When I preach for A Rocha, the hymn ‘How great Thou art’ is often chosen. It’s often voted amongst all-time favourites, and verse two makes it an obvious choice for the Christian conservationist:
“When through the woods and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
When I look down from lofty mountain’s splendour,
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze
Then sings my soul, my saviour God to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!”
Yet, whilst I love the tune and many of the lyrics, my heart sinks every time I hear the last verse:
‘When Christ shall come with shouts of acclamation,
and take me home what joy shall fill my heart.’
Take me home? Where to? Surely not an airy-fairy ‘heaven’ dreamed up by Victorian painters and revivalist song writers, a ‘home in gloryland that outshines the sun, way beyond the blue horizon’? Listen to these words from the 1911 hymn ‘Anticipation’ by Charles Naylor:
‘When the last earth-tie is sundered, and my soul set free…
But when this short life is o’er, we shall weep and sigh no more,
But rejoice forevermore in our home on high.’
It would be hard to put more bad theology into a hymn if you tried:
- ‘Earth-tie’: a concept owing more to Gnostic heresy that the New Testament
- ‘my soul set free’: the bible never divides soul and body – this is pure Platonic dualism
- ‘our home on high’: NASA’s ‘Curiosity’ Mars rover hasn’t found it, but maybe it’s looking in the wrong place?
Don’t get me wrong! I’ve not stopped believing in heaven. Rather I’ve started to take my theology from the Bible rather than from the hymns I grew up with. And what have I found?
- Heaven is not a place for disembodied souls, but for physical resurrected bodies (1 Corinthians 15).
- The biblical images of God’s new (re-new-ed) creation include abundant wildlife, peaceful societies, and a removal of sin, death and suffering.
- Heaven is not a place in the sky, with clouds, harps and endless bad worship songs. It is wherever God lives. God’s plan is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:10), so that “God’s home is now among his people” (Revelation 21:3) on a cleansed and renewed creation. More on this next month…
Does it really matter what we sing? Yes it does! Because lyrics and tunes are memorable, they shape our theology more than most sermons. Worship leaders, please think about what you choose and songwriters please read the Bible carefully! Need inspiration? Here’s a genuinely biblical hymn about God’s future for Planet Earth (written by Isaac Watts in 1719):
Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing.
Joy to the world! The Saviour reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.