By Pastor Paul Walker
The Apostles’ Creed Through 2016
What happens after you die? We might say, “You go to heaven when you die.” But that leads to other questions.
What is heaven like? There is no shortage of speculations. Some people imagine the Pearly Gates of heaven suspended high in the clouds. Those who are welcomed past the Pearly Gates are treated to bright lights, smooth Jazz, halos, and harps.
Others think of the lyrics of vacating this earth: “To that home on God’s celestial shore. I’ll fly away.” And still others struggle with any sort of vision of life after death.
How will we ever find clarity and understanding? As a starting point, we should resist the urge to say too little and too much about life after death. If we say too little, we risk missing out on the truth; if we say too much, we risk distorting the message of hope.
This is why we need to recapture a fresh vision of what both the Creeds and Scriptures teach us on life after death, and life after life after death. Faithfulness to Scripture and Creed can help us navigate the rough waters of confusion and caricature.
What Do Scripture and Creed Teach Us?
For starters, they teach the resurrection of the dead as the ultimate hope of the Redeemed. Our bodies will be glorified and recreated in the same manner that Jesus’ crucified body rose from the grave on Easter morning. This is not a disembodied soul going to heaven when you die. The resurrection of the body is properly not about life after death, but life after life after death. It is the promise of New Creation.
Now you might think, “How does that fit in with going to heaven when you die?” Well, while heaven may be a temporary place for the soul, heaven is not the ultimate destiny of the redeemed. As N. T. Wright notes, “Heaven is important, but it is not the end of the world.” Let’s explore this further.
The Nature of Heaven
Heaven was created alongside earth in the beginning (Gen. 1:1) and will be “recreated” alongside the earth for union at the end of the age (Rev. 21-22). An ancient Jewish thinking saw Heaven as a physical place above the earth, and the abode of God. It’s perhaps best to view Heaven as not so much a physical location, but a realm and a dimension that exists both alongside and separate from ours in a mysterious interlocking relationship.
Heaven is a place where believers go in death. The Apostle Paul reminds us of this when he writes “to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8), or speaks of his desire to “be with Christ” upon death (Phil. 1:23).
While heaven is the dwelling place for the soul, the weight of Scripture points to an eventual future embodied resurrection of the dead, and not a disembodied existence apart from the earth. Heaven is a temporary resting place for the souls of the saints. Heaven and Earth will one day be joined as one in the culmination of the New Creation. John, the writer of Revelation, describes such a union with his description of the new Jerusalem descending from heaven to launch the new age (Rev. 21-22).
The Biblical Hope of Resurrection
The resurrection of body does not imply a disembodied soul escaping to heaven for eternity. As N.T. Wright puts it, “Resurrection isn’t a fancy way of saying, ‘going to heaven when you die’. It is not about the ‘life after death’ as such. Rather, it’s way of talking about being bodily alive again after a period of being bodily dead. Resurrection is a second-stage postmortem life: ‘life after life after death’.”
The Creed says that our bodies will become like Christ’s resurrected body. It is a bold reminder that the New Creation that was launched on Easter morning, as Jesus burst forth from the tomb, will no longer be the “not yet” for those who wait upon the Lord. As the Apostle Paul makes clear, Christ “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:21).
The resurrection of the body is God creating for us physical, glorified, and immortal bodies that can participate in the New Creation in which there is no longer any death or decay. This is why the Apostle Paul writes, “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54). This will take place when Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead at the end of this age (Is. 65-66, 1 Thess. 4:16-17, Rev. 20-22).
Does the Resurrection of the Body Matter?
Firstly, it teaches us that God has not given up on the mission of rescue and renewal. The biblical hope boldly proclaims God has been in the process of putting the world to rights, bringing order to chaos, and establishing shalom to our violent disordered world. The resurrection of the body is God’s supreme act of rescue from the curse of death.
Christmas reminds us of this! We are reminded that, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) to rescue and renew us. God assumed the likeness of sinful human nature (Rom. 8:3) in the person of Jesus Christ to heal us of the curse.
As the Christmas carol Joy to the World declares, “He comes to make His blessings flow, Far as the curse is found!” Christmas reminds us that Christ came to overthrow the curse of death by entering our cursedness
and overcoming it in the power of resurrection. We who are united with Christ, our rescuer, now await our final rescue through the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
Secondly, it reminds that this world matters. Unlike the Gnostic inclination to devalue the material world around us, Christians confess that this is our Father’s world. A belief in the resurrection of the body is also a belief in our restored relationship to rightly rule and reign with Christ over God’s good creation.
This is why the Apostle Paul so closely connects the liberation of creation to the redemption of the children of God in Romans 8. When humans are put right, all of creation will be put right. God’s rescue project is more than just for individuals, but for all of creation.
This has huge implications for how we treat our Father’s world today. God’s work of New Creation has already been inaugurated in the resurrection of Christ, and in us through our baptisms. We as Christians ought to begin to live now in this age, the “not yet” promise of the age to come. This should challenge us to adjust our actions and attitudes towards the material world.
Lastly, it is a blessed hope for those whose are grieving the loss of their health. Our current bodies are wasting away, corruptible, and susceptible to disease and destruction. As a pastor I’ve sat with many people whose bodies were in various stages of giving out on them. The resurrection of the body reminds us that though we may grieve our current bodily failings, our future resurrected bodies will not fail us nor hinder us. Instead, let us look forward to the day where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4).
Thanks be to God! Maranatha!