The Promise in the Tomb

In Genesis 23, Abraham’s wife Sarah dies. Probably the most important aspect of this event to biblical history is that it leads to Abraham’s first legal claim to the promised land. In seeking a tomb for Sarah, Abraham spoke to the local Hittites and asked to buy some land. Both these first Hittites and Ephron, with whom Abraham ends up doing business, try to get Abraham to take a tomb, apparently at no charge. This Abraham refuses, and for good reason. If he received the land for free, his claim on it might later be questionable. By burying Sarah on Hittite soil, Abraham would be taking a firstfruit, a partial realization of the inheritance God had promised him. But this would be an unstable claim if no official transaction took place. Thus Abaraham insisted on paying for the land, and in the end he paid a high price.

So it came to pass that Abraham’s first property in Canaan was a plot with a tomb. God began to fulfill His covenant with Abraham by means of a tomb. The typological significance should be obvious when put this way. The tomb is the beginning of the new creation. The project which began with a tomb from Ephron the Hittite for Sarah come to fruition in a tomb from Joseph of Arimathea for Jesus. New life begins where old life ends. As the author of Hebrews explained, no testament can take effect without a death.

Interestingly enough, this tomb, which eventually contained Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph at the least, was at Hebron. Hebron would later be completely under Canaanite control until Caleb took over during the conquest of Joshua. In time it would become King David’s initial capital, prior to him taking Jerusalem. So again for David Hebron was the site of a firstfruit, the guarantee of covenant fulfillment.

Taking these together, we find a connection between tomb and promise, death and resurrection. Bodies went in the tomb in anticipation that God would fulfill His promises and bring about greater glory. The tomb was the pledge of the ultimate blessing of Abraham, which would come through Abraham’s true Seed, Jesus Christ, who was laid in a tomb and was raised three days later. With this resurrection, an exit from the tomb, the promises made to Abraham came to a new stage of fulfillment. So the tomb is almost a storage unit or waiting area. Abraham and Sarah will be (or have been?) raised just as Christ was raised.

This connects to us as well. We enter the tomb through baptism as we are buried with Christ, and when we exit the water we anticipate that God will fulfill His promises, bring all things to completion, and raise us from the dead. But we are not actually raised yet, and so we live our lives in the tomb as a waiting area, with the Holy Spirit given as a pledge of the new life to come.

The Promise in the Tomb

Options on the Intermediate State

I have crusaded here before against the conflation of life-after-death with life-after-life-after-death (to use N. T. Wright’s terminology), of the “heaven” we go to upon death with the “heaven” which is really the new creation earth united with God’s presence in the future. And my theological focus has mostly been on the latter of these, the resurrection and the restoration of the cosmos in the age to come. Nonetheless, the real question about what happens immediately after death is still at least somewhat important, and some of what I’ve been reading recently has gotten me thinking about it.

This subject, the state of human beings between death and resurrection, is of course better known as the intermediate state. The usual focus is on believers. What precisely do we, as Christians, experience postmortem? In this post, I just feel like outlining some of the basic theological options, along with their strengths and weaknesses. I am still quite unsure what I think about this, but I’ll mention what I’m thinking these a’days.

On to the options. I’ve titled them myself; not all of them have set names.

Sensory heaven
The average pew-dweller, due to the common kind of preaching which does conflate the intermediate state with the new creation, often imagines that after we die we get to experience a fully sensory world, tangible and visible and tactile, paved with gold and filled with mansions. This, however common, is terribly mistaken with no biblical evidence whatsoever. The descriptions it makes use of come from Revelation 21-22, which describe the future new earth, not anything which is a present reality. Moreover, it ignores the fact that our physical bodies are literally in the ground, not transported to another physical realm, after death, and the fact that senses are all strictly physical phenomena, not something you experience spiritually.
Spiritual bliss
For those who realize that there is no biblical reason to think we will be able to experience a sensory reality of heaven after death, there is a next step of simply affirming a kind of spiritual bliss. What this actually is like, we cannot imagine now. We only know that it is a different quality of existence and consciousness than what we experience now, but it is bliss in the presence of God in Christ. This tends to draw strength from texts like 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 and Philippians 1:21-23. In this view, we will experience the glory of God in Christ in some way without body or sense until we are reunited with our bodies in the resurrection.

