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The Prodigal God: A Book Review (4) – Redefining Hope

The first five chapters of Timothy Keller, THE PRODIGAL GOD: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Dutton, 2008) deal with understanding the parable of the prodigal son. The final two chapters have a wider purpose: Chapter Six uses the parable as a lens through which to see the theme of the entire Bible and Chapter Seven uses it as a guide to how we should live in the world now. In this installment, we look at Chapter Six, “Redefining Hope.”

Our Longing for Home

This parable in Luke 15:11-32 is so much at the heart of the Christian gospel that Keller uses it for us to be able to view the theme of the entire Bible.

It is important to read Jesus’s parable of the lost sons in the context of Luke, chapter 15, but the story has an even larger context. If we read the narrative in light of the Bible’s sweeping theme of exile and homecoming we will understand that Jesus has given us more than a moving account of individual redemption. He has retold the story of the whole human race, and promised nothing less than hope for the world. [p. 90]

The idea of “home,” Keller says, holds an undying appeal to humankind. We hold fond memories of “home” as a place of acceptance and love. Those who grow up without experiencing home in this way often find it difficult to make emotional attachments at any time in their lives.

Most, however, have those memories – but if we go back to try to recapture the experience of home, we are almost always disappointed. It was the memory of home and “food to spare” in the father’s house that drew the prodigal back with his prepared apology and request for a job. But things at home were not as he remembered them. His father’s love was greater than he had ever realized – and his brother’s hard-heartedness was also more than he had ever seen.

Mr. Keller looks at the plots of several novels that explore this yearning for home that does not find fulfillment in the return to “the old home place” and concludes:

There seems to be a sense, then, in which we are all like the younger brother. We are all exiles, always longing for home. We are always traveling, never arriving. The houses and families we actually inhabit are only inns along the way, but they aren’t home. Home continues to evade us. [p. 95].

When we turn to the Scriptures, we begin to realize why we still feel like exiles. Genesis opens with Creation. God formed Man to live in the Garden of Eden where he enjoyed sweet fellowship with the LORD God Himself. When the first couple fell through sin, God drove them from the Garden and made it impossible for them to return. “The Bible says we have been wandering as spiritual exiles ever since” [p. 96].

After Adam and Eve’s fall, Cain also fell – and became a restless wanderer. Jacob cheated his father and his brother – and fled to a far country for many years. Later, Jacob and his family were taken again from their homeland into Egypt were they were slaves in exile for centuries before Moses led them back to their promised land. As a young man, David lived as a fugitive from the murderous rage of Saul, who once had welcomed him into his home. “Finally the whole nation of Israel was exiled again, taken captive to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar” [p. 97].

The Difficulty of Return

Yet, return was always difficult and incomplete. Restoration of what had been never occurred as expected. During the Babylonian exile, prophets predicted a great restoration – but when Israel finally left their Captivity, things were never again as they had been under David and Solomon. They were still oppressed: by Persia, Greece, Syria,  and Rome. In this, their failure to return home is a metaphor for our failure.

Keller suggests two reasons for this failure we all share. First is the brokenness within us. We are, even in trying to return home, still “mired in selfishness, pride, and sin” [p. 99]. Second is the brokenness around us. Here Keller means the brokenness of the world as a result of the curse of sin. The world as it is, is not the world Created for us to inhabit. Man’s sin has caused the world itself to groan in travail.

For us to be able to go home, demands “…a radical change not only in human nature but in the very fabric of the material world. How can such a thing be accomplished?” [p. 100].

In the beginning of the New Testament, Jesus came saying that He was bringing in the Kingdom of God. People flocked to Him – but His message was not what they expected. He had not come to deliver one nation from the oppression of another – but to deliver the entire human race from sin and even from death itself. “He took upon himself the full curse of human rebellion, cosmic homelessness, so that we could be welcomed into our true home” [pp. 101f].

The Feast at the End of History

At the end of the parable, there is a homecoming feast. Also at the end of the book of Revelation, there is a great feast. In the beginning of our human story, we are at home in the Garden of Eden; “At the end of history the whole earth has become the Garden of God again” [p. 103], as the new Jerusalem comes down to fill the earth with the presence of God among His people.

Here Keller redefines our hope. As he sees it, our hope is not that we will escape earth and go to heaven – but that heaven will come down and fill the earth after the present evil is taken away.

Jesus, unlike the founder of any other major faith, holds out hope for ordinary human life. Our future is not an ethereal, impersonal form of consciousness. We will not float through the air, but rather will eat, embrace, sing, laugh, and dance in the kingdom of God, in degrees of power, glory, and joy that we can’t at present imagine.

Jesus will make the world our perfect home again. We will no longer be living “east of Eden,” always wandering and never arriving. We will come, and the father will meet us and embrace us, and we will be brought into the feast. [p. 104]

This, of course, is quite different from traditional approaches to the Scriptures. The traditional approach is that when we die, we go to an intermediate holding place awaiting the resurrection and the judgment. After the judgment, we then go on to heaven or to hell, depending on the verdict of God. Revelation 21:1-5 is in keeping with this understanding of the end time:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

He who was seated on the throne said, “i am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Also, Romans 8:19-20 has this to say:

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

These passages certain suggest the possibility that “the new heaven and the new earth” will not be in the third heaven where the throne of God is currently, but will be a renewed heaven and earth where the effects of the curse of Genesis 3 is reversed. In such a reversal of the curse, the earth will be as God originally created it – or even greater. There we will be able to live in close fellowship with God, even as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. There will be more glory, for the serpent will still be banished from the Garden into the lake of fire and brimstone.

Are there passages that suggest the traditional view? Yes, there are. So which is correct? I wonder if it matters enough for us to enter a debate over the question. Our eternity is in God’s hands, whether it is in a renewed earth or in heaven. That is a question I am happy to leave in God’s very capable hands!

So ends chapter Six. This sets the stage for the final chapter, “The Feast of the Father,” which we will examine in our final post in this review.

Part One: The Prodigal God – A Book Review

Part Two: The Prodigal God – Redefining Lostness

Part Three: The Prodigal God – The True Older Brother

Part Five: The Prodigal God – The Feast of the Father


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