A parishioner mentioned, almost in passing, that she knew that her recently deceased mother was having a great time in heaven. Then she paused. “Well, not heaven, because that won’t happen until the resurrection of the dead. I meant to say Paradise. I know she’s enjoying Paradise.”
While I rarely correct anyone who confuses the intermediate state—where believers go immediately upon death—with our ultimate destiny—resurrection into a transformed world in which heaven and earth have become one—I was impressed that she corrected herself. That shows some theological nuance that I didn’t possess until seminary.
I don’t think I’m wrong when I say that in the Baptist church in which I grew up, we didn’t talk about any distinction in the afterlife. “Heaven” was it, “heaven” was some place far removed from earth, and “heaven” happened immediately upon death. Whether “heaven” was a fully embodied state of being didn’t matter to us. We just wanted to get there! Keep in mind, we didn’t say any creeds in the Baptist church, so we weren’t reminded weekly that we believe in the resurrection of the dead or that we “look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
N.T. Wright has done more to elucidate our ultimate Christian hope better than any contemporary Christian thinker: our accent shouldn’t be on life after death, but life after life after death. In his For Everyone commentary on Acts 1:9-14, which, along with verse 8, will be my text for tomorrow’s sermon, he continues to do so.
Part of the point of Jesus’ resurrection is that it was the beginning of precisely that astonishing and world-shattering renewal. It wasn’t just that he happened to be alive again… It was, rather, that because on the cross he had indeed dealt with the main force of evil, decay and death itself, the creative power of God, no longer thwarted as it had been by human rebellion, could at last burst forth and produce the beginning, the pilot project, of that joined-up heaven-and-earth reality which is God’s plan for the whole world…
But once we grasp that ‘heaven and earth’ mean what they mean in the Bible, and that ‘heaven’ is not, repeat not, a location within our own cosmos of space, time and matter, situated somewhere up in the sky…, then we are ready, or as ready as we are likely to be, to understand the ascension… Neither Luke nor the other early Christians thought Jesus had suddenly become a primitive spaceman, heading off into orbit or beyond, so that if you searched throughout the far reaches of what we call ‘space’ you would eventually find him. They believed that ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ are the two interlocking spheres of God’s reality, and that the risen body of Jesus is the first (and so far the only) object which is fully at home in both and hence in either, anticipating the time when everything will be renewed and joined together. And so, since as T.S. Eliot said, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’, the new overwhelming reality of a heaven-and-earth creature will not just yet live in both dimensions together, but will make itself—himself—at home within the ‘heavenly’ dimension for the moment, until the time comes for heaven and earth to be finally renewed and united.[†]
† N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2008), 12-3.