Have you got a bucket list? It’s a list of things you hope to do or experience before your life is over. Whether it’s swimming with dolphins or learning Spanish, a bucket list is a way of thinking through your greatest hopes for the future.
What is the Christian’s greatest hope for the future? Not just our hopes for this life, such as mission trips, a greater knowledge of the Bible, or sharing Jesus with our relatives, what’s your greatest hope for life beyond this one? Your answer might be Heaven. That answer is true, but it’s not the complete answer.
Present with the Lord
When we die, we know what happens to our bodies because we see it. Our bodies either go to the crematorium to be turned to ash, or they are buried in the ground or sea where they slowly decompose. But what about the soul – the immaterial conscious part of our being?
Whilst some argue that our souls simply switch off and sleep when we die, I don’t think the Bible teaches this. When the Bible uses the term ‘sleep’ to refer to death, it is used metaphorically. A dead body may look like it is sleeping and death for the Christian is a temporary condition, much like sleep is.
The Bible often speaks of the believer being with God in the presence of Jesus upon death. For example, when Paul wrestles with the possibility that he is coming to the end of his life, he speaks of departing to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23) and says that to die and leave the body is to be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:9). Jesus also referred to Old Testament saints as not being dead but still living (Luke 20:37-38). So, whilst our bodies remain on this earth when we die, our souls go to be with God in Heaven.
When our fellow believers die, this is of great comfort to us. It is certainly comforting that they don’t cease to exist. It is also a comfort that they don’t merely enter into an unconscious state, but are right there in the presence of Jesus in his home, Heaven. Even though the ones we love are sadly no longer with us, they are with the one they love the most – Jesus.
This, however, is only their temporary condition for this present age. Heaven, as the dwelling place of God, is not a believer’s final resting place. It all changes when Jesus returns.
When he comes
Paul has to explain this to a church in 1 Thessalonians 4 verses 13-18. It seems that they were upset about believers who had died as they were uncertain what had happened to them. Paul assures them that when Jesus returns, deceased believers will come with him. If deceased Christians are with Jesus now, then it makes sense that they would accompany him when he returns to this Earth.
For those who have died, as their souls return to this Earth with Jesus, their bodies that have been left behind are raised up to life again. Their bodies and souls are united together in the air with Jesus. If we are still alive when Jesus returns, that doesn’t mean we will miss out. Paul explains that any Christians who are still alive, will also be joined with Jesus and with those who are accompanying him.
Perhaps that might make you wonder about your body. After all, a cremated body is a pile of ash and a body buried in the ground or sea is soon indistinguishable from the soil in which it rests. Will our bodies be reassembled ash or soil? Will they be the same as before?
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul explains that these resurrected bodies will not be exactly like they were, but will be renewed and made perfect. We know that our bodies are perishing. We feel it even in the prime of our lives. But the new body that is raised will be imperishable and able to live forever.
But it doesn’t mean that they will be non-physical bodies. Our greatest piece of evidence for this is Jesus, who when he was raised from the dead was raised with a body. Since our resurrection is rooted in his, then if he was physically raised, we can know that we will be physically raised as well.
Somehow there will be both continuity with our current bodies and discontinuity. We can be sure that the discontinuity is all improvement though! So much so, that our lowly bodies can be described as being like Jesus’ glorious body (Phil. 3:21).
What a promise this is for us when we experience physical suffering in this lifetime. As we struggle on through many trials, we are promised a future where we will have very real physical bodies which will no longer feel aches and pains, no longer break and bruise and no longer be prone to disease and deformity.
So, if we have new bodies, then they need a new world to live in.
A whole new world
Right at the end of the Bible we’re given a glimpse into the ultimate hope for Christians and for this universe. Unbelievers have been taken to their eternal punishment and this world is made completely new. In fact, not just this world but Heaven as well.
In Revelation 21, John describes his vision of the current Heaven and Earth having passed away and there being a new Heaven and a new Earth. These two spaces converge and join together as God makes it to be where he lives and the place where believers live too. With our sin being fully removed at last, there is nothing to stop him living with us. Our home can be with him forever in his home.
If our bodies are raised as physical bodies, then this new creation will surely be just as physical. As the world we experience now is cursed by sin, so the new world will have that curse removed, just as our bodies will have done. Though nature currently wages war against itself and us, in that time nature will have declared peace. It will be perfect.
This future world is not just Heaven but the new Heavens and Earth together – the new creation. This is what we ultimately hope for. There, we are made perfect, the world is made perfect, and God is right there with us, forever.
Unknown but certain
This is not a vague wishful hope but a certain expectation. We know that because Jesus has already broken the curse of death. He has been raised and so we can be confident that we will be too, because we are in him.
There is still a lot I can’t fathom about all this. I still have a lot of questions that will only be answered when it happens. But that’s where the Christian’s greatest hope is – not merely of being in the disembodied state of Heaven for now, but of being physically raised up in the new Heavens and Earth where we can live with God forever.