In the previous two posts, we considered the idea that at the end of time, after the Judgment, God and the New Jerusalem will come down to a renewed and purified earth, where we will dwell in new, imperishable, incorruptible bodies.
The verses seem plain enough, but Wright (and others) admit the we are told very little about what happens to us after our physical deaths and before the End.
Some verses speak of Christians sleeping. Others speak of believers being transported to Paradise with Jesus. Others seem to speak of our being in heaven.
Although Wright offers no real guidance, I thought surely the scriptures would have a plain teaching on such an obvious and important subject.
Strong’s Dictionary says “paradise” derives from the Hebrew pardec, meaning an orchard or forest. It’s a reference back to Eden. This is strongly suggested by–
(Rev. 2:7b) To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
The tree of life was, of course, originally in the Garden of Eden.
But we have to also consider Revelation 22, which immediately follows the prophecies of the New Heaven and New Earth in Revelation 21–
(Rev 22:1-2) Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
(See also verses 14 and 19).
If the tree of life is in Paradise and if it’s in the New Jerusalem, then Paradise is the New Jerusalem.
I suppose you could argue that the tree will be transplanted at the End from Paradise to the New Jerusalem on the New Earth. But the New Jerusalem is already in heaven, being prepared for us (John 14:1-4; Rev. 21:2). It makes far more sense to imagine the tree of life in the New Jerusalem in preparation for its descent to the New Earth, rather than being transplanted a second time.
And if the New Jerusalem is Paradise, then the New Jerusalem is Eden reborn, which fits the prophecies perfectly. After all, we are told in Revelation 22:3–
(Rev. 22:3) No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.
Clearly, John is telling us that the End, the coming of the New Heaven and New Earth, will end the curse of Genesis 3 and return us to Eden.
In the Gospels, “heaven” is repeatedly presented as the place where God and his angels dwell. At the end of Jesus’ ministry, he was taken up into heaven (Acts 1:2), where he will remain until the Second Coming–
(Acts 3:21) He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.
But for all the many passages that speak of heaven, it’s hard to find a passage that directly states that Christians will die and then go to heaven. (And, yes, I find this VERY surprising!)
The closest I can is in 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul speaks of our having a “dwelling” in heaven–
(2 Cor. 5:1-4 ESV) For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
Paul is discussing our bodies, not our earthly houses. After all, he is also speaking of being clothed or naked, speaking of the heavenly dwelling like clothing.
He refers to our present existence as in “tents,” that is, dwellings that won’t last long. In preceding chapter, he referred to our bodies as “jars of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7-10). The human body seems to be very much under consideration. Therefore, commentators conclude that Paul is speaking of our resurrected bodies, not a home in heaven. But he is speaking of our new, permanent bodies as being in the heavens.
But our new bodies come after the end. 1 Corinthians 15 is plain–
(1 Cor 15:42, 52) So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable … . 52 [I]n a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
Therefore, in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul is looking ahead to our existence after the Second Coming. Our “heavenly dwelling” is our imperishable new body.
(1 Pet. 1:3-5) Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
Our inheritance is is “kept in heaven” but we won’t receive it until the “last time.” Our inheritance is the Promised Land, the New Jerusalem, kept in heaven, but not given to us until the Second Coming.
And so, from Acts to Revelation, there is not a single clear reference to Christians going to heaven when they die! I just checked every single reference in the New Testament to “heaven,” “Paradise,” or “Hades.”
The Gospels make far more references to heaven.
(Matt. 5:12) “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
(Matt. 6:20-21) “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
(Mark 10:21) Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
These passages, and their parallels, speak of our having rewards stored in heaven. They do not speak of our going to heaven.
Now, obviously enough, the rewards won’t be worth much if we can’t be where they are! But by now it should be obvious that the reward is coming to us, when God and the New Jerusalem and the New Heaven are brought to the New Earth where we will be.
(Rev. 21:1-4) Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Now, this should not be nearly as disturbing as it at first appears! There’s much more to consider.
Several verses speak of the dead as asleep awaiting the Second Coming–
(Eph. 5:13-14) But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
This passage is a reference back to Isaiah 26:19, which refers to the End when the dead are raised. (I like this especially because I love Bach’s “Sleeper’s Awake.”)
Jesus referred to Jairus daughter and Lazarus as “not dead but asleep,” although he raised them both from the dead.
In Acts, Luke routinely refers to the dead as asleep.
In several verses in 1 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians, Paul refers to the dead as asleep. In 1 Corinthians, he uses this language in the context of those arising in response to the Second Coming.
The Poor Man and Lazarus
The passage that seems to be inconsistent with the foregoing is the familiar story told by Jesus about the poor man and Lazarus.
(Luke 16:22-31) “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.'”
Although many would argue that the story should not be read too literally, the image Jesus gives us is of Lazarus at rest with Abraham.
Nothing indicates that Lazarus was aware of the rich man’s plight, only that the rich man was aware of Lazarus’s blessed existence. Lazarus does nothing in the story after he arrives at Abraham’s side. All we are told is that he was “comforted.”
The rich man later asks that Lazarus be sent to his friends still alive to warn them of his horrible fate, strongly indicating that this takes place before the End. Hence, the passage argues for an existence, with Abraham, where we are comforted and at rest up until the End.
Now, the story is plainly fictionalized, in that it’s hard to imagine people agonizing in hell actually being able to chat with Abraham in heaven. And it’s at least arguable that Lazarus was actually asleep–which is not inconsistent with being at rest or comforted.
Toward a Conclusion
We are not done! Things just aren’t quite adding up, you know?
For example, Jesus told the thief on the cross that he’d be in Paradise “today.” Well, Jesus had just told the apostles at the Last Supper that we was going to get their rooms in the afterlife ready for them. How could he have gotten the afterlife ready between the Last Supper and his crucifixion? In fact, several passages seem to suggest the afterlife won’t be ready for us until the End.
And if we are truly sleeping away the millennia awaiting the End, where are “we”? It’s hard to imagine my consciousness, my self-awareness, buried with my body. And what of those whose bodies are utterly destroyed, such as those vaporized in Hiroshima? Where are they?
And, so we need another post to investigate this further in the next post.