Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Good News about Easter - We're NOT going to Heaven

At least not as our ultimate destination.

Unfortunately, most Christians are confused about what scripture teaches about life after death. Imprecise language in the pulpit and popular worship music isn’t helping the situation much either. The hymn, “I’ll Fly Away,” is a perfect example of inaccurate eschatology,[1] but most people know it far better than 1 Corinthians 15. Preachers are often fond of proclaiming their excitement about going to heaven. There is even a best-selling book describing a young boy’s description of heaven based on his near-death experience.[2] As will become clear below, I’m not trying to discount Christian hope in life beyond the grave. I’m also not trying to deny that heaven is a place for believers, but I do want to clarify it in light of what Scripture teaches, "heaven" is not our ultimate destination.

Most Christians think of heaven as the place you go to be with God forever after you die. Typically it is thought of as a city in the clouds where people spend time with God. But this is a terribly incomplete description of what the Bible teaches about life after death. It is a description of eschatology that ignores the significance of Jesus’ resurrection as the foundation of Christian hope.

The early Christians believed that Jesus was raised from the dead and that eventually they would be too. The Christian hope is that God will raise believers from the dead when he judges the earth at the end of time. The early believers did not eagerly desire to “go to heaven.” Instead, they longed to participate in the resurrection of Jesus. Heaven is merely a pit stop on the way to a more glorious future – a new earth filled with God’s presence!

Consider some of these passages:

38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6.38-40)

In his “bread of life” sermon Jesus declares that it is God’s plan to raise the dead and Jesus will participate in raising the dead! This is a bold declaration that surprisingly will be previewed in the resuscitation of Lazarus in John 11.

To the Roman church Paul wrote,

“And if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit dwelling within you.” (Romans 8.11)

Romans 8 is a masterful description of how our hope in God’s future shapes how we live in the present. Paul is emphatic that if we are believers then we have the Holy Spirit (Rom 8.9), which in turn allows us please God—an impossible calling without the Spirit of God dwelling in us (Rom 8.1-8).

To the Philippians, Paul described his overwhelming desire was:

 “10 to know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection and the sharing in his sufferings, being conformed to his death, 11 if somehow I might attain to the resurrection from the dead. . . 20 For our citizenship is in heaven and from there we eagerly await a Savior – the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly bodies to the same form of his glorious body by the energy which enables him to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3.10‒11, 20‒21)

Paul describes his hope as the resurrection (Phil 3.10) and confirms that it the hope of all believers to have our bodies transformed (Phil 3.21).

Jesus, speaking to his host a dinner party said, “12 When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14.12‒14)

Here again, we see Jesus describing how we live today as relevant for the resurrection!

The hope of resurrection is pervasive throughout the apostolic preaching (Acts 2.22-32, 36; 3.13-16; 4.33; 5.29-32; 10.39-43; 13.30-39; 17.2-3, 18, 31-32; 23.6-8; 24.14-16, 21; 26.6-8, 23). The most detailed passage on resurrection is found in 1 Corinthians 15. I would of course suggest reading the entire passage, but there is only space here to quote portions of it:

 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 And we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. [. . .] 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. 20 But now Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.

35 But someone may ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’ . . .

As usual, Paul answers his own question.

It [the body] is sown perishable, is raised in imperishability; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

He goes on,

51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: All will not fall asleep, but all will be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying having been written will be, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” [Isa 25.8] (1 Corinthians 15:14-15, 17-23, 35, 42-44, 51-54)

Notice the significance of Jesus’ resurrection for Paul. If Christ is not raised, our faith is useless (v 14), we are lying about God (v 15), we are still dead in our sins (v 17), anyone who has put hope in Christ believed a stupid lie (v 18) and Christians should be pitied as fools (v 19). Apparently, there were some Christians in Corinth suggesting that there is no resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12-13, 16). Jesus’ resurrection is, according to Paul, the foundation of Christian hope. Not only does it define what Christians believe happened to Jesus in the past, but it shapes their hope for the future – resurrection on the last day!

If resurrection is something that happens at the return of Jesus, as 1 Corinthians makes clear, then what happens to believers when they die? According to the New Testament, when believers die they are in the presence of Christ (2 Cor. 5.8; Phil 1.23; Rev 6.9-11; 7.14-17; 14.13; 20.1-6). Then, at the end of time, when God judges all of humanity, the righteous will be given new glorious bodies and the wicked are judged. Resurrection properly describes the stage of humans receiving new bodies at the final judgment. Until that great day, those who have “fallen asleep” in death are in the presence of Christ awaiting the full glory of new bodies.

Because he was raised, we believe we will be raised. Our bodies will be transformed to be like his. The prayer we learned from Jesus will be answered. God’s kingdom will have come and his desires will be done on earth as they are in heaven (Matt 6.10). Finally, John’s vision will be fulfilled,
“Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21.3-4)

[1] Eschatology is broadly defined as “the study of last things.” It comes from two Greek words‒ eschatos and logos. Eschatos means “end.” It can refer to the last in an order (1 Cor. 15.8), the “last” penny of a debt (Matt. 5.26) or “end” of the earth as in the “furthest region” (Acts 1.8). Logos means “word,” “teaching,” or “study.” The word “Eschatology” did not come into existence until 1844. It was developed by theologians to try and describe a branch of systematic theology.
[2] Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent, Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of his trip to Heaven and Back, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

SWEET! Our God is beyond description! His love is Everlasting as demonstrated in our being raised as He raised Jesus! Thanks for the clear exegesis!