This view is common among people who have dispensed with the first, erroneous notion. Nonetheless, there are some criticisms which have been leveled at it. For one, it may be unclear what human conscious experience could even be without our bodies, which include our brains. All of our emotions, thinking, and consciousness have always been massively physiological, involving brain and hormone and the like. What kind of “consciousness” would we have separated from our brains? Also, there are biblical statements which seem to imply a lack of consiousness in the intermediate state, particularly in Ecclesiastes (and some of the Psalms). It is questionable to what extent the rather unspecific statements in 2 Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1 might overcome these themes. As a final note, this view is often accused of importing the idea of the immortality of the soul from paganism, with the assertion that the Judeo-Christian tradition originally understood men as entirely mortal in flesh unless raised to glory.

Soul sleep
The soul sleep view is common in some circles, though definitely a minority view. Perhaps its most well-known proponent was Martin Luther. In soul sleep, the intermediate state is unconscious. You die, and the next thing you experience is the resurrection, however many years may separate the two events. This view takes very seriously the rather shadowy statements about the afterlife in the Old Testament especially, taking advantage of the ambiguity in the New Testament statements which might imply consciousness in the intermediate state. That much of the Bible reflects a view something along these lines is almost a consensus in the higher world of scholarship.

Perhaps the largest problem the soul sleep view faces is the near unanimity of Christian tradition. Soul sleep has always, with a few exceptions, been on the fringes of Christian theology. While we have little data on the views of the very first Christians outside the sparse information in the New Testament, the earliest references we do have are from Eusebius, who argued against a group as unorthodox for teaching a form of soul sleep. The Catholic Church has declared it heretical, as have some smaller groups. None of this, however, can mean all too much for adherents to sola Scriptura.

Total obliteration/Christian mortalism
Often soul sleep and Christian mortalism are classed or defined together, but I decided they would make more sense to separate them distinctly. In soul sleep, human souls are still supposed to be alive in some sense. They may not strictly conscious, but they are still truly alive and existing. What may go by Christian mortalism can go much further. I speak of total obliteration of the human person. Body, soul, spirit, identity, whatever else go into the grave together and lose everything until the final resurrection, which raises the whole person. Most of what has been said about soul sleep also applies to this kind of mortalism, with a few key differences.

At the biblical level, Christian mortalism has a harder time handling texts like 2 Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1. There are plausible solutions to them, but what is questionable about that is nonetheless questionable. On the other hand, Christian mortalism does have the upper hand in the “immortal soul is pagan” argument, as only this view completely repudiates the idea. For Christian mortalists, humanity is entirely mortal apart from God’s resurrection power. Again, a great deal of modern biblical scholarship sees a view like this as quite plausible in light of the historical-linguistic-cultural-contextual evidence in Scripture.

I’m really not sure what to add to this, only that I find the correct view here difficult to discern. Parts of me are attracted to all of them, except obviously the first. What do people here think? I’m ready to play critic or Devil’s advocate to any of them if you comment.

Options on the Intermediate State

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Humiliated

My series on the Apostles’ Creed must now move on to perhaps what might be regarded as the central section, the section on Christ’s humiliation. This part is gold:

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.

The life of the Jesus described so well in the previous line, the Son of God and one Lord, is now described up to the point of His death. So what does the Creed teach on this?

Conceived by the Holy Spirit – Before even the article on the Holy Spirit, He is mentioned as the one by whom Jesus was conceived. This shows that Jesus’ entrance into human life is a miracle, not just any miracle but a miracle performed by the same Spirit who originally created the world. This signifies that the power which brought Jesus into the world is in fact the power of divine creation itself. Jesus is the beginning of the new creation. In Jesus God has acted to begin creation over again with His only-begotten Son in place of Adam, the old son (Luke 3:38). With Jesus the human race is to be reborn.

Born of the Virgin Mary – We also see that Jesus, though conceived by the Spirit, was born of a human woman, the Virgin Mary. Jesus was not purely an interruption and replacement for the existing humanity, but in fact He was the beginning of the new creation in the midst of the old and broken one. Through Mary Jesus was born still a part of the natural human race. If it were not for this He would be some kind of alternate kind of human unrelated to us, one who could be of no use in saving our kind. Through Mary Jesus is the kinsman-redeemer, the one who shares the actual flesh and blood of His people that He may redeem their flesh and blood. This in fact makes the Catholic notion of Mary’s immaculate conception (remember this means that she was born graciously saved from original sin) entirely unnecessary. Jesus from Mary received His original contact with human corruption and sin, and like in all of His other dealings began from that very point His work in healing and sanctifying it. In this line we fine that Jesus entered humanity even in its deadness in order to raise it to new life.

