Karl Barth on Providence and Heaven

For my last¬†(rather delayed) post on Karl Barth’s doctrine of providence¬†according to Darren Kennedy, I want to briefly address¬†the way that heaven and, interestingly, the angels function in the whole structure. According to Kennedy,¬†heaven and the angels are¬†actually quite important to Barth’s providence.¬†Why this would be the case might not be obvious at all to us, but once he explains it, the¬†coherence is¬†evident.

So, what do angels and heaven have to do with providence?¬†Recall that in my last post on this I mentioned that Barth rejects the idea of miracles which violate natural order, but he understands the natural order in a¬†broad way that allows for many things to take place which we might not be inclined to consider natural. This is where heaven and the angels come in. For Barth (and, basically, N. T. Wright of all people), the term “heaven” does not refer to the uncreated presence of God, but to the second sphere of creation, the other side¬†from earth which is hidden from our perception. The angels belong to this created heavenly sphere, and thus strictly speaking are a part of¬†natural creation. They are not properly supernatural, but¬†simply belong to a different created habitat, the habitat of heaven rather than earth.

In his first brief explanation, Kennedy explains:

If God does not disrupt the causal nexus, how can one account for the specific ‚Äėmiracles‚Äô in Scripture? Barth‚Äôs answer does not envision a violation of the causal nexus, but an expansion of it to include heaven. This explanation will help to clarify Barth‚Äôs interpretation of heaven and angels in III.3. While fully a part of the creation, heaven remains imperceptible to humanity. Nevertheless, as part of the cosmos, heavenly creatures can act and reveal in the earthly realm. Thus God directs angels‚ÄĒwhose nature is to obey perfectly‚ÄĒto behave in ways that seem to disrupt creation, but violate no ontic laws of creation.1

So for Barth, then, there is nothing about miracles which necessarily violates the natural causal order. He does not overrule, bypass,¬†undo, or contradict the “laws” by which He governs creation (since, after all, in double-agency they are His own doing, and He cannot contradict Himself). Instead, heaven and the angels are part of the natural, created world, and God¬†from His presence in heaven sends the angels to do His will in ways which¬†affect earthly realities. A blind man, for example, may receive sight not by earthly physical processes but by angelic¬†action, which is nonetheless “natural” in the sense that angels are a part of the created order.

Thus Kennedy argues that the realm of heaven and the angels serve as a so-called “causal joint” in Barth’s theology of providence, the point where God’s action enters into the¬†created world. Many theologians have traditionally had a very difficult time identifying this point, explaining how and where God’s providential action is effective in the natural world. Barth by no means overcomes the mystery altogether, which would be speculative and presumptuous, but he does point to this answer grounded in¬†biblical¬†stories and teachings.

To understand this better, we should see how Barth sees the difficulty in the relationship of the Wholly Other God to the created world.¬†In his understanding, God only is able to act in our world through¬†a particular created “midpoint,” the realm of heaven which He has made to dwell in and to unite with earth. Kennedy cites this from him:

Without this special place of God, and the distance therewith posited between Himself and man in his own place, there could obviously be no genuine intercourse between them. There could be no dialogue, but only a monologue on the part of God (or perhaps of man). There could be no drama, but either God or man could only live in isolation with no relationships to others or significance for them. If this is not the case; if the theme of Christian witness is neither the life of an isolated God nor isolated man, but the history enacted between them of isolation, estrangement, reconciliation and fellowship; and if this history is really enacted in our world, then this means that God as well as man has a distinctive sphere in this real world of ours.2

This is rather similar to N. T. Wright’s view, at least at the descriptive level, of heaven as “the control room for earth..the CEO’s office, the place from which instuctions are given.”3¬†Kennedy does not specify whether Barth thought God acts on the world through heaven only by the angels or also by other means, but in any case the point is a mediating realm between¬†God and man’s world.

There are oddities to this account, though. For Barth, only God and humans are truly personal beings. Angels, although superficially similar to persons, are actually not. They have no free will (of any kind), and they are used by God similarly to simple tools. On this account, he also denies that demons are fallen angels, instead incorporating them into his doctrine of Nothingness (on which I have written here). If angels have no personal agency, then they cannot have sinned unless God caused them to do so, which of course is absurd. Thus demons are placed into their own category.

