Afterlife Matters: Common misconceptions of life after death and why they matter Part Four

In this series, we’re walking through some common misconceptions about life after death. If you missed the first three posts why people don’t become angelswhy hell isn’t the devil’s domain or playhouse, and that hell is not a place that stands outside and against the will of God, click on the links to look back.

In fourth and final installment we’re looking at the misconception that eternity is heavenly and not earthly.

I have a secret I was once afraid to share with others: I used to be scared to death of heaven.

I wasn’t scared that I might die. Rather, I was scared of what came after death, a heavenly existence that to me sounded, frankly, boring. The idea of standing before the throne of God for all eternity singing various gospel bluegrass songs just didn’t do it for me.

Now part of my reticence was my own sinfulness. I was not as captured by the majesty of God like I should have been. Today, the idea of seeing my God and Savior is infinitely more exciting than it was twenty years ago. I can’t imagine ever leaving his side.

But I have since learned two other things about my heavenly reluctance.

One, I was not alone. There are many who balk at the idea of a heaven filled with harps and clouds and an endless perusal of the hymnbook.

The other thing I learned — and this explained both my own fears and the fears of others — is that the reason I balked at a “heavenly” afterlife is because that’s not what I was made for and that’s not what God promises.

Misconception #4: Eternity is heavenly, not earthly.

The truth is we are not destined for a heavenly existence, at least not heaven as we tend to think of it, and not heaven as it is today.

When the Bible speaks of the eternal life of a Christian, the story culminates with a new heaven and a new earth. Revelation 21.1 – “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth”

  • A new heaven.

The heaven of today is not the same heaven that will reside for eternity. A new heaven is coming. Heaven is currently serving as a holding area for humanity until the progress of the kingdom of God is complete. So thorough is the work of God’s kingdom that even heaven itself is changed. In fact, those who are in heaven today are not in the same heaven of eternity, nor will they stay in heaven forever. We may sing, “I’ll fly away”, and the truth is we will, but we’ll also be coming back. The heaven of tomorrow is not the heaven of today, and those in heaven now will one day find themselves back here.

  • A new earth.

Rather than avoiding some sort of earthly existence, the Bible actually places a great emphasis on the place of the earth in eternity. It is heaven that comes down to earth and not the other way around. Revelation 21.1-2 – “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth ….And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” The entire book of Revelation could be summarized as the risen Christ proclaiming, “You tell them I’m coming and heaven’s coming with me.” If our existence was going to be some sort of wholly spiritual one, we would expect earth to be obliterated and heaven to house us. But the Bible gives us a renewed heaven and a renewed earth and it is the heavenly that descends to meet the earthly.

This focus on an earthly afterlife shouldn’t surprise us. Many biblical descriptions of the life to come have a very earthy feel to them. They focus not on an ethereal existence but of a redeemed earthly one. The Bible speaks of eating and drinking, plowing and reaping, of lions and lambs, of snakes and children, of coming and going, of cities and kings. It is, after all, eternal life. In the life to come, earth is not gone. Earth is part of the gospel story.

Why is it important for our understanding of the gospel that we see our eternity in terms of both heaven and earth?

  • First, the gospel is about the redemption of creation, not its abandonment. In the gospel, God fixes creation’s fallenness. Eternity is not about giving up on the created earthly works, a retreat to a more clean spiritual realm. Those notions have more to do with Plato than Paul. Romans 8 shows us a creation that is longing for the story of the gospel to progress, for the kingdom to advance. Why? Because creation knows that it is part of the story. The earth is not crying out for its coming annihilation but for its own redemption, for it, too, to be set free.

Earth is more than just a backdrop to the gospel story, more than just a staging area for gospel events while God gets heaven ready. Russell Moore notes that it is no accident that “life begins in a garden and ends in a beautiful garden city.” The story of the gospel is of an ever expanding kingdom of God in and through his entire creation. Redemption is a cosmic gospel event. Sin is purged from every inch of the universe. The gospel promise for creation is that one day “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” That’s a very earthy gospel promise.

  • Second, a solely spiritual eternity downplays the importance of the resurrection. If our eternity is purely heavenly, then why the hope of a bodily resurrection? A heavenly existence makes our resurrection meaningless. We don’t need bodies for a heavenly existence. That’s why those in heaven now are not in their resurrected bodies. They don’t need them. But some day we will need those bodies again for life in  a new earth. This time, we get the joy of living in bodies unstained by sin in a world where righteousness reigns. Bodily resurrection only makes sense if there is an earthly aspect to our eternal existence.
  • Third, a new earth brings our purpose to fulfillment. To understand our eternity, we must first understand our beginning. For what purpose did God make humanity? If it were solely for more heavenly voices, why not just make more angels? God didn’t make us simply to expand the choir. God made us to be his image bearers on his creation. The reason we aren’t comfortable with the idea of standing a million, billion years before the throne is that we weren’t made for that. We were made for a different form of worship, the worship of God-centered living. The reason many balk at a heavenly eternity is because man is an earthy creation, quite literally (Genesis 2.7). There are echoes of Eden inside us all, yearnings to fulfill our created purpose. That is why Revelation speaks of mankind’s eternity as one of ruling and reigning over creation (Revelation 22.5). In the end, because of God’s redemptive work, we are able to accomplish our purpose of having dominion over the earth as God’s image bearers. In eternity, God doesn’t cancel our purpose, he redeems it and he establishes it forever.
  • Finally, a new earth highlights the gospel hope of God dwelling with his people. At the Fall, mankind was separated from God’s presence spiritually and physically. The gospel works to restore that relationship and recapture God being with his people. Whether it’s the tabernacle or the temple, God dwelling with his people has been a continued hope in Scripture. The spiritual fulfillment of that hope has already occurred as God now dwells in his people through the Holy Spirit. But the promise of eternity is that God’s physical presence will also be recaptured. Heaven is where God dwells. The promise of the gospel is that one day God will bring heaven to earth. God will no longer dwell in the sky, or in a tent or a temple, he will dwell with us and in a greater way than he even did in the Garden.

God promises his eternal presence in a melding of heaven and earth into a new and glorious hope – heaven on earth, God with his people forever. This is no minor promise, for it teaches us that our ultimate hope isn’t heaven or earth, it’s God and Christ. Our greatest expectation isn’t where we’ll be but who we’ll be with: Eternity with our God in a world he created and redeemed for his glory and for our good.

Revelation 22.3-5 – “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4  They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5  And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”

This series is brought to you by Chris Gore who pastors at First Baptist Church in Beggs, OK.