life was to die in the place of sinful Israel and the Gentile nations (Isaiah 53:4-6). The prophet clearly describes the atoning death of this individual in verse 8, “He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due.”
The author of “Heaven Can’t Wait” appears to downplay the issue of personal salvation and presents a view of salvation focusing on “heaven coming to earth,” bringing a more corporate version of redemption focused on righting the wrongs and evils of our present day. This implies that the work of Christians today should focus on changing society as a means of preparing for the age to come.
The view of heaven Meacham espouses ignores the hope for a suffering Messiah that is the bedrock of faith for Messianic Jews and all types of Christians. He ignores tomes of scholarship, including the new book entitled The Gospel According to Isaiah 53 (available here), recently published by Kregel Publications and edited by myself and Dr. Darrell Bock, who teaches New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary – one of the world’s foremost evangelical seminaries. I also teach at the Talbot School of Theology, a part of Biola University, and Meacham quotes form Dr. Erik Thoennes of the same institution.
The Gospel According to Isaiah 53 highlights the views of leading evangelical scholars who believe that Jesus, from His own words in the Gospels to those of other New Testament writers, is clearly understood as the fulfillment of Isaiah 53. Jesus is the Suffering Servant who died a substitutionary atoning death for our sins.
The Apostle Paul, also a Messianic Jew, summarizes the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, claiming that Jesus died for our sins and rose again from the dead, according to the Old Testament Scriptures. Unless one believes that the words of Paul and even the words of Jesus were penned centuries later (which is another discussion), then clearly many first-century Jews did believe that a human atoning sacrifice was expected… especially by those Jews who believed in Jesus and wrote the New Testament!
Meacham quotes the end of 1 Corinthians 15, but should consider that the hope of heaven and admonition to remain “steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” would be impossible without the foundational truth of Messiah’s death and resurrection, providing personal salvation for both Jews and Gentiles and ultimately the redemption of a world cursed by sin.
I am glad the author and TIME Magazine tackled such an important topic. However, I believe that the article should have taken a much broader look at the variety of views on heaven. Meacham’s work reads far more like an editorial than a well-researched article, which is how it seems to have been presented.