This last issue is odd, and I think compromises this apsect of Barth’s providential project on Biblical grounds.¬†Could it be reworked without it? Perhaps. In any case, it is thought-provoking, and I think as a whole Barth’s doctrine of providence seems superior to the traditional Reformed formulations.

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Exalted

Time to move on to the third part of the Creed’s article on the Son.¬†The Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, was crucified and descended to hell, and now comes this:

On the third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there He will come to judge the living and the dead.

So what do we learn from this section of the Creed? Let’s take a look.

On the third day – What is the significance of the third day? The Scriptures mention it multiple times, and so does the Creed here. Why does it matter that Jesus’ resurrection happened on the third day? There are many theories, but I would like to highlight that Jesus rested in the grave on the Sabbath (Saturday), and only then rose on Sunday. Jesus¬†fulfilled the Sabbath rest in His death and resurrection. Now Sabbath rest is found exclusively in Him rather than any day of the week.

He rose again from the dead –¬†In this act, Jesus took the human nature that He had gone with into the grave and raised it back into new glory. In the Resurrection, Jesus was justified/vindicated by the Father as the Righteous One, and in this act we who are united to Him are also justified. In the Resurrection, Jesus filled His human existence with the glory of God and inextinguishable life so that He could be the source of¬†resurrection life for all people. In this single event of Jesus all of the promises of God became “Yes.”

He ascended into heaven РNow in glorified human existence, Jesus returned to heaven to present Himself before the Father. He stands as the head of humanity, the one who sums up the whole race in Himself, and has entered without sin into the presence of God. Because of this we have access to the Father through His priestly presence. We can never approach God in any other way but through the glorified Man who stands as Mediator before God, existing in perfect union with the Father as His only Son.

and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty –¬†In heaven Jesus has taken up the throne over the universe. He sits at the right hand of the Father, His chief Executive, as Lord of all.¬†God has given all authority to His Son that He might rule until all things are put under His feet. From¬†the control room of heaven Jesus stands¬†present in all places to rule over them all. At the name of Jesus every knee must and will bow to the glory of the Father. Jesus is Lord. This was the Church’s proclamation from the beginning, against all other lordships. In truth, Caesar was not Lord, neither¬†was Nero, nor¬†Constantine, nor King James, nor Napoleon, nor Washington, nor Lincoln, nor Roosevelt, nor Hitler, nor Stalin, nor Churchill, nor Reagan, nor Obama, nor Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. All are subject to the reign of Christ, and we are citizens under His lordship before anything else.

From there He will come to judge the living and the dead –¬†As Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus also steps into the divine role of judge. In this way we do see a unity between God and Christ, Father and Son, in that the one who¬†is to judge all nations, once named as Yahweh, has been revealed to be Jesus of Nazareth. All people who have ever lived will appear before His judgment seat, both the living and the dead.¬†And in doing this He will set all things right. He will turn over the wicked to their fate apart from Him, namely the wrath of God, and He will deliver all those who have been trusting in Him.

People are often reluctant to view Jesus as a judge, yet this is what Scripture teaches. As I wrote before, the wrath of the Lamb is really, and He will execute it on this world. Yet we should recall that this Judge has just been identified as the one who gave His life for us. So He will not judge out of hate or bloodthirst, but ultimately for love. By His judgment, He will bring life to the cosmos, so that the victory He accomplished in His resurrection can be extended to all the world without the interference of evil.

Two Thoughts from 1 Corinthians

I was reading 1 Corinthians 1-2 this morning and ran across a couple of passages that really stuck out to me. They speak fairly well for themselves (isn’t Scripture good about that?), but I will highlight the basic thoughts in them that I found so compelling.

The first passage is 1 Corinthians 1:17-31. But¬†I won’t quote all of that here, which would be rather long. So I’ll just present the heart of it.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. For it is written:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts.

Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached. For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

From the beginning, the Gospel has appeared foolish or even blasphemous to the rest of the world. The Jews thought it absolutely unacceptable that their Messiah would suffer crucifixion, much more so in the impossible situation of Him being God Incarnate. The Greeks, well, just thought the whole story was kind of dumb. But today it is little different. Christ crucified is a stumbling block to those who are all about success and self-advancement (*cough*Trump*cough*), a group increasingly large in our increasingly corporate world.¬†The idea that a man who lived 2000 years ago spoke truths which carry divine authority even today is ridiculous to self-styled intellectuals. The claim that there is only one name given under heaven by which men may be saved sounds like blasphemy to a culture all about inclusion and multiculturalism. All of the Gospel, if¬†you’re not just too used to it to noticed, sounds completely insane¬†apart from the experience of its power. This is just something I keep noticing all of the time¬†in relation to so many philosophies and politics and worldviews. Democrat or Republican, atheist or theist, rich or poor, Jesus sounds ridiculous¬†and¬†contradictory to all of the cultural defaults.

