No One “Goes” to Heaven: Redux

Below is my sermon from this past Sunday, which in turn is based on an earlier blog post.

I must warn you, if you listen to it you will hear a barking dog. There is, however, no theological significance to the barking dog. You see, during our current COVID lockdown my family and I provide what we call “Homemade Worship” live on YouTube from our living room.

And so not only are my wife and kids sitting in the living room while I preach (facing a laptop screen), so are our dogs. Usually, they are quiet (because of strategically given dog treats). On occasion, however, they make themselves known. In this instance, I deftly maintained my composure.

To that end, here is a verse out of context: Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table (Matthew 15:27).

No One “Goes” to Heaven

Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.

N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

Now that I have your attention with the title of my post, let me explain.

In Western culture, talk of what happens when someone dies usually has to do with whether or not such and such a person will “go” to heaven. Often what gets the most attention in these conversations is who gets to go to heaven and why. Is so and so good enough? Did they live an admirable enough life? Or to make it more personal still, will my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds?

And, yes, these kinds of mathematical attempts to g the likelihood of our getting into heaven need definite correction. The Bible certainly has a great deal to say on the matter. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. Instead, I want to draw attention to other cultural misconceptions, some of which are also shared and perpetuated by well-intentioned Christians. You see, even Christians often have wrong ideas about the afterlife or what the Bible means by heaven and what we can expect to happen to us when we die.

The first point is this: no deceased person is presently in their final eternal resting place. Whatever else we say of heaven, no one is currently in what will be their final state.

A lot of people can sometimes talk as if a deceased loved one is in heaven right now. A popular euphemism is that the deceased individual is in “a better place.” Yet according to Scripture we also know that with the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus there will be a resurrection of the dead, a final judgment, and, only then, will people enter their eternal state.

I would have to say that, though it’s difficult to understand (because Scripture doesn’t unpack all of the details for us), believers who have died are present with the Lord and that until the resurrection on the Last Day, this is not a bodily existence. Consider these words from the apostle Paul:

So we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. In fact, we are confident, and we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:5-8

Paul here is contrasting our bodily existence in the present with what our experience will be like when we have died and are, as he says, away from the body. He can’t be speaking about our final state, however, because that state involves bodily resurrection. See, for instance, what Paul says in his great chapter on all things resurrection:

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? What kind of body will they have when they come?”

So it is with the resurrection of the dead: Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body . . . And just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.

1 Corinthians 15:35, 42-44, 49

When a person places their faith in the person of Jesus, they are joined to him. Theologians call this union with Christ. And part of what this means is that we have both died with Christ and that we will also be raised like him too. So if Christ had a spiritual, resurrection body, so will believers joined to him when they are raised.

So in the passage from 2 Corinthians 5 he must be speaking about an intermediate state–one that is away from the body–that believers experience between death and their ultimate resurrection. I can’t see how else to make sense of what Scripture says.

This means that whatever else is true of people who have died in Christ, they are not currently experiencing what will be their final state: that of having a resurrected embodied existence like Jesus after he left the tomb. And, yet, Paul does say that people who have died in Christ are at home with the Lord. This means that somehow those who have died in Christ are in his presence now awaiting the final resurrection. To be with the Lord is what it means for a believer to be home. Those who are experiencing this intermediate state are experiencing comfort and peace and joy. But there is more to come. In fact, the best is yet to come.

My second point is this: heaven is not about some sort of eternal, incorporeal (non-bodily) existence. Though Paul speaks of being away from the body in 2 Corinthians 5, he is not speaking of what will be the final eternal state of believers.

When some people talk about heaven, they often talk as though our bodies have nothing to do with it. Instead, they conceive of it as some sort of weird, spiritual, ghostlike existence. Either that, or they conclude (altogether unbiblically, I might add) that people who have died, and perhaps were especially virtuous, get turned into angels. I think this in part because if they think someone can be in heaven in some final sense now, it is difficult to square that with the reality of a cremated or buried body. In other words, if when my Mother died in 2011 she went immediately to her final state of eternity, then it certainly can’t include her body which remains buried.

Might someone who has already died be given an altogether new, spiritual body entirely separate and distinct from their earthly and now deceased body? I don’t think so. And the reason I don’t think so is because of Jesus’ resurrection. His tomb was empty. His resurrected body bore the scars of crucifixion. There was continuity between Jesus’ pre-crucifixion body and his post-resurrection body. Resurrection is about transformation, not replacement. What was true of Jesus will also be true of those who are united to him in faith.

In any case, Scripture makes abundantly clear that whatever else we say of the final state of existence for those united to Christ, it will be a bodily existence. We will have arms and legs, fingers and toes, noses and ears. Jesus’ resurrection is an affirmation of the Genesis pronouncement over creation: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good indeed.

This brings us to the third point: those united to Christ don’t “go” to someplace called heaven; heaven and earth come together in the new creation. Heaven is not located up and away from earth. Heaven is where God’s presence is fully known and experienced. We’re not looking to escape earth; rather, we’re awaiting the renewal, restoration, and indeed, the resurrection not only of the earth but of the entire cosmos. Consider these words given to John on Patmos:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.

