Jesus said to her, 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? (John 11:2526)
A few weeks ago, I sat reading this chapter at the bedside of my grandma, who was nearing the end of her earthly life after a long struggle with Alzheimers. On my way out of the building, I met the funeral home director who had come in for a meeting with my parents. He offered his condolences and said, At least therell be another angel in heaven!
Now he probably wasnt attempting to make a precise theological statement here. Its simply a generic, sentimental word of condolence that most of us have heard before. Nonetheless it is an indicator of our cultures rather bland vision of the afterlife. We hear these types of phrases often, or read them in greeting cards or on tombstones. We tend to imagine heaven as some sort of immaterial place in the clouds where well float around as disembodied ghosts forever. But is this really our ultimate hope? Was it the hope of the apostles and church fathers and countless generations of Christians who lived and died seeking the riches of the heavenly kingdom?
The Bible does teach that the soul (or spirit) of a believer who dies enters instantly into the presence of God (2 Corinthians 5:8, Ecclesiastes 12:7). This is where we find Lazarus in the story Jesus tells in Luke 16as a believer who has died, Lazarus is said to be “at Abraham’s side.” So it’s accurate to say that a deceased Christian has gone to be with the Lord, joining the great multitude of other saints who have died in Christ. Yet we still visit their grave sites. We know that for now their body remains in the ground, slowly returning to the dust from which it was formed (Gen. 3:19). So is the spirit absent from the body forever?
Many religions and philosophies, including ancient gnosticism, hold that the physical body with its senses and desires is like a prison for the soulthat to be fully actualized and alive, the soul must shed the fleshly confines of the body. Christianity stands in contrast to this. God made the material world and called it good, and our ultimate hope is at Christs second coming. In that day, our physical bodies will be raised and reunited with the soul to live forever in a restored, physical-yet-glorified world (1 Corinthians 15:1258; 1 Thessalonians 4:155:4; Rom. 8:20-22).
The apostle Paul looked toward his resurrection the way a weary sailor looks toward the growing glimmer of dry land on a distant horizon. He wanted to know and become like Christ so that he might by any means possible attain the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:11). Pauls hope, the goal toward which he strove, was hardly vague or sentimental. It wasnt a therapeutic hope that merely improved his mood during times of hardship. Rather, Pauls hope was rooted in the true and certain promises of God in Christ. Jesus said, For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day (John 6:50). He didnt merely make the promise of eternal life. He also sealed the promise when he unsealed His own tomb, walked out in a glorified physical body, and ascended into heaven. If we believe as Paul did that Christ physically rose from the dead, then we know that Christ can and will raise up His people on the last day.
This is why understanding the promise of our coming resurrection is so crucialit means our assurance of salvation is not rooted in our ability to convince St. Peter at the pearly gates that weve done enough good works to earn our harp and cloud. Instead, its rooted firmly in the promises of God in Christ and sealed in His own resurrection. We can repeatedly look to that historical event as the grounds for our assurance.
The truth of our bodily resurrection also redeems everything that we do in the body here on earth. The effort we put into making beauty, whether through music, art, or fresh flowers in the kitchen, is not wasted on a world destined for destruction. Instead, our world is destined for redemption and restoration. In a mysterious new way, well smell things in heaven. Well taste and hear and feel things, and everything our glorified senses perceive will be infinitely more beautiful and pleasurable than we can currently imagine. Therell be music, but perhaps with infinite scale tones instead of merely twelve. Therell be visual art, but possibly also an inconceivably broader spectrum of colors to combine. Therell be fine cuisine, but likely with a vast new array of tastes and textures.
We can only speculate on much of this, but one of the most repeated images Scripture gives of heaven is that of a celebratory feast. We rehearse this feast now by partaking of the communion meal. While spiritual corruption came through Adam taking and eating the fruit forbidden him, spiritual nourishment comes through our taking and eating the bread and wine freely offered us by Christ, pointing to His physical body broken and blood poured out on our behalf. But there remains a greater feast still to come. After instituting the communion meal, Christ told his disciples, I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Fathers kingdom (Matthew 26:29). This will be the great marriage supper of the Lamb, the mere glimpse of which caused John the apostle to fall down prostrate (Revelation 19:610):
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,
For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready
it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure
Not only have we unworthy creatures been invited to the wedding feast, but its our own wedding to Christrather, His wedding to us. We receive this unthinkable privilege not because there was anything lovely within us. Instead, it was granted to us to be clothed. Just as God mercifully covered the rebel Adam in animal skins, so God has clothed us in the spotless garments of Christs righteousness.
My grandma is currently absent from the body and present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). Its a great comfort to know that she is joyfully in His presence, yet we laid her body in the ground for a reason. We know that one day her grave will be opened, and her body raised and restored to health and vitality. Shell walk, or probably run, with us to the feast as part of Christs beloved bride.
How much more would our minds be set on heaven if we spoke less of turning into angels and more of simply eating and drinking with God forever? Christ dwells in heaven at this very moment in the same glorified physical body that Thomas touched. Hes preparing a place for usa new and better garden, unstained by sinwhere we can walk with Him in the cool of the day in bodies that will never decay. There we will at last approach the Father, who dwells in unapproachable light, and purely glorify and enjoy Him who first loved us and drew us to Himself.