Rev. Dr. Norman Metzler, professor emeritus of theology
Traditional Christian theology believes that salvation as the gift of eternal life with God in his heavenly kingdom – the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed – is the hope of all Christians. It is always appropriate for Christians to reflect upon heaven as God’s destiny for his people, since in our present lives we are constantly confronted with the sobering reality of suffering, sin and death, and we need to keep in the forefront the hope of heaven that is ours in Christ. It is particularly appropriate to address the nature of heaven or the eschatological thematic at this time because of recent trends in theology that introduce significant modifications to the traditional understanding of heaven and the hereafter. We will reflect on the possible images and characteristics of heaven from the biblical evidence, and critically review the recent trends in interpreting the timing and substantive nature of the kingdom of heaven/God. We intend to provide as cogent and helpful a portrait of God’s heavenly kingdom as we can, based on “Scripture and plain reason” (so Martin Luther).
CHARACTERISTICS OF HEAVEN
While the glory of heaven ultimately is beyond our description or comprehension (2 Cor. 12:3-4), we do have some intimations of the heavenly realm given to us in Scripture:
- heaven according to St. Paul is the new creation where Christ will be all in all (Eph. 1: 9-10; Col. 1:15-20).
- heaven will be like a glorious city built of the most precious jewels and metals. (Rev. 21)
- we will live in the glorious presence of God and the Lamb forever. (Rev. 21)
- there will be no more suffering, sickness, pain, sin, grieving and death, for the old order of creation with all of these problems will have passed away. (Rev. 21)
- all evil will be eliminated or destroyed, (Rev. 20:14) death and Hades having been thrown into the lake of fire which is the second or spiritual death; Rev. 21:2 informs us that there will no longer be any sea, which is the realm of evil.
The force of the scriptural evidence is that the kingdom of heaven will be a marvelous, supernatural, spiritual reality beyond anything we can imagine here on earth in this present material life. (Rom. 8:18)
EMBODIMENT IN HEAVEN
The Bible does not give us a specific picture of the nature of our bodily identity in heaven, but it does teach plainly that we will be embodied as ourselves with our unique identity or soul, in continuity with our present identity. According to St. Paul, our present physical bodies or “tents” will be destroyed, and we will be transformed into our new immortal, imperishable spiritual bodies, like that of Jesus. (1 Cor. 15:2, 2 Cor. 5:1-5) The resurrected Jesus was the same Jesus who died on the cross. In his spiritual body he was able to manifest himself in physical form as needed in order to relate to his disciples, including eating, cooking breakfast, and being physically touched. Nonetheless, his spiritual body was clearly superior to his former physical body: he was able to appear and disappear in a locked room; make himself unrecognizable for a time and then recognizable to Mary Magdalene and the disciples at Emmaus; and disappear into the sky while speaking to his disciples at the Ascension. Perhaps the numerous reports of near-death experiences may provide a contemporary clue to the nature of our spiritual bodies; individuals having such experiences report being able to see and hear and think as themselves, yet in a position outside their physical bodies.
Despite the New Creationist claim that our ultimate destiny will be a physical new creation, the example of the risen Jesus indicates that our future spiritual bodies will be superior to our present physical bodies. In the heavenly kingdom we will be liberated from the limitations, the weaknesses, the corruption, the mortality inherent in our physical embodiment. Indeed, according to St. Paul, all of creation along with us “has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time,” but according to Paul, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God,” where “moth and rust cannot destroy, and thieves cannot break in and steal.” (1 Cor. 5:18-22; Mt. 6:19)
The Scriptures suggest that the new spiritual creation, including our bodies, will no longer experience the cycles of life and death, for we will live eternally. Our “appearance” likewise will no longer be an issue; how we look physically in this life depends on the stage of our life cycle, and that will no longer be relevant in the eternity of heaven. A logical corollary is that we will likely no longer need the nourishment required by our present physical bodies. However, the joy of food and table fellowship may still exist in some fashion in heaven, since Jesus spoke of celebrating the Passover with his disciples in the heavenly kingdom. Revelation suggests that the new creation will no longer need the physical cycles of day and night, for we will live continually in the light of God. (Rev. 21) Our glorified bodies may well no longer need the rejuvenating periods of sleep that occur in the night. Marriage and procreation will no longer be necessary since we will be immortal, “like the angels in heaven.” (Mt. 22:23-40)
Concerning the kinds of activities that might take place in heaven: some things that we enjoy in this present physical world may still be possible in a perfected form in the new spiritual creation, while some earthly pleasures that are inherently contrary to God’s loving will not fit in heaven, and we will understand that. On the other hand, the new liberated reality of God’s kingdom may open up the possibility of new activities that we cannot even imagine at present. In any case, we will live eternally in perfect peace, goodness, beauty and wholeness, and all that we will do will be to the praise and glory of God, just as the angels in heaven are continually praising and glorifying God.
