You Are Not a Soul

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.

C. S. Lewis

Or not. The above quote was supposedly said by C. S. Lewis, one of our favorite theologians of the modern age. The sentiment is echoed all over the place in Christianity. People complain about their bodies and long for the day that they will be free of them in Heaven. When people sin, they excuse or minimize their sin by saying that they didn’t mean to do something, but their passions or instincts got the best of them. People who struggle with body image are always reassured that the body doesn’t matter, but what’s inside counts. The promoted idea is clear: your body is not really you, just a temporary shell. Your soul is the real you, and you may even be better off without a body.

This is not Biblical.

They say that your body is not really you, just a temporary shell. Your soul is the real you, and you may even be better off without a body.

While I could go on for a long time on why this is wrong, I’ll focus on two points: Gnosticism and resurrection. First off, such a strict division of body/soul does not come from the Bible, but from the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics were a cult who came from the early church. They believed many problematic doctrines, but one of their core distinctives was their view of the physical and the spiritual, or the material and the immaterial. Matter and flesh, they believed, came from an inferior, perhaps evil, creator, whereas spirit and soul came from the true God. For this reason the body was seen as at best irrelevant and at worst an evil obstacle to salvation. The spirit, on the other hand, was considered the true and good self by which salvation could be attained through enlightenment. The difference between this Gnostic view and the “you are a soul and have a body” view is mostly only semantics.

The problems with this approach are numerous. For one, this kind of thinking is what led to the heresy that Jesus was not completely human, or only had the appearance of a body. Yet John calls them deceivers who “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” or (as the NLT puts it) “deny that Jesus Christ came in a real body” (2 John 1:7). Jesus was God made flesh. Another problem is that this leads to one of two major moral errors in Gnosticism. On one hand, some felt that if the body was irrelevant to salvation, then we can do with it anything we please and not defile ourselves. Others, however, thought that if the body is so much less than spirit, then we should deprive and ignore our bodies, practicing strict asceticism at best or self-mutilation at worst. Yet these conclusions, as wrong as they are, follow rather naturally from such a deficient view of the body.

The difference between this Gnostic view and the “you are a soul and have a body” view is mostly only semantics.

The other main problem with the view that the body is secondary to the soul is resurrection. See, the resurrection is the hope of Christianity. Because Jesus died, but was raised to life everlasting, we also can be sure that we who trust in Him will be raised as well. This is not a mere spiritual restoration: it is the renewal and resurrection of our physical bodies. Paul explained well the importance of this. When there were some in the Corinthian church denying that we will be resurrected, Paul declared that if there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised, and if Christ was not raised we are doomed and lost in our sins. This shows that the resurrection of the body, which is supposedly just a container for the soul, is core to Christianity. And if the body’s resurrection is core to Christianity, then the body cannot be dismissed as “merely” anything. The beginning of the new creation in eternity will be the resurrection of the body, after which we live physically on a renewed creation forever.

There is one more issue I would like to raise about the importance of the body to human nature. When Jesus became a man, He took on a body, lived in a body, and died in a body. In fact, the death of Jesus’ physical body is the event which sealed our redemption. If the body is not essential to human nature, then Jesus could have incarnated without a body and done His mission in spirit. That Jesus took on flesh to become a human means that we need flesh to be human. In fact, Paul himself says as much when He writes of the hope of the resurrection body. He says that while we are in “this tent” (our mortal bodies suffering from the curse) we groan and are burdened, for we do not want to be “unclothed” (without a body) but be clothed with a “heavenly dwelling” (a resurrection body). For the problem with our bodies now is not that they are flesh, but that they are mortal and suffer the curse. Yet human nature is meant for a body, one which is immortal and free from sin. This is what is coming.

If the body is not essential to human nature, then Jesus could have incarnated without a body and done His mission in spirit.

Now I realize there are some who would object on the basis of the war between the spirit and the flesh. After all, Paul says this: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Doesn’t this mean that your physical body is corrupt and that your spirit/soul is pure? Not really. For the acts of the flesh are “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-21). While many of these are body with the body, they are all rooted in the heart, and some of these only take place within. Thus the flesh as Paul speaks of it against the Spirit is not the human body. What the flesh actually means is debatable, but it doesn’t mean human body by itself.

