When we Christians talk about the afterlife you might get the impression that we do not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Asked what happens when we die, there is often a reference to either going straight to heaven or hell, or of being reunited with loved ones in a spirit world. I imagine that my favourite bass player thought he was capturing Christian theology when he penned these words for a song by the Who in the 1960s:
On top of the sky is a place where you go if you’ve done nothing wrong
If you’ve done nothing wrong
And down in the ground is a place where you go if you’ve been a bad boy
If you’ve been a bad boy
Why can’t we have eternal life
And never die, never die?
In the place up above you grow feather wings and you fly round and round
With a harp singin’ hymns
And down in the ground you grow horns and a tail and you carry a fork
And burn away
Why can’t we have eternal lifeAnd never die, never die? (Lyrics by John Entwhistle)
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:12)
In other words “why do you say the future is only about being disembodied souls and deny that we shall be bodily raised?” Instead of taking their theology from Greek thinking, they really ought to be taking their theology from Jesus Himself, the fact He rose from the dead, and from where Jewish theology had been pointing all along.
Paul’s argument begins in verse 12. We might interpret “Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead” as meaning He was raised from a state of being dead, but the Greek behind it is quite explicit; “Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead ones.” So if Christ is raised from among the “dead ones” we ought to expect the same for all the “dead ones.”
13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. (1 Corinthians 15:13)
The line of reasoning is easier to see if we think of it this way: “If we are not expecting the dead to be raised but rather to be disembodied souls, then why didn’t Jesus appear following his crucifixion as a disembodied soul? Why was the tomb empty?”
Paul goes on to point out the logical consequences of not believing in the resurrection of the dead and therefore of not believing that Jesus rose from the dead:
and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)
There is much to be said about this, but suffice it to say that the resurrection of Jesus was many things including the confirmation of who Jesus is and what God was doing through Jesus’ death. Had Jesus not been raised from the dead, history may have recorded that he was simply a miracle worker and teacher who said some quite blasphemous things about himself. The fact that Jesus rose from the dead is confirmation of who He really is, and that in His death God really was doing something about our sin.
So Paul’s main point to the Christians at Corinth? Move from the pop theology of the society around you and move into theology that comes from God Himself. Does this have anything to teach us today? Very much so as our views of the afterlife can often be informed by pop theology also. Consider the following:
- We can focus too much on people, substituting our own sense of greatness for the greatness of God. While it is not wrong to long to be with our loved ones when we die, it becomes too much when the afterlife becomes all about that reunion, and not at all about being with the LORD. When I die I suspect my wife and children will miss me, they may even pine for me. But my hope for them is that their heart’s cry will be not for my presence, but the presence of the Lord. My prayer for them is that their longings to see the LORD face to face will overwhelm their desire to see me again. As John the Baptist put it: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30). If we find it hard to let our loved ones take a lesser place in our longings when they pass on, or if the fact we will not be married in eternity disturbs us, then perhaps we do not have a great enough glimpse of the greatness and glory of God. We fall into pop theology when our focus is too much on people and not enough on the LORD.
- We can think our bodies are bad. If we think the goal is to become a disembodied soul, we might come to think of our bodies as something awful to be discarded ASAP. When we recognize that the future points to a bodily resurrection, yes a changed body, but still a body, then we can more clearly see that when the Lord gives us a body, it is a gift, it is a good thing. He already has given us a body, and it is not something awful, but rather a gift, one we will want to take care of.
Unfortunately, not only is pop theology messing with the minds of Christians, it also affects those who do not believe. Too may people think they are rejecting Christianity when in fact they are rejecting pop theology. So when people say things like “Christianity teaches that if you are a bad boy you go to hell” then we need to remind them that we are all bad boys and girls and that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) When we hear people say things like “if you are good you will go to heaven” we need to remind them that Jesus teaches “No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18) Salvation is made possible by God Himself in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It is by His grace. And salvation does not mean becoming disembodied souls with wings and harps. Salvation means the effect of sin that has separated us from God has been dealt with. It means life in the full presence and glory of God becomes a reality and will be most real when we are raised from the dead.
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. 2 And I saw the holy city, the 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,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away
(All Bible references are taken form the NRSV)