I have been thinking about how we got to heaven. I do not mean by this actually “going to heaven” after dying. Rather, I refer to how we modern Christians have arrived at our conception of “heaven”—of the afterlife. Our ideas are strongly conditioned and even dictated to us by the cultural context we live in. The Lord’s disciples of every generation encounter this—whether they recognize this or not.
The core ideas which human beings employ to explain to themselves and others about reality tend to be recycled every couple generations. This is notably the case among modern evangelicals and particularly in regard to their understanding of “heaven.” The historic and emphatic affirmation of the resurrection of the dead has largely been lost in the development of the popular evangelical notions of “heaven.”
In a recent issue of First Things, a professor at a self-confessing Evangelical institution of higher learning, wrote the following.
“I teach in a great books program at an Evangelical university. Almost all students in the program are born-and-bred Christians of the nondenominational variety. A number of them have been both thoroughly churched and educated through Christian schools or homeschooling curricula. Yet an overwhelming majority of these students do not believe in a bodily resurrection. While they trust in an afterlife of eternal bliss with God, most of them assume this will be disembodied bliss, in which the soul is finally free of its ‘meat suit’ (a term they fondly use).”[i]
What grabs my attention especially is these students fond use of this term “meat suit”—how much this reveals about their underlying convictions about the purpose of human beings and of human life as designed by God. This is no small trifling matter about which I just let go; no, rather it is an expression of a very old heresy now dressed up in clothing that appears to be in line with historic Christian orthodoxy.
Paul directly encountered this same kind of idea with the believers in Corinth. He wrote at length to them (see 1 Corinthians 15) about the resurrection body—that we will all be bodily resurrected and then stand before our divine-human Judge. To illustrate his point Paul went so far as to say that their affirmation of Christ being raised from the dead necessitated that they also believe that they and everyone else also would be raised bodily. Apparently, some of them had not recognized the contradiction between their profession as Christians about Christ and the beliefs they retained about a disembodied afterlife.
This professor continues in her commentary saying this.
“Resistance to the idea of a physical resurrection struck them as perfectly logical. ‘It doesn’t feel right to say there’s a human body in heaven, when the body is tied so closely to sin,’ said one student. In all, fewer than ten of my forty students affirmed the orthodox teaching that we will ultimately have a body in our glorified, heavenly form. None of them realizes that these beliefs are unorthodox; this is not willful doctrinal error. This is an absence of knowledge about the foundational tenets of historical, creedal Christianity.”[ii]
Her assessment of the motives of these students rings true. And the (representative) statement of the one student about the body being “so closely tied to sin” is insightful and helpful to reveal their motives for resisting the obvious and plain teaching of the Scriptures about the resurrection. Further, this illustrates how easily one can intermix and entangle one’s personal experience and cultural biases into the process of reasoning out doctrinal matters. The question of how we got to heaven—that is, to this bodiless conception of an afterlife—is important and will impact not only the personal lives of Christians but determine whether or not we pass along the truth of Scripture to those outside the congregations of the Lord.
The notion of a disembodied afterlife is fairly common today but also was in ancient times. The Hebrews were the only people (so far as I know) that affirmed explicitly a resurrection of the body. This notion was not clear at the beginning of the time of the patriarchs —it was clarified later in the history of Israel through the prophetic words of God’s prophets. The earliest Christian communities, following the explicit teachings of the Lord Jesus and of the Apostles, affirmed the resurrection of the body—for both the righteous persons and also the wicked.
Consider this statement from the 2nd century Christian sermon we know as 2 Clement:
“And let none of you say that this flesh is not judged and does not rise again. Understand this: In what state were you saved? In what state did you recover your sight, if it was not while you were in this flesh? We must, therefore, guard the flesh as a temple of God. For just as you were called in the flesh, so you will come in the flesh. If Christ, the Lord who saved us, became flesh (even thought he was originally spirit) and in that state called us, so also we will receive our reward in this flesh. Therefore let us love one another, that we all may enter into the kingdom of God. While we still have time to be healed, let us place ourselves in the hands of God the Physician, and pay him what is due. What is that? Sincere, heartfelt repentance. For he is the one who knows everything beforehand, and knows what is in our heart. Therefore let us give him eternal praise, not from the mouth only but from the heart, in order that he may welcome us as sons. For the Lord also said, ‘My brothers are those who do the will of my Father.’”[iii]
The author of 2 Clement is emphatic in his emphasis on the actual physical resurrection of believers so that they could receive their reward “in this flesh.” The logical corollary to this is that the human body is not a mere vehicle by which we get around and act in the physicality of the world but an essential part of us. Thus we will be raised in our flesh in order to enjoy life with God into eternity. This agrees with the Judaic tradition out of which Christianity sprang and grew.