To conclude, let’s drop the Gnostic silliness. You are a body and a soul. Your body without your soul is dead, and your soul without your body is unclothed. God made us to be both. We cannot ignore the body, but must let our body and soul serve as instruments with which to glorify God. For we will be raised forever, to live bodily with Christ.

Oh, by the way, it is a myth that C. S. Lewis said the above quote. Thankfully.

[This is a repost of Stop Thinking Like a Gnostic.]

You Are Not a Soul

How to Feel God’s Love in Jesus’ Arms

“I want to feel.” Isn’t that a common desire? I mean particularly for us Christians, especially evangelical Protestants. We want to feel God. Jesus Christ loves us to (literal) death, has brought us full forgiveness, and is our eternal life. Yet we cannot see Him. We cannot touch Him. He is physically away for now, and in the mean time we long to experience that He is still with us as He promised.

Unfortunately, we often find ourselves stuck and frustrated on that point. Unless we go the way of wild youth groups and Charismatic excess, intentionally working ourselves up into emotional frenzy with clever devices of music and social pressure, there’s only so much feeling we can get out of reflecting in our minds on truths about God. It’s just a bit abstract. One of the major methods of devotion is simply prayer and meditating on Scripture, but there’s only so much nourishment we can find in pondering such churchy words as “grace,” “salvation,” “atonement,” or “forgiveness of sins.” In fact, using these words so much often makes them less powerful than they deserve.

There’s another dimension to this. Not only do we want to feel God’s love and presence, but sometimes above all we need to feel His forgiveness and acceptance. When we do wrong, and our conscience beats us down, or when we know we are unworthy and feel ashamed to approach God, there is nothing so necessary to our soul’s health as to feel forgiven. We must experience God’s unconditional acceptance of us who are in His Son. Yet hearing people talk about forgiveness rarely does the trick. Even the best psychologically-devised plans to feeling better won’t always work, nor is it obvious that they even should. We hear about the Holy Spirit living in us, but often don’t feel like that makes any difference on our emotional/psychological state.

So what is the solution? How are we supposed to feel the mercy and grace of a Savior who is, for the moment, ascended to the right hand of the Father instead of present before our eyes? And what does the Spirit do to help beyond those occasional moments of emotional refreshment?

If I am at all on the right track, the answer is relatively simple. We need a hug in Jesus’ arms. And where are His arms? Since His physical body is away for now, we resort to His body by the Spirit.

All of you are Christ’s body, and each one is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:27

See, we are Jesus’ body on earth. The major role of the Holy Spirit is integrating Jesus’ life into our lives. So it is up to us to be Jesus’ love, be Jesus’ forgiveness, be Jesus’ acceptance. Since our Lord isn’t around to give us the hugs we need, we need to give each other those hugs by His Spirit.

Everyone should know that we need our senses to truly experience life and relationships. A compassionate hand on your shoulder, a graciously spoken word, or even just an understanding look can make all the difference. Jesus cannot do any of that for us while He is in heaven, but we can do that for each other, filled with His love by the Spirit He has given us. So when our fellow believers come in our churches, looking to know God’s love, we are called to give it to them with our love. You may not be able to feel grace all the time by reading Ephesians 2 (though it can help!), but how can you avoid feeling God’s kindness when your brothers and sisters in Christ treat you as more important than themselves?

None of this should be a surprise, honestly. Throughout the New Testament, we find commands to have unity, to share our hearts with each other, to show compassion and encouragement and mercy. We are repeatedly called to love one another, and we are told that we are all members of each other as Christ’s body. All of this, we are told, is to be done from the Spirit. Should there be any surprise that this is how we can experience our Savior’s love?

This is especially the case with forgiveness and acceptance. I have seen many times the damage that guilt and shame can do on a conscience, especially a believer’s. So often we feel the weight of our sin and unworthiness. How can we feel forgiven? What tangible proof is there that God accepts us in spite of it all? There is nothing more helpful in this matter than to see God reaching out with His forgiving hand through His children. When we forgive and accept each other, bearing with each other’s faults in patience and love, how can we not see that this is God’s own heart?

I actually want to make a serious practical emphasis of this last point. Too often church is associated with judgment. Even in good and supportive churches, it is hard to escape the feeling, “If I let them see me for who I am, they won’t see me the same ever again. They’ll judge me as someone less than them.” Yet too often the very things we are afraid to let everyone else know that we do are things we all do or have done. So why not drop the charade? Why keep pretending that we’re all doing better than we are? That doesn’t show God’s unconditional acceptance of everyone who believes in His Son. 

