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?

Learning to Pray from Scripture Part 3: How the Psalms Teach Us to Be Ourselves in the Presence of God

How open are you about expressing your emotions? Do you typically hide your feelings from others? Or do you find it difficult to put how you are feeling into words? Maybe you’re not someone who is, as they say, in touch with their feelings. Perhaps you find the outward expression of emotions–be it anger, sadness, grief, disappointment, or fear–awkward and uncomfortable, even around those closest to you. It’s possible your upbringing trained you to see letting your feelings show as inappropriate. Our specific culture and family of origin play a profound role in this sort of thing.

What about in the context of your relationship with God? When you pray, are you the sort of person who wears your heart on your sleeve or do you couch your prayers in especially reverent language? Not that these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive, but you get my point. That is, as we enter God’s presence intentionally with our prayers, what role, if any, do our emotions play? Put another way: is it somehow irreverent or inappropriate to come before God with feelings of anger or sadness, weariness or worry? Do we need to compose ourselves first, so to speak?

To get some answers to these questions, there is no better way than to turn to the Psalms. The Psalms are the prayer book and hymnal of the Bible. Even a cursory reading of a handful of psalms demonstrates that the psalmists did not hide their emotions from God in their prayers. Well-known pastor John Piper says that “One of the reasons the Psalms are deeply loved by so many Christians is that they give expression to an amazing array of emotions.” He’s exactly right. And because of this the Psalms give us permission to do likewise.

So let’s look at some examples. First, in Psalm 25:16 we read this: Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am alone and afflicted. Here the psalmist, David, is honest about his loneliness. I am alone, he prays. While our lives are much different than his, each of us knows loneliness. But for some, loneliness is an especially profound struggle. Whatever David’s reasons for loneliness are, he feels wholly free to bring what he’s feeling to God. He genuinely believes God cares about how he feels and can do something about it. Turn to me and be gracious to me, David asks.

This example alone reveals how we are free to come to God and tell him how we feel. We don’t do so in order to provide God with information about our lives; no, we do so to draw on the comfort of his presence, to seek grace from him.

Grief is another example. David helps us there too:

I am weary from my groaning;
with my tears I dampen my bed
and drench my couch every night.
My eyes are swollen from grief;
they grow old because of all my enemies.

Psalm 6:6-7

Again, for our purposes here the circumstances of David’s grief are not our chief concern. Instead, take note of how vulnerable he allows himself to be in the presence of God. There is no gap between how he feels and what he prays.

Let’s not forget who David is, either. David was a king and therefore a military and political leader. He knew how to handle himself on the field of battle. He took down Goliath as a young man, when the entire Israelite army cowered in fear.

At the same time, David was a poet, and a man after God’s own heart. He is the author of the majority of the Psalms. He was incredibly self-aware of what was going on in his heart. He was willing to dance before God with abandon, unconcerned with what others thought about such devotion. He had no problem coming before God with honesty, with being real or authentic, as we might say.

So David wept, and he brought his tears to God in prayer. So can we. I love what Gandalf says at the end of The Return of the King: “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

Here’s the thing. When as people of faith we experience the more difficult emotions, what do we do with them? What do we do about them? Do we pretend they’re not real? And what if we experience a difficult emotion about God himself? Consider this prayer from David:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?

Psalm 13:1

Here we see disappointment, confusion, uncertainty, doubt. A prayer in the form of questions. I wonder how many Christians find themselves experiencing a feeling like this, but at the same time feel as though they cannot express this to God. And all because doing so is not truly reverent or proper.

I think that when we have such feelings of disappointment or uncertainty about God, and do not allow those feelings into our prayers, it negatively affects our faith and our relationship with God. Think of hiding something you feel deeply towards a loved one from that loved one. If a husband or wife, for instance, hides their feelings of disappointment in their spouse from their spouse, how might this impact their intimacy, their trust in one another? At the very least, the feeling doesn’t simply disappear because we keep it to ourselves. It will continue to eat at us. At worst, it results in an unhealthy emotional distance. In such a situation it’s worth asking ourselves: “Why am I avoiding sharing how I feel? Don’t I trust that my relationship–my spouse–can handle it? What does it say about our relationship if I don’t think they can?”

