Heaven is for real, but so is resurrection

April 21, 2014

I guess “Resurrection Is for Real” would have made a great sermon title yesterday! Missed opportunity!

In this short critique of the new movie adaptation of the book Heaven Is for Real, theologian Roger Olson puts his finger on the main problem that I had with the book. Even though its author is a Wesleyan pastor who has received theological training, he writes as if the “intermediate state”—where souls go immediately upon death—is identically equal with the New Testament’s vision of future resurrection.

“Heaven” is a two-stage process. As N.T. Wright has said many times, our Christian hope isn’t for life after death, but life after life after death. When I read the book, I was disappointed that Todd Burpo said nothing about the difference between these two stages.

So here comes my main critique of the book and movie. I believe in the “intermediate state”—the technical theological term for conscious life after death before resurrection. But I fear the book and movie will reinforce the popular idea that the intermediate state is actually the fullness of heaven (and therefore not an intermediate state!). It isn’t. In fact, we are told very little about it in Scripture. Jesus called it (for the saved) “Paradise.” Paul referred to it as the “third heaven.” But Jesus told his disciples he would go away and prepare a place for them, then return and take them there—to his “Father’s house” with many rooms. So the fullness of heaven is after Christ returns. The “blessed hope” of believers in Christ has always been not the intermediate state, a bodiless existence of being with Christ, but the resurrection and the new heaven and new earth—liberated from bondage to decay (Romans 8).

The book and movie force us to think about this issue. Do we have to choose between the Bible’s revelation of personal eschatology (intermediate state then resurrection and heaven) and personal experiences of life after death?

As fascinating, inspiring and emotionally titillating as Colton Burpo’s experience was, we must not allow it or any other such testimony to become the basis of Christian belief. Our belief is based on Christ and his resurrection and on the Scriptural witness to him and to God’s plan for us. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, “We should not want to know too much about the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” The key is “too much.” We can only “know” (believe) what Scripture says about life after death before the resurrection and that’s not much.

8 Responses to “Heaven is for real, but so is resurrection”

  1. wkrthree Says:

    Excellent!!!!!


  2. Thanks, Pastor Brent, for a helpful post. I, too, liked what Olsen had to say. However, the one area where I would quibble with you is your dualistic assumption that human beings are a dichotomy of body and “soul.” Luke 16 and the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is usually the go to passage for this intermediate state teaching, yet I find it thin gruel to support that doctrine. Even N.T. Wright says the parable is not intended to give us a road map to the hereafter but is intended as a warning against insensitivity to the poor. So, a monistic understanding makes a lot more sense of what the NT teaches about eschatology. At the resurrection, the righteous will be brought back into existence and receive the reward of eternal life. As for the wicked following resurrection will be judged, punished, and destroyed. This “evangelical conditionalism” is a heremeneutic that is much simpler than other interpretatons and makes better sense of the preponderance of NT data. Blessings, brother! I enjoy your blog.


  3. ***interpretations

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Greg!

      Regardless how we interpret the Rich Man and Lazarus, an intermediate state certainly seems evident in Paul’s thinking, for example, in Phil 1:21. How else is dying “gain” for Paul if he doesn’t anticipate immediately being in Christ’s presence? Or what about Jesus’ words to the brigand on the cross?

      I agree that it would be simpler to believe that body and soul are inextricably connected, and that we don’t have an afterlife apart from resurrection, but that’s an easier philosophical case to make than a biblical case.

      N.T. Wright also believes in an intermediate state.


      • The Greek can be translated as: “I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in paradise.” This can simply be seen as a forecast that the man will inherit eternal life at the resurrection. See Earle Ellis’ commentary on Luke for this interpretation. You are correct. N.T. Wright does teach an intermediate state.

      • brentwhite Says:

        If there isn’t an intermediate state, one’s next moment of consciousness will be resurrection, and that will seem immediate to the one experiencing it. So I don’t think the question is incredibly important. Moreover, the emphasis on “heaven when we die,” which was nearly the only thing I heard growing up in my Southern Baptist church, obscures our ultimate Christian hope, which beyond question is future resurrection.


  4. Exactly – I make the same argument about “our next conscious moment we’ll be with Jesus” in my book, The Dark Side of Destiny: Hell Re-Examined (Wipf & Stock, 2013). Keep writing, Brent. I appreciate your blog, and as a Nazarene, find myself resonating with you, a conservative UM. Thanks for not shying away from controversial issues, but also being gracious.


  5. P.S. — Please consider linking my theology blog in your blogroll. I’m at: http://www.gregorycrofford.com


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