There’s no question that for followers of Christ, the basket has a label: RESURRECTION. But have we been watching that basket, keeping it strong, or allowing speculative, fanciful views about “Heaven” to weaken it?
Ancient Jewish views on life after death and resurrection
The first followers of Christ staked their lives on the claim that God had raised Jesus of Nazareth to life. But what was the context of that claim and what made it so extraordinary? As Jews, they had been brought up learning swaths of what Christians now call the Old Testament. Importantly, this part of our Bible gives little hope for life after death, wavering between death as either non-existence or (at most) a shadowy and undefined abode.
Job 14:1-14 (NIV) is a good summary of the non-existence view. In v. 14a, Job asked:
If someone dies, will they live again?
That the answer to Job’s question is “no” may be concluded from the preceding verses. There we read phrases like these:
“Mortals, born of woman, are of few days and full of trouble. They spring up like flowers and wither away; like fleeting shadows, they do not endure” (vv. 1-2).
“A man dies and is laid low; he breathes his last and is no more” (v. 10).
“As the water of a lake dries up or a riverbed becomes parched and dry, so he lies down and does not rise;
till the heavens are no more, people will not awake or be roused from their sleep” (vv. 11-12).
King David models this hopelessness. In 2 Samuel 12:14, Nathan the prophet had announced that the child born of David’s illicit affair with Bathsheba would die. However, David attempted to change God’s mind by fasting and showing his repentance, lying on sackcloth for several nights. Seven days later, the child died. When David heard the news, he got up, washed and ate food. When asked about his sudden return to normal behavior, the King replied (vv. 22-23):
While the baby was alive, I fasted and wept because I thought, ‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let him live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I’ll go to him, but he will never return to me (HCSB).
When David said “I will go to him,” what did he mean? It is a simple acknowledgment that he, too, would one day die. As Ecclesiastes 3:2 teaches, there is a “time to be born, and a time to die.” The location where the dead reside is sheol, the grave, a place that the Psalmist – in a parallel phrase – compares to destruction:
“The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me;
the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me” (Psalm 18:4-5, ESV).
At best, sheol is a place of shadowy existence. Isaiah 14:9-10 pictures the kings of the earth: “Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. All of them will answer and say to you:
‘You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!’ (ESV).
While the majority report in the OT gives no promise of meaningful life after death, there is a minority report. One might think that the minority report would speak of disembodied souls surviving death, yet this is not the case. The Hebrew worldview can conceive of no meaningful life apart from the body. It is no surprise, then, that the minority report – Daniel 12:1-4 – frames hope in terms of renewed bodily existence:
At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. But you, Daniel, roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge (NIV).
Jesus and Paul on resurrection
Fast forward several hundred years. In the time between the writing of the Old and New Testaments, the doctrine of the resurrection gained ground, so much so that we see the doctrine believed by some ordinary Jews in the Gospels. For example, when Jesus told the grieving Mary that her brother, Lazarus, will rise again, she replied: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24, NIV). To this, Jesus answered (vv. 25-26):
I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this? (ESV)
Note where Jesus lodged Mary’s hope. It was not in disembodied existence as a soul, but renewed bodily existence possible only through the resurrection power of God in Christ. He brought comfort not by saying: “Mary, don’t you know that Lazarus is in a better place right now?” Rather, he anchored Christian hope solidly in the resurrection.
Jesus was not alone in this approach. Paul taught the same thing in multiple passages, but the strongest is found in 1 Corinthians 15:12-14. To those who denied Christ’s resurrection, he replied:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain (ESV).
The communion ritual has it right when the people respond: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” In that response, we direct people back to one of the main themes of the New Testament, the place where our hope for the next life is found, namely, the resurrection (John 5:28-29, 1 Thess. 4:13-18).
Challenges raised by the notion of disembodied existence after death
There are a few passages in the New Testament that suggest believers who have died have conscious existence now, awaiting the resurrection at the return of Christ. In Philippians 1:23, Paul talked of his desire to “depart and be with Christ”(NIV). Likewise, to be “away from the body” was for Paul to be “at-home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8, NIV). The problem with dwelling on these passages – and taking them to the next level by speculating, as books like Todd Burpo’s Heaven is for Real have done- is that they provoke a set of parallel questions about unbelievers. These include:
1) If believers are with Jesus, then where are unbelievers?
