The Bible and the Question of the Afterlife
I love it when you find that the Bible constantly addresses long-held suppositions you’ve had even when it comes to the Christian faith. For me, something has been crystalising over the years with regard to this question of the ‘afterlife’, or more appropriately, what-happens-when-you-die.
There is a basic supposition which I feel is incorrect, which lies behind the questions asked by many both within the faith and outside it, and in the answers given by those from within the faith. The questions run something like this: “What do Christians believe about the afterlife?” “Where do you go when you die?” “What will heaven be like?” The answer in its basic form can sound something like this: “Put your faith in Jesus and when you die you’ll go to heaven.” With no more needing to be said after that.
Lying especially behind the last question but often behind all those statements is the following supposition: the ultimate destination of Christians is a disembodied existence in heaven which will be eternal because it will be enjoyed by our immortal soul/spirit. Maybe that’s not what you’ve grown up to believe; perhaps it was only me. Or perhaps it was only me and all the people I’ve ever had the conversation with: “what do you think heaven is going to be like?” We have that conversation because we want to know what it’s going to be like in the place we’re going to spend the rest of eternity, after-we-die.
As you might imagine, I now think there is far more to it than that, and indeed some aspects of that picture I now consider plain wrong.
For a start, it would be wrong for us to defer to the Platonist’s problem of an immortal soul needing to be liberated from the prison of a human body. First of all no verse in the Bible suggests that our soul is innately immortal. On the contrary, “God alone possesses immortality,” (1 Tim 6:16) so any immortality that comes into our possession must have been given by God – everlasting life is His alone to give and without it we are mortal creatures in every respect – spirit, soul and body. I mention this Platonic idea because it has often crept into Christian doctrine and influenced us to think that because we have this immortal bodiless part of us, that will be the part that endures through eternity with Him in heaven. I do not think this is the case.
So if we don’t want to defer to Plato’s problem but rather take the Bible at its word, I rather think our answer to the questions “What do Christians believe about the afterlife?” and “Where do you go when you die?” would look rather different. For a start there is no Biblical word for ‘afterlife’ – it’s not something it brings into question. The fact of the matter is that because of sin, ‘after life’ there is death! But of course what people mean is ‘after death’ – what is there? If we answer the question with believers in view for now, then the answer I think from the Bible’s standpoint could look something like this: the soul is carried away to ‘paradise’ (Luke 16:22; 23:42-43) for a period of waiting which in some ways can be likened to sleep (1 Thess 4:13-18) until the time of the resurrection. This takes place in two phases (which we won’t worry about for the moment) after the return of Jesus to the earth (Rev 20). Our existence then is in a newly-embodied state, in brand new ‘resurrection bodies’, an existence which will be eternal and which won’t just be ‘in heaven’ but will rather be in BOTH the ‘new heavens and the new earth’.
I realise all this needs rather more exposition than the one paragraph I have just given it, and more than the few Scriptures I have poked at to back up what I’m saying. There is a time and place for that and hopefully it will be on this blog (though I realise how often I say that without making it good…yeah sorry about that). For now I just wanted to lay out briefly how I see my theology reshaping to conform to the pattern I see in Scripture; from the classic statement of the Gospel to the true New Testament statement of what happens to us when we die…and then rise again. The resurrection is immensely important, and not just that of Jesus, but of everyone else as well, in helping us understand the plan of God, the justice of God, the creation of God, and all sorts of other things. I expect when I eventually get to the end of NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God I’ll be in a better position to explain some of those things. It’s taken me a year and a half so far. I’m a slow reader and read about a zillion books at a time.
To come back to the questions that I presented at the opening, I addressed the first two above. The third one, “what do you think heaven will be like?” requires yet more answering. On the one hand if we want to fit it into the scheme above we should really have to ask “what will paradise be like while we wait there; and what will the new heavens and the new earth be like?” though in part I believe we are responsible for the answer to the second half of that as we rule and reign with Christ. But taking the question another way, we already ought to know what heaven is like, because we are citizens and creatures thereof! (Phil 3:20) It is His will being done (Matt 6:10). We are actually seated there now with Christ! (Eph 2:10) I personally believe we have more responsibility than we presently know to be able to state what heaven is like and then to be praying it comes to earth! That is God’s whole plan in a nutshell: heaven on earth. We shouldn’t be asking “what will heaven be like?” as if we can’t wait to escape there but “what should earth be like?” with the answer that it should be like the heavenly places that we are seated in and citizens of now!
Hopefully, there will be more to come on this. According to Hebrews 6 the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment (judgment here I think best understood as ‘verdict’) are foundational doctrines, yet I think they are often neglected these days. We need much more to understand that our final destination is not a disembodied state in heaven but in the new heavens and the new earth, with brand new resurrection bodies, ruling and reigning with Christ!