The Greek tradition despised the body and denigrated it by elevating the role of the soul (or essence) of the human being and the excellencies of the disembodied state in the afterlife. Thus what was taken for granted by Jews was seen as the height of folly by those schooled in the Greek philosophical tradition (see Acts 17:16-21). There was a dichotomy established between the flesh and the spirit in Christian teaching to be sure (and sharply drawn at that); however, that distinction never overwhelmed and suffocated the conviction about the eventual resurrection of the body to enjoy bliss in the Presence. The Greeks have now reasserted themselves in our time, much as they did in the 2nd and 3rd centuries when the different Gnostic sects were flourishing and directly competing with the Great Church for adherents. The ancient Greek philosophical traditions profoundly effected how non-Jewish people framed and interpreted the Bible and the New Testament documents in particular—and still inform the views we hold about the body today.
To most of us reading this now, the students’ perspective is obviously flawed and demonstrates their ignorance of Scriptural teaching. Yet the fact that they hold these views is just the tip of the ice berg in that there are many people today—both those who identity as Christians and those who do not—that sincerely believe the same thing. These bodies are simply complex and wonderful temporary “meat suits” which we will all one day discard and take on our glorious disembodied existence in the afterlife. That according to Scripture is a heresy.
The notion of “heaven” as the resting place for believers in God’s Presence is at best a half truth. To stop there misses the broader scope of what Scripture affirms. Heaven is certainly real and wonderful beyond all telling but that is not the end of what God has in store for us. The Incarnation of Christ and the resurrection of the body are the doctrines which unlock for us the broader eternal purpose of God revealed in the Person of the Lord Jesus. His human life, death and resurrection demonstrate the destiny God has for all those who will trust in God through the Lord Jesus by the power of Holy Spirit.
The fullness of the Kingdom of God, according to our Lord, is not an ethereal disembodied state. Death certainly separates us from our bodies temporarily; and thus properly speaking what most people understand about “heaven” is an intermediate state between the current age and the time of the Lord’s return to reign bodily (and believers with him in their glorified bodies). This point needs to be taught and clarified because to not understand this leads to some malformed conceptions of spirituality.
The ultimate goal of the Almighty is to recreate the bodies of believers so that they can live eternally in glorified “spirit-bodies.”[iv] In keeping with this plain teaching of the New Testament is the affirmation that God has determined to create a “new heavens and new earth.”[v] This new heavens and earth will become a reality after the Lord’s Judgment of all people is completed—people are separated out as redeemed or self-damned.[vi]
These paragraphs do not appear to me to require defending or even elaborating upon. For this is historic Christian teaching—rooted in the plain meaning of the statements of Scripture. But then I must remind myself that we live in a time when people are biblically illiterate and many more are intentionally turning aside to “different teachings” which tickle their ears. It is important to understand how we got to heaven so that we can critically evaluate how to recover biblical teaching again. Then we will have firm ground to stand on as we seek to conform our understanding to the reality of the coming Kingdom on earth.
[i] First Things, “Evangelical Gnosticism” (May 2018), p.13.
[ii] First Things (May 2018), p.14.
[iii] 2nd Clement, chapter 9; cited from The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd edition, translated by J.B. Lightfoot & J.R. Harmer, Edited & Revised by Michael W. Holmes (Baker:1989), p.72.
[iv] See 1 Corinthians 15:42-49; 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, 17; 1 John 3:2.
[v] See Isaiah 65:17-25.
[vi] See 2 Peter 3:8-13.