'Do We Go to Heaven When We Die?' or: Where is This All Going?

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I’ve just finished a brief series preaching through the Book of Revelation. The Revelation of John is a fascinating and fantastical book, full of questions concerning God and evil, justice and discipleship, and the ultimate fate of the universe.

There are many ways in our world to think about the fate of the universe. Some think that the world is getting progressively worse and worse, that society and culture is losing the plot and eventually everything is coming to its death. This group read into each and every sign of demise and point to the latest news article as evidence of this fate, each new war in the Middle East or natural disaster a sure sign of the times. Others think that the world is on an upward spiral, not getting worse but actually getting better and better, progressing into a utopian future. This group points to technology as a saviour, that the world has really been on a steady route of progression and the best is yet to come. These are the capitalistic idealists, the starry-eyed postmoderns who still believe in the Enlightenment dream of science and reason bringing about prosperity and new world order.

The early Christians who wrote the New Testament believed neither of these things. These early believers did not imagine the world was getting better through its own means—whether that be through politics, technology, or reason—but that God was going to have to do something remarkable to transform history and rid it of evil and death as he had done so through Jesus of Nazareth. But neither did these early believers think the world was getting worse and worse, nor that their primary goal and hope was to escape it, for they knew that by the Spirit, God was doing a new thing among them, and that their community of the new humanity under the lordship of Christ pointed to something much greater. They knew that the world had both a great deal of good and a great deal of evil to offer, but that, that good was actually pointing to a future where the world would enjoy absolute and total peace as revealed in the incarnation. Unlike the rest of the ancients who believed history was cyclical, Christianity had a clear directedness, a true telos at which it believed in. Ironically, it is from this Christian belief that swung the pendulum in the western world to give birth to the hyper-progressive optimism of a technological future dramatically crushed by the events of two world wars.

What were these early Christians and New Testament writers expecting then? Well, put simply, they were waiting for God to restore the entire creation, all the cosmos, and throw out death and evil forever. Early Christians and the New Testament believed in this central hope: that what God had done through Jesus at Easter he would one day do for the entire cosmos. This was resurrection and redemption. It wasn’t the idea that God would need to destroy everything and start over like the flood, nor that God would leave humanity to their own devices in order to save the world themselves. Instead it was the hope for holistic redemption—that God would achieve at Christ’s return the perfection of a good creation that was always to be perfected. It was a hope for resurrection—that the whole order of the world held captive under death and decay would be renewed to a state far greater than its former glory.

This would all culminate in what the biblical authors referred to over and over as the ‘new heavens and new earth.’ The prophet Isaiah described this as a place where the wolf and lamb lie down together, where the lion will chew hay like the oxen (Isa 11:6-7). It would be a place where the deserts produce roses, and the mountains sweet wine (Isa 35:1). God’s throne and presence would be there, and we would feast alongside him with the finest food and drink (Isa 25:6). There were embodied, glorious, and joyous realities. The Revelation, this majestic and sorely misread final book of the bible, pointed in dramatic, imaginative fashion to a final vision of a city, where humanity would dwell with God in all fullness and rule and reign alongside him in the great human project (Rev 21:1-5; 22:3-5). It was to be an eternity of exploration and adventure, with Jesus the Lamb at the centre as our ‘guide and healer.’

The New Testament therefore believed this: what God had done through Jesus at Easter he would one day do for the entire cosmos, uniting once again heaven and earth in the new city.

Jesus talked a lot about this, his favourite topic to preach on was the kingdom of heaven. Behold, he proclaimed, for the kingdom of heaven is near. When his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he answered with this prayer: ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.’ Christ’s entire mission and purpose was to inaugurate this new kingdom of heaven on earth, because he knew the church was not going to escape this place, but dwell in it eternally upon his return. Every action he took as he healed, blessed, and prayed in Israel was the firstfruits brought by the Spirit to redeem and take back this hostage kingdom of the world, pointing towards the future kingdom of God. At the cross, Christ let all the power of this world throw everything they had at him so that he might overcome and defeat even death itself and make a way for this new kingdom. By the Spirit his church now bears the gifts and firstfruits of this future to come. What then do we often believe in this world, both inside the church (God’s new humanity) and out? How clearly does it align with this view?

