This past Sunday was Easter Sunday, where Christians celebrate Jesus' resurrection, when He came back to life after being killed by crucifixion.
But unfortunately, it seems that our understanding of Jesus' resurrection is frequently disconnected from other Christian doctrines, and especially, from what Christians believe about heaven.
A common description of what Christians will experience in the afterlife often goes something like this:
"Well, when a Christian's body dies, their spirit or soul instantly goes to be with God in heaven, where Jesus is, and where angels are, and where all the souls of all other Christians and Old Testament saints are. It's a beautiful place, up in the clouds, with light everywhere, and they will never have any physical needs ever again - no hunger, no thirst, no need for sleep, and no physical weaknesses or vulnerabilities. They are pure spirits now and have become like the angels, and are going to eternally experience the utterly perfect view of God's glory and beauty, praising Him forever and ever and ever and never desiring anything else besides God."
Sounds great, right?
However, this view of heaven is actually linked to the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, and is un-Biblical, because it ignores what the Bible teaches us about the true Christian hope, which is resurrection.
Additionally, neglecting the Biblical promise of resurrection as the future for Christians can make heaven seem undesirable, unfulfilling, scary, and even boring.
And if that's what Christians think about heaven, then it's going to affect Christians' attitudes and actions in this life right now.
So I will argue that by getting our beliefs about heaven straightened out, we can actually resolve many issues which Christians may face in their current lives, which can lead to increased joy, hope, patience in suffering, excitement for the gospel, and motivation to evangelize and do good works.
Isn't it interesting that all these benefits are what pastors want for their congregations, and are what pastors try to encourage in their sermons, and yet, we so rarely hear sermons that are actually about death, heaven, or resurrection?
Instead of trying to focus on encouraging each of these good things independently, maybe addressing the topic of heaven in a correct and Biblical way would be much more efficient and effective?
Scriptural Evidence for Resurrection
First, let's examine some key scriptural evidence which proves that the proper Biblical teaching about heaven is indeed resurrection.
What do we mean by resurrection? It is defined by Merriam-Webster as "to raise from the dead". But what this means exactly can be seen from the examples of resurrection in the Bible.
One of the oldest books of the Bible is thought to be Job. Job believed he would one day be resurrected. He said "For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another" (Job 19:25-27, emphasis mine). Job expects that after he dies, he will be resurrected and have a physical body, with physical eyes, which he will use to see God.
Abraham believed in resurrection. When he was tested by God by being told to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham told his servants "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you" (Genesis 22:5). Now, how can Abraham and Isaac both come back, if Abraham planned to kill Isaac as a sacrifice to God? The writer of Hebrews sees this as evidence that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac back to life after sacrificing him (Heb. 11:17-19).
Lazarus was resurrected. He had died, and had been buried for four days (John 11:17) and bodily decomposition had begun, because Martha noted that there was a bad smell coming from his tomb (John 11:39, NRSV). But Jesus brought Lazarus physically back to life. Lazarus was then unwrapped from his burial cloths (John 11:44). We know that this was definitely a physical restoration to life, because the Pharisees wanted to kill Lazarus and put him back in his tomb because he was causing so many people to believe in Jesus (John 12:10-11).
There are many other examples of God bringing people back to physical life throughout the Old and New Testaments. There's the widow's son (1 Kings 17:22), a young girl (Matt. 9:24-25), the widow of Nain's son (Luke 7:15). However, all these people died again eventually. Their resurrections were not to the perfected or immortal state which Jesus and all others who are eternally saved will experience.
Unlike Lazarus, Jesus escaped from His own burial cloths without human assistance (John 20:5-7) and was able to appear suddenly inside a locked room (John 20:26) and disappear suddenly without a trace (Luke 24:31). This might make us think that He had transformed into a spirit. But Jesus specifically proved that He was physically resurrected when he appeared to the disciples and Thomas, who were able to touch the wounds in Jesus' hands and side (John 20:27, Luke 24:39). Jesus also ate fish in front of the disciples specifically to prove he was not a spirit (Luke 24:41-43). So even though Jesus appears to have gained the ability of self-teleportation after his resurrection, he definitely still had a physical body.
