Every Christmas and Easter you can count on national periodicals to carry cover stories on “the search for the sacred,” “the Jesus quest,” and heaven. This Easter proves to be no exception, with Newsweek’s Lisa Miller contributing an April 5, 2010 piece, “Far From Heaven.” It is based on her new book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife.
The Afterlife Hype: Going to Heaven
According to Miller, “while 80 percent of Americans say they believe in heaven, few of us have the slightest clue about what we mean.” “Heaven, everyone agrees, is the good place you go after death, a reward for struggle and faithfulness on earth.” Yet most are confused. On one hand, they talk about meeting up with loved ones and picking up where they left off on earth. On the other hand, they view of heaven as an ethereal place where spirits or souls are freed from embodiment. Yet bodies seem pretty crucial to hanging out with Grandma and Uncle Ed. As Miller puts it, “If you don’t have a body in heaven, then what kind of heaven are you hoping for?” Great question.
Despite the insistence of the most conservative branches of all three Western religions on resurrection as an incontrovertible fact, most of us are circumspect. The number of Americans who say they believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ has dropped 10 points since 2003 to 70 percent, according to the most recent Harris poll; only 26 percent of Americans think that they’ll have bodies in heaven, according to a 1997 Time/CNN poll. Thanks to the growth here of Eastern religions, reincarnation—the belief that after death a soul returns to earth in another body—is gaining adherents. Nearly 30 percent of 2003 Harris poll respondents said they believed in reincarnation; of self-professed Christians, that number was 21 percent. Reincarnation and resurrection have, traditionally, been mutually exclusive.
The article quotes Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero: “It seems fantastic and irrational that we’re going to have a body in heaven.”
Miller points out that while orthodox Jews, Christians, and Muslims hold to a bodily resurrection, alternatives have always been near at hand. She mentions “the immortality of the soul.” “Embraced by Plato and popular today especially among progressive believers (Reform Jews and liberal Protestants, for example) and people who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious,’ the immortality of the soul is easier to swallow than the resurrection. After death, the soul—unique and indestructible—ascends to heaven to be with God while the corpse, the locus of our senses and all our low human desires, stays behind to rot.” In this perspective, we are saved from our bodies, not with our bodies. “This more reasonable view, perhaps, has a serious defect: a disembodied soul attaching itself to God in heaven offers no more comfort or inspiration than an escaped balloon….Rationalistic visions of heaven fail to satisfy.”
Another popular way out of the Easter conundrum—”I want to believe in heaven but can’t get my head around the revivification of human flesh”—is to imagine “resurrection” as a metaphor for something else: an inexplicable event, a new kind of life, the birth of the Christian community on earth, the renewal of a people, an individual’s spiritual rebirth, a bodiless ascension to God. Progressives frequently fall back on resurrection-as-metaphor, for it allows them to celebrate Easter while also expressing a reasonable agnosticism. They quote that great theological cop-out: “We cannot know what God has in store for us.”
For her own part, although open to mystery, Miller finds the resurrection hope “unbelievable.”
Ever since Christianity conquered the Greco-Roman world, Western civilization has been a little schizophrenic. On one hand, there’s the traditional pagan view of “the afterlife”: Plato’s “upper world” of eternal souls or intellects liberated from the “lower world” of material and historical embodiment. On the other hand, there’s the radical eschatology of the prophets and the New Testament, where the contrast isn’t between two worlds but between two ages: this age, under sin and death, and the age to come, under righteousness and everlasting life. Although our souls are dispatched to God’s safe-keeping upon death, Christians confess their faith in “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” The whole creation will be renewed, not destroyed, says Paul in Romans 8, so we wait for this final resurrection with patience.
So why do so many people today—including “Bible-believing” Christians—talk about their loved ones “passing away” instead of “dying”? (The former phrase was coined by Christian Science founder, Mary Baker Eddy. She denied the reality of sickness and death as well as bodily resurrection as an error of the mind when it is attached to the mere appearances of the “lower world.”) Even the term “afterlife” smacks of pagan overtones, when Christ promises everlasting life. People aren’t even allowed to die anymore. It’s too dirty. Funerals, focusing on “dust to dust, ashes to ashes,” but in the hope of final resurrection in Jesus Christ, have been replaced with celebration of the deceased and the hope that he or she lives on in our memories or hearts—perhaps even looking down on us, smiling, from a happy place.
The Resurrection Hope: 1 Corinthians 15
But before we are too hard on our own time and place, it’s of some comfort that the gospel has always suffered this kind of rip tide, drawing our hopes from Christ out to the ocean of vague spirituality. Responding to some questions raised by the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul knew how hard it was to transplant Greeks into biblical soil. In 1 Corinthians 15, he addresses the resurrection head-on.
