As of this writing, we’re closely approaching the annual celebration of the most significant date in human history: The day an outspoken, First Century Jewish man from Nazareth, who had been brutally murdered only 72 hours prior, stepped out of his own grave alive as ever and, save a few puncture holes, none the worse for wear. The importance of this event to the Christian faith—to all of humanity that ever lived or ever will live, to the entire cosmos—cannot be overemphasized. The Apostle Paul plainly states that if this man Jesus has not risen then those of us who follow him “are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15). Jesus himself hung all of his claims of being the promised Messiah who would usher in and reign over God’s eternal kingdom, “the resurrection and the life,” the mediator between God and humanity, with the divine authority to forgive sins, on his unique ability to pull off his own physical resurrection. He claimed it would be the authentication of his authority and therefore the complete vindication of all of his otherwise outlandish claims. Given the unmatched importance of this event, it’s unfortunate that there is often such a hazy understanding among contemporary Christ-followers of what actually transpired and how it changes everything.
The physicality of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection must not be overlooked. The facts surrounding these events reiterate how God views the physical world, which he once called “good,” and the humans he created to inhabit it. The implications of the resurrection, in particular, are also pivotal to understanding his endgame. Immediately following his resurrection, Jesus repeatedly authenticated the physical reality of what had happened by inviting his hesitant disciples to feel the marks in his hands and side and by sharing unusually lively postmortem meals with them. Make no mistake; the resurrected Christ was/is flesh and bone, a human as we were meant to be, and the first fruits and divine source of many more to come.
The hope of bodily resurrection has been long whispered by the ancients but only realized in the person of Jesus. The prior sparse examples of God raising the dead should not be confused with Jesus’ unprecedented resurrection. You may have noticed that Lazarus, whose soul was famously reunited with his once-dead mortal body, is no longer with us. He too must await the resurrection that is yet to come. Perhaps Job described our future hope of resurrection most clearly: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27).
Many of Jesus’ contemporaries scoffed at the suggestion of physical resurrection. Even Jewish culture was torn, with the Sadducees outright rejecting notions of supernatural intervention such as angels, miraculous healing, and—of course—resurrection. When Paul spoke at the Areopagus in Athens, we read how resurrection was the hardest part of the Gospel for a First Century Greek audience to swallow. Eventually, with the influx of Gentile believers, many Gnostic interpretations of core events started creeping into the early Church. Some of these misunderstandings were addressed by the remaining Apostles. John, for example, spoke against those in his day who were denying the authentic humanity of Jesus, going so far as to label them “antichrist.” Other heretical ideas stemming from Gnosticism were also vehemently refuted by Paul before his martyrdom.
Gnostics believe the physical world is inherently evil and of no value, while the unseen spiritual realm is good and therefore of infinite value. As a result, Gnostic-thinking Christians seek release or rescue from the physical world. At first glance, Scripture seems to reinforce the tenants of Gnosticism. Jesus said that his followers should disregard their basic physical needs (food, clothing, shelter, etc.), for example, and even “hate” their own lives in this world in favor of passionately pursuing an unseen Father and otherworldly kingdom. James said that anyone who loves the world makes himself an enemy of God. Paul expressed his deep desire to leave his corrupted body so that he could be present with the Lord. Old and New Covenant saints alike are described as exiles in a foreign land, eagerly awaiting a better country, a heavenly country. All of this sounds like music to a Gnostic’s ears.
Prevailing Gnostic interpretations of Scripture are too numerous and complex to exhaustively address here. The “world,” however, can refer to the corrupted kingdom of men, humanity in general, the physical planet, the cosmos, and so on. God can then simultaneously love the “world,” his divinely crafted creation, and hate the “world,” the evil systems of sinful humans that oppress and enslave. The Bible teaches that the Spirit of God breathed life into the physical world. So the spiritual is the source and the sustainer of the physical but never, as the Gnostics would have it, the supplanter.
Modern Gnostics are often exclusively concerned with “saving souls.” Not much thought, if any, is given to the Gospel's implications on the body and the world of matter. Environmental conservation efforts, for example, are sometimes seen as a “waste of time,” given that “God will be making a new heaven and earth anyway.” For the same reasons, caring for one’s physical body with proper diet and exercise may also seem pointless to a Gnostic-minded Christian.
