Is heaven our last stop?

For many Christians saving one’s soul and having one’s soul transferred to heaven is the ultimate goal. Their mission, therefore, is not only to get their own souls saved, but also to save as many other souls too, because once a soul is in heaven, they believe, it’s safe in God’s presence forever, out of that awful sin-filled body, and away from that awful sin-filled world. Heaven to many Christians, therefore, really is the last stop.

Other Christians, however, question heaven being the last stop because Scripture talks of humans being resurrected from the dead, given bodies like Jesus’ resurrected body, and staying here on the earth to co-rule with Jesus. So now we’ve got two vastly different views being taught by Christians, both of which, ironically, are in the hymnal I sing from at church. Hymn No 772, for instance, is entitled, “When we all get to heaven.” Verse 4 states: “Onward to the prize before us! Soon his beauty we’ll behold; soon the pearly gates will open, we shall tread the streets of gold.” What inspired the writer of that hymn was the belief that one day he, and many others, will step through the pearly gates of heaven and behold Jesus’ beauty, and that’s where they will stay forever.

Hymn No 754, however, is entitled, “Lo, he comes with clouds descending,” in which verse 1 states: “Thousand thousand saints attending swell the triumph of his train. Alleluia! Alleluia! God appears on earth to reign.” And the last line of verse 4: “O come quickly! O come quickly! Everlasting God, come down!”

So, is God coming down to reign on the earth, or are we going up to be with him in heaven? Which is it? Pity a new person walking into church for the first time, seeking an understanding of what Christians believe is the ultimate goal in life, and up pops the song leader who says, “Let’s all sing No 772 that tells us we’re all going to heaven to be with our Lord forever, followed by No 754 that says we’re all going to be here on the earth with our Lord forever.”

Some Christians manage to combine both hymns together, by saying Jesus descends in the clouds, we meet him in the air and then he whisks us off to heaven. But that requires dead Christians having to wait until Jesus returns, which doesn’t go down well with those who’ve been singing for years that they’re stepping through the pearly gates immediately after they die. With all this in mind, it sounds like Christians need to take a good look at what they’re singing – and take a look at why there’s such confusion too.

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Such confusion at funerals

Imagine knowing everyone’s thoughts at a funeral. as to what each person thinks is going to happen to the person who died. Imagine having a discussion after the funeral too, where everyone explains where he or she believes the deceased has gone.

Even the Christians present would probably get into an argument, because some of them believe the dead person has gone straight to heaven (or hell) to stay there forever; some believe he might be spending a stint in purgatory first; while others believe he’s gone to the grave and remains unconscious ’til the resurrection. Others yet think he’s in a conscious state in some sort of existence with Jesus, but only until the resurrection, at which point he receives a transformed human body to co-rule with Jesus in his human body on the earth.

And that’s just the confusion among Christians at a funeral.

Add to the mix a few Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Japanese nature worshippers, African ancestor worshippers and a collection of various Oprah Winfrey Gnostics who welcome death as an escape from this entire wretched physical existence, and we’re in for a heated discussion on what happens after we die. Pity the deceased person if any of that lot had a say in deciding his fate in the afterlife. The poor chap wouldn’t know which way he was going.

If the Muslims got their way with him, for instance, the deceased goes to the grave to await the final judgment, at which point he’s assigned to Paradise or Hell depending on the balance of his good and bad deeds in this life. If the Hindus got their way, the deceased would be coming back to the earth in a different body to pursue the next stage in his destiny. The Buddhists, meanwhile, would have him losing his identity all together in the great, nameless beyond, and the ancestor worshippers would have him playing a role in the lives of the living. Some, like the soldier who wrote a poem in case of his death in Northern Ireland, would have the deceased not dying at all, and instead he’s “the sunlight on ripened grain” or some other part of the creation like a butterfly or a seed blowing in the wind. Some might even believe the deceased is a ghost, wandering through the mists of time in a fog of his own, giving people nasty frights on dark nights when the wind’s howling.

Such is the confusion at funerals. But one thing is shared by all those present, on which they might all agree: that death is not the end of things. Life, in some form, goes on – we hope.

If we’re going to heaven, why resurrect our bodies?

I’ve wanted to ask a minister how, at funerals, he deals with those who believe the deceased is in heaven forever versus those who believe the deceased will be resurrected back to bodily human life again. How does he fulfill the needs of people who want Grandma looking down from her eternal abode in heaven, and those who believe Grandma will come back to life again in a transformed human body here on the earth? And what would he say if someone asked him why, if we’re all going straight to heaven after we die, our bodies need resurrecting as well?

I can see why ministers like quoting 1 Corinthians 15 at funerals, because it pleases both groups – the group that believes our souls are going to heaven, and the group that believes our resurrected human bodies will be here on earth. It also answers the difficult question as to why souls going to heaven require a resurrected body. Verse 42, for instance, talks of the bodies of the dead being resurrected back into bodies again – BUT, verse 44, those new resurrected bodies are ‘spiritual’ – which sounds like some sort of spirit essence instead, just right for a soul living in heaven forever.

