Life After Death
It’s sometimes interesting to ask people the question, “Do you want to go to Heaven?” Almost universally, the answer is an immediate yes. But if you dig a little deeper, and press people to really think about the question, some will confess that they want to live after they die, but think they’d be bored in Heaven.
If I were to take a survey of the congregation asking what you thought Heaven would be like, I would probably get a whole bunch of answers. Some people might say that in Heaven we will all play harps and sing to God day and night. Some might describe Heaven as a grand worship service. Some might describe Heaven as simply being present with God. Still others might describe Heaven as being like earth, only better. Many would talk about streets of gold and mansions.
This morning we are going to spend some time looking at what the Bible teaches about Heaven, because in our text this morning Paul talks about the resurrection of believers. In order for us to begin to have an understanding of the resurrection, we first have to understand what the Bible teaches us about Heaven.
When We Die
When the Bible talks about eternal life, sometimes it is talking about where we go immediately after we die, and sometimes it is talking about the final Heaven described in Revelation 21. There John talks about God’s creation of a New Heaven and a New Earth. The Bible seems to indicate that the “Current Heaven” and the “New Heaven” are distinctly different places. So we have to ask, what happens immediately after we die? What is the current Heaven like?
The first thing Scripture teaches about the current Heaven is that we are present with God. Sometimes people wonder if we immediately go to Heaven when we die. I think the answer is yes. As Jesus was hanging on the cross, the thief next to him placed his trust in Jesus, to which Jesus responded, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (emphasis mine) When we die, we are immediately ushered into the presence of the Lord. This is important—because God cannot tolerate sin in his presence, this means that we must be delivered from our sins and also from our broken down earthly bodies. Our bodies are not made new until the resurrection, but we are not stuck in our fallen bodies after we die.
Second, we still remember our lives on the earth. In Revelation 6, John describes the people who had been killed for their faith crying out for vengeance. They knew what had happened to them. In addition, we know we will be judged after we die and will be rewarded for our righteous acts while on earth. That implies that we will be aware of those deeds. Because we will still remember our life on earth, we will appreciate how much greater Heaven is, and will appreciate the magnitude of grace we have received.
Third, we continue to be aware of what’s happening on the earth. In the book of Revelation, there is frequent imagery of those in Heaven seeing what is happening on the earth (like how the martyrs knew that their deaths hadn’t been avenged yet). I think this tells us that we will still be aware of all that is happening on the earth. Practically speaking, this may mean that those in Heaven can still see their families and friends. It is possible that they may see things with a different perspective than we do, since they may understand God’s plan more fully.
A fourth thing that we know about Heaven is that there will not be marriages. Jesus tells us this in Matthew 22:30. This doesn’t mean that we won’t know that we were married, but I suspect it means that we will not share that kind of closeness with just one other person, we will have that kind of relationship with everyone. Because sin will be removed, we will not need to be afraid of sharing that level of closeness with others.
The New Heaven
The Bible teaches that once all things are put under Christ’s authority, there will be a new Heaven and a New Earth (1 Cor. 15:24–28, Rev. 21:1) So, what does the Bible teach us about the New Heaven and New Earth? Frankly, I believe that the Bible teaches us that the New Earth is the New Heaven. Nowhere does the Bible teach that the earth will be ultimately destroyed and cease to exist. Rather, it seems to teach that the earth will be renewed and restored—that sin will be eradicated and the earth will once again function as God intended it to.
Sometimes we forget that the earth was cursed when Adam and Eve fell, just like the human race was. Look at the curse God pronounces upon creation in Genesis 3:17–19.
“To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”” (Genesis 3:17–19, NIV emphasis mine)
It wasn’t until Adam and Eve sinned that death entered into the world. If you go back a few verses, you find that it wasn’t until Adam and Eve sinned that childbirth was painful! It wasn’t until sin entered the world that man needed to fear wild animals. I think it is safe to say that there was no sickness or disease prior to the fall of man.
Romans 8:18–23 tells us that we as believers will be redeemed, but also that God’s creation will be redeemed. The universe (including the earth) will not be destroyed, but rather it will be changed so that it can fulfill God’s ultimate purpose. It will be restored to its perfect state.
This will be our eternal home. God will dwell with us on the earth (Rev. 21). When Adam and Eve were in the Garden, God walked and talked with them. When the earth is restored, God will be with us in his creation once again—the wall between Heaven and earth will no longer be necessary because sin will be destroyed and the curse will be lifted.