The New Creation

I grew up in the church, and while only coming to saving faith later in my teenage years, the concept of God and eternity always seemed reasonable enough to me as a child. I was taught about heaven as an ethereal, spiritual place, where we’d be disembodied spirits floating around with harps and robes like the angels. I remember so distinctly being very anxious about how anyone would recognise loved ones who have passed since we’d all look like floating-spirit-ghost things. No one had much of an answer.

In general, in this attitude, ‘spiritual’ things were treated as superior and to be sought after, whereas the material was not (sound familiar to anyone who knows Plato?). The hope for our final destination was frankly, boring; a place we’d kind of sit in an eternal worship service and not do much else. I’ve been so glad and encouraged to discover that the biblical view of these things is far better than this.

The biblical view was that what was to come was more embodied, glorious, and wonderful than heaven and earth have ever been before. Biblical scholar N.T. Wright (who has written a lot on this topic and is really worth checking out) uses a brilliant analogy to try and describe what this might be like. You know when someone is in the hospital, and upon inquiring about their wellbeing you hear the reply ‘they’re just a shadow of their former selves’? Our resurrected states shall be very similar to this except the opposite; we are really shadows of our future selves. C.S. Lewis puts forth a similar sentiment in the last of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle: “The new one [the new creation] was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if you ever get there you will know what I mean.”

Although there is plenty to unpack in this topic, for the sake of this article we’d want to end by simply asking ‘so what?’ While giving a better picture of a future hope for those who love the Lamb—something I’d argue is a very worthwhile endeavour anyway—the more pragmatic of you may want to know if this is simply about getting our end-time theology in order. Well, let me try and make a brief case.

As we touched on, the New Testament wasn’t only interested in the future kingdom of God because it was a lovely thought of what was to come, but also because they realised that by the Spirit they were seeing, what they called, the ‘firstfruits’ of this future harvest. Take this verse from the letter of James, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (James 1:17-18).

Not only does this put a cosmic and eternal reality onto the good gifts we see in our everyday lives, but it also offers us the vital opportunity to display and give witness to these future realties brought into our present. The church therefore is to be the new humanity set under the lordship of the New Human, Jesus Christ, bearing the firstfruits of his inaugurated kingdom to display to the world. The church then—as Andrew Picard would say—is the trailer to the movie; if you want to see what the movie is like go and see the trailer. We cannot neglect the importance of displaying and making known these future gifts of an in-breaking kingdom to a world which longs for a life and transcendence that can only come from the good news of Jesus Christ.

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Perhaps the phrase ‘do we go to heaven when we die’ is a bit too provocative, but if this ‘heaven’ is an ethereal, disembodied, escapist place then I suppose the honest answer has to be no. Instead, it’s far more helpful to begin to talk about a new heavens and new earth, a new creation which we are heading for; a place more wonderful and full of adventure than some of us sometimes dare to dream. And as we see glimpses of this future kingdom in our present by the Spirit, let us praise God, get on board with what he is doing, and give witness to the one who coming soon that the world might know and receive him.

The early Christians did not believe in either the myth of evolutionary progression nor the inevitable descent of evil, rather that God would do something remarkable to free this creation from its captivity under death and decay, bringing about a new reality in which the old is only a shadow, a glorious creation of mountains, forests, rivers, and cities, but entirely free from death and evil. And this is still an open story, an invitation into an eternal life in service of the one who has made you and knows every inch of you, and who by Christ Jesus has made a way that you may be with him forever. That’s a pretty special thing.

This is a blog interested in theology, church, pastoral ministry, and the gospel of Jesus in post-Christian, 21st century, Aotearoa New Zealand. Comment and korero below, or get in touch with the author at andrewclarkhoward@gmail.com.