“Heaven” is one of those words that when you say it, people think they can stop listening because they already know what you’re going to say. When we die, our bodies aren’t us anymore, and our immortal souls go up to heaven where we watch over the people we’ve left behind. Add in the usual clouds and harps and pearly gates, with St. Peter standing outside them behind a lectern with a huge book—and what on earth did poor Peter do to get stuck with that, anyway?—and you have the basic picture that floats around in the back of most people’s minds; that’s what “heaven” means to us.
I’m here to tell you I don’t believe a word of it. I don’t believe I have an immortal soul, and I don’t believe it’s going up to heaven when I die, and I most especially don’t believe any of us in this room will be playing harps—except for Elly, since she plays it now. (If you want to tell me heaven would be a place where I’ll play bassoon well enough that it will still be heaven for everyone else, we can talk about that, but I’m no harpist.) Obviously, if by “heaven” you mean the place where God lives and is fully visibly present, yes, I believe in that, but I don’t believe in heaven as most people think about it; and the reason I don’t is because the Bible doesn’t either. The Bible, instead, promises us two very different and very much greater things: the resurrection of the dead, and the new heavens and the new earth. Jesus didn’t come to Earth just to save our souls, he came to redeem us as whole human beings, body and spirit; indeed, he came to redeem his whole creation, not just us. God isn’t in this just for souls, as if he’d be happy to let the rest of the world he made go to rot; he’s in this to take it all back.
The ascension makes this clear, and underpins what Paul is saying about the resurrection from the dead in 1 Corinthians 15, because it shows us that Jesus’ resurrection was no temporary thing. He came back to life as a flesh and blood human being—albeit one whose body could do things that ours can’t—and when he left, he didn’t leave that body behind and go back to heaven as a spirit; he returned in the body, as a human being. That shows us what God is about in our own redemption. To raise us as spirits and leave our bodies behind would leave death with some measure of victory in the end; and it would devalue the world God has made, the world which he pronounced good. God isn’t interested in letting either of these things happen. Rather, his intent is to absolutely undo all the damage done by our enemy when he led Adam and Eve into sin, and absolutely destroy all powers opposed to him, leaving them no scrap of accomplishment at all. The absolute destruction of all death, and the absolute victory of all that is life, under the rule of Jesus Christ our Lord is what we have to look forward to—nothing less.
This is why, if you flip over and look at the last couple chapters of Revelation for a minute, you’ll see what it promises: a new heaven and a new earth, an entirely remade physical world; and at its center is the holy city, the city of God, the new Jerusalem. This seems odd to a lot of folks—indeed, by comparison to most human myths, it is odd—and I know a few people who object to the idea of living in a city for eternity. I don’t think that’s what Revelation is getting at, though; rather, I think the point of the new Jerusalem is this, that when God remakes the world, he won’t simply undo everything we’ve done. As the French theologian Jacques Ellul notes, “The city is . . . our primary human creation. It is a uniquely human world. It is the symbol that we have chosen.” This does mean, in part, that it’s “the place that human beings have chosen in opposition to God.” That’s why, in Scripture, cities are never really seen as positive places, and oftentimes are presented very negatively. But in making the center of the new creation a city, God is taking our works into account, and redeeming the works of our hands, turning the center and hub of our fallen civilization into the center of his perfect reign. This tells us that the good that we have made, the good things we have built, the honorable works of our hands, will not be swept away in the final judgment; even as God will redeem and perfect us, so too will our accomplishments be redeemed and perfected. The gifts God has given you, and the good things you do with them to his glory, will also be saved.
Of course, that redemption and perfection are an important part of the picture. The great relief pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, the late Dan Quisenberry, once quipped, “I have seen the future, and it is much like the present, only longer”; but if that tends to be drearily true in human history, it will not be true at all of the new creation. We will be raised in our own bodies, but our bodies will be different in kind. Now, they are perishable; our bodies erode, they wear out, they catch diseases, they break, they fail, and we die. In the new creation, they won’t be subject to any of that; they will be imperishable, what Paul calls “spiritual bodies.” Flesh and blood as we know it now cannot endure the glory of God, it cannot stand up to the brightness of his presence; it’s too frail and flimsy and shadowy a thing to breathe the air of heaven. It must be made new, remade, along with the rest of creation, in order to be solid enough and real enough to stand in the very presence of God. So too the works of our hands, those things we have forged out of our own hard work and the raw materials God has given us; that which is worthy will endure, but not as we have known it, for it too will be remade by the hand of God.
