Rethinking Heaven: Capturing A Vision Of The Resurrection

Christians and non-Christians alike typically assume that our religion teaches good Christians go to heaven when they die and bad people, or those who’ve never given their lives to Jesus, go to hell. As more and more Biblical scholars, Christian churches, and individual believers are realizing, though, this isn’t the most accurate picture of what the Bible teaches regarding life after death.

For many years, the churches of God I’ve been part of taught we were the only people to whom God had revealed His Sabbaths and Holy Days, His plan for the world and humanity, and the truth about what happens after death. As I grew older, I realized we had much more in common with other groups than I’d thought — there are a plethora of groups keeping Sabbath, many Messianics observe the holy days, and bloggers with Focus on the Family were talking about God’s plan to bring children into His family. I hadn’t found any teaching the resurrection, though, so you can imagine my surprise when Catholic theologian James K.A. Smith footnoted a comment about Christians not really going to heaven when they die with three book suggestions for further reading (this was in Desiring The Kingdom). The book from this list that I found in the library was Surprised by Hope by Anglican bishop N.T. Wright.

Wright’s teachings surprised me even though I’d been taught the resurrection from my earliest memories. His powerful exegesis on the meaning of the resurrection is inspiring and some of the thoughtful, well-researched ways he diverged from my church’s traditional teachings made me realize there are alternative explanations for a few difficult scriptures that deserve a second look. I also admired his style. Instead of telling people “You’re wrong,” he says, “We’ve been misinformed, and here’s the more wonderful plan God has for us.” That’s what I want to focus on today. The deeper our understanding of what God is actually planning for us, the firmer our hope and faith.

What Happens When We Die?

The idea that human beings have immortal souls comes not from the Bible, but from Greek philosophy (specifically Plato). In Hebrew thought and New Testament theology, the soul refers “not to a disembodied entity hidden within the outer shell of a disposable body, but rather to what we would call the whole person or personality” (Wright, p. 28). It is naphesh (H5315), the animated life-force we have in common with animals (Strong’s and Thayer dictionaries).

That said, the New Testament does talk about different part of a human. We have a body  — the soma (G4983), which is fleshy, physical, and “that which casts a shadow” (Thayer). We have a soul — psuche (G5590), the vital force of life and personality. And we have a spirit — pneuma (G4151), the “rational spirit, the power by which the human being feels, thinks, decides” (Thayer). The three can’t really be separated in any useful way, and they all go together to make us human beings in the image of God. Indeed, in the verse where Paul talks about them he prays that “your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thes. 5:23).click to read article, Rethinking Heaven: Capturing A Vision Of The Resurrection | marissabaker.wordpress.com

That doesn’t mean the physical body survives death, but we will have bodies after the resurrection (more on that later). Ecclesiastes says that, at death, “the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecc. 12:7). Wright believes that this spirit is conscious while awaiting the bodily resurrection, but I tend to lean more toward my church’s traditional teaching that this isn’t the case. There are simply too many verses saying “in death there is no remembrance of You” (Ps. 6:5), “the dead do not praise the Lord” (Ps. 115:17), and “the dead know nothing” (Ecc. 9:5) for me to ignore. Rather, death is consistently described as a temporary sleep (John 11:13; 1 Cor. 15:6, 18, 31; 1 Thes. 4:13-15; 5:10; 2 Pet. 3:4; Dan. 12:2; and others).

1 Timothy 6:16 tells us that God alone has immortality. It’s not something inherent to humans. We didn’t even have a chance at eternal life until Jesus Christ “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). The question, “Where are you going to spend eternity?” is moot. Without God’s salvation work in our lives, we won’t have an eternity.

For The Firstfruits

Eternal life is a gift God gives to those who follow Him now (we’ll save those who don’t for a follow-up post next week). The promises to believers are spelled out quite clearly in scripture, and nowhere more clearly than in 1 Corinthians 15. Here in the resurrection chapter, Paul reminds the Corinthians that he declared to them the gospel: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by” the apostles and hundreds of other believers (1 Cor. 15:1-8).

Paul then addresses a group of people who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. He states in no uncertain terms that if there is no resurrection the gospel is empty, and “if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Cor. 15:12-19). There is no alternative. Either there’s a resurrection of the dead or we have no hope at all; physical death would be permanent.click to read article, Rethinking Heaven: Capturing A Vision Of The Resurrection | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Paul spends the next few verses talking about how and when we’ll be raised. N.T. Wright sums up the “how,” saying, “the risen Jesus is both the model for the Christian’ future body and the means by which is comes about” (p. 149). The timing for this is at “coming of the Lord” (1 Thes. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:23). This resurrection is for “the firstfruits” — those who have “fallen asleep in Christ” and “those who are Christ’s at His coming.” It’s a select group of people who are actively following God. It’s not enough to verbally accept Jesus as your savior; you also have to live like a Christian. And so the resurrection chapter also includes the injunction not to be deceived or corrupted, but rather “Awake to righteousness, and do not sin” (1 Cor. 15:33-34).

A Bodily Resurrection

“But someone will say, ‘How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?'” (1 Cor. 15:35). It’s an understandable question, especially today given the confusion about disembodied souls. The short answer is given by John: “we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). When we’re resurrected, it will be to an existence like God’s.

Paul addresses this question in more depth. He likens our bodies now to “mere grain” sown in a field with the expectation that it will grow into something far greater than a tiny seed (1 Cor. 15:36-44). We currently have a “natural body” that bears the image of the “first man Adam … a living being.” Those who raise in the first resurrection will have a “spiritual body” that bears “the image of the heavenly” second Adam, “the Lord from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:45-49).