The other passage I notice is at the end of 1 Corinthians 2. People often get the meaning of verse 9 wrong. What do I mean?

But as it is written:

What eye did not see and ear did not hear, and what never entered the human mind ‚ÄĒ God prepared this for those who love Him.

Now God has revealed these things to us by the Spirit, for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man that is in him? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God. We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. But the unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can evaluate everything, yet he himself cannot be evaluated by anyone. For

who has known the Lord’s mind, that he may instruct Him?

But we have the mind of Christ. 

1 Corinthians 2:9-16

This passage comes¬†right after Paul’s further argument about human vs. divine wisdom, and the power of the Spirit over and against the persuasive power of rhetoric. Verse 9 is often treated as a statement about the unimaginability of heaven. No eye or hear or head has a clue what’s coming! But that’s exactly¬†not the point Paul is making. He’s making¬†a point about the divine wisdom of the Gospel and its foolishness to men. This verse shows that no one was ever expecting what God did in¬†Christ for us. God’s plans for us in the Gospel had never been seen before, heard before, or imagined by a human mind. If they had, as per verse 8, no one would have killed Jesus. But instead, Paul goes on to argue that even though this stuff was hidden before,¬†we now know it. We have the Spirit of God, who is the¬†only one to know the deep secrets of God. Because we have the Spirit, we know the secrets of the Gospel, not because we had seen or heard or known before, but because we have been taught the truths of the Spirit. We now have the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit, which means that we are those who know the Lord’s mind and understand what God has prepared for us. We know by revelation. There is nothing hidden anymore.

The Homecoming of Jesus Christ

As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both fully human and fully divine.¬†This one person possesses in Himself two natures, the nature of God and the nature of man. Unfortunately, this is hard for us to understand.¬†We cannot get¬†how someone can¬†exist in this way, so we naturally tend to lean towards error. Too easily we begin to lose sight either of either Jesus’ deity or, in my experience, more often His humanity.

Losing sight of¬†Jesus’ humanity is, to be an honest, a pretty easy thing to do.¬†We forget things like that Jesus grew up as a boy. He had a home, a house where he lived with¬†His mother and His adoptive father. Nazareth was His hometown, and He certainly had favorite places to go and sights to see throughout His childhood and onward. He was, and remains, a human being with a human history and a human¬†home. Indeed, Jesus¬†grew up in our own world, shared in our experience of this world, and enjoyed its mountains,¬†waters, and produce.

With this in mind, I would like to point out that Jesus is currently, in a way, away from home. While He reigns from heaven, which is truly the proper home for Him according to His divinity, He is not locally present at His human home. Jesus hasn’t walked the streets of¬†Nazareth in¬†two thousand years, or felt the warmth of our¬†sun, the cool of an autumn breeze, the refreshment of flowing water. He is physically away from His earthly home, from the planet and country and town¬†in which He lived out His childhood with Mary and Joseph.

This is, of course, far from an ideal situation. Home is a powerful part of human existence. We do not easily move past the sentiments and memories of our formative years. To say that any of this does not apply to Jesus would¬†seem to imply that His humanity is not quite fully human, that His human life has some kind of more exalted dimension¬†that’s just a little less earthy and personal than ours. Such an implication would be a heretical one. Can we really suspect that Jesus will be content to never return home?

Yet we know from Scripture that Jesus is not away forever. He has promised to return, and this will not be exclusively for our benefit, but for His joy as well. One day Jesus will come back to His own land and live once again among us in full physical, human life on the same earth where He played and laughed as a boy. He will be able to visit old sites, the locations of precious memories, with Mary and Joseph if He pleases. When this happens, all of creation will sing for joy and find itself radically transformed to reflect His glory. Jesus is coming home, and His homecoming will give the world, including His many brothers and sisters in the Spirit, a share in His resurrection life that will never die or fade. This is our hope. Our Elder Brother is away, and in the meantime the house is chaotic and messy. But He will return, and when He does the reunion will be everything. Lord Jesus, come. Come home.