Suffered under Pontius Pilate – We see that the Creed moves immediately from His birth to His sufferings of His trial. This should not be taken as an indication that nothing in between these events mattered or that Jesus’ ministry is ultimately secondary to His death. Instead, we should recognize that Jesus’ entire life before His death was bound up with His impending death, and His death was the climax of the entire life that led to it. Thus the Creed does not simply leave out Jesus’ life, but rather makes its significance inseparable from His passion. In truth, Jesus’ death belonged to His life and His life belonged to His death.

Also important is that we find Jesus’ chief accomplishment, the defining act of which the Creed is compelled to speak, to be His suffering. Suffering is to be understood as essential to what Jesus did. This is startling given the identity the Creed assigns to Jesus. He is the quite divine Son of God. Yet how can God, the eternal Creator who stands above all puny things, suffer? Who can afflict the one who is greater than all? But there is a great mystery and glory in the statement agreed on by the early church fathers that in Christ, “the Impassible suffered.” This is also startling given that Jesus is identified as Messiah. What Jew would have believed that their Messiah would be forced to suffer at the hands of a pagan ruler? These seemingly blasphemous paradoxes are at the heart of the Gospel.

We should also note that this is the second and last time any human besides Jesus is mentioned in the Creed. There are only three humans at all in the Creed: Jesus, Mary, and Pilate. Jesus is the one affirmed as the true subject, God Himself. Mary connects Jesus with the history of humanity and of Israel. And Pilate can be seen to have two major uses. On the one hand, Pilate shows that Jesus, the Jew born of Mary, suffered under pagan rules. God’s Messiah raised up to save His people died under the same hands which they had expected Him to crush. This tells us already that Jesus was suffering as a substitute and representative for Israel, for whom this punishment was outlined in the Torah. God’s covenant with Israel dictated that if they were unfaithful, they would suffer many judgments, climaxing in destruction by pagan nations and exile. This we see that Jesus suffered for them. He suffered under a pagan ruler while cut off from the people of God, accursed on a tree outside the city. In this act Jesus was truly standing in for Israel, and as a good theology of Israel’s election would then add, through Israel He stood in for the world.

The other note about Pilate is that tying Jesus’ death to this particular ruler, Jesus’ death is set in real world history. Jesus suffered at a specific time in a specific place under specific historical and political conditions. In addition to the basic apologetic thrust (which is important; we can iInvestigate the history, for this really happened), it also testifies to how God always deals with man. He deals with us in real history, using historical events. God does not work for us in the abstract or the “spiritual” (if by that we mean non-physical) realm. Time and space and matter are not irrelevant to God’s purposes but are made the context for them by grace. God comes to us in our history to bring redemption to it, and He has done this most fully and climactically in first century Palestine with one single instance of Jewish flesh.

Was crucified – Now the mode of Jesus’ execution is specified. It is crucifixion. This reinforces what was just said regarding the judgment Jesus suffered vicariously for His people. Crucifixion is the ultimate symbol of what Israel was condemned to under the Torah. Crucifixion was a Roman device and represented pagan oppression. It took place outside the city gates, symbolically cut off from the people of Israel and the presence of God. It was associated with the statement in the Torah, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” And of course it was brutal and painful in every way. Nothing would better summarize the curses of the Torah than crucifixion, and this is what Jesus suffered as the true representative of Israel, as their Messiah.

Died – The most impossible statement in all of human history. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of the Father who has life within Himself, died. The immortal God perished as a mortal man. This is at the center of the Creed, both theologically and nearly visually. Jesus died, and on this everything else hinges. Yet the meaning of this death is fleshed out by all of the other statements in the Creed. Death appears not as the significant part in and of itself, but what matters was this particular death filled to the brim with meaning and placed in rich context. Had Jesus died by tripped into a river, none of this would matter. But this death, the one described in the four Gospels in detail, is uniquely redemptive as a one-of-a-kind sacrifice.

