What! No Pearly Gates? Rory Shiner reveals where we go when we die

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 10.31.32 amThis is an edited extract from Raised Forever: Jesus’ resurrection and ours, by Rory Shiner, Matthias Media, $16.95

In around the year 150, Justin Martyr, the famous early Christian apologist, was defending the Christian faith in conversation with his Jewish friend Trypho. They were talking about what happens when you die and the differences between Jewish and Christian belief, and Justin said this to Trypho:

For if you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, but who do not admit this … who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls when they die are taken to heaven, do not imagine that they are Christians.

It’s a measure of how far we have come (or how far we have fallen) that what Justin Martyr describes as a set of beliefs that are not even Christian, for us are almost the taken-for-granted Christian points of view: that we have souls, that they are immortal, and that they go to heaven when we die.

By contrast, we have been seeing that the Christian hope is not of immortal souls but resurrected bodies, a hope secured in the resurrection of Jesus. What does this mean for our other beliefs? When we say resurrected bodies, what exactly are we talking about? These bodies? New bodies? And if we are waiting for the resurrection, where are the dead now? And where does the traditional language of “heaven” fit into all this?

In this chapter, we take a little interlude to address these issues. They come under three headings:
1. How are the dead raised?
2. Where are they now?
3. Wow ­– look at what happens to those who are still alive when Jesus returns!

How, Now, and Wow. (See what I did there?)

1. How?

If we are talking about resurrecting these bodies, how exactly is that going to happen? We know what happens to dead bodies – how on earth can we imagine they will be resurrected? Or is that even on the table? Are we given new bodies? Or spiritual bodies?

Fortunately for us, it is this very question that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 15:35:

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?”

In the context it is a cynical, scoffer’s question. And Paul addresses it with a brilliantly simple but profound metaphor. He asks us to consider a seed:

You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. (vv. 36-37)

Think about the relationship between a seed and a plant for a moment. One is small, round and hard; the other is long, green and lush. If you were a new visitor to this planet, they might strike you as so different that a relationship between the two might not even occur to you. The transformation the seed undergoes as it becomes a plant is enormous.

So, too, the bodies of the resurrection will be transformed bodies. They will not be these bodies pulled out of their graves and dusted off to resume play. As [Bishop N.T.] Wright puts it, “A seed does not come to life by being dug up, brushed down and restored to its pristine seediness”.

Seeds and plants are unlike each other – but they are not unrelated to each other. They are not like football and beetroots, hump-backed whales and the Royal Post, oranges and life insurance – things from completely different spheres of life. On the contrary – amazingly, given the seeming differences – the plant and the seed are intimately connected. Indeed, everything that the plant becomes was already inherent in the seed. The plant is not the rejection of the seed – it is its fullness. When a seed becomes a plant, it is a fulfilment of the seed’s ends and purpose.

So it is with the resurrection of our bodies, says Paul. The relationship with this body and that body is like that.

Paul goes on: “But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body” (v. 38). Each kind of body has its own glory or splendour. They do not compete with each other, but shine out as the glorious things they are. “It is no shame to a dog that it does not shine, or to a star that it does not bark.”

According to the Creation account (which Paul probably has in mind as he writes this section of 1 Corinthians 15), in days one to three God created the light (day and night), the sky and the seas, and the land, and then in days four to six he filled those parts of creation with the bodies appropriate to them: animals for the land, birds for the sky, fish for the seas, and so on. And each kind of creature has its own kind of body – birds have one kind of flesh, animals have another, fish have another. There are bodies in the heavens – that is, the sky – and there are bodies on the earth.

What’s Paul’s point? “So it is with the resurrection of the dead” (v. 42). Just as our old bodies were made for the old creation, with a glory befitting the old creation, so too God will make new bodies fit for the new creation – bodies made perfect for the place they will be. Our old bodies are perishable, dishonoured, weak and natural; they will be raised imperishable, glorious, powerful and spiritual (vv. 42-45).

According to the Bible, there are two great bodies in history: the body of Adam and the body of Jesus. The one, Adam, the first man, was natural; the second, the last man, Jesus, was spiritual (v. 45).

“Spiritual” here is not being used in opposition to “physical”. He means “spiritual” as opposed to “natural”. He’s talking about the body’s power source, not about its properties. It’s like a train powered by steam and a train powered by electricity. A steam train is not made of steam, but run by it. And if a steam train is converted to electricity, what changes is not the constitution of its body but the source of its energy. (If you happen to be a trainspotter and that analogy doesn’t work on some technical level, my humble apologies.) In the same way, our bodies are controlled by a natural power source in this creation, but in the new creation they will be powered by the Spirit of God. We who bear the image of the earthly man now will, at the resurrection, bear the image of the heavenly man then.

That’s the first question: How?

2. Now?

Second, where are the dead in Christ now? To find an answer, we will go first to the main New Testament passage that directly addresses the issue, and then we’ll sneak in on a few passages that don’t directly address the issue, but which we might be able to raid from the side for some suggestive clues.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
The passage that addresses this issue most directly is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. (v. 13)

The question, clearly, is the state of those who have died in Christ. Quite probably, it hadn’t occurred to the Thessalonians that any of their loved ones would die before Christ returned. But since some have now died, they needed to swot up on the answer. For us, the answer is so obvious: they are in heaven – right? But that’s not what Paul says:

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (v. 14)

Do you see what he does? Where are the dead who died in Christ? How should we think of them? Answer: They have “fallen asleep” in him, and, at the resurrection, God will bring all those people with Jesus. That is to say, they will be raised – which is confirmed in verse 16: “The dead in Christ will rise first”. Now, they are asleep in him; then, they will be raised with him. Either way, Jesus has them.