Scriptural Promises of Resurrection
Paul claims that resurrection is an extremely critical component of the Christian faith.
For if Jesus was not physically raised back to life, then that means there is no resurrection of the dead, anyone who has believed in Christ for eternal life has 'perished', preaching is useless, Paul and the apostles are all liars, and our faith in Jesus as our savior and Messiah is mistaken, and thus, Christians would deserve the world's pity (1 Cor. 15:12-19).
Specifically "If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Cor. 15:19). Therefore, faith in Christ MUST be about eternal life, including a resurrection of the dead.
If anyone claims that life after death shouldn't matter to Christians, that all we should care about is making this world better now, and should focus on enjoying the peace and joy and love that the gospel brings right now, that person is simply wrong. Life after death is the most important promise God makes to those who believe in Jesus.
We know this because God has made extremely clear promises in Scripture that Christians will be resurrected just like Jesus was, with bodies similar in nature to Jesus' resurrected body:
- 1 Cor 15:48-49: "As was the man of dust [Adam], so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven [Jesus], so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven."
- Romans 6:4-5: "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his."
- Phil. 3:20-21: "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, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself."
Additionally, Paul writes that Christians do not want to simply shed their current weak and flimsy bodies (which he compares to a 'tent') so that we become 'naked' or 'unclothed' (spirits only?), but want to be 'further clothed' with new permanent and strong immortal bodies (which he compares to a 'house' or 'building'):
"For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 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. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee." (2 Cor. 5:1-5)
So where did the idea that when we die our spirits go to be with God forever in some purely spiritual realm come from?
The Difference Between the Intermediate State and Resurrection
It is true that there are verses which show that when Christians die their spirits do instantly go to be with Christ, even before they are resurrected.
For example, 2 Cor. 5:6-9 says that when Christians are "away from the body" we are "at home with the Lord". Jesus promised the thief on the cross that "today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). The souls of martyred Christians are depicted in heaven in Rev. 6:9-11 as being aware that they were unjustly killed and want God to take vengeance, and of being given 'white robes' and told to rest until other martyrs join them (Rev. 6:11, 7:14). But these martyrs will not be physically resurrected until the end of the Tribulation (Rev. 20:4).
There are also rare appearances of seemingly not-yet-resurrected people in the Bible.
For example, Samuel's spirit appeared to Saul and the Endor witch to deliver a message from God (1 Sam. 28:14), and Elijah and Moses somehow appeared with Jesus during his transfiguration and disappeared afterwards (Matt 17:3). Exactly how these appearances worked is not specified (Were they spirits? Did they have some sort of bodies? How were they able to be recognized as themselves?), and so although obscure, these examples are interesting to show that something seems to be going on where people who have died are not entirely non-existent.
So it seems that the Bible reveals two different stages of after-death experience for Christians.
First, there is the 'paradise' earlier mentioned by Jesus, where the spirits of Christians who die are now instantly with God and Christ before they are resurrected.
This is presumably the same place as where Christ's resurrected physical body is right now, and also where the physical bodies of the two people in Scripture who did not die but were instantly taken up to heaven (Enoch in Gen. 5:24 and Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11) are. So this current heavenly alternate-dimension of reality must have some physical aspect to it. In systematic theology this is often referred to as the 'intermediate state' between death and resurrection.1
But this first intermediate state is not necessary or permanent. Some Christians will never experience this state if they are alive when Christ appears and instantly transforms their bodies from mortal to immortal (1 Thess. 4:15-17). The final destiny of all Christians, regardless of if they spend time in the intermediate state or not, is physical resurrection which enables eternal life on the New Earth (Rev. 21:1-4).
