The Christian hope: The Resurrection of the Dead
So if going to heaven when you die is not held out as the Christian hope (as this series has been claiming), then (a) what happens when you die? and (b) what is the Christian hope? I'll leave (a) for the moment (though I think the brief answer is that the Bible says surprisingly little other than a promise of being "with Christ" (Phil 1.23)), but want to be very clear on (b).
The Christian hope is for the resurrection of the dead, for what happened to Christ to happen to us, and in some way to the entire cosmos. Again, our knowledge of the future is found in that one bit of the future that has already arrived: our risen Lord. What God did to him, he promises to us.
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all. - 1 Corinthians 15.19-28.The enemy (death) is defeated in God's victory (resurrection). This happens first to Christ ("the first fruits", that first portion of the crop to ripen, which symbolises and guarantees the rest), and then is to happen to "those who belong to Christ" and/or "all".* For death to be defeated, this can't simply be a reinterpretation of death ("I like to think of death as..."), nor simply an ignoring of death ("Death doesn't matter. It's not an event that happens to me, since I won't be there to experience it!"). Death is real and is painful. God neither ignores nor downplays it; he doesn't call it something else ("a doorway to another existence") or explain it away as a good part of a grander plan. He defeats it; destroys it. This is what it is to be liberated from the fear of death: not to hear that it doesn't matter, that God will remember us, that we rejoin the circle of life, that we go to a better place. We are liberated by and in the living one, who died and is alive forevermore. The body, the breath, the complex bundle of nerves and knees that we live in and as - returned! And not just returned as though God were to reanimate a cadaver but transformed, set free from its bondage to decay, never to die again.
*A discussion for another day.
But what of the language of a "spiritual" body a little later in this chapter, doesn't that undermine my point about the physicality of the resurrection? I don't think so. The passage in question contrasts two kinds of body: our present body and our future one. Unfortunately, at this point, some translations (e.g. NRSV) make a grievious error in calling the former "physical" and the latter "spiritual".* I'm happy to discuss this in detail in comments, but the adjectives used simply can't mean what most of us would hear in that contrast (touchable/physical/solid vs non-physical/ghostly/ethereal). Better might be to call the former "living" and the latter "breathing", or the former "powered by soul" and the latter "powered by Spirit" (this too may be misleading, given the muddled and sometimes contradicatory use of these words in our culture). Whatever words we use, we are still speaking of bodies. Paul's point, I take it, is much the same as what I was trying to say in the final sentences of the previous paragraph: this is no mere continuation or resuscitation of our present, often somewhat embarrassing, bodies. This is a thorough overhaul into a condition in which we can bear the full weight of sharing in the glory of God. Even the canonical authors struggled to find words, apart from pointing to their experience of the risen Christ.
*I'm really not one of those people who has gained a little knowledge of Greek and am now forever grumpy with the stupidity of Bible translators. There are very few places where I question the mainstream modern translations (which on the whole are very good). This just happens to be one of them.
So let us stop referring to our hope as going to heaven, and begin consciously speaking of resurrection, a (re)new(ed) life in a (re)new(ed) body on a (re)new(ed) earth. There is more to our hope - there is the coming of God to dwell permanently with us, there is final justice and healing for the nations - but there is not less.
I was recently talking with some Christian friends for whom such thoughts were new, who said that they had never really looked at 1 Corinthians 15. They were a little sceptical and asked what I called this new way of thinking, this disturbingly novel teaching. I said "the resurrection of the body and the life of the age to come".
Series: I; II; IIa; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; X; XI; XII; XIII; XIV; XV; XVI. Five points each for the city, artist, sculpture and its original intended location. But only one per customer.