TIMING OF HEAVEN
A recent trend in theology, popularly known as “inaugurated eschatology” or “already/not yet eschatology,” challenges the traditional biblical picture of the kingdom of heaven/God arriving at the end of history, beyond time and space. This approach, championed by the Swiss theologian Oscar Cullmann in his book Christ and Time, published in 1946, proposes that Christ actually initiated God’s heavenly kingdom on earth with his Incarnation, and will return at the Parousia to complete his work. This school reflects a “theology of glory,” according to which Christians are already building the kingdom of heaven on earth. Such a triumphalist theology has nurtured kingly popes, bishop-princes, prosperity gospel evangelists, and Christian nationalists. Martin Luther in the Protestant Reformation rejected this “theology of glory,” and instead characterized Christians as living out a “theology of the cross,” honestly acknowledging the very real power of the devil at work in this evil age and our struggles living in this sinful world as we await our redemption in the coming kingdom.
Despite the current widespread adoption of the “already/not yet” eschatological view of heaven, we maintain that the most appropriate reading of Scripture reveals God’s kingdom as a transcendent and future reality, not a partially present kingdom being built with human hands. The real dynamic of Christian life is that we live in anticipation of the eschaton as we perform the signs of the coming kingdom, following the example of Jesus.
According to the biblical evidence, the timing of our actual entrance into heaven involves two different perspectives. From our human point of view within history, when a person dies they are asleep in the Lord, awaiting the general resurrection at the end of this present age, which is to come at some indeterminate point in the future. St. Paul likely used the analogy of sleep intentionally, for when we sleep, we are unaware of time and so are “outside” the historical framework of time and space. From God’s point of view – sub specie aeternitatis – when we die, we do in fact move outside of time and into the eternity of his heavenly kingdom. Jesus promised the thief on the cross that he would be with him in heaven that very day. We may therefore presume that when we die, our souls or selves will be transformed into our new spiritual bodies to meet the Lord at the final judgment and live eternally in God’s heavenly kingdom, even as those still alive in the present age await the end of time.
HEAVEN AS PHYSICAL OR SPIRITUAL
Another trend in theology, championed by the well-known British theologian N.T. Wright, has inserted a dramatically new dimension into the doctrine of the coming heavenly kingdom by suggesting that “heaven” is actually not the final eschatological destination as traditionally understood in theology. Tradition views the kingdom of heaven/God as the ultimate destiny of all who are saved by grace through the work of Christ. Wright makes a distinction between (1) “heaven” as an intermediate state where the souls of the dead reside in blissful peace while awaiting the resurrection; and (2) the “new creation,” which he designates as the final eschatological reality. This redefinition of heaven is necessitated by Wright’s claim that the new creation will be a physical reality, very much in continuity with this present physical creation. Jesus promised the thief on the cross that he would be with him in heaven or paradise that very day, yet the restoration of this present physical creation to its perfected condition can only occur at the end of the history of this presently sin-tainted physical creation.
Wright’s solution is to recast “heaven” as a temporary location where the disembodied souls of the dead wait until Christ returns and completes his work of restoring all of creation to its initial perfect and eternal state. This notion of an intermediate heaven does reflect a certain similarity to the traditional Christian view of the souls of the dead leaving their physical bodies and going to be with God in heaven while they await the general resurrection to receive their new bodies. However, tradition knows nothing of heaven as a temporary realm for disembodied souls; the presently transcendent heaven is at the same time the eschatological “new creation” heaven.
In fact, this idea of an intermediate realm of disembodied souls plainly contradicts the Hebrew principle of souls always being embodied souls. The separation of the body from the soul reflects the influence of Greek Platonic philosophy with its notion of disembodied “immortal souls” on Christian theology. It also misconstrues St. Paul’s portrayal of deceased Christians as asleep in the Lord. Paul never suggests that the soul leaves the body when we die; rather, our “self,” body and soul, is “asleep” in Christ from our earthly point of view while we await the resurrection.
Despite the problems inherent in this New Creationist approach, Wright’s conception of a physical new creation requires him to reframe St Paul’s carefully articulated contrast between the inherently corrupt, mortal, physical body and the new immortal, incorruptible, spiritual body. Wright interprets St. Paul as distinguishing between (1) an inherently perfectible physical creation that is currently tarnished by sin, and (2) that same physical creation as it will be restored to its original purity and glory through the work of the Holy Spirit. According to Wright, the negative attributes used by Paul to describe the present creation (mortal, corruptible) are not inherent in the physical body as such, but rather reflect only the “sinful nature” overlaid over creation since the Fall, like dirty clothing covering our essentially perfect physical body. Christ in his Incarnation began the work of removing these relatively superficial effects of sin overlaid upon the originally pristine, perfectible physical creation, and will complete that work when he returns in glory at the end of time.