[As a side note, I recognize that some of you will be thinking, “This can’t be quite right¬†because this earth will be completely destroyed when Jesus returns.” With this line of thinking I do not agree at all. For the sake of space, I will simply say that I believe the destiny of creation is the same as Christ’s fate: death¬†and resurrection. I’ve written and preached on this previously, and so I refer you to such posts.]

5 Myths about Heaven

The title pretty well says it all. I just want to address a couple popular misconceptions¬†about heaven. At least a couple of these are going to be¬†half-truths, so keep an eye out for those. But that aside, here’s some myths about heaven, and the truth about them.

  • We’ll spend eternity there. Depending on what you mean precisely by “heaven,” that may or may not be true. If we mean by “heaven” the place we go after we die to be with Jesus, then we will only be there until the Resurrection. Right now we are clothed with mortal bodies, then we will be unclothed for a time, until we are clothed again with new bodies1. We shall sleep for a time and then rise2.¬†Our eternal destiny will be the new earth, not what we presently call “heaven”3.
  • Jesus promised¬†we would have mansions in heaven. Usually John 14:2 is cited as proof, which says in the KJV, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” Yet this is an example of¬†the English language changing. In 1661, when the KJV was published, the word “mansion” did not imply the big, luxurious house that it does for us. It simply meant a¬†place to stay, perhaps¬†during a journey. That accurately captured the meaning of the Greek¬†monai, which meant “dwellings” or “abodes.” Modern translations¬†have appropriately updated the language,¬†using “rooms” (ESV, NIV) or “dwelling places” (NRSV, HCSB, NASB). This isn’t to say for sure we¬†won’t¬†end up with mansions, though such a¬†prospect seems suspiciously like materialistic wish fulfillment. But if we do, it won’t technically be in¬†what we presently call “heaven,” which is not physical, but the new earth.
  • Time will be no more. This one is actually true¬†if we¬†restrict the meaning of “heaven” to the place we currently go when we die, but most people say this about where we will spend eternity, which is the new earth. Yet the new earth is a “resurrection,” for lack of a better word, of the current world.¬†Space and time will not be scrapped, but redeemed. Don’t take my reason for it, though. Scripture itself clearly indicates the passage of time in Revelation 22:2, which refers to¬†the tree of life bearing fruit every month.
  • When Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven,” He’s talking about where we go when we die, or maybe the new earth. Neither of these would ever be true.¬†The term “kingdom of heaven” is only used in Matthew. Matthew, following a peculiar Jewish tradition, frequently substituted “heaven” for “God” as a way of being reverent. The other Gospels, wherever Matthew says “kingdom of heaven,” say “kingdom of God”4. The kingdom of God referred not to a place people go when they die, but the reign of God being established on earth5, particularly in Israel. Think, for example,¬†of how the kingdom was always referred to as something coming6, not a¬†place you go. But that would be a book (and N. T. Wright has written many on this topic).
  • Heaven is the end. No, my friends. Heaven is just the beginning. ūüôā

For more about the misconceptions people have about heaven, see these posts.

Heaven, Resurrection, and New Creation: Our Destiny in Christ

[This is a sermon I preached a week ago. Like my previous sermon, it is a long read.]

The Mismatch

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‚Äôs 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.

N. T. Wright on the New Creation

The world is created good but incomplete. One day when all the forces of rebellion have been defeated and the creation responds freely and gladly to the love of its creator, God will fill it with himself so that it will both remain an independent being and also be flooded with God’s own life. This is part of the paradox of love, in which love freely given creates a context for love to be returned, and so on in a cycle in which complete freedom and complete love do not cancel each other out but rather celebrate each other and make one another whole.

N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope

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.]

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‚ÄĒthe 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

Heaven Is a Myth. Kind Of.

“So now he’s saying heaven is a myth. What has gotten into Caleb’s brain today?” This is may be something like¬†the reaction you had to the title of this post. And that’s probably justified. I’ve already pulled pretty well the same stunt with I Don’t Believe in Hell a while back. It’s just that heaven and hell are such deliciously popular topics that¬†such titles always attract attention.

Anyway, what am I actually saying this time? Well,¬†first off I’m certainly not saying that there is no such thing as heaven. That would be Biblically absurd.¬†When I say “heaven is a myth” I mean specifically the popular conceptions of heaven that dominate books and movies, whether Christian or not. There is certainly a real heaven, but¬†it’s not what most people imagine it is, and that is the message I mean to get across in this post.