What we really need to be doing at church is showing the radical nature of God’s grace revealed in Jesus. We need to be able to look at the man who admits he didn’t pray at all last week, or the boy who confesses to a porn addiction, or the girl who says she gave in to peer pressure and got drunk at a party, and give the same response that overflowed from the heart of Jesus: “Neither do I condemn you.” To be sure, we can’t forget the “Go and sin no more” part, but we can’t expect them to listen to that when they’re too busy protecting themselves from a condemning reaction to their failures. Only when we all commit to truly forgive, and truly accept, and then truly encourage towards holiness, can we all enjoy the benefits of knowing Jesus’ love through His own hugs by His body on earth.

It’s simple, really. If we are Jesus’ body as the Church, then we need to be in the business of making His love, grace, and forgiveness things that you can see, touch, and feel for yourself. Otherwise we’ll all be left wishing and longing to feel the presence of our Life. And if you find yourself needing to know God’s love, find believers who by God’s Spirit actually make it real. If we all do this, maybe Jesus will shine bright enough through us for the whole world to see just what kind of God we serve.

How to Feel God’s Love in Jesus’ Arms

Glorifying God the E-Z Way

“Glory, hallelujah! Praise Jesus!” This kind of talk is naturally a common part of church life, especially in the more energetic places. And that is good. When we are loved by so great a God and called into His service, for us to offer what Scripture calls a “sacrifice of praise” to Him is only fitting. To God be glory forever! Amen.

Yet sometimes this seems to be the only glory we feel the need to offer our Lord. And while this often can be sincere and heartfelt, glorifying God this way can be something else, too. Praise with our words can be all too easy and comfortable, requiring no real commitment or action. No matter how loftily we speak of God, or how much we call others to worship Him, we can do this all as merely an outward religion, either for show and glory or maybe even just to tide over our own conscience as it tells us to think beyond ourselves.

Beyond this, maybe we’ll read God’s word or pray to Him. We might even make an excellent habit of both, though most of us don’t. Even if we do, how easy is it to simply use these disciplines to fulfill the demands of religion on our conscience, so that we don’t feel guilty? Personal communion with God is rich and vital, but is also so intangible, so invisible, that we can easily just pretend or use “devotion” for our own purposes.

Really, doing piety—respect of God—is easy if we see God as a distant figure, a big and separate Deity a million light-years away, whom we can keep happy with our exalted speech, dedicated devotions, and constant prayers. Even though we usually wouldn’t admit or even realize this tendency, we often look at God this way. That can lead us to taking devotional activities—good activities that are God-blessed and right—as a kind of checklist righteousness which calms our conscience’s demand for higher living.

But our God is not that distant Deity. He is not a king who lives aloft from his kingdom, content to see his subjects give him due honor and taxes. Our God is the King who acts like a member of His own kingdom. He cares for and identifies with everyone under His rule, treating them as though they matter more than He does. This Lord is love. He’s so invested in the people beneath Him that He actually became one of them. He lived, died, and rose again as a human being for human beings. Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ calls us brothers and sisters, since He has become like us in every way, except without sin.

Because of this, there is no possible way to glorify God if you aim exclusively for His direct and immediate glory. God has bound Himself to humanity in Christ. In His covenant with us, He is happy to be “man’s God” and to share His own life for our benefit. This means that He is deeply invested in the situation of all people. As we know from the parable of the sheep and the goats, He identifies with us so closely that He counts what we do for others as what we do for Him. He counts what we do not do for others as ignoring Him. So to glorify God we have to treat the people He loves with the same great importance that He does.

Since God is so invested in love with people, and since people bear His image, we cannot glorify Him without being interested in people. Praising the Creator means nothing if we curse people He created. Prayers to our heavenly Father are insulting to Him if we refuse to speak with our earthly fathers He gave His only Son for. Dedicating ourselves to serving Christ’s church is a lie if we are too selfish to serve everyone Christ died for.

To sum it all up, God freely chose to create us, make a covenant with us, become one of us, live for us, die for us, rise for us, and delay His coming for us, all so that He could share His eternal life of love with us. If this is truly God’s passion in history, then in order to truly honor Him, worship Him, and give Him the glory He so richly deserves, we absolutely have to share that passion and devote ourselves to the same cause He champions. To glorify God, we must love human beings.