Wright takes great pains to debunk the traditional ethereal image of people “going up to heaven” when they die. He points rather to the vision in Revelation 21 of the New Jerusalem “coming down to earth,” symbolizing God coming to earth permanently to bring together heaven and earth, just as Jesus’ Incarnation began the process of uniting the physical and the spiritual realms. While it is commendable that Wright is trying to make the Christian teaching about life after death more relatable to our contemporary world, his insistence on God’s kingdom as a physical reality infused with the Spirit of God does not do justice to the unique character of the kingdom of God portrayed in Scripture.
A fundamental problem with Wright’s approach is that he equates an “embodied” creation with the “physical” creation, despite St. Paul’s painstaking explanation of the contrast between the present sinful physical body and the new perfect spiritual body. God’s creation is always an embodied creation according to Scripture, but Jesus and Paul unmistakably characterize the new age of God’s coming kingdom as a spiritual rather than a physical embodiment, a spiritual kingdom far superior to this present perishable physical creation. Paul flatly declares that our physical bodies, “flesh and blood,” are not capable of inheriting eternal life in God’s heavenly kingdom. [1 Cor 15:43] We therefore contend that despite the attractiveness and popularity of the New Creationist school, Scripture simply does not support Wright’s notion of a physical, “restored” new creation. We further contend that Scripture does not warrant Wright’s redefinition of an “intermediate heaven” where disembodied souls rest in blissful peace while awaiting their resurrection in a refurbished physical body.
THE FINAL JUDGMENT AND HEAVEN
Another aspect of the heavenly thematic is the Final Judgment as the entry point into the kingdom of God. We propose that while Jesus did use apocalyptic condemnations to confront his enemies with the seriousness of the rejection of his Gospel, these are best understood as hyperbolic rhetoric intended to bring his opponents to repentance and faith, rather than as literal predictions of their doom. There are, however, significant biblical indications of a Final Judgment as we make our transition from this life to life eternal. A sober accounting for our lives, good and bad, may well be a necessary actual experience at our resurrection, rather than part of Jesus’ apocalyptic hyperbole. Such an honest and sober life review would not decide our eternal destiny, for Christ the Judge decided that in our favor on the cross. However, such a final reckoning could provide the theological locus for the “justice” of God in confronting us with the seriousness of our sins. It might also provide a point of contact with the Roman Catholic concept of “purgatory” as the process of Christ exposing and purging away all our sins in preparation for our entry into heaven.
The Scriptures are clear that the Final Judge will be the same Jesus who died and rose for the salvation of all those he will judge. Consistent with the universal reach of God’s gift of salvation, we propose that at the Final Judgment those with the gift of faith will have their faith confirmed; those who rejected the Gospel in their lifetimes will finally see the light of Christ’s gracious gift; and those who never heard will meet for the first time their gracious Savior. St. Paul indicates that our good works will survive the refining fire, and we may even receive some kind of “reward,” while our sinful deeds will be purged away. [1 Cor. 3:12-15] Yet our salvation will not be based on our works, but rather on God’s grace. [Eph. 2:8,9] The parable of the Prodigal Son appears to suggest that the return home of the wayward son and the expectation of the confrontation with his father – the “Final Judgment” moment in the parable – was a very sober, significant and necessary experience in the son’s life. For the father, on the other hand, the wayward son’s admission of guilt does not appear nearly as important as celebrating his homecoming. This may be teaching us that while a sober life assessment at the Final Judgment will be important for us sinners to experience in our transition from this life to our heavenly destiny, the Father’s priority will be on the gracious Judge welcoming us into his kingdom.
A VIEW OF HISTORY FROM HEAVEN
One question that often arises regarding the kingdom of heaven is whether those in heaven will be able to view the course of human history. Because human history includes so much suffering and evil and heaven is a place of perfect joy and peace, one possibility is that God will mercifully spare us any confrontation with sinful human history. However, we have already suggested the possible role of a life review as the substance of our Final Judgment. That life review may well include Christ showing us the broader consequences of our evil deeds, and that in turn might involve viewing the broader sweep of history, good and evil. If that is so, then Christ may well explain the fundamental human conundrum of “theodicy,” that is, the existence of radical evil in God’s good creation, and how all things ultimately work together for good within his gracious plan. St. Paul encourages us with his observation, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.” [Rom. 8:18]
These reflections on the nature of the eschatological thematic of heaven necessarily come from the position of those who “see through a glass darkly,” and therefore are offered with all due humility, in recognition of the provisional nature of all present knowledge and insight. Nonetheless, they are offered on the basis of God’s self-revelation in Christ as recorded in his revealed Scriptures. To the extent that God intends for us humans to have any insight into his truth, we share these reflections as God-given biblical perspectives on the ultimate goal of our faith, namely our destiny with the Lord in his heavenly kingdom.