I had to write a devotional for my New Testament Theology course and share it with the class. I thought it would be cool to share it with you too:
As Christians, the question of life after death is one that is often on the forefront of our minds. Where do we go after we die? What’s heaven like? How should I live now in light of the future? The answers that are given in the church are often simple ones. When we die our souls float up to heaven where we will be with Jesus forever. Until then we are to lead quiet lives, not concerning ourselves with the cares or matters of this world for, after all, it’s not the physical that matters but the spiritual is what counts. This understanding of the afterlife runs throughout the church, at least the Western church, on a wide scale. It’s in our worship songs, our liturgy, and our preaching and teaching. Take, for example, the beloved hymn “I’ll Fly Away.” The following is a short excerpt from the song:
Some glad morning when this life is o’er,
I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away
Just a few more weary days and then,
I’ll fly away
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away
Here we get a perfect picture of what’s been described above. When I die my soul, or “the real me”, will fly away to heaven. The implication of this view of the afterlife is that life in the present is almost devoid of any meaning. We are to push through each weary day without much hope for the world around us. What really matters is that one day we’ll get to be with Jesus in heaven.
I myself used to believe that this is indeed what the Bible teaches us about heaven. I’d like to share with you an excerpt from a poem that I wrote around the beginning of my high school years.
I stand alone
Staring at this image in the mirror
A head full of hair that twists and turns in all directions
A face that is set to seriousness
Eyes fixed, trying to see past what is only physical
For a moment I do not recognize who it is
This shell of flesh
A temporary home for my soul
A simple glance becomes revelation
I continue to stare
Trying to hold on with all that I am to this sacred moment
My soul, the real me
Recognizing just for a moment that there is more
I am longing for something more
What usually works in conjunction is now separate
My soul, apart from my mind or my thoughts or my rationality,
Sees this body that contains me but is not me
Notice the low view of the body: it’s merely a shell of flesh that contains my soul; this shell of flesh is not the real me but rather contains the real me, that is, my soul. The body is a temporary home that we are to live in until we die and are released from these prisons that hold us captive.
How has this theology manifested itself in the life and ministry of the church today? For one, our evangelism has become primarily concerned with saving souls as opposed to feeding the hungry or housing the homeless. The dichotomy that we’ve created between the physical and the spiritual has caused us to be wrapped up in attempting to address people’s spiritual health before we even think about what might be causing them physical, emotional, or relational harm. Our church services, then, in an attempt to save as many souls as possible, have become “seeker sensitive”. If we can get them to like our lights, big drums, and trendy pastors then maybe we can get them to accept Jesus into their hearts. And who really cares about discipleship anyway? It’s more about getting people to pray the prayer so that they can get their one way ticket to heaven, right?
And what about our view of the environment? If we believe that the spiritual is what matters then we really shouldn’t care too much about taking care of God’s creation because at the end he’s probably going to burn it all anyway. The earth is to be subdued and used for our selfish purposes while we wait for Jesus to come back and rapture us into heaven.
This modern day gnosticism that rejects the material in favor of the immaterial often leads Christians who have put there faith in Jesus to ask the famous “now what?” question. If the only thing that matters is getting to heaven after you die then what’s the purpose of this life? Is it really all about just waiting until we die so that our souls can float off into immaterial bliss? Are we really only supposed to partake in the more spiritual activities like prayer and Scripture reading because everything else is mere vanity?
In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul paints a much more optimistic and holistic picture of the Christian hope. It can be summarized with one word: resurrection. Some might be surprised to find out that the New Testament doesn’t tell us much about life after death. Instead it is concerned mainly with life after life after death, that is, the resurrection life that we will share when that final trumpet is blown and Jesus returns in order to clothe us with immortality. This is what the New Testament calls heaven. Heaven is not the place where we go after we die but rather, it is the resurrected life that we will share with Jesus and all God’s people after Jesus returns.
It is the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead that affirms the idea that our good God has created a good creation that he longs to redeem. Our bodies, God says, are good. The earth is good. The physical is good. The plan is not burn the earth and start all over. In fact, the resurrection of our own bodies is just a fraction of what God wants to do for his whole creation. We learn in Romans 8 that creation is groaning as in the pains of childbirth, waiting for the children of God to be revealed so that we might be the means by which God brings redemption to everything he created.
If we affirm the goodness of creation and understand that the ultimate Christian hope is life in the resurrection, life on earth, albeit a renewed earth then the implications are huge. If God plans on bringing heaven down to earth, as we see in Revelation 21 and 22, and transforming our physical into bodies that can inherit the Kingdom of God then it seems that there would be some sort of continuity between this life and the life of the Age to Come. In other words, an affirmation of the physical world, a belief that God is going to redeem all of creation including our physical bodies means that the life that we live now on earth actually matters. This is indeed the conclusion that Paul comes to at the end of 1 Corinthians 15: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
This is far from the theology of “I’ll Fly Away.” That sort of theology would have us sit down and grit our teeth through each weary day as we wait for death. It seems that there is, instead, work to be done. Paul’s eschatology calls us to open our eyes and see the world through a new lens. God is making all things new and he has called us to join him in his work There is indeed hope for the present world. The promise of resurrection reassures us that in some mystical, incomprehensible way everything beautiful, loving, just, and right will carry over into God’s new creation. This is exactly why Paul, after 56 verses of explaining the resurrection to his audience, reminds them that nothing they do for the Lord is ever in vain. Their selfless, sacrificial love for one another will actually carry over into the new heavens and new earth. Their attempts at bringing justice to the hurting world around them is not futile.
The same is true for us today as Christ’s church and as individuals. As we pursue wholeness and peace in our communities we need to be reminded that our labor is not in vain. As we pour ourselves out for the sake of serving our brothers or sisters our work is not in vain. Even activities that we might consider “small” or “insignificant” become, in this light, meaningful and incredibly significant. Anytime we provide a listening ear to someone who is hurting we can rest assured that it is precisely that sort of action that will carry over into God’s new creation. Volunteering at a local youth group in order to build up and encourage the kids of our community is not to be understood as something without significance but rather, as an act of love and service that God will somehow, in a way that is beyond our comprehension, incorporate into his redeemed world. Our advocating on behalf of the poor and destitute is of lasting value. There is continuity between this life and the life of the Age to Come. The things we do in the present actually matter in God’s grand scheme.