Back to my original point, though, this is a very hard task. Loving others is a radical way that actually honors the time and effort God puts into people is terrifying and exhausting. So what do we naturally do? We substitute what God say fulfills His whole law—to love your neighbor—with just the basic stuff that is easy to do to an invisible God. We skip caring for other people—which James says is the heart of pure religion—and substitute inexpensive sacrifices of praise, Scripture, Facebook shares, and prayer. But Jesus said to go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

So we should continue to rightly worship our glorious God. We should never stop praising and communing with Him in song, prayer, and devotion. But we also have to radically and completely love our neighbor. That is what fulfills the law. We must insist on doing the latter despite its difficulty, without neglecting the former. For this is what Jesus taught us Himself. Amen.

Glorifying God the E-Z Way

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire: Part 2

In the first part of this post, I tried to Biblically ground a concept of “holy love” which integrates what we know of God’s love with the revelation that He is also a consuming fire and has sometimes enacted terribly violent judgments. Now I move on to apply that to the problems we see in the Old Testament.

When Holy Love Elects a Beloved

All of the problems we will be looking at deeply involve Israel, so to make a strong foundation I’ll need to examine who and what Israel was in God’s plan. What was the point of Israel as God’s chosen people? I think God’s concluding line in His promise to Abraham holds the key: “All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you”1. God elected Israel because He had already freely chosen to love all humankind2. He did not choose them for their own sake, as though they deserved anything more than the rest of us3, but so that they could be a kingdom of priests4.

See, if God only chose humanity in general, loving everyone in some abstract equality, then His love could not be completely real for each individual person in their concrete existence. But by placing His electing love in a particular way on a specific human family in Abraham, He gave His love a real form in the human world of space, time, and matter. Therefore Israel was born as God’s chosen people, a microcosm of all humanity before God, and priests of God before all humanity.

This covenant relationship, though, is a relationship not of soft love but of holy love. An utterly sinful people filled with rebellion5 was called to draw near to a God who is holy love. He gave and revealed Himself to them as who He is6, and that meant danger. For if God’s holy love, as we mentioned before, opposes and condemns all self-love, then sinful people are in for disaster when drawn near. God made this clear when He appeared at Sinai, in the burning bush, and in a pillar with the form of a consuming fire7. If they lived with the holy love which God possesses, they would experience His life and blessing8. But if they continued resisting God’s love by wronging their neighbor and forsaking God’s redemptive purpose for their election, then His holy love would bear down on them with painful pressure and cause curse upon curse9.

The God of Love vs. The People of Hard Hearts

Having given Biblical grounds for these ideas of holy love and Israel’s election, I propose that God drawing near to a people in His holy love is exactly how we must understand the frequent application of violence in Israel’s history. God in His holy love is a consuming fire, yet He brought Israel close to Himself10. In doing so their sin and rebellion found opposition in the Lord’s presence. Yahweh’s relentless love became painful and torturous when they dashed their hard heads and hearts against Him. Capital punishment and spectacular judgments were not the result of an irritable God losing His temper11, but in fact were the historical actualizations of God giving Himself to a people who couldn’t and wouldn’t open to Him.

We must remember that for God to really be anything in relation to flesh-and-blood people, He must be Himself in a tangible way12. The God of people who exist in space, time, and matter can only reveal Himself in ways particular to space, time, and matter. This means that the conflict between God’s holy love and Israel’s sinful resistance had to take physical form. So when God’s wrath was kindled against His beloved by their own self-destructive self-love, He chastised them with tangible consequences of death, plague, and exile. What else could He do if He wanted to make real changes on human existence?

This concept reaches the sharpest expression in worship. The system of worship God gave Israel was His own design. Apart from Him, the Israelites had nothing good to offer, so God provided them within His covenant with sacrifices and rituals by which they could approach Him13. This was to be a constant reminder to them: they were sinful, but God was gracious enough to provide a way to Himself. So important was this truth, so necessary for Israel to know, that the most severe punishments were reserved for violating right worship. If God in His holy love is a consuming fire, then sinners who approach Him on their own terms cannot avoid being consumed. Thus the fate of Aaron’s sons who offered unauthorized fire on the altar, high priests who came unclean into the Holy of holies, and the Korah’s rebels. Only in Christ is there a safe way to the Father (on this, see the end of my post on law and evil), and the only way for a pre-incarnation people to approach God through Christ is by faith which uses the types and shadows of Him which God provided in the OT priestly system. All other ways brought death as the sinner approached the fire of God’s holy love in their sinfully flammable state.