So some of the problem with the typical Christian views on heaven may be because this distinction between the intermediate state and the final resurrection and New Earth are not frequently spoken about by pastors. I don't think I've ever heard a sermon on this topic. Even funerals, where you think this would be mentioned, often use euphemisms and vague mentions of "heaven" or "a better place" or "with Jesus".
I admit, it's very easy to fall into the shortcut of using the term 'heaven' to refer to anything the Christian experiences after death, which likely leads to confusion. So maybe that's something that all Christians should work on changing, by being more specific about which stage of the Christian afterlife we are referring to.
The Old Heresy of Gnosticism
One significant influence in the early church which may have led to much more focus on the view of heaven as a purely spiritual realm was the early heresy of Gnosticism.
Church historian Justo L. Gonzalez writes that "Drawing from several sources, the Gnostics came to the conclusion that all matter is evil, or at best unreal. A human being is in reality an eternal spirit (or part of the eternal spirit) that somehow has been imprisoned in a body. Since the body is a prison to the spirit, and since it misleads us as to our true nature, it is evil. Therefore, the Gnostic's final goal is to escape from the body and this material world in which we are exiled".2
As Christianity spread out into the Roman empire, its beliefs became influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy which included these Gnostic tendencies above. Plato was a philosopher who endorsed the idea that ideal existence was as pure spirit. Randy Alcorn shows that Plato's ideas came into Christian theology through Philo, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, all who preferred taking Scripture 'allegorically' rather than in the normal grammatical-historical sense.3
Alcorn suggests that due to the influence of Platonism on these early Christian theologians, all references to resurrection and the New Earth and physical things on the New Earth like streets, cities, trees, etc. were seen only metaphors or allegories: "The prophetic statements about life on a perfect Earth are considered mere symbols of the promise of a disembodied spiritual world".4 And unfortunately, Alcorn shows how this attitude prevails today even in some modern theological commentaries.5
However, there is an important theological argument for why the gnostic view of heaven cannot be true, as explained by Anthony Hoekema:
"If the resurrection body were non-material or non-physical, the devil would have won a great victory, since God would then have been compelled to change human beings with physical bodies such as he had created into creatures of a different sort, without physical bodies (like the angels). Then it would indeed seem that matter had become intrinsically evil so that it had to be banished. And then, in a sense, the Greek philosophers would have been proved right. But matter is not evil; it is part of God's good creation. Therefore the goal of God's redemption is the resurrection of the physical body, and the creation of a new earth on which his redeemed people can live and serve God forever with glorified bodies. Thus the universe will not be destroyed but renewed, and God will win the victory".6
Unfortunately, Alcorn notes that "Of Americans who believe in a resurrection of the dead, two-thirds believe they will not have bodies after the resurrection. But this is self-contradictory. A non-physical resurrection is like a sunless sunrise. There's no such thing. Resurrection means that we will have bodies. If we didn't have bodies, we wouldnt' be resurrected!"7
Humans are not primarily souls who happen to inhabit bodies temporarily, but our body is actually a core part of who we are: "Adam was not a living human being until he had both material (physical) and immaterial (spiritual) components. Thus, the essence of humanity is not just spirit, but spirit joined with body. Your body does not merely house the real you - it is as much a part of who you are as your spirit is".8
Therefore "When God sent Jesus to die, it was for our bodies as well as our spirits. He came to redeem not just 'the breath of life' (spirit) but also 'the dust of the ground' (body). When we die, it isn't that our real self goes to the present Heaven and our fake self goes to the grave; it's that part of us goes to the present Heaven and part goes to the grave to await our bodily resurrection. We will never be all that God intended for us to be until body and spirit are gain joined in resurrection (If we do have physical forms in the intermediate state, clearly they will not be our original or ultimate bodies)".9
So God will thwart Satan, by restoring and redeeming what has become corrupted due to Satan's temptation and Adam and Eve's sin. This will include the physical world and our physical bodies. To say otherwise is to say that Satan won, and God has to fall back to His second-best plan.
