[This is a sermon I preached a week ago. Like my previous sermon, it is a long read.]
I want to start out this morning with a few really simple and straightforward questions. No gimmick or trick; I’m just looking for totally natural answers.
What do you smell with? Your nose.
What do you see with? Your eyes.
What do you walk with? Your feet.
Okay, so now, what do all these things have in common? What are they all part of? Your body.
In that case, without body, could you do any of these things? See, hear, walk? No.
And where is your body after you die? In the ground.
So if after you die, your body is rotting in the ground, and you need your body to see, hear, and in particular walk, how can you be walking on streets of gold in heaven?
I’m guessing most people in here, and elsewhere, have never thought of or heard a question like this before. This to me indicates a fault, a crack, in the popular lines of teaching about heaven and life after death. I mean, this is a pretty basic concept. If we won’t have our bodies when we die, how can we be doing anything that involves a body while in heaven? A mismatch like this comes from years of confused traditions, and people randomly combining Bible verses from different contexts. Instead of the overall Biblical theology of life after death, we end up with a buffet collection of heaven parts from different categories. This morning I want to address what’s gone wrong, and how we can recover a Biblical vision of heaven and so on, a vision that might just change the way we see the world and live in it.
See, to be honest the entire emphasis in the church today on “going to heaven when you die” isn’t really from the Bible. The Bible doesn’t talk that much about that. It does talk about salvation and eternal life very often, but if you look through the Bible to see what those are about, you won’t find much about heaven, or even much about what happens when we die. What will you find? You will find something much better. In Scripture, the destiny of believers and the world isn’t just a spiritual place of being with God; it is resurrection and new creation. This is our eternal hope, not so much that Jesus will rescue us from this world, but that He will rescue us and this world from death and decay. Salvation doesn’t mean leaving space, time, and matter behind, but God renewing them all in Christ Jesus.
So I want to look at this all in three major points. (I am going to a Baptist college, after all.) The first is resurrection as the way we will experience eternal life. The second will be the relationship between heaven and the new creation as where we will experience eternal life. Finally, based on these two ideas, I want to look at the ways we get to begin living out eternal life in the here and now. By the end, I hope to have provided a clear vision of God’s gracious destiny for us and the way it can impact our lives.
As Christ, So Us: The Coming Resurrection
On, then, to my first point. Far more than what happens right after we die, Scripture points us to hope in a future bodily resurrection. This theme can be seen all throughout the Bible, starting with God’s promises to Israel. Isaiah 25:8 and 26:19 talk about God destroying death and bringing His people new life. In Ezekiel 37:1-10, God uses the image of resurrection to show Ezekiel His future restoration for Israel. Daniel 12:2 shows us the first verse in the Bible which says straight out that there will be future resurrection.
In the New Testament, resurrection comes into even sharper focus. By this time the Jews had already studied the Old Testament enough to believe in a future general resurrection (except for the Sadducees), and Jesus kept this theme alive. He rebukes the Sadducees about the resurrection in Matthew 22:29-32, promises repayment for generous giving at the resurrection in Luke 14:14, and explains how God gave the future resurrection and accompanying judgment over to Jesus Himself. Then, of course, Jesus Himself died and rose again.
Jesus’ resurrection set the stage for resurrection becoming even more important to the early Christians than it was for the Jews. Paul makes a big deal about the coming resurrection in Romans 8:1-11, 1 Corinthians 6:14, 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, Philippians 3:21, and 1 Thessalonians 4:14, among other places. Later on, Hebrews mentions the resurrection a few times, and Revelation tells the story of the future resurrection as clear as day.
With all of this Biblical evidence, and more that I haven’t listed, it should be clear how important the coming resurrection is meant to be. So in particular, I want to look at maybe the most important resurrection passage in the Bible. This is 1 Corinthians 15:12-58. It is long, and I will be here a while, but I won’t read it all right now. You should just be able to follow along with what I’m saying.