Define “Heaven”, Please

What’s wrong with the common perceptions of heaven? Part of the problem is the lack of precision. People use the word “heaven” to refer to God’s presence, the place believers go after death, and the future state elaborated in Revelation 21-22. Because¬†many Christians use the same word for all of these places, the differences get muddled to create a strange, murky, and unbiblical mix. My goal here is to distinguish between the different things¬†and clarify¬†the Biblical vision¬†of heaven.

First off, the word “heaven” itself in the Bible is never used for where people go when they die, nor does it ever refer¬†to the new creation after Jesus returns. It is used primarily in three ways (note that I’m only referencing the New Testament to make things easier for me, but what I say can also be seen in the Old):

  • “Heaven” can refer to the sky and/or space, e.g. Matt. 3:16, 16:2, Mk. 7:34, Lk. 9:16, Acts 11:6, Jas. 5:18
  • “Heaven” can¬†be used as a substitute for “God.” This is clearly seen in Matthew. Everywhere the other gospels say “kingdom of God” Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven.”¬†
  • Finally, “heaven” can refer to the place where God and His angels are, e.g. Matt. 5:16, 22:30, Mk. 11:26, John 1:51, Acts 7:55.

Search the Scriptures and see for yourself: never is¬†the word “heaven” used in relation to where a human is, with precisely two exceptions. The first is that of Jesus, who is exalted in heaven at the right hand of God and intercedes for us there.¬†The only other exception is Paul in a vision being caught up to the third heaven.¬†But these exceptions prove the rule. Heaven is never mentioned as the destiny of the dead righteous.

There is a word used in Scripture for the place where the dead righteous are. This word is “paradise.” Jesus Himself used it to the thief on the cross, and it is¬†one of two direct names for the place where¬†dead believers are. The other reference is “Abraham’s bosom” in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. These two references to the dwelling of dead believers are the only ones which name the place, and neither uses the word “heaven.”

Is it semantics I’m playing here? Not merely. What we must learn to make sense of the Biblical teachings on heaven is to distinguish between the three places associated with our concept of heaven. I’ll give a basic overview of each here, and later I’ll give details on the Biblical case for each.

The Three Things People Like to Call “Heaven”

First,¬†heaven is the space God created alongside “earth.” Our¬†visible world is parallel to the world of heaven, and both were created by God in the beginning. Heaven is flooded with the glory and presence of God, and His will is always carried out there. Angels also dwell there. This world is not¬†the purely spiritual presence of God, but a created space with its own created order which parallels ours.¬†Heaven and earth are distinct, but together. They are separate, but right beside each other. They occasionally intersect and¬†get messily involved with each other. God reigns in this heaven,¬†Jesus’ physical human body is currently present there, and angels go to and fro between there and here to accomplish God’s purposes.

Next,¬†paradise is where believers are after death. It is not equal to heaven, but is something else. For believers, it is a place of rest and comfort until the last day when we are to be resurrected. This is not likely to¬†be a physical or material place, because it is neither in heaven nor earth and the people who dwell there¬†are without bodies for the time being. It is a truly immaterial existence, without sight, touch, smell, or sound. There are no mansions, streets of gold, or anything which can be physically sensed there.¬†Paradise has bliss for the righteous, a bliss¬†that results from God’s caring embrace by the Spirit, but there is still a degree of discomfort because they are “naked” and¬†lack their bodies. This place is ultimately temporary, an immaterial existence which will no longer be relevant in the resurrection.

Finally,¬†the¬†new creation¬†(also called the new heavens and earth) is where believers are destined to live in eternity. This is a physical world birthed out of our current one, a recreation. Just like the Spirit radically healed and transformed us at our new birth to make us a new creation, so will He do to the entire world in the last day. Just like Jesus’ dead body was restored to life and made altogether fresh and new, so will the entire cosmos die in flame and be restored to a new and fuller glory in Christ. This will still be our physical universe, but fixed, renewed, and brought to its true destined purity.¬†

Obviously, by this point I’ve said a lot that you may not have heard before, and very well may prove controversial. So be it. But alas, I’m nearing a thousand words here, so it’s not the time to go on. I’ll continue this series. In my next post, I’ll start defending and building with Scripture¬†what I’ve said about these three places. In the mean time, try reading the Bible with¬†these thoughts in mind and see if it makes sense. You may be surprised.