“Resurrection of the dead” is for real

April 16, 2012

The most dramatic change in my theological thinking that occurred in seminary was believing in the resurrection of the dead as the second of a two-stage afterlife. The first stage is a disembodied intermediate state that believers enter immediately upon death (although Catholics believe that Paradise is preceded for most believers by a period of cleansing they call purgatory). Many theologians call this intermediate state “Paradise,” recalling Christ’s words to the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” It is also the stage to which Paul refers in Philippians 1:21 and elsewhere: “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”

The second stage is our ultimate Christian hope, referred to in the Apostles’ Creed as “the resurrection of the dead.” Paul’s dramatic chapter on resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15, describes this stage in some detail. In resurrection, God will give the redeemed in Christ new bodies that won’t wear out or suffer decay. And we will live in a redeemed, renewed, and restored Creation. Revelation 21, for example, describes—not believers being whisked away to some faraway heaven—but heaven coming down to this earth.

As N.T. Wright has said in many places, our ultimate Christian hope isn’t life after death but “life after life after death.”

All of what I’ve described is classic Christianity, proclaimed and believed as orthodox theology from the beginning of the Church (except that part about purgatory). It’s obviously far more robust than simply “going to heaven when we die.” That I was mostly unaware of it prior to seminary is my problem. I grew up in youth group, after all, singing about “heaven” as my final destination, not full-blown resurrection. That southern gospel classic “I’ll Fly Away,” as bad as the theology is, is an awesome song!

For most believers, perhaps, it’s enough to know that through faith in Christ they are safe for eternity—whatever eternity looks like, or however it works itself out. I understand that. As I preached on Easter, God’s defeat of death, the final enemy, was victory enough for me.

But this two-stage afterlife illustrates what God is up to in his plan of salvation for the world. God isn’t merely interested in rescuing souls from a world bound for destruction, as a firefighter rescues people from a burning building. He wants to save the building, too! He wants to save whole people, bodies and souls, and this good Creation along with it.

I haven’t read the article yet, but Roger Olson refers to a new Time cover story about what the magazine posits as “competing” views on the Christian understanding of heaven—one a disembodied state of bliss and the other full-blown resurrection.

Of course these views are not in competition. It isn’t one or the other; it’s both—although our ultimate hope is resurrection.

I couldn’t agree more with what Olson writes:

What I do is talk equally about two future realities for believers: “paradise” and “heaven.” I think it is appropriate to reserve the word “heaven” for God’s place now and our future home when this world and our bodies are freed from bondage to decay and God is all in all or everything to everyone. But I think we need to talk also about “paradise” as that place many people, in their folk religion, call “heaven”—the abode of the dead in Christ about which we know little. But the apostle Paul wrote the Corinthians about it and even suggested that he (or a man he knew) went there in some kind of “near death” experience.

A holistic account of life after death takes both equally seriously even though it emphasizes the resurrection of both our bodies and creation as the “blessed hope.”

By the way, I never before thought of Paul’s description of his trip to “the third heaven” in 2 Corinthians 13 as a near-death experience, but that makes sense. He was certainly near death many times during his dangerous ministry. Could he have had the same sort of out-of-body experience that other Christians have experienced when they’ve temporarily died?

2 Responses to ““Resurrection of the dead” is for real”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    This is a very interesting subject. I am inclined to agree with the “intermediate state,” perhaps somewhat like being in a “parlour” of sorts before entering the “house proper” after the “general resurrection” (or the Judgment?).

    As to “out-of-body experience” being “near death” for Paul, I don’t think that was the case. John was also “taken up into heaven” in at least some sense in the Revelation, and I don’t think that was an “out-of-body experience” based on “near death” either. Frankly, I am pretty leery of most “out-of-body” experience claims related to death–I don’t find any that I have heard of which seem theologically correct. I think Paul and John were taken up “whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know,” 2 Cor. 12:3, for the purpose of receiving revelations.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I hear you. Whether Paul’s heavenly experience was “caused” by something physical, it was also an experience from God for a specific purpose. By all means! It could be that perhaps when Paul was stoned and left for dead (or some other time when he was beaten or whipped), God gave him the vision he describes in 2 Corinthians. It could be that people are especially susceptible to the spiritual realm when they’re near death—which is why they report these out-of-body spiritual experiences so frequently. Their defenses are down or something. Regardless, it doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t real or from God.


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