In this passage, Paul is responding to more trouble in the Corinthian church. They were mostly Gentiles there, which means they would be more influenced by popular Greek philosophies than the churches in Jewish regions. But Greek philosophy not only didn’t believe in resurrection, but thought it would be a bad thing. To most Greek philosophers, the body was at best unhelpful and at worst evil, so the goal was to escape it into spiritual bliss. Resurrection would seem nonsensical and unhelpful. Apparently, some people, probably from within the Corinthian church, were influenced by thoughts like this and so were telling others that there wouldn’t be a resurrection.
Paul got pretty riled up about this, though. As far as he was concerned, the resurrection was a very big deal. This is already different from what I hear in most churches. While most churches I’ve been in at least acknowledge there will be a resurrection, it isn’t given any emphasis, and the usual preaching is all about getting to heaven when you die. If you got rid of the resurrection, their normal preaching, teaching, and service wouldn’t really be affected. But in the Bible, that’s not an option. It’s a big deal that got Paul rolling on a long response.
So on to his response. In verses 15:12-19, Paul draws a strong connection between Jesus’ resurrection and our future resurrection. “If there is no such thing as a resurrection of the dead,” he says, “then even Christ hasn’t been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is without meaning, and our faith without meaning, also!” He’s going so far as to say that if we won’t be resurrected, then Christianity is altogether pointless. He goes on to say that without resurrection, both ours and Jesus’, we are still in our sins and those who died in Christ already are lost forever. Without resurrection, we’re pitiful.
The reason for this deep connection between our resurrection and Jesus’ is rooted in the Jewish hope that Jesus showed up in. Before Jesus, the Jews only expected one resurrection, the final event where God would save Israel. But then after Jesus’ resurrection, what the early Christians believed was that the one resurrection actually started with Jesus. So Jesus’ resurrection and our future resurrection were both considered the same event, just split into two parts. And the second part, our resurrection, depends on His in the first part.
But moving on, in 15:20-28 Paul says that just like everyone dies in Adam, everyone will be made alive in Christ. First Jesus rose, undoing Adam’s own death, and next everyone will rise, undoing the damage we all suffered because of Adam. By doing this, Jesus defeats death and every other enemy. When the end comes, He will reign over all creation, death itself defeated, and He will give His kingdom over to the Father so that God can be, as he says, “all and in all.” By saying this, Paul shows just how crucial the resurrection is for Jesus and the victory of God. Without resurrection, death would not be brought under God’s rule, and there would still be another enemy out there.
Still, the argument isn’t over. Like I said, Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit thinks that resurrection is a big deal, so he gives even more proofs. First, he mentions baptism for the dead. Now, we don’t actually know what he is talking about. We have no record of baptism for the dead. But it is worth noting that Paul doesn’t say “we” anywhere about it. It doesn’t sound like he or the other apostles performed these baptisms. But some people did, and what Paul says basically is, “Look, why would people even do that if there won’t be a resurrection?”
From that point, Paul also points out the suffering of him and the other apostles. Why would they constantly risk their lives and bodies if that would be the end of them? If there won’t be a resurrection, Paul says we ought to forget about risking becoming a martyr and just enjoy the good life. Notice that he doesn’t put our hope for risking our life in going to heaven when we die. He puts it in resurrection, just like the author of Hebrews does in Hebrews 11:35.
Now we reach 15:35-44. Paul was aware of some objections people raised about resurrection, and he had answers from the Spirit. I should also point out that people wouldn’t have these kinds of questions if heaven was the focus of Paul’s preaching. Only a real, physical resurrection invites these questions. But on to what he was saying. He compares the our current body and future body to a seed and a plant. Our current body is like a seed. Our resurrected body will be like a full grown plant. What that means isn’t about physical appearance, as though our resurrected bodies will look like something totally unrelated to our current ones. He tells us the difference. Using the analogies from nature, he shows that the resurrection body will have a new glory and different kind of life. Our bodies now, in their natural fallen state, are mortal, dishonored, weak, and merely natural. But like the seed transforms, so will we. Our bodies will become immortal, glorious, strong, and spiritual. I like the way C. S. Lewis said it: “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.”