Was buried – Finally, the death completed, Jesus was buried. This is significant for many reasons, but l will highlight one of them. In this burial we find that there is a lapse between suffering and vindication. We know that Jesus will be raised before this little story is over. But He did have to wait in the grave, and this corresponds to an ongoing theme of Scripture. God makes promises, but His people must suffer for some time before experiencing the redemption. There is a limbo period where it seems as though God is unfaithful. Jesus by all accounts seemed to be the Messiah, so why did God leave Him in the grave? Why did God let Him die at all? This questions would have been teeming in the minds of the disciples. There seemed to be a paradox, a problem involving the faithfulness of God and His salvation. Israel spent many years in such periods, so did Jesus, and so do we. We have the promise of redemption, and in fact for us even Easter has already happened, but we still live in a limbo period in which God’s salvation is not revealed and the world keeps on going in apparent meaninglessness and death. We wait for God to deliver us. But the burial of Jesus reminds us that there must be such times, and that God will not be unfaithful but in His own time will fulfill all He has promised.

He descended into hell – This statement has been a source of much confusion and debate within the Church, especially in Protestantism. Alas, in this post I have no time or room to address it. I personally read “hell” here as meaning something akin to Sheol in the Old Testament, basically “the realm of the dead.” But I will have to wait to cover this statement in another post, one which will actually be separate from this series. In the meantime, I will simply suggest that this shows the depths to which Jesus penetrated in saving us. He experienced all the deepest pains and suffering, death and alienation included, which plague humanity so that He might redeem us. Whatever “hell” means here, Jesus submitted to it for our sake, out of love, to save us from it.

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Humiliated

God Glorifies Us through Suffering

This morning I was reading 1 Peter 1 and ran across the following statements:

You are being protected by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. You rejoice in this, though now for a short time you have had to struggle in various trials so that the genuineness of your faith — more valuable than gold, which perishes though refined by fire — may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 

1 Peter 1:5-7

What stuck out to me in particular is what Peter says here about the purpose, or the “so that,” of Christian trials. Scripture here seems to say that we have to face trials in order that our genuine faith, withstanding all such testing, will actually result in our praise when Christ returns. We suffer so that we can shine.

I realize that this may sound a bit off at first, but there are other Biblical examples of this kind of rationale for suffering, at least for some of it. Take Job, for instance. In Job, we ultimately see God allowing Satan to inflict great suffering to Job’s vindication. By the end of it, Job has refused to curse God and die, as his wife suggested. He may have gotten harsh with God and threw around some blame, but he never gave up or repudiated his trust. When all of the rest is concluded, God commends Job and rewards him for his faithfulness over and against any of Job’s friends. God’s point to Satan from the beginning was that Job’s faith was real, and could stand up to trial, and this claim was vindicated to Job’s glory.

The theme like this of God glorifying His suffering people in fact permeates all of Scripture. He did this to Joseph, to Moses and the Israelites, to David, to Daniel, to many others, and ultimately to Jesus Christ (who, we must recall, is every bit as human as you or I). When God’s people patiently wait and suffer what they must, trusting Him through the whole of it, He uses the occasion to reward them and bring praise and honor to the virtues which He has given them.

To some extent, we recognize such a possibility even in a non-theological way. This is the way that the best stories work, isn’t it? The greatest heroes, the ones who we love and praise and celebrate the most, are not the ones who stayed in their Hobbit holes and enjoyed a simple life with a peaceful death. Instead, the heroes who receive the most glory are those who make it through many sufferings, who face the toughest obstacles and most heartbreaking setbacks. Frodo and Sam are renowned, but not the old Gaffer.

Of course, it is not obvious that real life has to work this way. After all, this glory is highly contingent on two things: the sufferings being known to all, and the would-be heroes actually making it all the way to success. In this life neither of those seem very certain. You may feel like asking, “Will anyone ever know what I have suffered? And will I even make it?” But this is where we have from God precious promises to our comfort. For He declares to us that all of our patience and faith in suffering (and all other good works) will be publically known on the last day:

Therefore don’t judge anything prematurely, before the Lord comes, who will both bring to light what is hidden in darkness and reveal the intentions of the hearts. And then praise will come to each one from God.