Since the entire creation is now in bondage to corruption because of human sin (Romans 8:20-22), then God's eschatological restoration must also include the entire universe, or Satan will have won.
Problems With A Purely 'Spiritual' Heaven
So as shown so far, the purely 'spiritual' view of heaven is both un-Biblical and not theologically sound.
But Randy Alcorn in his book titled Heaven (2004) also does a great job at pointing out the real-life problems that belief in a purely 'spiritual' existence in a purely 'spiritual' heaven causes for Christians.
Although I don't want to give too much of his book away (you really should read his book for yourself), Alcorn has many excellent quotations which I want to show here.
First Problem: A Spiritual Heaven is Undesireable
Alcorn writes "We do not desire to eat gravel. Why? Because God did not design us to eat gravel. Trying to develop an appetite for a disembodied existence in a non-physical Heaven is like trying to develop an appetite for gravel. No matter how sincere we are, and no matter how hard we try, it's not going to work. Nor should it. What God has made us to desire, and therefore what we do desire if we admit it, is exactly what he promises to those who follow Jesus Christ: a resurrected life in a resurrected body, with the resurrected Christ on a resurrected Earth".10
Thus, Alcorn says that "Some of the best portrayals I've seen of the eternal Heaven are in children's books. Why? Because they depict earthly scenes, with animals and people playing, and joyful activities. The books for adults, on the other hand, often try to be philosophical, profound, ethereal, and otherworldly. But that kind of Heaven is precisely what the Bible doesn't portray as the place where we'll live forever".11
It is reassuring to know that resurrection and life on the New Earth are indeed what the Bible promises to Christians, and so, we don't have to try to psych ourselves up to desire some disembodied 'spiritual' heaven that is unlike anything we really desire.
Second Problem: A Spiritual Heaven is Unfulfilling
Alcorn quotes John Eldredge, who says "Nearly every Christian I have spoken with has some idea that eternity is an unending church service....We have settled on an image of the never-ending sing-along in the sky, one great hymn after another, forever and ever, amen. And our heart sinks. Forever and ever? That's it? That's the good news? And then we sigh and feel guilty that we are not more 'spiritual'. We lose heart, and we turn once more to the present to find what life we can".12
And so, Christians feel guilty that they don't long for what they are told heaven will be like. Then, as a side-effect of this fear that heaven will be one huge unending church service, it makes us often turn to this life to try to fulfill all our desires while we still can.
The solution is to remember that "Heaven, as the eternal home of the divine Man and all of the redeemed members of the human race, must necessarily be thoroughly human in its structure, conditions, and activities. Its joys and activities must all be rational, moral, emotional, voluntary, and active. There must be the exercise of all the faculties, the gratification of all tastes, the development of all talent capacities, the realization of all ideals. The reason, the intellectual curiosity, the imagination, the aesthetic instincts, the holy affections, the social affinities, the inexhaustible resources of strength and power native to the human soul must all find in heaven exercise and satisfaction. Then there must always be a goal of endeavor before us, ever future.... Heaven will prove the consummate flower and fruit of the whole creation and of all the history of the universe".13
Therefore, when we realize that heaven will be the perfect fulfillment of all our desires, that frees us from trying to achieve those things in our lives now.
Instead, we can focus in this life on what really matters, which is spreading the gospel and serving others in whatever way God calls us to do. We don't have to worry that if we don't or can't achieve all our dreams now that we will have missed out on anything.
Third Problem: A Spiritual Heaven is Frightening
Alcorn says "Everything pleasurable we know about life on Earth we have experienced through our senses. So, when Heaven is portrayed as beyond the reach of our senses, it doesn't invite us; instead, it alienates and even frightens us. Our misguided attempts to make Heaven 'sound spiritual' (i.e. non-physical) merely succeed in making Heaven sound unappealing".14
This is similar to the first problem, but this time, Alcorn shows that trying to imagine some disembodied existence is actually frightening. When we have no idea what to expect, and are only told that heaven is beyond our imagination and totally unlike anything we know in this life, why would anyone want to experience it?
