Friday, April 08, 2011

Heaven is a place on earth, for real

I think Belinda Carlisle wrote the song, and I doubt the song means exactly what I'm outlining here, but the title at least is a helpful start (in fact, I just googled the lyrics and read them... some of them will resonate with this post, others will not).

For various reasons, I keep ending up in conversations around a popular book on near-death experiences, Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back . I have not read the book, so won't comment on the content of it, but will say that as a result of books like this (of which there are many) I have repeatedly had conversations with parishioners, neighbors, and various humans about life-after-death, near death experiences, and the status of those who have died and now rest with God.

One would think Christians would have clarity on this topic, since it is a dominant motif in our Scripture and creeds. But it seems we do not. In point of fact, almost everyone I meet seems to have a conception of heaven and the after-life that is much more informed by Plato's concept of the soul and the mythological Elysian Fields than the biblical witness concering Christian eschatology.

So, in what follows, I will lay out as starkly and crisply as possible what Christians do and should believe about life after death and heaven.

1. "Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven": It might help us, first of all, to stop talking about going to heaven when we die, and instead talk about God's kingdom coming, when heaven and earth will be united. We pray for this in the Lord's Prayer. It is also the dominant image in, for example, Revelation, where at the end of all things, the New Jerusalem descends onto the earth. The kingdom, the city, and God, are on the way here. We confess in the creed, "Christ will come again." Any near-death experiences need to be scrutinized in the light of this confession and the biblical witness, because they seem to imply a different conceptuality. I simply don't believe in so-called near death experiences as accurate confessions of the after life from a Christian perspective, nor do I need them as the foundation for hope in the resurrection. They cast more shadow than light.

2. "I believe in the resurrection of the body": We don't believe in the transmigration of souls. We don't confess that at death our soul is finally released from the body to float off to somewhere else. Instead, on the last day, all will stand before God, and the bodily will take on immortality, etc. (see 1 Corinthians 15, for example). Somehow, like a seed planted in the ground, our bodies will die and then be raised to participation through Christ in the life of God. And we believe and confess this because Jesus Christ himself was raised "in the flesh." He ate fish. Thomas touched him. The tomb, we must remember, was empty.

3. "Eternal life is life in God, in Christ, in the Spirit--and we don't go to live with God, God comes to live with us": God does not save creation for heaven; God renews the earth. "The earth is the stage of God's coming kingdom, and so resurrection into God's kingdom is the hope of this earth" (Moltmann, 72).

4. "Jesus was raised from the dead": Maybe this seems obvious, but it seems to be overlooked in most conversations on the subject. We seem to assume that we can talk about life after death apart from Jesus, as if the power to live on after death is innate in us somehow. It's obvious we can't die, right? By emphasizing that it is Jesus who has been raised from the dead, and placing our confidence in resurrection only in his resurrection, we simply entrust all aspects of life after death that we don't thoroughly understand to the one who is trustworthy. God has raised Christ, the first fruits of those who have died, and we can trust that in Christ we too shall rise, and in no other way or by no other means should we have that kind of confidence (see Romans 8).

5. "The hope for the resurrection of the dead is not an answer to the human yearning for immortality; it is a response to the hunger for righteousness and justice" (Sun of Righteousness, Arise!: God's Future for Humanity and the Earth, J├╝rgen Moltmann, 41). Notice that the Old Testament doesn't mention saving your soul, ever. We aren't actually concerned about the salvation of souls or free trips to paradise. As God's church we are called to be the advance guard of God's coming kingdom into the world. We can't see heaven because we aren't supposed to. We're called to keep our eyes on this world, caring for the poor, being merciful, seeking truth and justice, in anticipation of God's coming kingdom. We do not pray for escape from this world but endurance in and for this world, in the manner of Christ.


After all of this, typically one last question remains. Something like, But what about those who have already died? Where are they? This is an important question. We grieve, and are concerned about those who have died. My answer: Trust God, trust Christ. They are in God's hands. Perhaps it is like sleep until the resurrection. I'm not sure. However, if you prefer to grasp hold of something more concrete, here's the medicine I recommend:

"Before the face of God time is not counted... Hence the first man Adam is as close to Him as will be the last to be born before the Final Day. For God seeth time not according to its length but athwart it, transversely" (Martin Luther). "The eschatological moment takes place throughout and across time, diachronically... from the hour of death until the resurrection to eternal life is only a moment" (Moltmann).