Unfortunately, modern ideas about what “spiritual” is may confuse us about verses 44-49. We are taught here that our natural body will become a spiritual body. Some people think that means our physical body will become a non-physical body, that our body made of matter will become a body made of spirit. This is certainly not what Paul is saying, as we quickly find out. First, I remind you about the seed analogy Paul used. Just like the seed and the plant, our current body and resurrection body will still be the same body, but changed. The natural body, made as simply a body from the dust of the earth, lives “according to the flesh,” that is, basically just like an animal of nature. The natural body is powered by basic biology and physical desires for needs like food, sex, and sleep. These things themselves aren’t bad, but the natural body only aims to satisfy these lusts at whatever cost, which produces the “works of the flesh.” It lives like there is no God, or grace, or Gospel call.
This is in contrast to the spiritual body. The natural body is rooted in Adam, who denied God’s call for the sake natural desires, but the spiritual body is rooted in Jesus, who lived out perfect communion with the Father and was driven by the Holy Spirit. The spiritual body is not a body made of spirit, but a body energized by the Holy Spirit, who helps us to live our Jesus’ own life connecting human nature and God Himself. This is how the “last Adam,” Jesus, became a “life-giving spirit.”
So the natural body and the spiritual body are a matter of nature and grace. The natural body is just a part of nature, acting like an animal to satisfy its instincts and desires. The spiritual body is raised by grace to live in God’s life in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. This is our destiny. No longer will we be controlled by our hunger, lust, sleep schedules, pride, instinct for self-preservation, or anything else purely natural. Our resurrected bodies will be filled with only the fruit of the Spirit.
Finally, in verses 50-57, Paul bursts into praise, excitedly summarizing the teaching of the resurrection. Mere flesh-and-blood, the perishable natural body, cannot inherit God’s coming kingdom, but we will be mysteriously transformed and rescued. In a moment, Jesus will return and all the dead will rise to immortal, imperishable bodies. This will mean the final defeat of death, and the victory God accomplished in Jesus will become a permanent and universal fact of the universe forever and ever.
Heaven for Now, New Creation Forever
So, with that awesome future in mind, I want to move on to the next point, that of where we will enjoy eternal life. After all, if we’re going to have physically resurrected bodies to enjoy forever, they’ll need to be somewhere. But this is where we need to be precise, because people tend to confuse two futures here. See, for the Christian there is both life after death and life after life after death.
Think back to what I was saying before about not having a body when you die. If you don’t have a body, what exactly is happening when you “go to heaven?” Where will we be in between death and resurrection? While we usually talk about this as heaven, the Bible never uses that word for where we go right after we die. Instead, it calls it either “paradise,” like Jesus said to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43, or “Abraham’s bosom,” a common Jewish phrase Jesus also used in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Modern theologians usually refer to this as the “intermediate state.”
Now, despite the picture we get in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, we shouldn’t think of this place as something physical, with senses and bodies. Parables aren’t about the literal details, after all. We’re not literally a younger son who runs away and squanders our inheritance. That’s a picture of the reality. The real point of this parable in context was Jesus criticizing the Pharisees for their love of money. By showing a nameless rich man as ending up in torment but Lazarus the poor man in bliss, Jesus turns their expectation on its head, especially since the Jews tended to assume that more money meant you could stay in God’s favor better because you could afford more sacrifices and tithes.
But back to what the intermediate state is Biblically like. Paul mentions it in 2 Corithians 5:1-9. There he says that if his earthly tent, his current body, is destroyed then we have a new, imperishable house in the heavens. This doesn’t refer to as heavenly mansion, but, just like the earthly tent, it’s a body. This is the resurrection body he described already in 1 Corinthians 15. He says that he wants this new body so that he doesn’t have to be naked, or unclothed, that is, stuck without a body. Nevertheless, he insists, he is still better off without a body and with Jesus than with a fallen body and away from Jesus. Resurrection and the new body is the hope to have both a body and Jesus at once.
