Along with most Christians, I grew up believing that when I die my soul will leave my body and ascend to an immaterial realm called heaven, where I will spend an eternity with God. The only problem is, neither Jesus nor the Bible teach
In recent years biblical scholars have argued that the bible does not see eternal life as us ascending to heaven, but heaven ‘descending’ to earth and transforming it. I think the argument is convincing and have found the writing of NT Wright most helpful on this.
At a very early stage Christian thought was shaped by ancient Greek philosophies that saw salvation as the return of the spirit to the higher spiritual realm, thereby allowing us to escape the confines of materiality. Biblical thought however pictures salvation in terms of resurrection. The future does not constitute a flight from this world but the renewal of it – human beings with redeemed bodies, hearts and minds living in redeemed communities on a redeemed earth in redeemed relationship with God.
A good example is Philippians 3.20-21:
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Under the old flight-of-the-soul model our “citizenship in heaven” was taken to mean heaven, not earth, is our true home and the place we will go to. But the sentence that follows makes clear that is not what Paul means, for he doesn’t speak of us going up to Christ but of Christ coming to us, bringing everything on earth under his reign, and renewing our bodies. To say our citizenship is in heaven then is to say our identity and loyalty lies with Christ.
Or consider this section from Romans 8
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Here Paul sees people and the environment as experiencing suffering, but his hope is for the redemption of both – humans to have redeemed bodies and creation to be free to fulfil its purpose. This will occur at a time in the future when Christ returns and the dead are raised.
So what about the period between our deaths and the great resurrection of all? There are passages that suggest that during this period we will be with God. Presumably this will be some kind of disembodied state. But this will be temporary. Our eternal state will be life as embodied beings in the new heavens and earth. It seems we won,t be in heaven for very long!
This understanding makes eternal life attractive to me. The idea of living in a disembodied state in which I float around singing praise songs for eternity sounds horribly dull to me. But being part of a redeemed universe where we spend an eternity growing, developing ourselves and our communities, exploring the universe, enjoying the beauty and abundance of the earth and close knit community, sounds like something I’d like to experience.
Most of all the idea of future resurrection dramatically changes the way I relate to my world. If the kingdom to come is a redeemed world and Christ is already starting to bring this world into being, then I will seek for myself and others
- human flourishing in all dimensions – physical, emotional, mental, relational;
- the building of communities that are good, just, safe, equitable, inclusive, graceful, worshipping;
- and on the flourishing of the environment and the animals
No longer will my faith be focussed on getting my soul and other souls to heaven after we die, but fitting ourselves to live God’s way on God’s earth.