Paul begins with the fact of Christ’s resurrection—and ours with him. Nothing less than the gospel is at stake (v 1-2); the Corinthian believers were not only saved (past tense) by this gospel, but are being saved by it—if they continue to stand in it. If they no longer stand in it, they “believed in vain.” Writing from Ephesus between the years 53-55, Paul says that he is passing on what he had received from earlier tradition (vv 3-7). Only 20 years after the event, the empty tomb was already a settled Christian conviction. And by apostolic authority, the death and resurrection of Christ are delivered “as of first importance.”
Paul could have appealed merely to his own eye-witness testimony of the risen Christ on the Damascus road, but here he bases it on the evidence of the Scriptures (the Old Testament) and the eye-witness reports of the apostles. No doubt, Isaiah 53 came easily to mind, prophesying the Suffering Servant who would bear the iniquities of his people and be exalted with them in justification and glory. Jesus appeared to Peter (Cephas) and the Twelve, then “to more than 500 brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive….” The assumption here is that the empty tomb is not a recent legend, but the original claim of the eye-witnesses. If you were to interview one of these living witnesses, they would not talk merely about the difference that Jesus made in their life today. They would be able to relate what they saw and heard.
The “that” clauses show the inseparable connection between faith in Jesus Christ and the faith concerning Jesus Christ. You can believe that Jesus died and was raised without believing in Jesus, but you can’t believe in Jesus without believing that he “was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification.”
Paul’s argument is tight and simple (vv 12-34). Jesus Christ “has been raised.” The verb (egēgertai) is in the perfect tense, which connotes a past action with continuing effects. Paul uses this verb form seven times—all in reference to Christ, while he speaks of “the resurrection of the dead” more generally in the present tense as a fact that now obtains because of Christ’s resurrection. Paul offers five conclusions from the denial of Christ’s resurrection: (1) Christ is not raised; (2) the preaching of the gospel is useless; (3) your faith is useless; (4) Paul is bearing false witness; (5) “you are still in your sins” and believers who have already died “are lost.” In summary, “If we have hope in Christ in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (v 19).
From this we learn that the gospel is not about “your best life now.” It is not “come to Christ and all your troubles will be over.” It is not an invitation to better marriages and families, health, wealth, and social transformation. The gospel, rather, is that God became flesh, fulfilled all righteousness, bore our curse, and rose triumphant on the third day.
There is no consolation prize for those who placed their hope in a lie. Paul doesn’t say, “Even if it didn’t happen, haven’t you lived a happier, more fulfilling life?” He didn’t back up the claim with pragmatic and therapeutic benefits, like, “The family that prays together stays together.” Paul doesn’t believe in faith. He’s not an apostle of spirituality, moral uplift, and positive thinking. If it isn’t true, Paul says, your faith is meaningless (kenos) and fruitless (mataios). If Jesus is not risen, it doesn’t matter how many “testimonials” we can give about improved relationships, joy, inner peace, practical guidance, and cultural benefits. It’s all for nothing.
If Jesus Christ is risen, then the age to come has already dawned and this age of sin and death is fading away. Everyone must hear this Good News and embrace it for their salvation. If Jesus Christ is not risen, then we are still under God’s judgment and there is no meaning at all to be sought in Christianity. It is a dead religion: not only hopelessly irrelevant to us, but a vicious lie that has misled millions. Why? Because the gospel is not a promise to make our lives happier and healthier. It is the announcement that our guilt and death have been dealt with finally and forever. If it isn’t true, then it isn’t helpful. It’s deranged.
Second, Paul explains the inseparable connection between the resurrection of Christ and believers. There are not two resurrections, but one. Jesus is the “firstfruit” of a vast harvest. When you taste the new wine, you know what kind of vintage it’s going to be. Or when you examine the first sheath of the new wheat, you know what to expect for the whole field. Jesus begins the end-time resurrection of the dead, passing through this age of sin and death into the age to come. He is the engine that has already pulled into the station, guaranteeing that the rest of the train will arrive in due course.
In the meantime, it is a period of proclaiming the gospel. After all, death has a legal claim on us. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (v 56). We are dead in Adam. Unless the guilt and curse for our sin is lifted, not even God can raise us from the dead. Why? Because it is his own righteousness and justice that has imposed the sentence. Yet “God set forth Christ as a propitiation by his blood through faith that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). So now is the intermission between Christ’s two advents, when we are justified through faith in Christ. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). We will die, but not under the curse. Death can no longer hold us in its grip. It has to let us go, just as it had to let Jesus go. And the result is not resuscitation of a corpse, but resurrection.
Back to 1 Corinthians. In this contrast between the two covenantal heads, Paul explains that Adam became “a living being” at creation. However, our first representative never completed his commission. Instead of fulfilling all righteousness and winning for himself and his posterity the right to eat from the Tree of Life, he chose his own path of spiritual ascent. The Last Adam was different. He fulfilled the trial, bore the curse, and rose again as the source of immortality for his people. He is not just alive again, picking up where he left off before Good Friday; he is immortal and the source of everlasting life for all who embrace him. Jesus Christ is the Tree of Life.
So the resurrection that awaits us is not just the continuation of natural existence as a “living being,” but the entrance into a new kind of existence that human beings have never experienced before until their risen Head entered the age to come. For now, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians, we are being forgiven and renewed inwardly by the Spirit.