So, without a body, we won’t have our sense. We can’t see, or hear, or taste when we die. Our bodies are in the ground, after all. Without legs, we won’t be walking on streets of gold. We won’t even think or feel the same way that we do now, because right now our physicals brains have a huge influence. Life will be completely different in between death and resurrection.
In fact, in a way it is kind of like sleep. It isn’t exactly the same as sleep. Death isn’t just a knockout where we wake up on resurrection day. But Psalm 6:5 wonders who will give thanks when dead? Psalm 88:11 asks rhetorically if anyone will praise God’s faithfulness in the grave? Ecclesiastes 9:5 says that the dead don’t know anything anymore, and verse 10 says that there isn’t any work, planning, knowledge, or wisdom in the grave.
If we want to take these verses seriously instead of, like many Christians, totally ignoring them or trying to slip around them, we get the distinct impression that we won’t be conscious the same way we are now. After death, it will be something like sleeping until resurrection day. Yet the martyrs’ prayer to God in Revelation shows that we won’t be completely out, or completely unconscious.
So to summarize the intermediate state, the Bible seems to teach that after death we enter a state of rest and bliss. We enjoy being in some way with Jesus, while not being completely awake. It’s a completely different way of existing than being in a body. No streets of gold or mansions yet. Just rest in the arms of God until He brings us back to life.
But, as I said, this is only until He brings us back to life. After the resurrection, our eternal destiny will be to live in the new creation, also called the “new heavens and earth.” To look at this theme, I want to start in Romans 8:18-23. This is at an important point, leading up the climax of the Gospel in Romans. At this point Paul has been speaking of redemption in Christ, our future resurrection, and new life in the Spirit. Now he pulls all of these themes, which he had been applying to us, to the whole of creation. He says that the whole creation is eagerly awaiting God’s redemption in His people. Creation has been stuck in corruption and futility, but when God redeems the human race, the pinnacle of creation, the whole rest of the universe will join in.
See, our resurrection is Biblically part of an even bigger divine project. I want to read two texts which show the big picture. Colossians 1:19-20 says “For it was by God’s own decision that the Son has in himself the full nature of God. Through the Son, then, God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made peace through his Son’s blood on the cross and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven.” And Ephesians 1:10 talks about God accomplishing His gracious plan “to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head.”
The entire project is new creation. It starts with us, just like 2 Corinthians 5:17 says. Anyone in Christ is a new creation. Our old man dies and is recreated as the new man by the Spirit in union with the resurrected Jesus. Then our bodies get involved as our old bodies die and are resurrected by the Spirit in union with the resurrected Jesus. Finally, as verses like Revelation 21:1 show, when everything else is finished, the old universe will pass away and will be recreated as a new heavens and earth by the Spirit in Jesus.
I want to emphasize this last part. God isn’t going to get rid of the space, time, and matter universe. A lot of Christians seem to think this way, but this misses entirely the connection between Jesus’ resurrection, our resurrection, and the new creation. Verses like 2 Peter 3:10-13, Revelation 21:1, Psalm 102:26, or Mark 13:31, which talk about a catastrophic end for the world, aren’t to be seen as a total end anymore than our death will be a total end. Instead, like two of these verses specifically mention, this is only the death that leads to resurrection.
In fact, Jesus’ resurrection is key to understanding all of this. His physical body died. Three days later, that same body, same matter, came back to life and was transformed to new glory and immortality. His body wasn’t replaced, or turned into pure spirit, or annihilated. It came back to life, but more life than it ever had before. This is what will happen to our bodies, and this is what will happen to the whole world. The Bible teaches that the physical universe will die in fire and be raised to new life. All of the Old Testament prophecies and the New Testament ones imagine the new world in eternity as this world fixed and restored to God’s will and grace.
The most detail we have about the new earth is found in Revelation 21 and 22. These chapters describe especially what we might call, for lack of a better word, the “capital” of the new world, namely the New Jerusalem, which comes from God’s heaven to the new earth. John writes a dazzling description of this city using mostly vivid poetic descriptions taken from the Old Testament prophets. He tries to give us a glimpse of a world that is all as it should be, filled with the glory of God, and the end result of everything God has built through Israel and the Church in history.
