Christians and non-Christians alike typically assume that our religion teaches good Christians go to heaven when they die and bad people, or those who’ve never given their lives to Jesus, go to hell. As more and more Biblical scholars, Christian churches, and individual believers are realizing, though, this isn’t the most accurate picture of what the Bible teaches regarding life after death.
For many years, the churches of God I’ve been part of taught we were the only people to whom God had revealed His Sabbaths and Holy Days, His plan for the world and humanity, and the truth about what happens after death. As I grew older, I realized we had much more in common with other groups than I’d thought — there are a plethora of groups keeping Sabbath, many Messianics observe the holy days, and bloggers with Focus on the Family were talking about God’s plan to bring children into His family. I hadn’t found any teaching the resurrection, though, so you can imagine my surprise when Catholic theologian James K.A. Smith footnoted a comment about Christians not really going to heaven when they die with three book suggestions for further reading (this was in Desiring The Kingdom). The book from this list that I found in the library was Surprised by Hope by Anglican bishop N.T. Wright.
Wright’s teachings surprised me even though I’d been taught the resurrection from my earliest memories. His powerful exegesis on the meaning of the resurrection is inspiring and some of the thoughtful, well-researched ways he diverged from my church’s traditional teachings made me realize there are alternative explanations for a few difficult scriptures that deserve a second look. I also admired his style. Instead of telling people “You’re wrong,” he says, “We’ve been misinformed, and here’s the more wonderful plan God has for us.” That’s what I want to focus on today. The deeper our understanding of what God is actually planning for us, the firmer our hope and faith.
What Happens When We Die?
The idea that human beings have immortal souls comes not from the Bible, but from Greek philosophy (specifically Plato). In Hebrew thought and New Testament theology, the soul refers “not to a disembodied entity hidden within the outer shell of a disposable body, but rather to what we would call the whole person or personality” (Wright, p. 28). It is naphesh (H5315), the animated life-force we have in common with animals (Strong’s and Thayer dictionaries).
That said, the New Testament does talk about different part of a human. We have a body — the soma (G4983), which is fleshy, physical, and “that which casts a shadow” (Thayer). We have a soul — psuche (G5590), the vital force of life and personality. And we have a spirit — pneuma (G4151), the “rational spirit, the power by which the human being feels, thinks, decides” (Thayer). The three can’t really be separated in any useful way, and they all go together to make us human beings in the image of God. Indeed, in the verse where Paul talks about them he prays that “your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thes. 5:23).
That doesn’t mean the physical body survives death, but we will have bodies after the resurrection (more on that later). Ecclesiastes says that, at death, “the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecc. 12:7). Wright believes that this spirit is conscious while awaiting the bodily resurrection, but I tend to lean more toward my church’s traditional teaching that this isn’t the case. There are simply too many verses saying “in death there is no remembrance of You” (Ps. 6:5), “the dead do not praise the Lord” (Ps. 115:17), and “the dead know nothing” (Ecc. 9:5) for me to ignore. Rather, death is consistently described as a temporary sleep (John 11:13; 1 Cor. 15:6, 18, 31; 1 Thes. 4:13-15; 5:10; 2 Pet. 3:4; Dan. 12:2; and others).
1 Timothy 6:16 tells us that God alone has immortality. It’s not something inherent to humans. We didn’t even have a chance at eternal life until Jesus Christ “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). The question, “Where are you going to spend eternity?” is moot. Without God’s salvation work in our lives, we won’t have an eternity.
For The Firstfruits
Eternal life is a gift God gives to those who follow Him now (we’ll save those who don’t for a follow-up post next week). The promises to believers are spelled out quite clearly in scripture, and nowhere more clearly than in 1 Corinthians 15. Here in the resurrection chapter, Paul reminds the Corinthians that he declared to them the gospel: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by” the apostles and hundreds of other believers (1 Cor. 15:1-8).
Paul then addresses a group of people who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. He states in no uncertain terms that if there is no resurrection the gospel is empty, and “if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Cor. 15:12-19). There is no alternative. Either there’s a resurrection of the dead or we have no hope at all; physical death would be permanent.
Paul spends the next few verses talking about how and when we’ll be raised. N.T. Wright sums up the “how,” saying, “the risen Jesus is both the model for the Christian’ future body and the means by which is comes about” (p. 149). The timing for this is at “coming of the Lord” (1 Thes. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:23). This resurrection is for “the firstfruits” — those who have “fallen asleep in Christ” and “those who are Christ’s at His coming.” It’s a select group of people who are actively following God. It’s not enough to verbally accept Jesus as your savior; you also have to live like a Christian. And so the resurrection chapter also includes the injunction not to be deceived or corrupted, but rather “Awake to righteousness, and do not sin” (1 Cor. 15:33-34).
A Bodily Resurrection
“But someone will say, ‘How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?'” (1 Cor. 15:35). It’s an understandable question, especially today given the confusion about disembodied souls. The short answer is given by John: “we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). When we’re resurrected, it will be to an existence like God’s.
Paul addresses this question in more depth. He likens our bodies now to “mere grain” sown in a field with the expectation that it will grow into something far greater than a tiny seed (1 Cor. 15:36-44). We currently have a “natural body” that bears the image of the “first man Adam … a living being.” Those who raise in the first resurrection will have a “spiritual body” that bears “the image of the heavenly” second Adam, “the Lord from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:45-49).
In Greek, the natural verses spiritual is psychikos verses pneumatikos. Wright points out that “Greek adjectives ending in -ikos describe not the material out of which things are made but the power or energy that animates them.” We currently have a body animated by the human soul. We will have a body “animated by God’s pneuma, God’s breath of new life, the energizing power of God’s new creation” (p. 155, 156).
When Jesus rose from the dead, people could touch Him (John 20:27) and eat with Him (John 21:9-13). He told them, “Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:39). Though He could appear in the middle of a locked room or vanish from sight (Luke 24:30-31, 36), Jesus wasn’t a ghost or a disembodied spirit. He was something more than physical.
We’re not waiting for an escape from the body, but rather “the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23). We long “to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven,” “not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:1-5). We’re not waiting to go to heaven when we die — we’re waiting for Christ to come from heaven to raise His people from their sleep of death and transform us all to have a spiritual life and body like His (1 Cor. 15:51-58). Let’s not settle for any teaching that offers less than His plan for us.