Mediation and Holy War

Now that we’ve looked at the harsh penalties of the law, what about holy war? Why did God order such extreme destruction against the peoples of Canaan? I do not expect there to be one straightforward answer. I do, however, believe that the concept of Israel’s election and God’s holy love might be able to shed some light on this question. Yet I tread lightly, because holy war really is a minefield, with wrong and destructive answers hidden under every other step.

If I was right to say that Israel was elected to be a kingdom of priests to the nations, what would that involve? Priests must mediate; they bring people to God and God to people. So I suspect that this is precisely what happened in holy war. Israel brought God Himself to the nations.

Unfortunately for the nations, they were in even worse shape than Israel to meet God. Israel could approach God despite their sinfulness because of the safe way He provided in the covenant, but the nations had no such covenant. Unless they repented of their sins, God’s coming to them could only mean judgment14. As long as they were steeped in the flammable sins which oppose all that holy love is (such as sacrificing children to idols), an encounter with God, mediated through Israel, had to mean they were burned up. And as I’ve been saying, all that God is and does to humanity must be done in a tangible, flesh-and-blood way if humanity is to be affected or care. So God commanded the Israelites to kill them all.

Of course, the most difficult part of all this is the children. I’ve personally been able to cope more or less with the adults deserving their execution by Israel, but what about the babies? Why did God even have them kill the babies? I definitely can’t say much about this, because clearly the horror is deep and complex, but as present I mainly think this: as Israel brought the adults of the nations to God, which led to judgment, they also brought the children to God. They ushered them into God’s immediate presence by the only way possible before the end—namely death—and in that presence I do believe God saved them. Instead of these children growing up among immoral people to become even more immoral and be judged, God rescued them while they were yet ignorant.

Naturally, any answer I can provide on this last point can’t be completely satisfactory. I am only somewhat okay with this conception. But thinking this way does help me, and I do hope I am not the only one. But God is God, after all. While my application of holy love, mediation, and election might be able to help get my mind around OT violence, ultimately He did what He did and I can only pray that I’ve honored Him for who He is in my theology. And with that said, I’m left with nothing but Paul’s praise to handle my ignorance:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Or who has ever first given to Him, and has to be repaid? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire: Part 2

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire

The Cure That Killed the Patient

The Old Testament can be a very scary place. You can’t disagree if you’ve read much of it at all, unless of course you like massive body counts and total destruction. From the frequent application of the death penalty to the bloody conquests of Israel over the Canaanite peoples, there is a lot to unsettle the stomach. I know from experience the strain this violence can create on attempting to have relationship with the God revealed in Jesus Christ during the New Testament.

What I find more disturbing, though, is how many people in popular theology these days are trying to handle this tension. Writers like Peter Enns and others have promoted dealing with these tough texts by more or less excising them from our theology. Because Jesus is the true Word of God and is so non-violent in the Gospels, they argue, the portraits of divine violence in the Old Testament must be distorted by bad Jewish theology. “God lets His children tell the story,” so they say.

As I explained in a recent post, this is a very problematic approach to the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament, the God who dwells fully in Jesus Christ, identifies Himself with Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. Enns and Co. would agree with this. But what they miss is that Yahweh’s defining moment in the Old Testament is made precisely of the kind of very violence they say God must not have done based on Jesus. What is this defining moment? The Exodus. Over and over again in the Old Testament, God identifies Himself as the God who brought His people out of Egypt1. And there is no separating God’s saving Israel in the Exodus from the violent miracles involved2. So if the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has any continuity at all with the God who led Israel out of Egypt, we cannot ignore Old Testament violence. And if He is not the same God, then we’re left in Marcion’s heresy with a completely unintelligible Christ and a foundationally misled New Testament.

Another Way? Maybe Holy Love

Of course, I’ve said as much as this before. What I’d like to address in this post is an actual alternative. Usually after dismissing the tea-strainer approach to the Old Testament, I and others who stand firm on this issue don’t have much of a positive response. If discounting the stories of OT violence as Israelite distortions is the wrong way to understand them, then what is the right way? Should we just swallow the whole without trying to comprehend what our God of love was doing then?