1 Corinthians 4:5 (cf. 1 Cor. 3:13, Lk. 12:2-3)

He also promises that He will carry us through to the very end, so that we know how our quest will conclude even in the midst of it:

Now the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will personally restore, establish, strengthen, and support you after you have suffered a little. The dominion belongs to Him forever. Amen. 

1 Peter 5:10-11

So on the basis of these guarantees from God Himself we know that glory awaits us on the other side of suffering.

You may also wonder, though, how this can be? Has God not said, “I am Yahweh, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another” (Isa. 42:8)? How can God glorify us at all, whether through suffering or by any other means? The answer to this, as with so many things, is found in Jesus Christ. God can glorify man because there was a Man—is a Man—who has the right to the whole glory of God. A human being from Nazareth named Jesus holds the name above every name, the glory of the only-begotten Son of the Father (John 1:14). We get to share in His glory because He is our Brother, our Lord, and our Bridegroom. We are united with Him by our baptism into His death and resurrection.

This brings us the ultimate promise and comfort. Because we belong to Christ, we will share His glory after sharing His sufferings. We have entered His story, not our own, and get to participate in His happy ending. Or, as Paul would say it:

So then, brothers, we are not obligated to the flesh to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. All those led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs — heirs of God and coheirs with Christ — seeing that we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. 

Romans 8:12-17

God Glorifies Us through Suffering

Jesus, Love Mascot? (Or, the Wrath of the Lamb Does Exist)

Every culture in history has had its own problems with the Bible and Christian teaching. Ours struggles especially with the violent judgments of the Old Testament, including broad application of the death penalty and Israel’s conquests of Canaan (a topic I’ve written on recently). Unfortunately, for an increasing number of Christians these days, the solution to these tough texts is to discard them. How is this justified? Here’s the argument (which, for reasons which I will make clear by the end of the post, I am labeling the love-mascot argument):

Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of God.

Jesus showed in His life that He would never kill, harm, or otherwise violently judge anyone.

Therefore any portrayal of God as doing such things in the Old Testament is at best revelation made imperfect by humans.

The love-mascot argument starts from a true premise, but the second point is, well, simply not Biblical. Jesus may not have harmed or killed anyone in His earthly ministry, but that’s certainly not because He was opposed to such judgments. Consider these words of our Lord:

Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 10:28

The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather from His kingdom everything that causes sin and those guilty of lawlessness. They will throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 13:41-42

But if that wicked slave says in his heart, “My master is delayed,” and starts to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, that slave’s master will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he does not know. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 24:48-51

But I will show you the One to fear: Fear Him who has authority to throw people into hell after death. Yes, I say to you, this is the One to fear!

Luke 12:5

So Jesus preaches that God will very harshly judge unbelievers, even condemning them to a Hell of eternal suffering. He even uses the analogy of cutting someone to pieces. And this is the God Jesus Himself worshiped, served, prayed to, and loved. Jesus Himself believed that these acts are right and just. Also note that in the second text, Jesus—not the Father—is the one who commands this tough judgment.

Of course, none of this even counts Revelation. The book of Revelation tells of many plagues and harsh, violent destruction. This is not just the wrath of some pagan deity. This is “the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16) who was slaughtered (Rev. 5:6). The same Jesus who said “Neither do I condemn you” also “judges and makes war with righteousness” (Rev. 19:11) at the conclusion of the age.

With these terrifying pictures of the wrath of Jesus Christ, we can’t apply the love-mascot logic. It breaks down if Jesus is allowed to judge violently, which He clearly is willing to do. If Jesus is like this, we cannot simply scratch out the OT revelation of God’s painful dealings with people, because they are indeed in line with the eternal Word (John 1:1).

So on to the word “mascot.” Why do I call this argument the love-mascot argument? Because of the way progressive Christianity (a movement which generally encompasses people who use this argument) handles Jesus. Progressive Christianity, albeit with decent intentions, refuses to let Jesus be who He is. Instead, they start with a modern, Western conception of love as something which cannot involve harshness or violent judgment. Then they take the Biblical statement “God is love,” load it with such a niceness-shaped love, and apply it to Jesus in the Gospels. This culturally conditioned Jesus is then used to cut up the OT. But in all this Jesus serves the role as only a mascot of love, and “love” strictly in a very uniquely American sense.

