“This world is not my home. I’m just a-passin’ through” is a Gospel song from the 1960s by Jim Reeves. I don’t hear the song often, but I hear the sentiment, especially at funerals. It is in old hymns, like “Take my Hand, Precious Lord,” and in contemporary praise songs. Some long to go home. Is this Biblical? Is this good theology?
Here in Iowa City, we are getting settled in our new home. “Home” is an emotionally powerful word. It is more than a house. Home is a place of peace, comfort, love and belonging – or, at least, it should be. However, we also speak of “broken homes,” homelessness, refugees and aliens. “Homelessness” expresses what sin has done to our place in the world. We do not always feel at home.
One worldview question is “where are we?” Are we at home? The Secularist or Materialist says, “Yes.” This material universe is all there is; it is home. We are earthly creatures who live a short time and then die. The Spiritualist traditions say, “No.” We are essentially spiritual, not physical. We are part of the eternal spirit or energy, and only when we fully return to it will we be home.
These perspectives are not new. Greek philosophers argued them. Every world religion takes a position on whether we are essentially material or spiritual. The answer to this question determines where we are at home.
Christianity attempts to walk a middle position, although it often falls in the direction of the spiritual. The creation account of Genesis 2 presents the combination of being created from the dust of the ground (physical) and given the breath of life from God (spiritual). We link heaven and earth. We are at home in two worlds and need them both. Without a relationship with God we are restless (St. Augustine). Without a relationship with the world we are useless. Genesis 2 adds that without a relationship with others we are joyless.
To be at home we need to be in relationship with God, others and the creation, but we are not. Genesis 3 and the following show these relationships broken. We are tempted to listen only to this world. We want to be God. We blame others when it does not work, and we work with pain and problems. We are not in the Garden. We feel homeless in a world with murder, wandering, physical and sexual violence, natural disasters, drunkenness, family and national strife and confusion (Gen. 4-11).
As a result, we are a wandering or a pilgrim people. We are not home, but we have hope. Cain became a wanderer. The Israelites in the desert wandered when rejecting the way home. Jacob, Joseph and later Judah/Israel were exiled. Peter calls us “aliens and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11, cf. 1:1 NRSV), but Hebrews 11-12 calls us to enter the line of God’s pilgrim people. Abram was called to a pilgrimage, “looking forward to the city, with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).
Some have understood this city as heaven, but that was not the promise given to Abram nor the vision given to John. John saw the new city coming from heaven to earth (Rev. 21-22). Before this he heard martyred souls in heaven call out for this city (Rev. 6:9-11). They were not at home. In the Father’s house there are many rooms (John 14:1-4), but that house is not yet fully home.
Paul wrestles in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 with being in the middle. In Philippians 1:21-26 Paul expressed his desire to be with Christ, but in 2 Corinthians he expresses the struggle in the language of home. Our bodies are tents. They are not lasting. We groan. God has an everlasting building for us in the heavens, but that is not where it is to stay. The down payment on this building is the Spirit coming to live among us here. We are at home in the body, but it is broken because the Lord is not yet fully here. We can be at home with the Lord, but it is not yet fully home because we are then disembodied, a nakedness for which Paul does not long.
I understand Paul and believers’ desire to be freed from the pains of our bodies and the evils of the world, but that does not mean heaven is our home. When God comes fully here we will be fully at home. Until then, home is here, but not fully here.
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