Obviously, apathy isn’t the way of faith, either. We need to try and apply what we know of God in Jesus Christ to what happened in the Old Testament, but we must do so with recognition that the “wrath of the Lamb”3 actually does exist. So how can we do this? I intend in this post to provide something of a way forward, with help from, again, T. F. Torrance, this time drawing mostly from his shorter book The Mediation of Christ.

What do we know of God’s love? We know that this love characterizes God in a deep way4, was revealed in the cross5, and is no more or less applicable to God than His holiness6. So what do these truths tell us? A couple of thoughts come to mind. First off, if holiness is as essential to God as Scripture indicates (and anything repeated three times like in Rev. 4:8 must be), and yet John can say, “God is love,” then these two “attributes” of God must be intimately related and connected, perhaps only two forms of one reality (especially if God is simple). God is not just holy and not just love, but is “holy love.”

What does holy love look like? For an understanding of holy love to “work”, that is, to do justice to what God has revealed of Himself in our history, the definition must be able to handle both Joshua and 1 John, the “Stone the blasphemers” and the “Neither do I condemn you.” So my attempted construction of this concept is as follows: Holy love is love so powerful and incomparable that it stands above all lesser loves, endlessly opposing them for not being loving enough. A holy love cannot compromise with hatred or self-love, but instead burns against them like a fire. Holy love is a freely devoted living for the beloved, which is so for the beloved that the lover must contradict anything which threatens the beloved, whether other people or the beloved herself. So to the beloved in herself, holy love appears like this: “You reveal the path of life to me; in Your presence is abundant joy; in Your right hand are eternal pleasures”7. But to whoever threatens the beloved, holy love appears as a “consuming fire”8.

With this understanding of holy love in mind, the second part of this post will attempt to examine the specific Old Testament problems. At this point, I’ve nearly hit 1000 words, which is the max attention span of the average blog reader. So even if you could read more, I think I’d prefer to split this post because I have quite a bit more. I’ve only laid the groundwork for the rest of what I have to say. I guess try to think about what I’ve said so far until part two comes ’round.

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire

The Real Heavens of God’s Word

In my previous post Heaven Is a Myth. Sort Of. I began the question of what the Bible really teaches about heaven. I suggested that most popular ideas of heaven are myths, though I did not specify exactly what is mythical and what is real. Finally, I listed the three Biblical “places” people call “heaven.” My goal in this post is to continue explaining what each place is for real and give Scripture to back up what I’m saying.

Heaven #1: God’s World

The place in Scripture most often called “heaven” is the place where God and His angels dwell. The Bible says that God is in heaven 1, as well as the angels 2. Yet it does not appear to be some kind of uncreated, purely spiritual presence of God, like some people imagine. Instead, despite the ambiguity created by the use of the word “heavens” also to refer to the sky/space, it does appear to be the case that heaven is a place created by God alongside of “earth,” our physical world 3.

It is at this point we can see a concept of twin realities made by God in creation: earth as man’s place and heaven as God’s place. In heaven we see God and his subject angels 4, and on earth we see man in the image of God and their subject animals 5. God reigns in heaven directly, and His will is always done there 6. On earth, God rules through human beings 7, and because of that weak link His will is not always done here.

Nowhere in Scripture are believers said to go here after death. Indeed, if this heaven actually does have some kind of space, but the dead no longer have spatial bodies, then they cannot “go” there. In fact, they can’t “go” anywhere.

Heaven #2: Paradise

So what happens to believers when they die? They go to Paradise, which the Jews sometimes called Abraham’s bosom 8. We should not think of this place as somewhere physical. It isn’t, because we go there without bodies. After we die our bodies lie in the ground, and our spirits/souls/whatevers, which are not physical, experience whatever happens next. They are not our bodies, so they do not have eyes, noses, ears, skin, or tongues. They do not have senses. Moreover, they lack brains, which largely control the kind of consciousness we experience in our bodies.

What does this mean? Paradise is not at all a normal state that we could imagine. We do not have normal consciousness there, seeing and hearing and feeling and thinking. It has something in common with sleep, but is nonetheless different. This can be proved throughout the Scriptures 9.

