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?

How To Fight The Undeniable Evil That Is Sunday Shopping!

This past week the Saint John city council postponed making a decision that would allow businesses to determine their hours of operation on Sundays. At the present time, a city by-law allows retailers to be open between the hours of 12 noon to 5pm on Sundays. The council postponed the decision because even though 85% of the business owners who responded to a survey want the restrictions, less than half of the businesses in the city responded to the survey at all. Despite the decision not to review the by-law, the trend in the province of New Brunswick is most definitely leaning in the direction of lifting all restrictions on Sunday shopping. Fredericton, Moncton, and Bathurst have already removed such restrictions. Surely, Saint John will eventually follow. [Update: Saint John city council have now revised the by-law removing restrictions on Sunday shopping.]

Alongside the increasingly prevalent practice of scheduling sports team practices and games during the time that most churches hold their services, Sunday shopping is often held up as an example of a culture slipping away from traditional religious values and practices. More specifically, it’s one of the reasons, some suggest, that fewer and fewer people attend church on Sundays. Given the consumerist bent of our society, many would much rather be sitting in a food court at the local mall than in a pew in their local church. The more cars there are parked at Walmart, the fewer there will be in the church parking lot. Or so some say.

Others would say, “So what?”

As a Christian, I agree that the decision to lift Sunday shopping restrictions reflects a culture that is less and less influenced by religious concerns. However, I am not convinced that Sunday shopping is a culprit in the decreased attendance that a number of churches may be experiencing. As far as I’m concerned, if your congregation is dwindling on Sunday mornings, don’t go blaming McDonald’s or Old Navy. Other factors closer to home are no doubt responsible for church decline in the US and Canada. Retailers are simply reaping the benefits.

Whatever the connection is between Sunday shopping and the realities of church life, those of who are Christians—who are committed to Christian community—do have to face the facts. How do we deal with a culture where Sundays are no longer sacred? Because even if the majority of those shopping on Sundays wouldn’t have been in church if the stores weren’t open, it’s still the case that changing attitudes and cultural shifts regarding what used to be called “The Lord’s Day” are having a significant impact on a number of congregations.

For instance, as a pastor, I have a few people in my own congregation that occasionally have to be away on Sundays because of their work. And while I used to think that maybe these people should ask for Sundays off and give as the reason their religious convictions, now I realize that this approach could make it incredibly difficult for a business owner. If an employer gives a Christian employee every Sunday off, does he or she also have to give all Jewish employees the Sabbath off? What about people who have no specific religious beliefs? Is it fair for them to have to make up for the fact that on the weekends their co-workers are attending church or synagogue? Add to this all of the business owners who are also Christian. Do they open their stores and restaurants on Sundays? How do they balance their faith and their business practices?

There are some who would, on the basis of all of this, argue that this is precisely why we should fight to restrict or completely eliminate Sunday shopping. All of these issues would then be moot. But, of course, this would only help those of a Christian persuasion, and therefore leave out our Jewish and Muslim neighbours plus many others. That there may be proportionately a much higher percentage of Christians is not altogether pertinent, not if we want to show a genuine love for neighbour. Besides, once restrictions on Sunday shopping have been lifted, I can’t begin to imagine how they might be put in place again. That’s fighting against a very strong current.

Perhaps more importantly for business owners is to incorporate the biblical principle of rest into their business practices. And many businesses are doing this, having recognized that well-rested, contented employees are also, by and large, more productive. Business owners may not always be in the position of being able to give their employees the exact days off they would prefer, but they can guarantee reasonable time off, time during which the employees can prioritize as they please. And if that means taking time to attend a Bible study, go to a Mosque, or simply spend time with family and friends, so be it.

In the midst of this, churches need to become more understanding of the people who are in the awkward position of having to straddle what can seem like two worlds: their Christian life and their work life. And some churches already make provision for such people by having multiple services, some even during the week. Yes, it’s true; there are those who feel that moving the worship service from Sunday morning at eleven a.m. to Thursday evening at seven p.m. is anathema, but if we’re going to meet people where they are, we have to consider such accommodations.

And I know and agree that, yes, even the New Testament is clear that Sunday was the Lord’s Day, the day that Christians met to celebrate, pray, and learn from the Scriptures together. And this is because Jesus was raised from the dead on a Sunday; our worship services are to celebrate his resurrection and what it means for us. And so certainly there’s no reason that most churches can’t continue to have their worship services on Sunday mornings; moreover, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.

But this point doesn’t necessarily mean fighting to restrict Sunday shopping. In his book Surprised By Hope, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says this:

“Many Christians will find, for all kinds of reasons, that Sunday is a difficult day to attend church services. But we should remind ourselves that the earliest Christians lived in a world where Sunday was the first day of the working week, much like our Monday, and that they valued its symbolism so highly that they were prepared to get up extra early both to celebrate Easter once again and to anticipate the final Eighth Day of Creation, the start of the new week, the day when God will renew all things.”

Aha! Do you see what he said? Even the earliest Christians had Sunday shopping; that is, Sundays were a work day, the first day of the work week. So they did the only thing they could do. They met in wee hours of the morning, before going to work. It wasn’t until decades later in the era of Constantine that Sunday became more of an official day off.

Sure, having had Sunday as a day off for everyone everywhere was extremely convenient for those of us who are Christians. It was great for churches. There was nowhere else for people to be! Convenient, yes; biblical, not so much. So interestingly, the first Christians never had the option of scheduling their communal worship at a time that everyone would automatically have free.

These brings me to two simple conclusions.

First, churches, pastors, and Christians need to stop whining about Sunday shopping, and instead, even if the main service remains on Sunday morning, make other opportunities for people to worship, learn from the Scriptures, and find fellowship. Small groups are definitely a great option here. Some churches can have alternate services, maybe even, gasp, an earlier morning option! Whatever we do, let’s help the people who are stuck working on Sundays rather than complain about them and their lack of attendance.

Second, the real purpose of a day of rest is precisely that: rest. Stop, do nothing, sit down, shut up. Too many Christians complain about Sunday shopping on the one hand, and then go to Swiss Chalet after church on the other hand. And then leave a poor tip. As Christians we generally do a poor job of practicing Sabbath. In a culture filled to the brim with both important and senseless activity, being able to step aside and realize that we are not the center of the universe and that it won’t fall apart if we take time to rest is crucial to affirming the sovereignty of God and the sufficiency of his grace. It’s a part of the good news we’re called to proclaim.

I can understand why the Saint John city council was hesitant to review the by-law regarding Sunday shopping hours. Of course, we can still shop in Saint John for five hours a day. And if we go to church, and it gets out just in time, we can probably still have at least four and a half! But the truth is, if my faith is as important to me as it should be, then even if I had to work every Sunday at another profession, I ought to still be willing to make a priority of communal worship, regardless on which day of the week it falls.