In Greek, the natural verses spiritual is psychikos verses pneumatikos. Wright points out that “Greek adjectives ending in -ikos describe not the material out of which things are made but the power or energy that animates them.” We currently have a body animated by the human soul. We will have a body “animated by God’s pneuma, God’s breath of new life, the energizing power of God’s new creation” (p. 155, 156).click to read article, Rethinking Heaven: Capturing A Vision Of The Resurrection | marissabaker.wordpress.com

When Jesus rose from the dead, people could touch Him (John 20:27) and eat with Him (John 21:9-13). He told them, “Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:39). Though He could appear in the middle of a locked room or vanish from sight (Luke 24:30-31, 36), Jesus wasn’t a ghost or a disembodied spirit. He was something more than physical.

We’re not waiting for an escape from the body, but rather “the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23). We long “to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven,” “not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:1-5). We’re not waiting to go to heaven when we die — we’re waiting for Christ to come from heaven to raise His people from their sleep of death and transform us all to have a spiritual life and body like His (1 Cor. 15:51-58). Let’s not settle for any teaching that offers less than His plan for us.

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5 thoughts on “Rethinking Heaven: Capturing A Vision Of The Resurrection

  1. Hi Marissa,
    Thanks for the post – I appreciate your well thought out posts even when I disagree with them.

    What of Jesus’ description of the Rich man and Lazarus? Jesus is clearly making a point in His talking about the life after death and goes on to tie in the description of the condition of the Rich man and Lazarus with his resurrection – even if one were raised from the dead they would not believe – there is no soul sleep going on there.

    Or Paul himself when he cannot decide which is better to remain with the Phillipians or depart and be with Christ. To live is Christ, to die is gain and all. Suspended unaware animation is not being with Christ or gain – Paul should just want to remain as long as possible.

    I’m sorry but I really want to go to Heaven and await the moment when Jesus makes all things new – Revelation has the souls of those martyred crying out when will you avenge us Lord – seemingly awaiting the Second Coming.

    In the end, I guess it comes around anyway as the heaven will come down onto the new earth and we will reside with Jesus in New Jerusalem.

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    • Hi Thomas,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’ll confess the rich man and Lazarus is a parable I struggle to make sense of whatever way I look at it. The best explanation I’ve heard/have so far (to fit with the other scriptures describing life after death) is that it’s a word-picture using culturally recognized symbols for the purpose of driving home that people who refuse to “hear Moses and the prophets” now wouldn’t “be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” In this case either meaning a physical resurrection (like what happened with the other Lazarus and Dorcus/Tabitha rather than the future glorious resurrection), or perhaps saying they wouldn’t believe even after Jesus rose from the dead. I don’t think this allegorical parable is enough to say there’s no soul-sleeping going on in the rest of the Bible when so many clearer scriptures describe death as sleep.

      Paul’s comment about being with Christ could go with either interpretation – that he would go to heaven after death or that his next conscious moment would be when he’s resurrected at Christ’s coming. I mentioned that N.T. Wright thinks human spirits that return to God are conscious while waiting the resurrection, and the verse you mention in Revelation is one that would support that. So it is up for debate. But whether we’re conscious or not I believe the Bible teaches very clearly that there will be a resurrection of the faithful at Christ’s second coming and that’s when “our change” comes.

      Whether or not I’m right about how life after death happens, I’m 100% convinced that what God has planned is what’s best. If it’s not exactly how I expect, I’m certainly not going to complain! I pray that I’m just humbled and grateful to be there with Christ.

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  2. Whether or not I’m right about how life after death happens, I’m 100% convinced that what God has planned is what’s best. If it’s not exactly how I expect, I’m certainly not going to complain! I pray that I’m just humbled and grateful to be there with Christ.

    Very much agreed.

    Re – the rich man and Lazarus, the interesting thing about it is that it matches up with the Jewish beliefs of the time about holding places for the righteous and the unrighteous (and was it Peter who talks about Jesus going and testifying to those in captivity?) and it is the only time that Jesus talks specifically about a named person — Lazarus – so is it in fact a parable? Jesus also does not later explain it. If it is not an accurate picture of the afterlife, why would it be set out like it is?

    But as for the last part, I have always thought that Jesus is very specifically talking about Himself and the coming rejection of the majority of the Jewish people. Much like how He explains Himself to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus through the OT Scriptures.

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  3. Marissa, Thank you for the thought provoking post. And follow up comments to Thomas’ thoughtful comments. Certainly, as both you and Thomas have agreed upon, we human’s cannot be 100% certain of the Spiritual things of God, but God desires us to be searching His scriptures (which is what is happening here), and having thoughtful, loving discussions; “iron sharpening iron”, and to be ‘proving all things’, until…”till we all come to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of fullness of Christ.” Eph 4:13. When ‘proving’ silver or gold, it is not a ‘one pass and done’ process. It is heating/smelting many times to to remove the dross, until the metal-smith can see himself reflected in the pure metal. We are instructed by Jesus to ‘buy’ the fire-refined gold, Rev 2:18 (If I am ‘buying’ something, it is something that I greatly desire). So our proving of all things must continue: search, meditate (ponder), discuss, and repeat; until God, who does plan what is best for all mankind, reveals all. As John teaches, what the children of God will be, is not yet revealed, except that ‘we shall be like him, as He is”. 1Jn 3:2. What an amazing hope to look forward to, it is probably beyond anything we human children of God, can imagine. Again, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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