Let me be bold and say that the same holds for our relationship with God. If I avoid bringing my feelings to God in prayer, including feelings of disappointment with him, what does this reveal about how I feel regarding God’s trustworthiness? Am I afraid of being that honest in his presence? If so, why? What about doing so makes me uncomfortable?

The difficult emotions don’t end there, of course. Psalm 137 expresses profound grief over the exile of Israel to Babylon. Through exile Israel lost her identity as a nation. She found herself in utter ruin and despair. For this reason this Psalm includes some of the most difficult words in all of Scripture.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who pays you back
what you have done to us.
Happy is he who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137:1, 8-9

These words are in the Bible. We can’t avoid them. Psalm 137 is perhaps the most angry and hopeless psalm of lament in the entire psalter. The words are violent and vengeful. And not without reason, considering what Israel had been through. The question is what do we do with a psalm like this?

Psalm 137 isn’t alone. One of my favourite passages in all of Scripture is Psalm 139, but there are some verses in this psalm that seem almost out of place. They go like this:

God, if only you would kill the wicked—
you bloodthirsty men, stay away from me—
who invoke you deceitfully.
Your enemies swear by you falsely.
Lord, don’t I hate those who hate you,
and detest those who rebel against you?
I hate them with extreme hatred;
I consider them my enemies.

Psalm 139:19-22

I’m not going to pretend I have easy answers for how to apply such words to our lives as we seek to follow Jesus. I do not. I’m not altogether sure how to square such poetry with the biblical admonitions to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us.

But I think there is something we can say.

Take note that while the psalmists in 137 and in 139 are expressing a profound anger, they bring this anger to God. In other words, these psalms are not teaching us to act out on our anger. We’re not being instructed to take vengeance on our enemies or those who have done us harm. No, we are being shown that the best place to bring such angry and vengeful emotions is to God in prayer.

In fact, praying such words of angry lament are an act of deep trust that God is a God of justice and righteousness. By asking God to kill the wicked the psalmist is effectively leaving the matter in God’s hands. Such prayers become, therefore, a safe place to vent our most troubling thoughts and emotions, a prayerful space where we can process our feelings that justice has been violated and something needs to be done–something only God himself can do.

Now, if we find ourselves wondering why we would ever be in a position to pray like this, might I suggest this is because we live in an especially privileged position? For those, however, who personally know the realities of injustice, such prayers may indeed be an important part of addressing their circumstances. Consider that approximately 70% of the Psalms include words of lament–what Bono of U2 once refered to as the blues music of the Bible:

That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me, the blues. Man shouting at God— “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?”

Bono

There are other difficult emotions, of course. Fear would be another. But in every case, the Psalms show us that we are free to come before God with the whole of our humanity. In doing so, our intimacy with God grows and deepens, and becomes more honest, grounded, and resilient.

The late Eugene Peterson says this about the Psalms:

Praying isn’t being nice before God. The Psalms aren’t pretty. They’re not nice. Faith often isn’t smooth, nice, or pretty, but it’s honest, and I think we’re trying for honesty in our faith, which is very hard in our culture.

Eugene Peterson

I think he’s absolutely right, both about the honesty of the Psalms but also about how difficult it is for us to be honest in our prayers.

Now, after all of this, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the Psalms only give voice to difficult emotions. Not at all. There is also joy and celebration, thanksgiving and praise, all through the Psalms.

You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and new wine abound.

Psalm 4:7

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praise to your name, Most High,
to declare your faithful love in the morning
and your faithfulness at night,
with a ten-stringed harp
and the music of a lyre.

Psalm 92:1-3

That’s the other thing. When it comes to prayer, our neglect is of an equal opportunity sort. We’re also not so open to being effusive in our joy and thanks. Often even our praise to God is muted. And it shouldn’t be!

I know that when it comes to my church experience over the years, emotions have been less expressed than not. I have been a Baptist pastor for nearly 20 years, after all. Like I said at the start, this in part is because of our culture. Travel to churches in other parts of the world (or to other churches!) and you won’t necessarily see believers holding in their emotions during prayer and worship.

Yet, it doesn’t have to be about what we see but what God sees. Because what we’re talking about is being honest–completely vulnerable–before God. In other words, we’re talking about being ourselves in the presence of God, in all of our messiness and brokenness, including when we pray. Actually, especially when we pray. Because if the Psalms teach us anything about prayer, it is this.