Think about what that means for us. Many of the things we do now we will do for all of eternity—but without sin, those things will be even more enjoyable. I suspect that we will still do some form of labor in Heaven because we were created to be productive. Imagine what this would mean for farming—farming would be a pleasure because you wouldn’t have to deal with droughts or floods or insects or weeds. It would simply be a matter of planting the seeds and then harvesting the results. No longer will we ache from a hard day’s work, but we will be able to simply rejoice in a job well done. I don’t think we will be bored in Heaven at all, because we will do the things we love. It will literally be Heaven on earth.
So when we understand Heaven like this, when we recognize that our eternal home is not some invisible place in the sky, but a physical place—the redeemed earth—it gives us some perspective on how to understand Paul’s teaching on the resurrection of the dead.
If you will recall the passage we looked at last week, you remember that Paul preached that the doctrine of a literal, physical resurrection of the dead is imperative to Christianity, because if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ did not rise. And if Christ did not rise, then our faith is in vain.
In verses 35–58 of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul seeks to explain exactly what he means when he talks about the resurrection of the dead. He seemed to be anticipating some of the questions his readers would ask when they read that belief in the resurrection is so important. Basically, he seeks to answer two questions, “How are the dead raised?” and “With what kind of body will they come?” Paul answered these questions by drawing analogies to things his audience was already familiar with.
Paul’s first analogy is agricultural. He emphasized the difference between the seed and the plant it produces. Think about most of the seeds that you have been around—they give very little indication of the type of plant they will become. Who would think that the tiny tomato seed would become a large bush that produces plump, red, juicy, edible fruit? Would you think that the so-called “helicopter seeds” that are so much fun to throw will grow into large maple trees? Paul’s point is that the splendor of the seed is nowhere near the splendor of the plant it becomes. Similarly, our earthly bodies are nowhere near the splendor of our resurrection bodies.
A different aspect of Paul’s analogy is that there is continuity between the seed and the resulting plant. A seed of corn never grows into a tomato plant. God has created us in the same way—while I might not know exactly what my earthly body will become, I know that it will still be me. In Romans 8 Paul emphasized the fact that, like the rest of creation, our bodies will not be recreated, but rather redeemed.
Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:23, NIV emphasis mine)
Paul was consistent in teaching that our current bodies do not pass away and are not destroyed. God will take the bodies he created for us and remove the curse of sin—he will restore them to the way they were designed.
The second example that Paul used to describe our resurrection bodies is from Creation. Paul points out that the different parts of Creation have different bodies. Paul reminded us that men, animals, birds, and fish each have their own unique bodies. They are all similar, yet each unique. In the same way, the sun, the moon, the stars, planets and other heavenly bodies are all similar, but at the same time unique. Paul seemed to be indicating that when we are resurrected we will be unique. We will not all look the same; we will not become clones of one another. Just as every aspect of His creation is unique now, we will continue to be unique creations after the resurrection.
So Paul answered his first question, “how are the dead raised?” by telling us that we will be raised in bodies similar to the ones we currently have, but that they will be much more glorious than these bodies—they will be redeemed from the problems of sin and decay. At the same time, he tells us that God isn’t going to make new bodies for us, but take our present bodies and renew and correct them so they are the way he ultimately created them to be. Finally, Paul said that when the resurrection occurs, we will continue to be unique—just like every other aspect of Creation. We don’t know the exact process God will use to make all of this happen, but we can rest assured that the God who created our bodies from dust can take those same bodies and give them a splendor that is unknown to us in this life.
The Best Example of a Resurrection Body
As we look at verses 44–49, Paul draws us to the best possible example of what our resurrection bodies will be like—the body of Jesus. Paul said that in the same way that our current bodies are like Adam’s, our resurrection bodies will be like Jesus’. Obviously we are not exactly the same as Adam—we are each unique, but our bodies work the same way. Similarly, when we receive our resurrection bodies, we will not necessarily be exactly like Jesus, but our bodies will function like his.
So the question is what do we know about Jesus’ resurrection body?
- Jesus had a physical body. When Jesus rose from the dead, Mary clasped his feet (Matt. 28:9). Also in the story we usually refer to as “doubting Thomas”, Jesus invited Thomas to place his fingers in the holes in his hand and side. (John 20:24-28) Obviously, Jesus had a body that wasn’t ghostlike or immaterial, he had an actual physical body.