Overwhelmingly, the language used by the New Testament to describe the Christian dead is that they are “asleep”. And it’s not just that they are asleep, but that they are asleep “in the Lord”. Why does the Bible use the language of sleep? Two reasons, I think: firstly, because “asleep” shapes how we are to relate to those who have died in Christ. What do you do with sleeping people? Well, you don’t try to contact them. You don’t talk to them, but neither do you worry about them. If you want to talk to them, you wait till they are awake. So, too, with us. Scripture forbids us from contacting the dead. Rather, we trust that they are in the care of God, that God will raise them up at the right time, and that we will be able to commune with them then.

But secondly, being asleep is the perfect picture for resurrection. Asleep, then awake. Horizontal, then vertical.

What about heaven?
Why doesn’t Paul just say they are “in heaven”? Well, surprisingly for us, the Bible rarely (if ever) uses “heaven” in the way we use it. In the Bible, the word heaven/heavens almost always just means the skies. Heaven is also used derivatively to describe “God’s space – the place where God is. So the Lord’s Prayer addresses “Our Father in heaven” (as opposed to our fathers on earth).

Some verses that may at first sight appear to use “heaven” in the way that is now so commonplace (i.e. to refer to our final home and hope) are, on closer inspection, doing something sightly different. The early verses of Colossians, for example, speak of “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (Col 1:5). But notice that here heaven is the place our hope is stored, not the object of our hope itself. The same sort of thing is going on in Matthew 6:19-20, where we are encouraged to lay up for ourselves “treasures in heaven”. This is not because heaven is where we will go to collect them, but because heaven is where God is keeping them safe for us (see also 1 Peter 1:4). When the Gospel of Matthew uses the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” it is as a synonym for the kingdom of God (“heaven” standing for “God” in the way “the crown” stands for the Queen, or “the turf” stands for the racing track). And, of course, the kingdom of God is the reign of God over his people. That’s why in the Lord’s Prayer we don’t pray “Your people go” (to heaven) but “your kingdom come” (to earth).

Sometimes our prayers are better theology than our theology.

But does the Bible ever use “heaven” to mean “the place where the dead in Christ go”, or even “our final home”? Well, not anywhere I can see. Because the truth is, the biblical hope is for a new heaven and a new earth. The biblical hope is that God will redeem this creation, not redeem us from this creation. It’s not that we will be liberated from this world, but that this world itself will be liberated, as Paul tells us (see Romans 8:21).
The idea that the dead are asleep has led some Christians to believe a doctrine called “soul sleep”. This teaches that there is no consciousness at all for the dead between now and the resurrection of the dead. Tempting though this approach is, there are a few passages that on balance seem to rule it out for Christians. Chief among them is Philippians 1:20-24, where Paul says that to be away from the body (i.e. dead) is to be at home with the Lord. Paul says here that to be dead is “far better” (v. 23) – that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (v. 21). Surely, then, Paul envisions some sort of conscious enjoyment of Christ before the resurrection? Similarly, in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul expected to be away from the body but at home with the Lord. And Jesus tells the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Again, it would be surprising if that promise didn’t imply some sort of conscious enjoyment of God at the point of death.

So, where are the dead in Christ now? They are asleep, they are at rest, and they are with God. Are they in heaven? Well, I guess Christ is at the right hand of the Father, and the Father is in heaven, so OK. But it’s not the language the Bible typically uses for the dead in Christ, and using this language carelessly today can import other things that we don’t want to say. For example, when we habitually use the language of heaven for the final hope of those who die in Christ, we encourage a habit of mind that makes the resurrection of our bodies a kind of unnecessary addition to our hope, rather than the centrepiece of it.

Remember, Jesus says to the repentant thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”. The dead in Christ are in a better place; but they are not yet in the best place. The better place is with Christ, but the best place is with Christ and his people in their bodies, in the new heavens and the new earth. If I can put it this way, the dead in Christ still hope along with us. They are waiting, like we are, for a better day – for the day of resurrection.

For my money, the sort of language we should use of the dead who have died in Christ is captured in Revelation 14:13:

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labours, for their deeds follow them!”

What is their situation now? It is blessed. Where are they now? They are “in the Lord”. What is their experience now? They are “at rest”. Does the life they lived for Christ have any meaning? Yes, for their deeds will follow them. Beautiful.

3. Wow!

In 1 Corinthians 15:50-57, Paul predicts one more question: what happens to those who are alive at the coming of Jesus? If the dead are given resurrected bodies, well, that’s all well and good for them. But what about those who are alive at the coming of the Lord? Do we, musical chairs-style, just get stuck in whatever body we had at the time of his coming?

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (v. 50)
Paul says that just as a body sown in the ground, a buried body, needs to be raised in power, so too the living – flesh and blood – cannot inherit the kingdom of God. That is, your body as it is now is not fit for the age to come. “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (v. 51).

Not everyone will be dead at the coming of Christ, but everyone – dead or alive – will be transformed when he comes: “… we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (vv. 51-52).


Back to the seed. C.S. Lewis once said that if you could see now what your neighbour will be then at the resurrection, you would be so taken with them that you would be sorely tempted to bow down and worship. We will be changed, and we will be glorious. However, we won’t be beyond recognition. We won’t look at each other then and say: “What?! I never knew you were… !?” No, we will look at each other then and say, I think, “Wow! Now that is what you were always supposed to be!” We will be most ourselves, most fulfilled, most who we were always meant to be, because then we will be like Jesus (1 John 3:2).

This is an edited extract from Raised Forever: Jesus’ resurrection and ours, by Rory Shiner, Matthias Media, $16.99