But when Paul talks of a “spiritual body” he doesn’t mean a spirit essence suitable for living in heaven forever, he means, in context, a body that won’t decay or die. He means it’s “imperishable”, verse 42, unlike the “perishable” body we have now. It also has “the likeness of the man from heaven”, verse 49. In other words, our resurrected body will look like the imperishable human body Jesus had when he was resurrected. He was still a man, a human being, that looked like a gardener, and he had wounds in his resurrected body that you could touch. He wasn’t a spirit essence without a body, like a ghost; he was still very much a human-like being in a human body. It was a different human body, yes, because he could appear in a room without entering by the door, but it still looked very human and it did very human things, like eating.

Jesus was still eating food in his resurrected body 40 days after he rose from the dead too, Acts 1:3-4, and that’s the body he ascended to the Father with, verse 9. And in verse 11 the disciples were told he would “come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Jesus rose in a human body, so that’s how he will return – in a human body – to join all those others who have been resurrected into bodies just like his resurrected body, to rule together on the earth.

Is Jesus still in a human body like ours?

From the moment Jesus died his body changed. Up to that point he was like any other human being, “made in human likeness,” Philippians 2:7, and in that human likeness he “became obedient to death – even death on a cross,” verse 8. So the body Jesus came in could die, just like our humans bodies die.

But something happened to Jesus’ body after he died, because he “was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay,” Acts 2:31. Unlike our human bodies Jesus’ body did not start to break down or decompose. John and Peter found no decaying body on the third day after Jesus’ death either. Instead, “God has raised this Jesus to life,” verse 32.

But what kind of body was Jesus raised to life in? There are hints again that it was different to the body he died in, because when Jesus spoke to Mary “outside the tomb” in John 20:11, she “turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize it was Jesus.” Instead, she thought “he was the gardener,” verses 14-15, and she didn’t recognize Jesus’ voice to begin with either, so there was clearly something different about him. He still appeared human, but not like the human he was before his death.

“A week later” Jesus suddenly materialized in the room where his disciples were gathered, even though “the doors were locked,” verse 26. Jesus’ resurrected body could pass right through a locked door without opening it. No wonder the disciples thought “they saw a ghost” when Jesus suddenly “stood among them,” Luke 24:3736.

Did that mean Jesus actually looked like a ghost, then? No, because as Jesus himself said in verse 39, ” a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” So Jesus still had the typical structure of a human body that made him recognizably human, but his body also operated beyond the bounds of physical laws, as we see in verse 51, when “he left them and was taken up into heaven.”

He was still in a human body when he lifted off the earth and rose into the sky. His body could defy gravity. And in a similar incident, or perhaps the same one, in Acts 1:9, “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” Again, he was still in his human form, but it could fly like Superman.

The disciples were then told in verse 11 that Jesus “will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Jesus left them in a human-like body, so that’s the body he will return in too. It’s different, yes, but still very human.

What “great gulf” did the cross really bridge?

The cross was never meant to bridge a great gulf between us and God, because no such gulf exists. It never has existed. God has never created an unbridgeable gap between himself and humanity, no matter how much we have rejected him. That’s clearly stated in Romans 5:20, which says, “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” It does not say, “Where sin increased, God’s wrath against us increased all the more,” or “Where sin increased, the gulf between us and God got bigger.”

Instead, verse 8, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  So all during the time we wanted nothing to do with God, God never separated himself from us. The idea, then, that the cross spans the gulf between us and God so that God can forgive us and not be angry at us anymore, is total nonsense, because God has never stopped loving us.

So why the need for the cross, then? Because there IS a gulf the cross bridges. It’s the gulf between what God created us to be and what we’ve become instead. God created us to be his children, so that we could live each day knowing God loves us regardless of anything we do or don’t do, and nothing separates us from his love. But how many humans live their lives actually believing that?

None do, or none did, according to Paul, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Fell short of WHAT “glory,” though? The glory of who he is – our Father, and the glory of who we are to him – his children. And because we fell short of that realization in our ignorance and unbelief, we ended up living our lives in fear of God, or in deliberate detachment from him. And that’s the great gulf God bridged by the cross, to move us from not believing God loves us, to realizing there is nothing that we think, say or do that stops him loving us. We are his children, for heaven’s sake.

The cross didn’t make it possible FOR God to love us, it showed us how impossible it is for God NOT to love us – the proof being that God was willing to sacrifice himself for our sakes even when we were sinners. He loved us even when we ignored and hated him. That’s why Jesus went to the cross with joy (Hebrews 12:2), because he knew there would never be reason again for us humans to believe God doesn’t love us. God died for us because he loves us. What more do we need to know?