Heaven when we die?

HIlton Head Island. This isn’t heaven, but resurrection means that God saves this as well.

When I was a young Christian, no doctrine was clearer to me than the doctrine of heaven: If we accept Christ as savior and Lord, we can be assured of heaven when we die. Heaven was the point of it all, right? Heaven was certainly the theme of every youth retreat I went on—the promise that beckoned unbelievers—”with every head bowed and every eye closed”—to make a tearful decision to repent of their sins and follow Christ.

I don’t mean to be too critical: I made a profession of faith in this kind of emotional setting. And, thank God, it stuck! I’m still following Jesus to this day!

But by the time I was in my twenties, this simplistic idea of heaven began to fall apart for me. It felt like pie-in-the-sky, an “opiate of the masses,” a bribe for good behavior (as C.S. Lewis put it). I didn’t stop believing in the afterlife, only that there must be something more to it. Whatever heaven is, it must be deeper than just the eternal party in the sky—or worse, eternal choir in the sky—that many preachers and evangelists of my youth made it out to be.

In the ’90s, Elvis Costello, a favorite singer-songwriter of mine, wrote a not-very-good song called “This Is Hell,” in which he said that “heaven is hell in reverse.” He meant that while heaven and hell start in very different places, they both reach the same boring steady-state of tedium. I knew that wasn’t true, but I couldn’t exactly say why.

Then I went to seminary. What was missing, I discovered, in my earlier doctrine of heaven was resurrection, not merely the resurrection of Jesus—which I interpreted to mean that there was life after death—but resurrection of the dead, that phrase at the end of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds: there will come a day (if it even makes sense to speak in temporal terms) when the dead in Christ will be re-embodied. God will give us transformed bodies, in continuity with the bodies that we have now but different: no longer able to suffer decay and death. What Christ is in resurrection now, we will become some day—on the other side of the Second Coming.

In a similar way, all Creation will be redeemed and renewed. Heaven will not be a place far away. Rather, heaven itself will come down to this earth, a transformed earth, as Revelation 21 describes. Our heavenly home, in other words, is very close to our present home—different but in continuity with the world we know now.

We can’t make this happen ourselves—there’s no sense in talking about the Church’s bringing heaven to earth. The new world won’t happen apart from God’s miraculous intervention at the end of history. But the good work that we do for God’s kingdom now will somehow become a part of this new Creation. As N.T. Wright has said, “I don’t know what musical instruments we shall have to play Bach in God’s new world, but I’m sure Bach’s music will be there.”[1]

This was a profoundly liberating idea to me. Honestly… grasping the centrality of resurrection to our Christian hope was the single most important thing I learned in seminary.

But that raises a problem: If our ultimate hope is not “heaven when we die,” but resurrection in God’s good future, what about the faithful departed? Where are they?

In seminary, I studied the systematic theology of contemporary German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, who was quite clear on the subject: When you die, you’re just dead, at least until resurrection. Pannenberg would say that there is no life apart from the body—that the idea of an immortal and immaterial soul is a Platonic idea that the Church unwisely imported into Christian theology.

We are instead psychosomatic creatures, bodies and souls bound together. There’s no sense in talking about a life apart from the body. Therefore, there is no afterlife apart from physical resurrection. Many Christians who’ve never read Pannenberg have called this “soul sleep,” and there are verses in Paul’s letters that suggest this idea.

The weight of tradition, however, says otherwise. The consensus of Christian reflection on the subject says that there is an intermediate state between death and resurrection. I side with tradition. There are plenty of proof-texts to support such belief—accepted by many Christians, disputed by others—but I find Paul’s words in Philippians 1:18-26 most convincing.

We should be very cautious, however, about what we say about this intermediate state. When I counsel grieving families, I say with confidence that departed loved ones are resting safely with God, that God is caring for them, and that through our faith in Christ, we can be confident that we will be reunited with them in resurrection.

I sense that many evangelical Christians who, like me, grew up believing strongly in heaven and less in full-blown resurrection are wavering on the intermediate state. Some reject it altogether. I’m sympathetic, but I disagree with them. To give you an idea of this debate, however, please see this recent post over at Scot McKnight’s blog. Also, read the comments section!

[1] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 208.

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