If a Christian is on their deathbed, it is much more comforting to be able to give them a real idea of what awaits them on the other side of death. The process of dying is scary enough - let's not make heaven intimidating and unknowable also!
Instead, "The biblical doctrine of the New Earth implies something startling: that if we want to know what the ultimate Heaven, our eternal home, will be like, the best place to start is by looking around us. We shouldn't close our eyes and try to imagine the unimaginable. We should open our eyes, because the present Earth is as much a valid reference point for envisioning the New Earth as our present bodies are a valid reference point for envisioning our new bodies. After all, we're living on the remnants of a perfect world, as the remnants of a perfect humanity. We shouldn't read into the New Earth anything that's wrong with this one, but can we not imagine what it would be like to be unhindered by disease and death? Can we not envision natural beauty untainted by destruction?".15
This picture of heaven as a major improvement on this world is much less intimidating, and will give us something we can look forward to when we're having difficulties and suffering in this life. It also makes it easier for Christians to face death without fear.
Fourth Problem: A Spiritual Heaven Decreases Desire to Evangelize
Alcorn writes "Satan need not convince us that Heaven doesn't exist. He need only convince us that Heaven is a place of boring, unearthly existence. If we believe that lie, we'll be robbed of our joy and anticipation, we'll set our minds on this life and not the next, and we won't be motivated to share our faith. Why would we share the 'good news' that people can spend eternity in a boring, ghostly place that even we're not looking forward to?".16
Therefore, Christians who have a clear picture of what we can look forward to in heaven have much more motivation to evangelize to others.
For example, when we go to a really good restaurant, naturally, we tend to tell people how great it was and that they should go try it also. Or if we go on vacation, we describe it to others and say things like "You'd really like it there - you should go visit sometime!". We should do the same for heaven; we should talk about how amazing it is going to be, and invite people to consider it themselves.
But the great thing about heaven is that unlike an expensive restaurant or an all-inclusive tropical resort, heaven is TOTALLY FREE for anyone to get into! Jesus paid the entry fee for us on the cross. Now all a person needs to do is to believe in Jesus as their savior who promises them eternal life!
Easter shows us that the true Christians hope of eternal life involves physical resurrection, and life in a restored physical universe and Earth. Therefore, Christians can be extremely joyful, hopeful, and have the strength to endure this life, because we are looking forward to what God has promised for us, bought for us by Christ's death on the cross for our sins.
I would very much encourage all Christians to read Randy Alcorn's book Heaven (2004), because it is full of so much more detail and answers many questions, all from a very Biblical basis. At times he is a little speculative, but the overall picture of heaven that he gives in his book is very inspiring and encouraging. It helped me personally get over the issues I had with believing heaven was going to be some boring, unearthly existence, and has helped inspire me to do all I can now in this life for God.
- 1. For a more detailed look at these ideas, see Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004), 57-60.
- 2. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1, Revised and Updated (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2010), 70-71.
- 3. Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004), 476-477, also 52.
- 4. Alcorn, 477.
- 5. Alcorn, 478.
- 6. Alcorn, 480-481, citing Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 249.
- 7. Alcorn, 112.
- 8. Alcorn, 112.
- 9. Alcorn, 113.
- 10. Alcorn, 7. See also p.79-80, 114.
- 11. Alcorn, 79.
- 12 Alcorn, 6, citing John Eldredge, The Journey of Desire: Searching for the Life We've Only Dreamed Of (Nashville: Nelson, 2000), 111.
- 13. Alcorn, 98-99, citing A. A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology: A Course of Popular Lectures (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 399-402.
- 14 Alcorn, 17.
- 15. Alcorn, 81.
- 16. Alcorn, 11.