With that in mind, we should be careful not to press the details for a physical picture of what the New Jerusalem will literally look like. John isn’t giving us a photograph of the world to come. It’s more like a van Gogh painting. He wants to raise the imagination to God’s promised new creation.
As one last point about this place before I move on, this is the only place where we find streets of gold mentioned in relation to the destiny of believers. And this isn’t heaven right now. It’s not where we go when we die. It is a future city, part of the new world God will transform ours into in the future. So we can see just another example of people confusing the different Biblical teachings, applying stuff from the new creation to present heaven. Yet the Bible itself doesn’t permit that.
So to pull this all together: this is our final destiny. It’s not eternity in a spiritual heaven. It’s resurrection and new creation. God’s heaven and our earth will finally join together to make the perfect world, the new heavens and earth, filled with the healing glory of God. This world isn’t new because it replaced the old, but because by God’s grace in Jesus and His resurrection He will transform everything everywhere into a greater reality than we could ever imagine now. It’s Earth 2.0, what the world was meant to be from the beginning.
Living in Hope
Hopefully, that’s an exciting vision, and my prayer has been that it is one you will see from the Scriptures is faithful to what God has said and done to and for us. But I’m not quite done. My point in all this isn’t just to get everyone to agree on what the Bible says about heaven. God doesn’t do things for no reason, and He certainly doesn’t reveal His plans for no reason. So for my last point, I want to look at the practical applications of this view of the Christian hope. How can knowing the destiny God has for us more Biblically change how we see and act in this world?
My key word on this point is “anticipation.” It’s not enough to simply believe what is coming. We must eagerly and actively anticipate it. And while it’s probably not enough, I can see three major ways to do so that I want to mention before I conclude. I think a Biblical belief in resurrection and recreation can give us a radical new opening for evangelism, a new ground for life that follows the resurrection pattern, and help us treat the physical planet we live on in a brand new way.
Let me explain the first one. In our society’s worldview, just like most other worldviews throughout history, resurrection simply isn’t a possibility. Anyone who thinks or says that someone will come back to life gets crazy looks and probably ridicule. Even the wildly popular show LOST, known for supernatural craziness happening left and right, held that “dead is dead” and no one ever actually came back to life even when you thought they did. It’s not the same if you talk about going to heaven. Most people think that’s fine and possible. In fact, a whole lot of people think they’re going there. But how many people expect to be raised bodily from the dead and enjoy eternal life on a recreated planet earth?
Just imagine. If you tell someone, “I’m going to heaven when I die. Are you?” they’re not all that likely to be surprised or challenged at all. People are familiar with this kind of witnessing. But, imagine if you said, “Well, I’m coming back to life after I do. How about you?” It’s shocking and subversive and perhaps a bit exciting as well. Preaching “dying and going to heaven” has nowhere near the possibilities for inviting people to fresh listening about the Gospel when compared to the hope of resurrection.
Then there’s my next example, the power of resurrection for Christian living. In this world, it is often hard to kill sin and live righteously. But Paul always connects the victorious Christian life to Jesus’ death and resurrection. The connection he points to is the Holy Spirit. He tells us that the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us, so we can access that same resurrection power in the here and now.
The point of this is highly practical. If this Spirit could take a dead body and bring it back to life, certainly He can take our inner death and turn it around to new life. He is the one who makes it possible to crucify the old man with Christ and live as the new man from the risen Jesus. By sharing in Jesus’ resurrection through the Spirit, we can die to our flesh and self, refusing sinful desires, and instead live to God, raised in power to love and serve to a supernatural degree.