2) Do rewards and punishments begin immediately at death? If so, then what purpose does the final judgment (2 Corinthians 5:10, Revelation 11:15) serve if God at death has already passed out rewards and punishments?
3) If unbelievers are now in “torment” (as some interpret Luke 16:19-31 to teach), then in what sense can a disembodied, non-physical spirit suffer physical torture? How could flames harm a soul that has no more substance to it than steam that rises from a tea kettle?
Anyone who emphasizes what happens immediately after we die (continued existence of a soul) and not what happens when Jesus returns (bodily resurrection) will be forced to answer these questions in more detail.
Whispering and Shouting: Getting it backwards
The Old Testament writers were careful not to speculate unduly about the abode of the dead. In the same way, the New Testament gives very little information on where the righteous are prior to the resurrection at Christ’s return (1 Thess. 4:13-18) and less still about the current location of the wicked. Put in other terms, regarding the intermediate state – “life after death” – the New Testament only whispers, yet regarding the resurrection – what N.T. Wright calls “life AFTER life after death” – Scripture SHOUTS!
The problem with most current popular books about the next life is that writers have gotten it backwards, shouting where Scripture only whispers. What we end up with are books about Heaven based mostly upon individuals who claim to have left their body and gone to Heaven. How can such claims be verified? We’ve seen some unscrupulous individuals ready to sell their fabricated story to people anxious to know more than Scripture itself teaches, books like The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, co-written by Kevin Melarky and his son, Alex. A decade later, Alex admitted that he had never gone to Heaven, that it was all made up. LifeWay books has since pulled all books from its stores that recount such stories.
Instead of speculating harmfully about where Scripture only whispers, isn’t it time that we get back to where Scripture shouts?
Pastoral practice at the time of grieving
Theory meets practice most directly at the funeral. Here, our theology must put its overalls on, ministering to families when they are grieving the loss of a loved one. Sometimes, people will ask: “Where is my loved one now?” Here are a few guidelines for those confronted with this heartfelt query:
1. If a deceased individual was a unbeliever, refuse to speculate on their current state. That is truly only known to God. Instead, we should emphasize that God is loving, merciful, and just. We can simply say what is true for everyone:
“They are in God’s hands, awaiting the resurrection.”
2. On the other hand, there are some who lived a righteous life and had a clear Christian testimony. Even there, let us not embellish what Scripture affirms. Do not speculate about activities in Heaven that require a body by saying things like “Uncle Harry is teeing off on Heaven’s 18th hole” or “I’m sure Grandma is having a good time baking cookies with Aunt Sally.” Such comments cheapen the resurrection, weakening the “basket” in which Christianity has confidently put all of its “eggs.” Also, avoid speaking of the resurrection in present terms. The resurrection is still future, happening at the return of Christ, so to attribute bodily activities now to those who have not yet received a resurrected body is confusing. Even if human beings have souls that outlive bodies – and some Christians teach otherwise – at very least, we should not go beyond what the New Testament allows us to say, simply affirming instead:
“They are now with Jesus.”
Thoughts upon a massacre
Last week in Garissa, Kenya, 150 university students were slaughtered by terrorists, many of the victims Christians, some who were in the chapel praying when the shooting broke out. The resurrection of Christ, on the third day after Jesus was unjustly stripped, whipped, and nailed to a shameful cross, tells us:
Evil will not have the last word.
Followers of Christ who died that day in Kenya are now with their Master, but most importantly, the One who made them will one day re-create them! Jesus has risen, and so we shall rise at his return when the Lord inaugurates his kingdom, a new heaven and a new earth.
In the face of unthinkable actions by evildoers, this is not the time to soft-pedal the resurrection. It is the basket where we have placed every last egg. Instead, let us keep the basket strong, affirming once again the timeless words of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. AMEN.”
FOR FURTHER STUDY: See Pastor Matt O’Reilly’s video at Seed Bed, sponsored by Asbury Theological Seminary. Also, I highly recommend N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperCollins, 2008).
Eggs and basket – Pengjoon.com
Megaphone – Wattpad.com