We hear it all the time – that the Christian hope is that we go to live in heaven forever with Jesus when we die. While there is a shade of truth to that statement, it misses a lot; it misses most of how Christians live in eternity.
The idea that Christianity is about going to live forever in heaven when you die not only focuses on a very minor part of our lives in the Age to Come, but it also creates a wrong sort of heavenly mindedness. It invites Christians to think that our eternal lives do not start until we die. In so doing it has us miss the big point that Jesus brought with him: that heaven has already invaded earth in Jesus Christ. Our eternal lives have already begun; we have already become heavenly people. And this realization cannot help but dramatically affect the way we live today. We are to live as the heavenly people that God has already created us to be.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s first discuss a narrower point before launching into the broader implications.
The narrow point: The eternal hope for the Christian is not, and has never been, to be a disembodied soul living eternally in heaven. The Christian’s eternal hope is the reunion of body and soul. To be sure, between our deaths and the resurrection of our bodies there is a temporary period of time in which Christians live as disembodied spirits in heaven. But Christians don’t live that way eternally. The Christian expectation is that we live eternally as souls embodied in resurrected physical bodies in a new physical heaven and earth (see, e.g., 1 Co 15.20,23, Jn 5.28-29, Rev 20.4-6, 13, Acts 24.14-15). This is the “resurrection of the body” that the Church has affirmed for millennia in the Apostles’ Creed.
But there’s a bigger point at stake than playing “gotch ya” with theological language. Talking about spending eternity in heaven with Jesus after we die obscures the fact that our eternal lives have already begun; we don’t need to wait until we die before we begin living it.
Jesus brought heaven to earth not so that humanity could inherit heaven at some distant future time, but so that people could start living with God now
While verses could be multiplied, just consider what Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5.24).
Note the verb tense. Jesus does not say that the believer “will have eternal life” when the believer hears his word and believes God. Jesus says that the believer “has eternal life” and “has passed out of death into life.” This is what the believer has now
This is critical. We are God’s people, now
. Jesus restored our lost fellowship with God, now
. God has given us eternal life, now
. Eternal life is not something that we begin after we die. Eternal life is what we have already been given, now
And since this is true, now
, then it cannot help but dramatically affect how we live, now
We exist now as a new humanity (Eph 4.24, Col 3.10), bearing as children the image of the new Adam (1 Co 15.45, Ro 5.14) of the new Creation (Ro 8.29, 2 Co 5.17), himself the very image of very God (2 Co 4.4, Col 1.15). We live now as a heavenly people on and in earth (Eph 2.6, Phil 1.27, 3.20, Col 3.1, Heb 12.22) being Spirit-filled temples of God (1 Co 3.16), being the points at which heaven now meets earth. We live now as people of the Age to Come. In Christ, we, the church, now are the intruders in this fallen age. The New Creation has already been birthed in the midst of the old.
So our eternal lives have begun already, and we do not need to wait for our life-after-death to begin. Indeed, since God kills and resurrects us in baptism, in the most real sense our life-after-death has already begun. (Physical death, after all, is a piffle compared to spiritual death – from which we have already been resurrected, Mt 10.28.)
Talk about Christians doing “good works” doesn’t really capture the full picture here. Given that we are already a heavenly, eternal people, just what would we expect to be doing, except heavenly and eternal things? There is no hunger in the age to come, so we feed the hungry here. There is no nakedness in the age to come, so we clothe the naked here. There are no prisons in the age to come, so we go into prisons to visit the Christians there as we would visit Christians on the outside.
Yes, these things are “good works.” But they are perhaps more importantly just a reflection of who we are as an already-created heavenly people. The Age to Come is inaugurated already in the Church and in the Christian.
None of this is intended to push an overly-realized eschatology. Christians in this age struggle to drown the old Adam daily. But by pushing the start of our eternal lives as a new humanity into the future after we die, I believe that we sell short the new man that God has already created us to be in Jesus Christ now. This is to fight the old Adam with one hand tied behind our backs.
The Christian’s eternal life has already begun. We don’t need to wait to die to start living it. We are already living our eternal lives.