There is more evidence for this throughout the writings of progressive Christians (I do not wish to name any in particular right now, but if you are familiar with them at all this might make sense anyway). If you read much of their stuff, you will find that they treat Christianity as simply one religion out of many. All the religions are spoken of on equal terms, with Christianity seeming to just the preference of the authors. What people do in and for Christ is often equated with what people do in the name of Mohammed or Buddha. A Christian life is given no priority or advantage over a devout Hindu life. Only some of them would be willing to say that Christianity and other religions are basically equal, but they mostly all speak that way.

This does not merely degrade a system of belief. This pulls down Jesus Christ. He is not treated as the only way to the Father, the only name by which we may be saved, or the One Mediator who is Himself God and Man. Instead, when Christianity is spoken of as though it were merely one way among many to lead a life of “love,” Jesus Himself becomes little more than a mascot of love. Instead of being our life, salvation, sanctification, and only hope, He is mostly our example, and good name to cling to in the pursuit of a loving life. Indeed, the more radical end of progressivism, which barely even deserves to be included, would even be willing to say that Christianity is nothing more than living a life of love and compassion. In this, the Son of God becomes a mere mascot.

So what do we do and say? We refuse to let modern, Western ideals of what love should be like be the last word. Instead, if Jesus is God, and God is love, we should let the actual Jesus dictate what we understand of love. The actual Jesus as we see Him through Scripture is not a mascot, but instead lives simultaneously as our Redemption and our Judgment. He is filled both with love for all people and wrath for all people. This is the kind of love which confronts us unapologetically in Jesus, and this Jesus is the means by which we have to interpret the Old Testament. Of course, in that case we should be able to accept the harsh realities of God’s judgments there, because even the Exodus plagues pale in comparison to the end of the age at which the wrath of the Lamb will be unleashed on the world. The Lamb who was slaughtered does love unto death, but those who do not join in His death will find their own much worse. This Jesus is no mere mascot of culturally restricted ideas of love. He is the one and only I AM, the uniquely exclusive path to the Father, who was and is and will be.

With this in mind, let us pray that our hearts and minds will be conformed to the image of Jesus. Let us ask the Father through His Spirit to mold our ideas of love and justice to those He Himself performs in His Son. For who has known the mind of the Lord to be His counselor? But we have the mind of Christ. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

Jesus, Love Mascot? (Or, the Wrath of the Lamb Does Exist)

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

When God Steps Back: The Law and The Problem of Evil

Evil is evil. Could there be a statement more pathetically obvious, yet more profoundly ominous? We live in a world rife with evil. Every day, there is murder and mayhem on the news. School shootings have become more routine than Presidential elections, and more children on this planet are malnourished than well-fed. Many nations reek with poverty and injustice, even including parts of our own.

Yet simultaneously, as Christians we affirm the existence and immanence (which basically means closeness to our world) of a good God. This God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. He is love, and He is the true life. He is the Lord All-Powerful, able to do all He decides to do, who overflows with mercy and compassion to those in need.

To most people, these two realities are at least at tension with each other, and for many they are outright contradictions. How can so much evil fill a world created, sustained, and cared for by a good and omnipotent God? The problem of evil boggles minds upon minds.

Throughout history, numerous solutions to the problem of evil have been proposed. The Gnostics attributed evil to the god of matter and good to the God of Spirit. Ancient polytheist religions imagined very many gods—some good, some evil, and none flawless—who determined the fortunes of the world. Many dualistic religions posit an evil force and a good force, equal to each other and locked in conflict. Within Christianity, we’ve had many of our own ideas. Augustine considered evil a lack of God like how darkness is a lack of light. Free will as the source of evil was the favorite answer of many throughout church history, from the early fathers to modern Arminians and Molinists. Calvinists say that evil is decreed, ordained, and made certain by God for His own purposes to His glory, though God Himself stays out of evil directly.

Certainly, no one can completely explain evil. If we could, evil could not be as evil as it really is. Without mystery and darkness, evil simply becomes an ugly tool, unlikeable but manageable and necessary to the world (an implication of classical Calvinism which I take issue with). We must always understand that we will never understand evil completely.