- Jesus looked like a normal person, not something remarkably different. In Luke 24, we read about how Jesus walked with two men on the road to Emmaus, and he had a discussion with them. They didn’t immediately think that something was different about him—they saw him as a man. (Luke 24:13-35)
- He was recognizable as Jesus, yet different in some way. When Mary came to the tomb after he had been resurrected, she initially thought he was the gardener. When he spoke to her she immediately knew that it was him, without him telling her. (John 20:10-18)
- He was not constrained by time and space. After Jesus ate with the men at Emmaus, he disappeared. He also appeared with the disciples in a locked room. He was apparently not constrained by time or space.
So, can we definitively say that we will exhibit each of these characteristics when we are raised from the dead? I don’t think so. We really have no way of knowing which characteristics had to do with his resurrection body, and which had to do with the fact that he was God. With that said, the fact that Jesus’ resurrection body was like his old body is consistent with Paul’s analogies. One thing is sure—that neither Jesus’ resurrection nor ours is figurative in nature—it is literal.
Randy Alcorn, in his excellent book, Heaven, gives an example that we might be familiar with. He said that our resurrection bodies are akin to upgraded computer software. If Microsoft announced that there was a new version of Word, you wouldn’t say, “I have no idea what it will be like!” You would expect the new version to be basically the same as the version you have now, only better. You’d expect that all of the basic functions would remain the same, but you’d also expect that the limitations in the old version will now be corrected. You certainly expect some new features, but mostly you expect that the new version will be like your old version, but with the bugs removed.
Obviously this is an imperfect analogy because rarely does new software work like it is supposed to, but our bodies will. Our resurrection bodies will be a lot like the ones we have now, but all of the bugs will be worked out, they will function the way they should, and there may even be some “features” that we don’t currently have.
This has been somewhat of an academic discussion of the theology of the resurrection, but there is some practical application to what Paul was saying. Next week we will finish Paul’s discussion of the resurrection and see the conclusions that he was driving at, but even in this passage that is mostly theological in nature, I believe there are some very practical applications.
First, when we understand the resurrection, we should be encouraged. I think the whole point of a discussion of Heaven in scripture is to encourage us of what lies beyond the grave. When life gets difficult (and we know that it will), we can rest confidently in the fact that God is going to set things right. We can be confident that He will eradicate sin once and for all. And when we understand this fact we are reminded of what a powerful God we serve and that He is still in control.
The second thing we can learn is that we need not be afraid. We do not need to fear our own death or the death of our Christian friends and family. While it is sometimes difficult to put into perspective, we know that Christians who die go to be with the Lord and are delivered from their sinful state. On the flip side, we need not fear that we will be bored in Heaven. We will indeed spend eternity praising God, but we will not just be playing our harps and singing all day long. We’ll praise Him because will be living with Him on an earth that has been restored and delivered from the curse of sin.
Here is how Professor Lewis Smedes describes Heaven: “No more common colds, no more uncommon cancers. Everyone would have his day; there would be no second-class citizens. Prisoners and slaves would be free; hungry people would have plenty; no one would lift a finger to harm another; and we would all be at peace with everyone, even with ourselves.” Our eternal destination isn’t something to be afraid of; it is what we long for.
The last thing we should learn from this passage is that we need to be ready. I hope you see that Heaven is a place we really do want to go to. So my question to you is, are you on a path that leads there? Jesus told us that there are two paths that people can take in life. One is broad and leads to Hell, and the other is narrow and leads to Heaven. Many people choose to trust in themselves, to rely on their goodness and go their own way, but this is the road that leads to Hell. Jesus said that He is the way to Heaven. That means that if you want to go to Heaven, you need to commit yourself to follow Him with every ounce of your being—that you base your decisions on the Bible, that you acknowledge that your sin is a real obstacle you cannot overcome, and that you will trust Jesus to forgive your sins. Following Jesus means living each day with the knowledge that God is in control of the universe, and that you will one day give an account to Him. So, if you take nothing else away from this passage, I hope you will get ready to go to Heaven.
The other side of this is for those of us who are ready for Heaven. If you are confident of what will happen when you die, than you have a responsibility to help others get ready too. Many of the people who think Heaven will be boring are not Christians. We know that is not at all what Scripture teaches, and we can point them to the glorious eternity that awaits those who belong to Jesus—then we can show them how to get there.
Let me encourage you to look ahead to what God has planned for you and prepare yourself and those around you to go there. It’s more than just a theological discussion—it has eternal ramifications. It is our basis of hope, and it is the fuel that keeps us going.