Resurrection Facts: Yes, There Will Be One.

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 life
And never die, never die? (Lyrics by John Entwhistle)
There is something we can refer to as “pop theology.” That is, many people believe and say things that fit more with what popular culture believes and says, or what popular culture thinks Christianity believes and says, than what the Bible actually teaches. Often Christians will echo the belief that when it comes to the afterlife you are a disembodied soul or spirit for the rest of eternity. Pop theology is far from Biblical theology here. Those who believe pop theology today are not far from the Christians in Corinth who also had a pop theology problem. The Christians in Corinth had come to believe the Gospel and that Jesus rose from the dead. But it seems they continued believing the common theology of the culture they lived in, a Greek culture which tended to believe that when you die, your soul is freed from your body, never to have a body again. The apostle Paul addresses their pop theology:

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
(Revelation 21:1-4)

(All Bible references are taken form the NRSV)

What Happens When We Die? From the Series “Questions People are Asking”

Where do we go when we die? What is the Christian teaching on life after death? I think many of people would respond with something like the lyrics of a song from one of my favourite bands, The Who:

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 singing 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 life, And never die, Never die?

The idea is commonly held that Christians believe that a soul goes straight to heaven or to hell upon death, but is that accurate? Furthermore, you will often hear people speaking of their loved ones watching over them from heaven and while I can see how that thought might be comforting, I can also see how it can be quite creepy too! In fact the idea of a soul being released from our bodies to go somewhere after death owes more to a pagan Greek way of thinking than Biblical Jewish and Christian ones. We should note well that the early Christians were not going around saying things like “good news, we have discovered that our souls are immortal,” but rather “good news, Jesus is risen from the dead, and he is the first, we will be raised from the dead also.”

So what happens to the Christian upon death? Where do we wait for the resurrection and what will we be doing during that time? There are certain Biblical teachings that are like anchors for our theology, they are very clear, easy to get, hard to get wrong, and they are doctrines that will typically show up across denominations. However, if you have ever been in a boat at anchor you will know that it is possible to do a 360 degree circle about the anchor, and if you were to sit looking straight ahead you will end up with a different view depending on where you are pointing. Some teachings are like that there being different ways of looking at things, and indeed some churches are born out of making too much of them. The important thing for the Christian is to set the anchors deep within our hearts and minds while being open to taking a swing around to see things from different viewpoints.

For the future of the Christian upon death, the resurrection is the anchor. Jesus rose from the dead, so shall we. This is not the same as teaching that the soul is immortal, as the Greeks did, but is the belief that one must be ‘clothed’ with immortality and life (see 1 Corinthians 15:53; 2nd Corinthians 5:1-3).

With that anchor in mind, here are some viewpoints that have been put forward:

  • Some put forward the concept of purgatory, a place, or better a state of “getting better” for want of a more technical description. Most people who take this view are looking through pretty thick lenses of tradition, and there really is not much in the Bible itself to commend it.
  • Some put forward the idea of “soul sleep,” that is we will exist though we may not be conscious of anything. So upon death you will not know or experience anything until the resurrection. Some will point to the Biblical passages that speak of death as “falling asleep” such as in 1st Thessalonians 4:13-15. But this may just be a euphemism.
  • Some put forward the idea of “soul death,” that is when you die, you really just are dead until the resurrection. Commending this view are passages such as we find in Psalm 6: “Turn, O LORD, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?” (Psalm 6:4-5 NRSV) Here the Psalmist clearly believes that dead people are dead. So in this view also you will not experience anything between death and resurrection.
  • Some might suggest that in death we take a “step out of time” so that while right now we can only think of the resurrection as happening at some point in the future, as disembodied souls with no experience of time we will experience the resurrection as immediate. Some will point to how God Himself is the creator of time and not subject to it as is alluded to in verses like 2 Peter 3:8: “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (NRSV).
  • The last view, and perhaps the most popular that we might look at is that at death we step into the full presence of God. We can point to verses like 2 Corinthians 5:6-8: “even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord . . . and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (NRSV). Or we can think of the words of Jesus to the thief on the cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” Luke 23:43 (NRSV).

Perhaps you will begin to wonder if I have the answer to this week’s question about what we will experience at death. To be honest I don’t!  But I have two anchors to which I can hold onto, the first being the hope of resurrection, the second is this: The Lord is my shepherd. Whatever our experience between death and resurrection may turn out to be I know that the good shepherd will be with those who follow Him and will guide them each step of the way, “for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7:17 (NRSV)