This is the promise of the gospel—the promise we see realized first in the resurrection of Christ, whom Paul calls “the firstfruits,” the first harvest, “of those who have died”; as the first one to be raised from the dead, as the one who went before us to show us the way, he shows us the new life that waits for us. We will be raised from the dead, not merely as we are now, but as he is, and the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and the power of sin in our lives will be no more, forever and ever and ever.
Now, as a side note, people have wondered and argued how this all fits together, and they’ve come up with a lot of different ideas; I should probably tell you how I understand this, and I’ll borrow from Paul and say “I, not the Lord,” and you can make of it what you will—but this is what makes sense to me. I believe, when it comes to the point of Christ’s return to this earth and the resurrection from the dead, that we all get there at the same time, regardless of when we leave. I believe that when Jean Illingworth and Susan Bertschai and Sara’s grandparents and all those whom we love who have died closed their eyes for the last time, it was just a blink, and they opened them again to find Jesus raising them from the dead in their new bodies; and I believe that those of us who die between now and that time, they found us right there beside them, blinking and rub-bing our eyes and staring at last into the face of Jesus our Lord. Some have called that idea “soul sleep,” but I prefer to think of it as time travel—the moment of death is the moment of resurrection, in God’s perspective, even if it doesn’t look that way to us now. As I say, you can make of that what you will, you can believe it that way or not, it doesn’t matter to me; that’s just how I best understand it. All that really matters is that however it makes sense for you, that you don’t let go of any of God’s promise to you.
I say that because, unfortunately, that’s all too easy to do. There’s a real tendency to spiritualize this which goes back before the beginning of the church; it’s a tendency which found its most significant expression in the movement known as Gnosticism. If you read The DaVinci Code, you’ll probably remember that the characters in there talk a lot about Gnosticism, though the author, Dan Brown, actually knows very, very little about it, and so presents a completely screwy picture. Gnosticism, I think it’s fair to say, was rooted in two basic impulses. One is the desire to be superior to other people, in this case by being able to say, “I know something you don’t know”; the other is the desire not to have to take the body seriously. For some, that was because they hated the body and all its limitations, and wanted to get free of it, to become more than human; as our science advances, that same impulse is starting to show itself in the work of scientists who talk about “enhancing” our bodies, and dream of a “post-human age.” Others, however, didn’t want to have to take their bodies seriously because they wanted to be able to do whatever they pleased with them; they wanted to be able to get drunk, get high, eat too much, sleep with whomever they could get into bed, and generally indulge themselves, while still being “spiritual.” Two very different reasons for the same basic claim: that the body is unimportant, that only the spirit matters.
That kind of thinking has been a continuing problem for the church over the years; the church keeps getting rid of it, and it keeps creeping back in. People find it easier to believe, and not always for bad reasons, and so they drift into thinking this way without ever really realizing that it’s less than what God promises us. But it is less, because our bodies aren’t unimportant, and they aren’t incidental to who we are; we exist as body and spirit together, and our bodies, though fallen and subject to sin, are beautiful and precious; certainly, to live forever in bodies that aged and fell ill and broke down would be no good thing, but to leave them behind forever would be no good thing either, for it would make us less than ourselves. That’s why God promises to raise us, whole, from the dead, in imperishable, incorruptible bodies, because our bodies are part of us, and every part of us matters to God, in every aspect of who we are and what we do.
This means that what we do with our bodies matters, because our bodies are sites of God’s redemption; his Spirit is alive and at work in our bodies as well as in our spirits, for they are inseparably woven together, to remake us into the people he created us to be. This is why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6 that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and why he tells the Corinthians that they need to watch what they do with their bodies, because there are no merely physical acts. Every act is spiritual, because every act that affects our bodies—food, sex, exercise, sleep, slipping and falling, getting back up—every act affects our spirits, and we won’t be leaving these bodies behind. They’ll be transformed when God makes all things new, but they’ll still be our bodies, and what we do with them matters, to us and to God.
To some, this might not seem like good news, but I think it is; it’s the good news that because Jesus ascended into heaven in the body, as a human being, there is room for us in our full humanity in the presence of God. There is no part of us God will not re-deem—no good thing he will not purify, no bad thing he will not transform. There is room for us in the kingdom of God as whole people, scars and all, because he has re-deemed us as whole people, scars and all; when the kingdom comes, even our scars will no longer bring us pain, or shame, for they, too, will be the marks of the redemptive work of Jesus in our lives.