So I was teaching a Wednesday Bible class of older adults not long ago, and I mentioned some of this to them, and they became upset with me. They’d always been taught they’d float off into the ether as disembodied souls. Plainly I was wrong. But I pointed out to them that they’d also always been taught that Jesus would return and there’d be the “general resurrection.” This is familiar from such passages as —
(1Co 15:51-53 ESV) 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
We won’t all die the first death (and so seem to sleep until Jesus returns), but we Christians will “all be changed” when we “put on immortality” at the “last trumpet” when Jesus returns.
So which is it? Do we float off to heaven when we die? Or will be marvelously changed when Jesus returns? It really can’t be both. The class was not happy with me at all.
When I first read Wright’s Surprised by Hope, I decided to test his theory of the resurrection by testing some of its implications. For example, if the body survives as a body (in some sense), then the afterlife must be the sort of place suitable for bodies.
Well, Jesus promised the apostles “rooms” that he would prepare for them.
(Joh 14:2-3 ESV) 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
And Paul wrote,
(Rom 8:16-17 ESV) 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs– heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Hmm … “Glorified” sounds a lot like Daniel’s promise that will shine like stars (Dan 12:2-2; compare Phil 2:15: “Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.” (NIV)).
And notice how Paul describes the end of time in Romans —
(Rom 8:20-21 ESV) 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
First, the creation was subjected to “futility” in hope of being “set free from its bondage to corruption,” which will produce “glory of the children of God.”
22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
From the Fall in Genesis 3 until the return of Jesus, the creation is “groaning” as though preparing for childbirth in parallel with the groaning of Christians who anticipate “the redemption of our bodies.”
This passage can’t help but remind us of —
(2Co 5:2-4 ESV) 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened — not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
As Paul explains the resurrection here, we are to be “further clothed” as what is mortal (not immortal!) will be “swallowed up by life.” Resurrection is God’s gifting of immortality to us — the redemption of our bodies.
Now, remember that “redemption” literally refers to freeing someone, such as a slave, by paying a price. Our bodies will be freed from the pains and vicissitudes of mortality, from the limitations and boundaries that constrain us all, and instead become like Jesus’ resurrection body. Thus, Jesus is the “firstfruits” of the resurrection, coming to fruition long before his brothers and sisters, but returning so that we might all join him in his future glory.
Suddenly, the texts make better sense. Words that once seemed poetic puffery take on new, more intense meaning. Our future “glory” happens when we become like stars shining in the midnight sky. How that happens exactly, I don’t know. But I know why Paul uses “glory” to describe our future state.
Our “redemption” is not just freedom from hell, but freedom from the pains and burdens of mortality.
Christians will be given immortality. And that would seem to imply that the damned are not — which would mean that Edward Fudge was right about the fate of the damned in The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment. (For another day perhaps.)
But if that’s right, and if our bodies aren’t destroyed, does that mean that the earth won’t be destroyed? Well, Rom 8:20-23 very plainly says it will not — contrary to most Christian teaching for the last several centuries. Paul says the creation is awaiting its “redemption” and “freedom”
— not its destruction — which is entirely consistent with God’s plan for his children. And Paul says that because Isaiah says that.
(Isa 65:17-18 ESV) 17 “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. … 25 The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.
A new heavens and new earth? Like the one God made in Genesis 1 that we live in today? Well, the word translated “new” can also mean “fresh,” both in the Hebrew and the Greek. Is God making an entirely new heaven and earth? Or is he renewing that one he already made?
(Isa 66:22-24 ESV) 22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain. 23 From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD. 24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
Well, v. 24 tells us that outside the new/fresh heavens and earth will be the dead bodies (corpses, quite literally) of God’s enemies. Those who rebel against God will not enter this new heavens and earth — but will die (not suffer eternally, but die, so says Isaiah).
Still, it’s not quite clear how God plans to do this. Fortunately, God tells us more at the end of Revelation.
(Rev 21:1 ESV) 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.
“New” here is kainos. Thayer’s points out that “kainos denotes the new primarily in reference to quality, the fresh, unworn.” “Passed away” does not mean “dead” but “to come to an end and so no longer be there.” In what sense did this happen? Fortunately, John is quite clear —
(Rev 21:2-4 ESV) 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
The “new Jerusalem” is kept in heaven for us (Gal 4:25-26; Heb 11:10; 12:12; 13:14; Rev 3:12), but when Jesus return, it descends to earth. And then “the dwelling place of God is with man” — an allusion to several passages in the Torah promising just this thing. The passage says that the old heavens and old earth will be purged and cleansed — redeemed and freed from bondage — and the God brings heaven and earth together so that God himself will live with man.
The reference to the “former things” is clearly an allusion to Isa 65:17 — “the former things shall not be remembered.” And then God himself announces,
(Rev 21:5 ESV) 5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new [kainos].” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
God fulfills his ancient promises to renew the world. But “all things” includes not just the heavens and the earth, but those who live in and who survive the cleansing — God’s children. We are made new as well.
(Rev 21:10-11 ESV) 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11 having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.
Again, John the Revelator sees the new Jerusalem descending to the earth — with God’s presence (his glory) within it.
(Rev 21:22 ESV) 22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.
God will need no temple once the new Jerusalem descends to earth because God himself will be there.
(Rev 22:5 ESV) 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
Isa 60:19 and Dan 7:27 are fulfilled as God himself becomes the light of the world. The creation is renewed but also transformed in unimaginable ways — just like our bodies.
Now, thoughtful readers have doubtlessly begun to wonder about two key passages:
(2Pe 3:10-13 ESV) 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. 11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
(1Th 4:13-17 ESV) 13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
We’ll get there. Not surprisingly, the prevailing image of disembodied souls wafting off to heaven at death has impacted our translations here and there. We’ll need to consider these passages carefully in light their context.
But for now, there’s no doubt but that there is strand of scripture that teaches a general, embodied resurrection when Jesus returns, with heaven coming down to earth so that God will dwell with man. And this makes sense of such otherwise difficult passages as —
(Mat 5:5 ESV) 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Who wants to inherit the earth is God is going to burn it to a cinder?
To be continued.