Paradise is a peculiar state. It is, on one hand, somewhat abysmal and empty, due to our existence without the bodily half of our nature 10. We’re meant to be in bodies, not without them. Yet it is also blissful and in fact better than our current state of tension with sin and weakness 11. Once we’ve died, the last of the old man will be completely gone, which means we will be with Christ in a better way than now 12. At present we are incomplete and have sin, but then we will be incomplete and without sin.

Heaven #3: Resurrection and New Earth

The final and ultimate reality often called “heaven” (but not by the Bible) is the new creation coming at the last day. This is mostly testified by Isaiah and Revelation, though of course the hope permeates the Scriptures. In the end, when Christ returns to judge the world, everyone will be raised from the dead. Those who are in Christ and have His Spirit will be resurrected to eternal life 13, while the rest will be raised for condemnation 14.

This resurrection will be the second stage of new birth. What God did for our spirit when we first believed He will do for our bodies: a new creation, not starting from scratch but incomprehensibly transforming the old 15. Jesus’ resurrection body is the prototype of our future bodies, and His was not a brand new creation. It “used up” the matter of His original body, leaving an empty tomb 16. It still bore the scars of His saving death 17. God didn’t scrap the original body and make a brand new one; He renewed, restored, and glorified the first physical body. 18

Of course, even though these bodies will remain truly physical and tangible, they will be different than our current bodies. Apparently they can bypass certain normal spacetime restrictions 19. No longer mortal or subject to decay, they will be immortal and incorruptible 20. In some way, even though our bodies will be still physical human bodies, they will be radically changed and new as well 21. C. S. Lewis captured the picture well when he suggested we should “remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”

As to the new earth, the same pattern of death and resurrection follows. Isaiah and John both wrote about the “new heavens and earth” 22. This world will die in fire 23, but the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead will similarly raise the entire creation 24. Again, we’re not dealing with God scrapping the old creation and making a new one from scratch. It is recreation, restoration, renewal. It is resurrection, just like Jesus, who is the firstfruits of the new creation 25.

This place, our final destination, will be a completely physical world, somehow connected to the current one, for it will be where we live in our resurrected physical bodies. Its crowning capitol will be the New Jerusalem, described beautifully by John in Revelation 21-22. There God’s heaven (the #1 listing) and our earth will become one 26, since we see that there “God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them” 27. The new creation, not the Paradise where we go when we die, will be home to the “streets of gold” 28 and other beauties, though more than likely these are not literal details but a fanciful and symbolically loaded description meant to give off a particular picture of glory and wonder. It will be our home for all eternity.

Everything beyond this point becomes somewhat speculative. I do think that, since this will be a resurrection world and not some start-from-scratch creation or spiritual plane, there will be lots of stuff remaining from our present age. Art, architecture, music, and such made by Spirit-led believers to glorify God may well surviving the purification by fire. Church buildings hallowed to God’s glory where He has touched many lives may stick around. Natural wonders are sure to remain and be even more glorious than before. The world will dazzle with God’s brilliance, “for as the waters fill the sea, so the earth will be filled with an awareness of the glory of the Lord” 29.

So What?

Having said all of this, why does it matter? What difference does the Biblical picture of heaven make compared to the popular ideas? Much in every way. On the one hand, it is always worthwhile to speak Biblically instead of following unbiblical traditions (the same reason we Protestants pointedly reject certain Catholic doctrines about Mary, even though they’re unimportant). But there is more to it than that.

Framing the issues this way keeps our focus clear. God’s heaven is what we want to emulate and bring to earth, anticipating the way that they will become one in the new creation. Understanding Paradise reminds us how much God cares for our bodily existence, so that we will not neglect or undervalue them. If the physical world will be renewed for our eternal home, there is reason to get out and do real things, knowing that our labors can be preserved. Resurrection brings hope and a certainty towards the defeat of death. Honestly, I could go on, but it would be easier to simply point you to the book Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright, who covers all of this and the practical applications in much detail.

I’ll close with this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone.

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life.

Revelation 21:3-8

The Real Heavens of God’s Word

For Now, I Am Sinner and Saint (Simul Justus et Peccator)

The Christian life is a complex one. On one hand, we are righteous, and truly so, as I explained in a recent post. But on the other hand, we clearly continue to sin and get tangled up in the problems of this age. As John tells us, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us” 1. So we find ourselves in this awkward place, caught between the past and the future in a muddled present.

