If we’re going to think about think about things like death, the resurrection, heaven… we need a framework to be able to do so.
When people talk about what happens after you die, they generally use the word “heaven,” whether they are speaking from a Christian perspective or not. Heaven is thought of as a pleasant place that goes on forever, where we’ll reconnect with loved ones, feel good, and…well, beyond that it becomes difficult to put our finger on any of the specifics.
A helpful clarification to make at first is to ask what question we’re talking about specifically? Are we asking where we go after we die? Or are we asking where we’ll end up for eternity? In some sense, the Christian has to distinguish between these two questions. They are not the same thing.
In 1 Corinthians 15:20 Paul refers to Jesus as the “first fruits of those who have died,” and a few verses later he lays out his meaning even more clearly: in the order of the resurrection, Jesus is the first one, followed by “those who belong to Christ” (v. 23). Jesus is not only the one who gives us these wonderful gifts, he is also experiencing these things ahead of us. He has gone through death ahead of us. We can look at what has happened to Jesus to orient ourselves to understanding what will happen to us (and also, as Scriptures like Romans 8 and Revelation 21-22 have it, what will happen to the whole creation).
I find it helpful to think in terms of the days that we are going to celebrate this coming weekend, as we think about all of this.
On Friday Jesus died.
On Saturday Jesus was dead.
On Sunday Jesus was raised to life.
Friday. Saturday. Sunday. Dying. Death. Resurrection.
Sunday is our final destination. Resurrection. The Scriptures are consistent about this. See above all the passage in 1 Corinthians 15 that I mentioned above, but also such passages as Romans 6 (see verse 5) and 8 (see verses 10-11, and especially verse 23), Philippians 3:10-11, and Colossians 1:15-20, as well as the chapters in the end of Revelation that speak about the new heavens and new earth.
Also consistent is the church’s traditional teaching about this. Remember the final section of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.” No energy wasted on speculation. Simply the sure hope of the resurrection and the life everlasting. Sunday.
However, most of the time when people talk about “heaven” and about their loved ones who are “in a better place,” they are in fact asking a question about what happens on “Saturday.”
It’s understandable that we are curious about what happens immediately after we die. But it’s not the Bible’s final concern. In Scripture we are always encouraged to look to Sunday, to the hope that is coming not just for us and our bodies, but for God’s world.
The Bible does not say a lot about “Saturday.” From passages like 2 Corinthians 5 (where Paul speaks a bit cryptically about being “away from the body and at home with the Lord”) and Philippians 1 (where he mentions his desire to “depart and be with Christ”), we can be confident that for those who belong to Christ, after death we will somehow be “with Christ,” and that to be in that condition is an entirely positive experience. But we can’t say much more than that.
What does this look like in terms of relating with those who have lost loved ones? We assure them about present joy for the one who has died, but we point them to the greater hope—to “Sunday.”
In McAdam a very faithful elderly woman named Greta Moffitt was always insistent on the resurrection as our real hope for the future. So at her funeral service, I preached the following words near the end of the service:
The Christian hope is a strong thing. We believe, as the creed says, in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. Sometimes we forget that that is what our hope is, and we turn our hope into something else – like a belief in our soul escaping the prison of our body and going to its true home with the spirits of those who have gone before us. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that God designed us to live in his creation and enjoy the many gifts of life in the body, gifts Greta enjoyed, like family and friends and lakes and fishing and the strange beauty of language, whether in conversations or in poetry. Right now we often experience pain and sickness and suffering in these bodies, but one day, God will raise to life again those who believe in Jesus, and we will be given new bodies that will never die. Certainly Greta is in the presence of the Lord right now, but our hope in the resurrection means that one day she will be given a new body, and she’ll live forever with God in the new heavens and new earth, where death and sickness and sin won’t have any power anymore.
Over the next couple of days, I’ll try to post a little bit about “Sunday,” about that new body, and about that new heavens and new earth for which we wait.