Then I heard a loud voice from the throne:Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new.”

Revelation 21:1-5

And the words of the prophet:

For I will create new heavens and a new earth;
the past events will not be remembered or come to mind.

Isaiah 65:17

And of the apostle Peter:

But based on his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

2 Peter 3:13

What we are invited to anticipate as believers is not being able to leave this world behind for a disembodied existence in some other heavenly location but rather a new heavens and new earth, where we will enjoy physical lives free of all that limits and destroys life on this side of eternity. It will be creation as God has always intended it to be, free from the stain of sin and disease and the curse of death.

Put simply, God will resurrect us and the rest of the creation he made. Pastor Tim Keller says this: “The resurrection of Christ assures us that God will redeem not just souls but bodies, and will bring about a new heavens and new earth.” And, dare I say, it will be very, very good.

And so the fourth and last important point (at least for this post): heaven is not simply about living forever but about living forever in the presence of our Creator. And this is not an incidental point. As we saw in Revelation 21, what we can look forward to with hope is that God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God.

The point is relationship, indeed, perfect fellowship, between human beings, all of creation, and the very One who gave everything existence in the first place. Shalom. Complete and total flourishing. No hint of trouble or tears. Not a whiff of sin or dysfunction.

The upshot of this is that, unlike what many in our culture would like to believe, only those who confess faith in the risen Lord Jesus will be able to participate in this new heavens and new earth. Consider the following words from famous preacher and pastor John Piper:

The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?

John Piper, God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself

In other words, if you think you could enjoy heaven without God, then you will not be there. We cannot separate God and heaven. Where one is, so is the other. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that it is in being in the presence of God that the experience of heaven primarily consists. Or to put it another way: getting to heaven is not the goal; getting to God is. The apostle Peter expresses it this way:

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God.

1 Peter 3:18

So why did Jesus suffer, die, and rise? To bring us to heaven? No, to bring us to God, which is, in Christian terms, the precise same thing as heaven.

Now do you see what I mean when I say no one goes to heaven?

What do we do with all this, then?

The first thing is to stop thinking about heaven according to a false cultural narrative–one that affects people both inside and outside the church. Christians are called to be biblically minded, to have their thinking on these matters shaped by what Scripture actually says, not what we assume or wish it says.

Another takeaway is that the physical world–our bodies, the ground we walk on, the food we eat, the beauty we admire–is good. Inherently good. And one day it will be perfected and eternal. The so-called afterlife is not an afterlife after all. It is life as it was always supposed to be. It is not a consolation prize. It is the jackpot. Imagine the very best of this life brought to perfection. Contrary to what some think, we will not find ourselves bored in heaven.

Lastly, there is hope. With all that ravages our world, from the various forms of violence and dehumanization, disease and disaster, most of us long for a world without any of these things. We want to be free of pain. We don’t want to worry anymore. We want to know what real, lasting peace is like. We want our relationships to be healed of anger and regret.

And all of this is what God is going to accomplish by creating a new heavens and new earth, by making all things new. Indeed, this is what he began to do in raising Jesus from the dead. That was but the beginning, the utimate signpost to an available new reality which we can start to experience even now, but we can only fully experience on the other side of our resurrection. And to know that we will participate in this new reality, we need to acknowledge that it was indeed inaugurated through the empty tomb of Jesus. As he says in John 11:25–26, I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

How do you answer Jesus’ question?

So, sure, no one “goes” to heaven. But doesn’t all this sound infinitely better?

A Journey’s End

I’ve now finished reading The Lord of the Rings. As I completed part 3, The Return of the King, a passage from the last chapter, the very end where Frodo leaves Middle-Earth, there is this wonderful description of what Frodo sees as he sails across the sea to the West:

And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

As it happens, these words are also used in the film adaptation. There they appear on the lips of Gandalf and are said to Pippin in the moments before they meet potential doom in Minas Tirith. It’s one of my favourite moments in the film. The conversation goes like this:

Pippin: “I didn’t think it would end this way.”

Gandalf: “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”

Pippin: “What? Gandalf? See what?”

Gandalf: “White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

Pippin: “Well, that isn’t so bad.”

Gandalf: “No. No, it isn’t.”

The Return of the King (2003)

Here Gandalf describes what would be the Middle-Earth version of heaven, or so it seems.

Finishing the book trilogy is bittersweet. You really do feel like you have been on a journey with these characters with whom you have come to identify and to love and admire. Beyond that, it’s bittersweet because it’s not a fake, Disney-like, happily-ever-after ending. While couched in the narrative of fantasy, of an imaginative world of Tolkien’s making, there is an honesty and hope about the human condition. There is the acknowledgement of sorrow and death and how the truest and fullest joy is all the greater for them.

I’m sorry that the journey is over, but I am very glad to have taken it.