“Then comes the end…” What is this? The end of the world? The end of time? No, it’s the end of the reign of sin and death: “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” When he returns, we will be like him: confirmed in everlasting glory, righteousness, beauty, and life. Death is not natural. It is not part of the cycle of life. It’s a sentence for sin, as Paul also says in Romans 6:23. Yet it is the last enemy and it will be destroyed when Christ returns (1 Cor 15:26-28).
Young people have no reason to come to church for dating tips, abstinence training, moving summer camp experiences, or a positive circle of friends. There’s no point in getting dressed every Sunday for therapeutic moralism or for hearing about how you can have your best life now. Again Paul reiterates the point that if the resurrection isn’t true, then there’s no point in being religious, spiritual, or even moral. His fall-back isn’t, “Well, at least I was courageous” or “At least I lived a better life than most people.” Rather, his alternative to the resurrection faith is hedonism—what we often call “nihilism” today. Apart from this truth, Paul says that there is no saving knowledge of God (v 34).
In the Greek (Platonic) scheme, our true self (the soul or mind) is raised from the body to heavenly bliss. In Paul’s scheme, our whole person is raised from sin and death, following in Christ’s wake, as we enter the Promised Land. The Greek—and average Westerner today—is looking for inner light and going to heaven when they die. The Christian is looking to Jesus and “the resurrection of the body and the life of the age to come.” In 2 Corinthians, Paul says that we are presently “groaning” in our “earthly tent.” Yet this refers to our body in its mortal and sinful condition. In fact, he adds, “For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (v 4). In verse 3 he says that we don’t want to be found “naked”—that is, bodiless, as Plato imagined. Our burden is not our flesh, but our mortality and sin. In the resurrection, we will be “further clothed.”
So just as Christ is our clothing of righteousness in justification, he is our garment of glorification. Resurrection and glorification are the same event. By nature, we bear the image of the first Adam, but by rebirth we bear the image of the Last Adam. The new birth—spiritual resurrection—has already occurred, as the guarantee of the final resurrection not only of our bodies but of a renewed creation, as Paul highlights in Romans 8.
Paul Pulls Back the Curtain
Paul concludes his argument in 1 Corinthians 15 by drawing back the curtain just enough to anticipate what lies ahead for us (vv 50-58). “Flesh and blood cannot enter the kingdom,” Paul says, echoing Jesus’ remarks to Nicodemus in John 3. One must be “born from above.” There is nothing in us or in this present age that has the power to give this new life. Free will is impotent before sin and death. Our best works are filthy rags before God and our best intentions are a stubborn refusal of God’s gift in his Son. There is no hope for world peace, justice, and righteousness through the powers that already exist in nature and history. Apart from Christ, we are existing for the moment, but devoid of real life. The Spirit does not come to make the old Adam a little better, but to kill him and make him alive in Christ. Jesus did not to come to earth to make the world better, but to make it new. He did not come merely to provide a model and to show us how to complete his work of building his kingdom. He came to save the world and we will come again to judge the world and consummate his everlasting reign.
Paul lets us in on a “mystery”: “We shall not all sleep [die], but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (51-52). He says nothing of a secret rapture. On the contrary, the whole harvest will be raised together when the first-fruit appears again in the flesh.
The unrighteous cannot become righteous; they must “put on Christ,” who is “our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.” The mortal cannot become immortal; it must “put on immortality.” We don’t have this suit in our wardrobe. We have to get it from someone else and we have it already in Christ. Because “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” every believer is guaranteed this final clothing of his or her faded, decayed, and decomposed flesh with immortal glory (vv 53-55).
If we conceive of the future basically as an escape from history, our bodies, and God’s creation, we will reduce salvation to “going to heaven when we die.” I’m not denying the precious truth that upon death our souls are received into God’s safe-keeping. However, there’s a good reason why we call that the intermediate state. Our blessed hope is the resurrection.
This orients our lives in this present age. God never has given up on his creation and he never will. He will not throw it away and start from scratch. The Christian hope has nothing to do with visions of “the late great planet earth,” but with the expectation that we find in the Book of Revelation. In that vision, the City of God descends from heaven to the earth. In fact, not only are all walls removed between Jew and Gentile; even the vertical demarcations of heaven and earth are dissolved. At long last, God’s dwelling will be with us forever.
Justified and renewed by the power of the Spirit, united to Christ, we struggle against indwelling sin, groaning for our release not from embodiedness but from sinfulness. Because Christ has been raised, our hope is not in vain—and neither are our labors in this age (v 58). As the gospel is proclaimed to the ends of the earth, those dead in trespasses and sins are raised, justified, seated with Christ in heavenly places, are being conformed to his image, and will one day be glorified together with us. Even when we go about our daily callings, working in our garden or our cubicle, volunteering at a homeless shelter, falling in love, raising children, and loving and serving our neighbors, we are “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,” because of the vista he has placed before us. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!