Should We Rethink Heaven?

Early morning on Easter Sunday I sat down to my morning oatmeal and coffee and was surprised by the cover story of TIME magazine.  The headline implied that Christians need to rethink their understanding of heaven. I suppose the religious feature was in honor of Easter and I was curious to read it. The author relied heavily on N.T. Wright’s new book, “Surprised by Hope: rethinking heaven, the resurrection and the mission of the church.” N.T. Wright stresses that the Christian hope is not to be a disembodied soul floating about the clouds with harp in hand, but rather to receive a resurrected and glorified body to inhabit God’s renewed and glorified creation. Our hope is not to escape this world, but rather to await the “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21).

I may take issue with N.T. Wright’s theology here and there, but he is perfectly right about this. Should we then “rethink heaven”? Not at all! This physical “new creation” model of heaven is in fact the old, boring, and traditional view confessed by Protestants and Catholics alike. In the Nicene Creed we confess that, “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Likewise the Westminster Confession of Faith states that:

“At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the self-same bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls forever” (32.2)

“The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonor: the bodies of the just, by His Spirit, unto honor; and be made conformable to His own glorious body” (33.3).

The fact that the TIME article can be written is evidence that modern pastors and Bible teachers are ineffectively communicating our Christian hope. Such confusion is not surprising since so many preachers have given up preaching Christian doctrine for pop-psychology.

 

At the time of Christ the Jews were divided on this matter of the resurrection. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection or even an afterlife. They accepted only the five books of Moses. The Pharisees accepted the Law, Psalms and Prophets and affirmed the doctrine of the resurrection at the end of the age.

Jesus and the Apostles sided with the Pharisees on the resurrection. Jesus challenged the Sadducees on their belief that the books of Moses did not teach an afterlife (Matt 22:23-33, Ex 3:6). We can agree, however, that Moses did not teach it as clearly as the later Psalms and prophets (e.g. Ps 16:9-10; 49:16; 73:24-25; Prov 23:14; Job 19:25-27; Isa 26:19; Ezek 37:1-14; Dan 12:2). On one occasion the Sadducees and Pharisees were united together in their persecution of the Apostle Paul. Paul exploited the situation by taking sides with the Pharisees by declaring, “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial” (Acts 23:6-7).

The first topic we should address is the nature of the resurrection. It is, in the first place, a physical and bodily resurrection. Some in the early Church taught that the resurrection was purely spiritual. The Apostles regarded such teachers as heretics (2 Tim 2:18). Jesus Christ is called the “firstfruits” of the resurrection (1 Cor 15:20, 23) and “the firstborn of the dead” (Col 1:18). Therefore the resurrection of believers is patterned after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus may have passed through walls in his resurrected body, but even before his resurrection he walked on water. It is clear that his resurrected body was still solid. He could be touched. He ate meals with his disciples. He bore the wounds of his resurrection.

Moreover, Rom 8:11 tells us explicitly that God will raise up our mortal bodies, and make them immortal. This idea is also prominent in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul argues that our mortal body is like a seed that in death is buried in the ground. The resulting tree that springs from the substance of that buried seed is like our glorified bodies. Here we see emphasized both the continuity with our present physical bodies, and also the difference between our present mortality and our future immortality. There is a dramatic change or metamorphosis. The caterpillar becomes a butterfly and the tadpole, a frog. But it is one and the same body that changes.

We note also that it is a bodily resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. This is clear from the following passages. Dan 12:2, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” John 5:28-29, “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” Acts 24:15, “having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.” Rev 20:13, 15, “And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done…. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

The second topic to address is the time of the resurrection. Premillennial teaching states that the resurrection of the saints will be separated by a thousand years from that of the wicked. Dispensational Premillennialism further separates the first and second coming of Christ into two stages, which then requires a third resurrection. There are those that undergo their transformation at the rapture, a second group of believers that are transformed seven years later at the end of the Great Tribulation, and the resurrection of the righteous and wicked at the end of the millennium.

A common theme in my understanding of the end times is that popular teachers have created a scheme that is way more complicated than what the New Testament actually teaches.

What does the Bible actually teach about the time of the resurrection? The best way to examine this is by listing the complex of events that coincide with the resurrection. According to the Bible the time of the resurrection coincides with the coming of Christ, with the revelation or the day of the Lord, with the end of the world/this present evil age, and with the final judgment. Furthermore, the resurrection of the righteous coincides with the resurrection of the wicked.

That there is but one resurrection of the justified and the wicked is clear from four passages I quoted from a moment ago. Those four passages all speak of the resurrection as a single event. More than that, if we go back to John 5 and examine the context beginning with verse 21 we will note how Jesus combines the thought of the resurrection, including the resurrection of the righteous, with the thought of judgment, including the judgment of the wicked. We also note that Jesus repeatedly says that these two judgments take place in the same “hour.”

Furthermore, the resurrection of believers is directly connected with the second coming of Jesus. 1 Cor 15:23, “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” Phil 2:20-21, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” 1 Thess 4:16-17, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”

This resurrection coincides not only with the second coming of Christ, but also with the end of the world and the “last day.” John 6:39 (40, 44, 54), “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” That means that the last day is also the day of the second coming of Jesus Christ. Certainly, the end-times scheme taught in the Bible is much simpler than what is popularly taught today!

The Premillennial argument for double and even triple resurrections is based primarily on the scheme of events leading up to the end as the Premillennialists interpret it. I would argue that this scheme is falsely construed and is based on misunderstandings of what the Bible teaches. By far the most important text Premillennialists will appeal to for the double resurrection scheme is Revelation 20:6, which contrasts the “first resurrection” with “the second death.” But this interpretation rests on very shaky ground. Revelation 20 pictures a scene where the souls of the righteous reign with Christ in heaven while awaiting his second coming in judgment. It seems rather that the “first resurrection” refers to the intermediate state of believers, while “second death” refers to the final punishment of the wicked. In other words, this “first resurrection” does not have a bodily resurrection in view at all, but speaks rather of the souls of the righteous that have gone to be with Christ, who are blessed with the sight of God, and who await the redemption of their bodies.