  1. Anonymous7:38 PM

    Amen and amen!

    At last a clear Lutheran post or blog that states precisely what the Bible so clearly and abundantly teaches about our eschatological perspective!!!!

    I love it! Restoration, Resurrection, Kingdom Coming!!! Amen. I am a Lutheran and this is what I believe.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Thanks, Anonymous!

  3. Anonymous10:23 PM

    My family and I read the book "Heaven is for Real" and found it interesting. There is certainly enough material for a good Bible study.

    The Bible does not provide the actual mechanics of how eternity works for those whom God has called from this world prior to Judgment Day. We do know that the concept of soul sleep is not Biblical. For example, Samuel appears to Saul after Samuel's death (1 Sam. 28), Moses appears at Jesus' transfiguration (Mat. 17), Christ appearing in hell to proclaim victory while his body was in the grave (1 Peter 3:17), and finally in Revelation where the saints in heaven who have fulfilled God's will on earth are distinguished from those who still toil on earth. Clearly, we retain our unique being through death’s portal; we are very much alive. That is to be expected because St. Paul says, nothing separates us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).

    So what is our response to life-after-death experiences? I could fabricate an explanation of some metaphysical concept but it would be only that, a fabrication; it would make a great movie but the idea would not have any Biblical foundation. As for Lutherans, we simply trust God's Word that after this life, we will live with Him and all the saints forever.

    I am not that quick to dismiss some of these truly phenomenal stories of those who had surreal experiences. Even St. Paul (2 Cor. 12) talks about a person who had a peculiar experience "being caught up to a third heaven.” Unlike those people who look to the Shroud of Turin as evidence of Jesus’ death and resurrection, I personally do not attempt to use life-after-death experiences as a means to anchor my faith. However, I think these stories should give us pause so that we consider the incredible eternity waiting for us that will be nothing like the “reality” we experience today as redeemed children of God living in a fallen world. These stories drive me to Gospel and there is no better place than that and I long for the day where I will put off mortality and am clothed in the white robes of immortality.

  4. I don't think we can dismiss "soul sleep" or being asleep in Christ as unbiblical. Consider Matthew 27:52, "The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised." This is representative of the general OT view, where the dead are asleep, in some place of the dead (Sheol, etc.). In fact, being asleep after death may be the most prominent biblical view prior to belief in the Resurrection with the Pharisees and early Christian community.

    Second, all of your examples disproving soul sleep are liminal and unusual cases. Samuel isn't actually there in his soul. He is forcibly called up by a seance. This is not encouraged, and may not have even been an appearance of the actual Samuel. The tradition in much of the Talmud, etc. is that Moses never died, but went to be with God. In this way, he is like Elijah, who ascended to heaven bodily, before death. Both appear at the Transfiguration. And Christ is a special case among special cases, because he is the first fruits of those who have died, and we can't take him as a general case proving how it is we are after death before the resurrection.

    Each of those stories, though powerful, is situated in its own narrative structure, and they can't be put together wily-nily as disproving soul sleep.

    I don't mean to press the point unnecessarily, because as I mentioned in my post, there are probably a variety of ways to express where our loved ones are between their physical death and the resurrection. But to dismiss soul sleep as unbiblical doesn't do the bible justice, as I have illustrated.

  5. Thank you, Clint. How interesting that I found a link to your blog in an e-mail from Wise Dyes, a maker of printed t-shirts in McKinleyville, CA, on the North Coast. He quoted you extensively, with attribution.
    How about this: eternal life is eternal, that is, not limited by time as we are here and now. Eternity does not have a "beginning" such as when Christ comes again to raise up the faithful. So we might say we are already there! But we are not because we do not yet have access to eternity. That is a gift yet to come.
    So it could be said, in the vernacular, that my loved one is "in heaven," meaning in eternity with God. However, there is no crossing this boundary (time) until God wills it. So I don't believe in communication with "the dead" either.
    When we draw comfort from lies about death being anything but final, we are avoiding the truth that
    our time is short and our opportunity is fleeting. I hope in God, not in false comforts. Even so, come Lord Jesus, come.
    David Holmquist, Eureka, CA