Our culture can at times be obsessed with heaven. Just look at the number of best selling books that are written about people describing their experiences of heaven after a near-death-experience and you’ll see how many people want to know what might await them on the other side. Now I’m not really interested in arguing about whether or not they are telling the truth, but I am interested in helping Christians think about the afterlife through a Christian/biblical lens instead of a pop culture driven lens.
I’m assuming that most people who say they believe in God or in the Christian faith would also say that they believe in some form of life after death. The vast majority of my time as a Christian I would have thought of the afterlife in terms of clouds, pearly gates, and sort of floating around. Maybe that matches your description. However, as I’ve read, studied, and learned more, I don’t think that’s quite what the early Christians or biblical authors thought of when they would think of how everything would come to an end. In other words, floating around and playing harps has not been how Christians have originally thought of afterlife.
Well if that’s not how they thought about afterlife, then how did they? Excellent question! The first thing we need to know is that if you asked early Christians what their final hope was you probably wouldn’t hear going to heaven. Instead you would probably hear resurrection. To some people this may be a totally foreign idea! You might be like me and always had this notion of dying and then going to heaven or hell. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the way that the Christian community has primarily thought. It’s more the result of pop culture and watered down theology. If you have a hard time making this shift in your mind or if you aren’t sure you trust me (which is okay, I sometimes don’t trust me either) I’m going to give you a few things to consider.
The Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed
Maybe you have never heard of these two things. Protestant Christians usually aren’t too big on Church tradition/history because they find their authority to lie in scripture, not church tradition. First of all, don’t worry I’ve got some scripture lined up that will knock your socks off. Secondly, I too affirm that scripture is authoritative and church tradition is not. However, there is something to be said about these creeds. It is well attested (by protestants and catholics alike) that these two creeds are what have historically defined the essentials to be agreed upon if a person is to be an “orthodox Christian.”
Now when I say orthodox I don’t want you think dudes in crazy outfits over in Russia. That is a “Eastern Orthodox.” That is a branch of Christianity and not what I am talking about. When I say orthodox I mean that they are still within the Christian faith. For example, to be orthodox you should believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man. To say Jesus was a mere man would mean you aren’t a Christian, and therefore not orthodox. Catch my drift?
Traditionally, two creeds have determined what is or is not considered orthodox for the Church. One is more elaborate and one is more concise. For the sake of brevity, I’ll link you to the longer Nicene Creed here, and I’ll give you the whole Apostle’s Creed below:
“I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:
The third day he rose again from the dead:
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:
I believe in the Holy Spirit:
I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:
The forgiveness of sins:
The resurrection of the body:
And the life everlasting. Amen.”
So essentially before you is a list of things that one should affirm to be considered a part of the true Christian faith. Now there are a few things to note that I don’t have time for, like when they say catholic church they mean universal church, not Roman Catholic. For our purposes I want to look at something very specific. Notice that the Apostle’s creed states that it “believes in…the resurrection of the body.” This means that one of the main things the early church felt was essential to the faith was the resurrection of the body. This is also displayed in the Nicene Creed when it says, “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
This is obviously far more central than some idea of floating on the clouds. They don’t look forward to heaven, the Church fathers aren’t saying (as so many Christians today do) that they just can’t wait to get to heaven. They are saying they look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come! They don’t want to float and play harps. They want to pop up out of the ground and be raised to life to participate in the world to come!
Okay, time to move on and take a look at just a couple of passages from the Bible. First of all, let’s look at the passage that places a huge emphasis on the idea of Resurrection:1 Corinthians 15:12–58. Here Paul addresses the very claim that there will be no resurrection of the dead. He essentially says that Christ has been raised from the dead, and what has happened to Him we should expect to happen to us who are in Christ.
He says that Christ has been raised first and then at a later time, when Christ returns, all those who are in Him will also be raised, and then He will hand over the kingdom to God the Father (v23–34). Paul even goes on to describe what this body will be like, and is very much physical. “Just as we bore the image of the man made of dust (Adam), we will also bear the image of the heavenly man (Jesus).” I added the parenthesis there, but I want us to see that we should be expecting the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus to one day be the physical bodily resurrection of us as well.
This post is entitled, “Eat and Drink, For Tomorrow We Die.” I say this after Paul’s words in verse 32. “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Here we get a peak into Paul’s thought process. It’s bodily resurrection or nothing. If Christ wasn’t raised from the dead then we are still in our sins, and if Christ wasn’t raised from the dead then we won’t be either. If there is no hope of being raised from the dead then go ahead and eat and drink, do whatever because it doesn’t matter. We will all just die in the end. Paul doesn’t entertain the idea of spending eternity in some spiritual state apart from the body.
But this definitely isn’t the only place we see Paul speak to the hope of resurrection. Philippians 3 says, “For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that…I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Emphasis added) There is more that is said there by Paul, but I took out a chunk in the middle to save you some reading. You can see the whole passage here to make sure I didn’t do anything sneaky.
But see how Paul even says here that his hope is that he might attain resurrection from the dead! In this same chapter Paul says that Jesus “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (v21) The new testament is just filled with examples like this! Let’s look at one last passage here and call it good, because I know you all have important things to do.
Romans 8 has a few things to say to the idea of resurrection. Verse 11 says, “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” Paul tells us that if we have the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead in us, then the Spirit will also give live to our bodies! Not only that but verse 23 says, “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” We eagerly await the redemption of of our bodies. We don’t eagerly await floating away to get to heaven!
I know that this is a big change of mind for a lot of people, it definitely was for me. However, I think that as I have began looking forward to resurrection, I have also come to find a greater hope. Romans 8 also speaks to the redemption of the entire creation as well. I no longer have a hope that one day I’ll go exist in some spirit state forever playing a harp. In fact, that is so different and strange of an existence that it can at times freak me out a little. I now have a hope that one day I will be raised back to life from the dead and have my body redeemed and made incorruptible. And even more than that, I have a hope that one day God will make this very earth that I already walk on and live in renewed and restored just like He will my body.
No longer do I look out my window and say to myself, “Wow this place is really messed up. I can’t wait to get out of here.” Now I look out and say, “One day God is going to do something about all of this. He isn’t going to wipe everything away and go to plan B. He is going to make everything new, He is going to redeem and restore.”
God isn’t going to pull all the Christians out and give up. Instead, God’s plan is to heal and fix all that is broken. Even now He is working by His Spirit, and we can see little signs of resurrection popping up all over. This is the Christian hope, and it is beautiful. I hope you find it beautiful too.
Image by Lawrence OP via flickr