We should see the promised new heavens and new earth in the same sense in which believers in Jesus become “new creations.” We wouldn’t—or shouldn’t—think to say that “because I am being made new, the current me (along with my thoughts and behavior) is of no importance.” That I will be eradicated to make room for a new version of me who will in fact not be me is a concept that is at odds with the biblical narrative. C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, does an excellent job of describing how the process of dying to self and allowing Jesus to live through us in fact produces the opposite of what we might expect: It is only through this process of self denial that we discover who we were always meant to be in Christ—our true selves.
When a Christian speaks of going to “live with God in heaven forever” after they die (if their meaning of “heaven” is something like an ethereal spiritual realm), they are once again out of step with the story that the Bible is telling. That understanding of God’s endgame for humanity, the universe, and so forth is far more Gnostic than Christian.
The Bible refers to heaven as the place where God reigns in unveiled glory. We’re given awe-inspiring pictures of a throne room, unapproachable light, numerous angelic attendants, and endless worship. Throughout Scripture, this place is often poetically associated with the upper atmosphere or even a geographic location like “Mount Zion” or Jerusalem’s temple. In truth, heaven is better understood as a person than a place. The ancient Jews didn’t think their God literally lived in the sky or on some distant planet. They understood he was everywhere and that heaven was always just around the corner, so to speak, and could even peak through on occasion (Genesis 28:17, Ezekiel 1:1, 2 Kings 6:17). Genesis describes a time long ago when heaven and earth occupied the same space (N.T. Wright, in Simply Christian, discusses this concept of heaven and earth “interlocking” far better than I could hope to here). God never left. But our ability to perceive him, to experience his perfect reign and unveiled glory, was tragically inhibited by sin—a death of the worst kind.
Jesus, through his incarnation, death, and resurrection, brings heaven crashing back into earth like a tidal wave. The restorative work of Christ allows each of his followers, and the Church collective, to function as containers, or temples, of God, a place of sorts in which heaven and earth occupy the same space once again. This renewed connection to God through Jesus is the essence of eternal life (John 17:3), and the phenomenon of heaven incrementally intersecting with earth through Jesus is called the “kingdom of God.” His endgame then seems to involve the spiritual realm perfectly and completely coexisting with a cured physical universe as it was in the beginning. After all, he commands us to regularly pray for this very thing (Matthew 6:9-10).
Just as he left in flesh, Jesus promised that he will return to our world “in the same way” (Acts 1:11). His kingdom will come in fullness, the seamless reunification of heaven and earth, when the King is physically present. Evil will be permanently eradicated from his universe, and only what is good and pure, what is of him, will remain. At his command, human souls that have been transformed into his likeness by the finished work of Christ will be reunited with their resurrected, now-immortal, incorruptible bodies. He will dwell “with us” and we will see his face (Revelation 21:3, 22:4). God's endgame then is not so much to bring us to heaven as it is to bring heaven back to earth.
Those who persistently love their treason more than their Creator will—in accordance with their own unyielding wishes—experience a complete inability to perceive the ever-present and infinitely good God. Having rejected the Tree of Life, and now cast out of a universe that, even in its broken state, still echoed the Creator's goodness, they will tragically endure an eternal torment of such intensity that it is likened to being burned in a lake aflame, cast into deepest darkness and bone-grinding bitterness—beyond dead. “Depart from me” will be the last thing they hear. Tragically, the horrors of this existence cannot be overstated, yet it is a fate that all of humanity has justly earned.
Eternal life begins today when we trust in the finished work of Jesus and give ourselves over to his transformative work in our lives. It is immeasurably good to participate in his kingdom now and become conduits of heaven on earth as he reigns in our hearts and hands. Even better, though, is when our mortal body gives out and our soul is swept up into his presence where we experience his unveiled glory and perfect reign in heaven. But the best is yet to come—the hope of resurrection—when he brings heaven to a restored earth, reunites our soul and body (as humans were meant to exist), and once again walks with us in the garden.
Christ’s bodily resurrection is central to the Gospel. As is the future hope of our own bodily resurrection and that of the cosmos. The story that the Bible is telling is of a once-“good” physical world that has been tragically marred by sin and death but that is presently being restored through the work of Jesus. The physical world has been mortally wounded by corrupted flesh, so the cure must come from the spiritual realm, more specifically from heaven. The spiritual—the eternal Word of God—takes on flesh in order to restore flesh and, by extension, the rest of the physical world. Jesus' resurrection is a foretaste of his cosmic restoration project. He is making “all things new.” No doubt we'll all be surprised when he is finished. Happy Easter!
“Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?'” (John 11:25-26)