The power of resurrection for Christian living is even more clear when it comes to taking risks for the Gospel. The worst thing that could happen is that someone could kill us or our families, but if we know that we are promised resurrection then we don’t even have to fear this. We know that our bodily life won’t end when the world tries to stuff us out; instead we will be raised and vindicated publicly in the end. In fact, this was the motivation for all the early Christian martyrs. They were well known for spitting in the face of death, and they did this precisely because they believed that Jesus’ resurrection meant they would be raised to. With resurrection, we have nothing and no one to fear on this earth. This even includes every government, however much they might end up opposing us.
But finally, I want to point out the way that anticipating a new creation which is still connected to the present world can change the way we see it and all handle it. See, if this world isn’t going to be permanently destroyed, or be totally replaced, an interesting question comes up. What stuff on earth right now will still be around in the new earth?
This is where we find room to use a Biblically-controlled imagination. We don’t know exactly how what is on the earth now will translate into what is on the new earth. John could barely describe the place except in the most enigmatic of rich images. So what we are called to remember is what Paul told the Corinthian church on the basis of resurrection and recreation: “Therefore, my dear friends, stand firm, unshaken, always diligent in the Lord’s work, for you know that, in union with him, your toil is not in vain.”
See, what Paul tells us is that resurrection and recreation guarantee that our work in the here and now have eternal impact, because not only will saved souls last forever, but indeed the whole creation will endure once God redeems it. In fact, what Paul says about Christianity ministry in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 about ministry he would probably connect to all work Christians do in line with the Spirit.
It’s probably not completely obvious what I’m getting at, so I’ll ask a question to give you a better idea. When this earth dies in flame and then is recreated and filled with God’s glory, what will happen to this church building? Will it survive the purifying fire? What about your house? Or the White House?
This is a place where we don’t know exactly what to expect, but if we think creatively about what God has revealed about new creation, and the way Christian work will survive or perish, I think we can take a guess at some of this. Perhaps what is made or used for the flesh will be burned up, while what is made or used in the Spirit will make it through. We might find that the casinos have all burned down, but several small country churches where Jesus love’ always had shined through will still be there, looking more beautiful than they could have before. The scars of the Nazi prison camps might be completely eradicated, but a humble home where Christians habitually showed grace to strangers might seem strangely and wonderfully preserved.
And there’s more to think about than buildings. What about art? I find it unlikely that we’ll see that infamous crucifix in a urine jar when the world is remade, but how unlikely would it really be that the paintings of a passionate believer he painted to show God’s creativity will still be around for all to see? And of course it’s plenty likely that music made today which glorifies God will still be played in the new world.
With this all in mind, I think we can look at the world and think of some ways to make the best use of space, time, and matter all for God’s purposes. For some people, this might take the artistic routes of making paintings, sculptures, architecture, music, or poetry inspired by who God is and what He has done. Since we are promised that whatever we do for God’s kingdom through the Spirit will not be in vain, we can do all of this in the physical world without worrying that it will only be temporary.
There are other things to think about, too. If God’s not going to wipe this world off the map for good but instead renew and redeem it, then we need to take more responsibility for it than some people, even Christians, are willing to do. I’m not environmentalist by any stretch, but it would probably be a good idea for us to at least think through the environmental issues we see these days with something besides automatic dismissal. Even I do that a lot, but it’s probably not the proper response of a Christian to damage being done to God’s good creation. Basic care for this planet is a way of recognizing in the here and now the restoration that God is preparing to bring when Jesus returns.
There are obviously lots of other possible applications for recognizing and anticipating the coming resurrection, but I don’t have time to lay them all out here. Hopefully it will suffice to say that the future new creation and the resurrection, if you really think about them, can change the way you see the world, and so also the way you live in this world today. And if we do this, if we try to anticipate God’s final redemption, we might just find a little more grace in our lives now.
Of course, all of this is only relevant to you now if you have the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead in you. Without Jesus and His Spirit, you’ll be left out of the glorious future and end up experiencing the “resurrection to condemnation” mentioned in the Bible, which leads to the lake of fire. You’ll be part of what God removes from the world to redeem it. So if by any chance any of you have not believed in Jesus, now is the time. In Him you can have a good resurrection and new life, both in the future and today.