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What happens when we die?

gates to a cemetary
Posted May 10, 2018

Many Christians assume that when we die, our disembodied souls float away to heaven. But the biblical picture is much more exciting …

As Christian believers we hold on to a great hope that focuses on the resurrection of Jesus. Th is event is the grounds for believing and trusting in a God who is able to triumph over physical death and to grant life after death. Th is is something we celebrate particularly on Easter Sunday and at the funerals of loved ones whose bodies we give back to God in the ‘sure and certain hope’ that they, too, will participate in the Christ resurrection (1 Cor 15: 35-58, Phil 3:21).

I love Bruce Milne’s idea that the events of the first Easter become events in our lives; that is, faith in Christ involves our sharing in his death and our sharing in his resurrection (Gal 2:20; Col 2.1). Jesus died a real death and was ‘recreated’ and we follow that same pattern. From this, we learn that God is both Creator and re-creator. He made us and he will ‘re-make us’.

Whole persons

The Salvation Army’s Handbook of Doctrine states that the resurrection of the body expresses ‘the Christian belief in life after death’. It goes on to say that in the Bible the word ‘body’ refers to the whole person, so our hope is not in becoming ‘mere disembodied spirits, but whole persons, fully alive in Christ’. In Romans 8:23, Paul speaks of the ‘redemption of our bodies’. N.T Wright, the eminent theologian, says he has no doubt that this means God’s people are promised a new type of bodily existence, adding that it is ‘the fulfillment and redemption of our present bodily life’—a transformation of the old, rather than its replacement.

Another theologian Howard A. Snyder is adamant that this resurrection lies within ‘space, time and history’—as our physical bodies do now—and speaks of the continuity of God’s kingdom being now, although not yet in all its fullness.

C.S Lewis helps us to envisage bodies that are ‘more solid, more real and more substantial than they are now’. Our resurrected bodies will not be subject to mortality or to sickness, injury and decay. Christian theology has always taught that God is the only being that possesses ‘immortality by nature’,—but here, God’s immortality is shared with his people as a gift of love and grace.

Thus, Doctrine 11 is right to claim that we believe in the ‘immortality of the soul’ and the ‘resurrection of the body’. The biblical hope for believers, then, is of a continuing embodied, personal life, albeit one with new powers and potencies undreamed of in the present.

A re-creation

However, if Christ’s resurrection points to an embodied future for God’s people, then what of the rest of creation? Where will we live and what will we do with these re-made bodies? Snyder argues that it is ‘absurd to think’ that Jesus died and rose again physically to save our souls but not our physical bodies and the rest of creation. Why, he asks, would Jesus rise physically to save us only spiritually? Would Jesus’ incarnation really have been necessary if God only wanted to save us spiritually? Why was a physical resurrection required? Because, he argues, God’s redemptive plan is to restore his creation too! Th e creation in all its entirety—people certainly, but also the earth that sustains all life. In other words, we are transformed to live in a transformed cosmos.

In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N.T. Wright spends some time discussing the ‘why and how’ of our new bodies. Drawing on early Christian theology, he argues that there will be work to do in the new creation and that we will relish it! He points to several promises in the New Testament about God’s people ‘reigning’ wisely over his creation (Rom 5:17; 1 Cor 6:2,3; 2 Tim 2:12, Rev 1:6, 5:10, 20:4, 22:5).

Much like the original picture in Genesis of humans created in God’s image acting as his vice regents, there will be plenty to do—‘tending the garden’, so to speak, with ‘entirely new projects to be undertaken’.

I like the line from C.S Lewis’ book Miracles that says ‘the old field of space, time, matter and the senses is to be weeded, dug and sown for a new crop. We may be tired of the old field: God is not’.

Again, there is strong sense of continuity here. Wright’s picture is one of people using their present skills and talents ‘enhanced and ennobled and given back to us to be exercised in his glory’, working in God’s good creation. Quoting Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:58, Wright goes on to explain that the resurrection means ‘what we do in the present, in working hard for the gospel, is not wasted. It will be completed. It will have its fulfilment in God’s future’. This is hugely encouraging!

What is heaven?

Of course, there are lots of questions that need answering when we start thinking about this. How will this happen? Will all people take part in it, and what happens to those who do not? When will the resurrection of the dead happen? If it hasn’t happened yet where are the dead right now and how should we think of them?

There is not space here to answer these questions, but I would like to end by commenting on a pervasive theology that the authors quoted above all rail against. That is, the assumption among most people today—both Christian and non-Christian—that they go to heaven when they die. I’ll qualify that. What is meant here is that heaven is their final destination; that they leave their physical bodies behind to decompose and disappear forever while their souls escape this ‘dark and sinful world of space, time and matter’. In other words, the really important bit of us lives eternally in a disembodied spiritual state with God. This is not what the New Testament teaches.

Our physical bodies are God’s good creation too—very good, in fact. Salvation is not merely ‘going to heaven’ but being raised to life in ‘God’s new heaven and new earth’. For sure, there is an intermediary state between our death and our resurrection—and much more could be said of this—but Jesus Christ’s resurrection and ascension, and the gift of life that God promises us, are designed not to take us away from this earth, but to makes us agents of its transformation. It anticipates the day when the ‘earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Habakkuk 2:14 and elsewhere). In other words, God’s original purpose to fill the earth with his glory—his glory reflected through human beings—will be fulfilled.

by David Wardle (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 5 May 2018, pp3. You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.