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07.15.12 What Does the Bible Say about Heaven? Luke 20:27-40 Sermon Summary

by on July 16, 2012

Most people think of heaven as the place with streets of gold, endless light, God on a throne surrounded by perpetual worship from angels and humans. But the Bible has a lot more (and less) to say about it.

Summary Points

  • The evolution of heaven in the Bible
  • Who were the Sadducees
  • Jesus and Paul on the two ages
  • Implications for those who have died
  • Implications for those who are alive
  • What heaven is, and why it matters
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

The earliest written parts of the Bible depict our “after-life” as a place under the earth called Sheol. It is a place neither of reward or punishment; everyone—good and bad—goes to Sheol. After the 6th century BC Exile, the biblical Israelites came under Persian and Greek influence, and we begin to see evidence in the writings of a general resurrection from the dead. There were two reasons for this.

One was a hope for vindication. Things were so inexplicably bad in this life, and belief in God’s justice so strong, that the scales had to be balanced some way. Resurrection from the dead allowed for that balancing. The other was the Platonic philosophy of the immortality of the soul, heretofore unattested to in biblical writings. This is the idea that the body merely houses the soul which goes on after death.

The New Testament shows these influences, but not everyone in Jesus’ day were convinced. A group called the Sadducees denied the resurrection from the dead. They were sort of the fundamentalists of their day. They accepted as scripture only the first five books of the Bible, believed to be written by Moses. They rejected adaptations of ritual and religion to contemporary contexts, which is what the Pharisees of Jesus’ day did. They adhered to a Temple theology which taught that obeying the law and keeping the ritual covenant ensured blessings.

According to the Sadducees, in other words, people got what they deserved in this life, making resurrection unnecessary. Of course, the theological and practical underpinnings of the Sadducees were destroyed along with the Temple in 70 AD, and they ceased to exist.

But this is the group that questioned Jesus about the resurrection of the dead in relation to a Mosaic law about marriage. The law states that a brother must marry his brother’s widow if she is childless. Their question poses an absurd application of the law—seven brothers (seven being the number of perfection in the Bible), all leaving the woman childless. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Or in language typical of today, Whose wife will she be in heaven?

Jesus answers with a reference to two ages: this one, and the one to come, that is, the age of resurrection. He contrasts the two ages related to marriage. In this age, people are given in marriage; in the age to come, they are not. Underlying the reason for this difference is our attempt to overcome death. In this age, we overcome death by having children, and marriage produces children. In the age to come, death is overcome by resurrection, so there is no need for marriage. (The Bible’s primary purpose for marriage is procreative.)

The apostle Paul also talks about two ages demarcated by resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 10, after rehearsing some of the episodes of Israel’s unfaithfulness and God’s subsequent judgment, Paul instructs his readers: “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.” In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17)

For Paul, the resurrection of Christ signals the beginning of the new age. Christ’s resurrection is the firstfruits of the general resurrection. In other words, the new age of resurrection has begun. (Perhaps this is why Paul encourages people who are unmarried to remain so in 1 Corinthians 7.)

So we see four conclusions about what we would call “heaven” from Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees: (1) The new age has begun in Christ; (2) Christ’s own resurrection proves this; (3) The world awaits the general resurrection; (4) In the mean time, we exist in the overlap of both ages.

What happens in this mean time? What is going on between Christ’s resurrection and the general resurrection? We can answer this question from two perspectives: from the perspective of those who have already died, and from the perspective of those who are still living.

From the perspective of those who have already died, there are two biblical options. One is that we are “at home” in the Lord. This is how Paul talks about it in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, after describing the many ways he has physically suffered as an evangelist.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling. . . For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. . . So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord . . . Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

Paul contrasts being “at home” either in the body or with the Lord. Since we are either one or the other, we are either at home in the body or at home with the Lord, the implication is that when we are no longer at home in the body, we are instead with the Lord.

The other option is that the dead are “asleep”, awaiting the general resurrection like the rest of us. Here is how Paul describes this in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself . . . will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

In this scenario, the dead reside in a place, perhaps like Sheol, until the general resurrection of the dead, at which time those who are alive will also be transformed and face God’s assessment of their lives (in the language of the Bible, the “final judgment” or the “day of the Lord”).

What about those of us who are alive in the mean time? Our lives will also be judged, which means our lives are being judged right now, in the present, as we live them. This is how 1 Peter 3:11-13 presents it, after describing how everything in this life will “dissolve” in the day of the Lord.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

The question at the beginning is, How shall we live? And the answer given at the end is, In such way that righteousness is at home. In other words, we should live in this life in such a way that our deeds will survive the final judgment, in such a way that our lives and their deeds will endure in the “new heavens and new earth.”

For those of us who are still alive, we can say that heaven is acting as if:

  • God has come to us (which we celebrate at Christmas)
  • God has triumphed over sin and death (which we celebrate at Easter)
  • We will be with God (which we celebrate at Advent, anticipating the second coming of Christ).

Or better, heaven is acting because of these facts–God has come to us, God has triumphed over sin and death, and we will be with God.

To summarize the Bible’s theologies of heaven, then, there are three options:

  1. Our immortal soul immediately receives judgment upon death
  2. When we die, we enter a “sleep,” perhaps Sheol, then await resurrection and judgment with the rest of the world
  3. Heaven has as much or more to do with this life, how we live, as it does with an after-life.

The New Testament contains all these views, which means the concept of heaven offers us a number of practical benefits, including:

  • Comfort in our grief: our after-life exists in God
  • Vindication of injustice: what was terribly wrong in this life is made right in the resurrection
  • Balance of imbalance: things that were unfair but not rising to the level of injustice are made right in the resurrection
  • Orientation and purpose for our lives today

Jesus concludes his answer to the Sadducees with the words, “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. For to God, all are alive.” Heaven, it seems, is not so much a place as it is a relationship—a relationship between God and all people, even all creation. To borrow from the Lord’s Prayer (search this blog for sermons on each phrase of the Lord’s Prayer), God’s “Kingship” (heaven) is characterized by God’s name being hallowed and God’s will being done on earth. Heaven occurs when everyone has daily bread, when sins are forgiven and reconciliation is a reality, and where people are delivered from trials and temptations.

Given this perspective, I myself am more inclined to see heaven and the after-life in terms of the second option above—that following death we enter a “sleep” and await the general resurrection and final judgment with the rest of creation. The reason is because my life cannot be judged accurately upon my death. My life is constantly sowing seeds, the fruit of which will not be apparent until the general resurrection and the final judgment. So it makes sense that I would enter the sleep state until all the fruit of my life has been harvested, and only then experience resurrection and judgment.

In any case, Paul’s example in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 should guide our lives: “The love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”

So let us stop waiting for heaven, and start living in it. Let us remember that the “final judgment” occurs every day of our lives, as we sow seeds and live in such a way that “righteousness is at home.” And let us give thanks for the promise of heaven to come.

Questions for discussion and reflection

  • How do the various perspectives on heaven find meaning and expression in your life?
  • If heaven isn’t something we have to wait for until we die, how can you experience more of heaven today? What gets in the way of your experiencing heaven?
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