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Heaven’s Important, But It’s Not the End of the World

Heaven’s important, but it’s not the end of the world.

As a pastor, I’ve talked to many people who, when faced with the loss of a loved one, try to find consolation in the thought of their dearly departed’s soul at rest among the clouds in heaven. The image often includes a harp, a halo, some wings, and a choir’s steady chorus of Kumbaya. I’ve never found much comfort in this image, and doubt that anyone who has actually endured a choir practice would find much excitement in an eternity of it.

It is a relatively simple thing for us as Christians to sell short our hope, even at Easter, by setting our sights blandly on heaven as our final destination. It presses deep into us in subtle ways. In fact, we have let the Christian doctrine of the resurrection become so misapplied that we often can’t imagine anything better than a disembodied soul in a cloud-filled, harp-playing eternity. The concept of resurrection, too often, has become synonymous with this generic concept of life after death.

Yet there’s nothing particularly Christian about the idea of us surviving our own death. Plenty of religious and philosophical systems, from Hellenists to Hindus to Heaven’s Gate, have believed in some sort of life after death, whether as an angel, a reincarnated soul, a happy memory living on in loved ones, or a drop of water dissolving into a transcendental ocean. We project hopes of eternity because, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

I remember the Coldplay lyric, "I’d rather be a comma than a full stop." By and large, wouldn’t we all? And yet it’s hard to get past this generic desire to something specific. Perhaps it’s a pluralistic culture that’s allowed all these ideas to merge and dilute; N.T. Wright says that at moments of tragedy in our culture, what is too often revealed is a “rich confusion of belief, half belief, sentiment, and superstition about the fate of the dead." Even as Christians, we’re not quite sure what to believe. Wright adds, “Frankly, what we have at the moment isn’t, as the old liturgies used to say, ‘the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead’ but the vague and fuzzy optimism that somehow things may work out in the end.”

Easter speaks a radically different message than vague idealism and generic immortality. It roots itself historically in a world that doesn’t work the way it should, amongst people who don’t work the way they should—people whose broken dysfunction culminates in the condemnation and execution of an innocent man. But the Bible doesn’t suggest that Jesus merely lived on in the hearts and imaginations of his disciples. It doesn’t say that he returned as a spiritual, disembodied presence. The Resurrection was a physical moment—a real-live, breakfast-eating, wound-displaying messiah who reappeared in real time and space, walking real roads in a real region on a real calendar day.

Francis Schaeffer described the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ resurrection appearance: “In their fear they tried to push him off into another realm—‘they were frightened and supposed that they had seen a spirit’—but Jesus would not allow this… The reality of the resurrection is not something to push off into a strange dimension. It is meaningful in our normal dimension.” Jesus did not return as a Platonic ideal or a positive memory; he walked out of a tomb in real time and space.

We can’t miss this, because his resurrection is the foretaste of ours:

“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” —1 Corinthians 15:20-23

Whether we admit our need or not, we know that something in us just doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. We can’t simply keep spouting the hollow platitude that death is a natural part of living. The reason death feels wrong is that, according to the Bible, it is. Death is the enemy. But Easter makes an amazing claim. Yes, death is the enemy, but in Christ it is a defeated enemy. As astounding as it seems to say, as outlandish as it is to hear, a bodily resurrection awaits.

And this means that ultimately heaven is not our home. Instead, the Bible points Christians beyond it to a recreated, healed heavens and earth, the culmination of our regular prayer for God’s will to be done ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ At the final consummation of God’s Kingdom, these two places—heaven and earth—will be one and the same. God’s dwelling place will be with men (Revelation 21:2-3). A groaning creation, we’re told, awaits this day of liberation (Romans 8:19-21). Creation doesn’t long to be done away with, vaporized, replaced. It longs to be redeemed. So do we. We long for what Tolkien called ‘everything sad coming untrue’ and Lewis called ‘heaven working backward.’ The world doesn’t work the way it should. We don’t work the way we should. But one day, by God’s grace, we will.

And so the hope of Easter is the hope of living physically before the face of God, sustained by him for all eternity. It’s a real, physical world that we will explore with real, physical bodies, but without the brokenness of pandemics and mass shootings and tornados. It’s a world where the church—the bride of Christ—will no longer be the subject of scandals, but of a perfected oneness. It’s a place where an imperfect flock will no longer have cause to distance themselves from the betrayed trust of imperfect shepherds. Instead, with the Great Shepherd in charge, it’s a place where justice is on the throne, truth wins, and grace is on full display.

The down-payment of all of this is a Sunday morning in a Mediterranean garden, a man who (in vivid John Eldredge language) “walked out of the grave with the keys to hell swinging on his belt and the redemption of mankind in his pocket.” Jesus said he would cheat death, and he did. He took the sting of death to accomplish the death of death.

And so we live in an already-but-not-yet anticipation, a taste of resurrection as a magnificent preview of coming attractions. Wright challenges us all to live in light of this Easter hope; “Our task in the present… is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, with our Christian life, corporate and individual, in both worship and mission, as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second."

May the reality of a resurrected Savior be your hope and fuel to live each day in light of that day.


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