We often have a difficult time making sense of this, too. “Am I righteous? Am I a sinner? What exactly am I and why do I act the way that I do?” We hear different things from different preachers about exactly how these two things balance and function in our lives. But of course it’s not the theological theory itself that we want; we want out. What we need is a way forward. However our sin and righteousness interact, we want to know how to put the sin further and further down.

This is especially relevant if you think like I do. See, my mental processes when it comes to sin have two defining traits: big picture thought and introspection. First, my brain functions on the big picture. What makes it easier to do theology makes my flaws and failures all the more frustrating: with every little detail I see how it connects to and blends with a larger picture. So when I do wrong, what I see is not merely the stain on the wall but the entire growth of mold throughout the house. This is compounded by my obsessive introspection: I cannot stop looking in and examining myself over everything I do. The result of this blend is often a frustrated pessimism about myself. One mistake focuses me on the cracks running through my entire character and conduct, which seem too big to be repaired. 

But when I find out that everything about me, running down to my least conscious everyday motivations, is polluted by sin, what am I to do? If even my best actions seem to, upon closer inspection, be tainted by selfishness or pride, how can I advance? What can I do to truly serve my God, or love my neighbor? What’s the point of even trying if all my tries will even be sinful? Will not my every sacrifice be, in the end, of blemished lambs?

This is where I found help from Martin Luther (and Karl Barth). Luther made a famous statement regarding our life as Christians: simul justus et peccator. We are “simultaneously justified and sinner.” Every moment we live in tension between the old man, the sinner who is dead through the Cross2, and the new, the saint created by the Resurrection3. God’s “Yes” and His “No” sound to us all at all times.

I don’t mean to say that God sees us as half-righteous, or that the old man still counts for anything. Far from it! Everyone in Christ is a new creation, and that’s all that matters to God4. But we live in what the Bible calls the “last days,” the time between the times when the old things are still hanging around but fading, and the new things are working their way in. Jesus has won and redeemed us, but He is away and in the mean time while we wait for Him to return we experience both the old reality and the new one, both sin and salvation.

So what is my point, exactly? I’ve learned from Luther and Barth that we have to accept the peccator side of the equation, the “No” of God which will hang over us until death. We are sinners still. That is the old reality, which though it is dying and defeated still exists. And we have to live with that. I have to live with that. Though by grace I am being renewed each day and march on towards the day of resurrection and restoration, until I reach this goal I cannot escape the condemned part of my existence.

This is the frustration which I must subdue. I want to be whole. I want to be good and righteous and innocent. But for now I’m not. Which means I am in the wrong. I sin. I have actually mixed and polluted motivations. Even when I think I’m being good, I’m still sinning. There are cracks, moral faults, running all the way through my life. Nothing I touch or do is totally pure. Even my best love has selfish distortion. And all of these things fall under the judgment of God. All of them incur His wrath and disapproval for good reason. And I must accept that. I’m not yet who God has recreated me to be, and until that day I’m still never innocent.

Yet there is the other side of the equation. So I am messed up. I may be a sinner in too many ways, the old and fallen creation wielding far too much power. But that can’t keep me from following God. My motives may not always be pure, but they’re not altogether rotten. Help my unbelief, Lord, but I do believe. For even in my weakness, I don’t have to rely on my own merits, anyway. As I just posted, I’m relying 100% on Jesus’ faithfulness, not my own.

So this is the key to keep moving: I must accept the two-pronged death blow to pride. I am so messed up, but I’m not relying on myself anyway so I might as well keep fighting the good fight. When my motives are mixed, so what? I stand by Jesus, whose motives were never impure, so I should just keep pressing on. If I wished to sing on stage to glorify God, but I suspected pride may be involved in my wish as well, I should sing anyway for Him, knowing that my pride is crucified with Christ either way. Even if I know my obedience will be fraught with mistakes and sinful failings, I should offer it anyway, because my living sacrifice is not made pure by my own goodness but by my High Priest before the Father.

So in sum, I can only suggest this: We’re sinful. Deal with it. Keep obeying and never give up in despair at your unworthiness, because our Savior is worthy. Accept God’s judgment on your wrongdoing, and strive for righteousness anyway. You know in the end there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.

For Now, I Am Sinner and Saint (Simul Justus et Peccator)