This all said, I’ve been reading a book named Atonement by Thomas Torrance, a proper genius. He suggests an interesting understanding of why and how sin runs as loose and rampant as it does in the world, though not an explanation of how it originated. Here is an apologetically long quote, which I will summarize and explain afterwards (all emphasis mine):

On the one hand sin is rebellion against God, but on the other hand sin gains part of its character as sin from the divine resistance to it. If God not oppose sin, there would be no really objective and ultimate difference between sin and righteousness. Thus the divine opposition to sin is a factor in the qualification of humanity as sinful before God…But, as Paul felt, the disturbing factor seemed to be that God actually withheld his full opposition to sin and allowed it so much freedom that it challenged his righteousness and deity. Yet that was in the very mercy of God, as the cross showed, for the cross reveals that God withheld his final resistance to sin until, in Christ, he was ready to do the deed which would also save us from his wrath…

A very significant fact we have to consider is that before the death of Christ the difference between man and God is given an order of relative validity, or established in the extent of its separation from God…It was established (a) by the condemnatory law which expresses the divine judgment on sin, although that law was not yet fully enacted and inserted into history, and (b) by God’s withholding of final judgment against sin, for that means that God withheld from man his immediate presence which, apart from actual atonement, could only mean the destruction of humanity.

This merciful act of God by which he holds himself at a distance from fallen men and women and yet places them under judgment establishes, as it were, the ethical order in which righteousness has absolute validity and yet in which mankind has relative immunity and freedom

Here then is the fact we have to consider: the law of God which repudiates human sin at the same time holds the world together in law and order and gives it relative stability—but sin takes advantage of that and under the cover of the law exerts itself more and more in independence of God. That is why the New Testament speaks of the law as the strength of sin, for its very opposition to sin gives sin its strength, and by withholding final judgment from the sinner, holds or maintains the sinner in continued being.

Whew, that was a long quote! So, I’ll restate and summarize his point. According to Torrance, after the fall God had a problem. If He gave Himself fully to humanity, we would be destroyed (this is because God in His holiness is a consuming fire, which would bring Hell to sinful men). The solution to this was the law: by setting up a moral standard in between God and humanity, God actually keeps us and our world in a basically stable order. We are not burned up by God’s wrath, but He steps back and withholds Himself from the world.

The problem is that this mercy—God’s holding back of Himself to keep from judging and killing us in our sins—is the very thing which sin uses to run rampant. Every step God takes back to keep us from the fire of His holiness is a step evil can use to wreak havoc while God is at a distance.

In this understanding, the law is both the mercy of God and the judgment of God, while also being opposition to sin and the very thing which lets sin run loose. With the law, God steps back from the human world so He doesn’t destroy us, though what the law says still puts a judgment on evil. But with the consuming fire of God’s holy love hanging back, sin and death have room to do what they please and wreck everything.

This is the situation of the world outside of Jesus, the problem of evil. But in Christ this problem is fixed. Jesus was and is God, and was and is human. So when He lived a perfect human life, died a substitutionary human death, and rose to a new human life, He created an eternal and safe place for God and people to live together. In Jesus, since He is perfect and sinless humanity, God can be perfectly present. The Father doesn’t withhold Himself from the Son, and the Son is not destroyed because He has no sin in Himself.

This is why Jesus is our refuge, and our salvation. When we become “in Christ,” when we are united with His death and resurrection, we get to have perfect communion with God through His human Son. Though in our sinful human flesh we would be condemned to Hell by being brought near to God, in Jesus Christ’s perfect human flesh we are raised to eternal life by being brought near to God.

In sum, then, God created the law to separate Himself from sinful man, because if He was with us completely we’d be condemned by His holy love. Yet this separation by the law is exactly the room sin and evil need to run rampant and wreak havoc on the world. This situation can only be repaired in Jesus, the only person in whom God and humanity are united without opposition. Most of the world hasn’t accepted Christ yet, though, so the world at large is still stuck in separation from God which leaves room for boundless evil. The only solution is to spread the Gospel, brining more people into the refuge of Jesus until He returns. Then the entire human world will be brought back into God’s complete presence, with the result that those who refuse Jesus will suffer the fate of God’s eternal consuming fire while everyone in Christ will be saved to eternal life.

Amen, hallelujah! Come, Lord Jesus!

When God Steps Back: The Law and The Problem of Evil