For centuries, Christians have considered Heaven the ultimate reward for deciding to follow Jesus. Death was celebrated in gospel songs as crossing the river Jordan, transforming Heaven into the Promised Land. It was a comforting metaphor for those who had to say goodbye to deceased loved ones before Jesus returned.
For most of my Christian life I too assumed Heaven was the destination of the true believer. But one day I decided to look up all the verses that promised life in Heaven – and, lo and behold, I couldn’t find one! I saw that our inheritance is “reserved for us in Heaven” (1 Pet. 1:4). That our names “are enrolled in Heaven” ((Heb. 12:23). That our “citizenship is in Heaven” (Phil. 3:20). But nowhere did I see we are promised an eternal life in Heaven – or even a temporary stay.
The only afterlife I found promised to us in the Bible was in a resurrected, immortal body here on earth. And that new body wouldn’t become ours until Jesus returned! “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible” (1 Cor. 15:52).
Like most Christians, I suspect, I just assumed resurrection occurred when we died and ourspirit “ascended” to Heaven. But if going to Heaven is what the Bible means by ‘resurrection,’ then what’s the point of Jesus coming back to earth to raisethe dead? Because the dead in Christ would be in Heaven already, and the rest would simply join the party in Paradise when they died. And if you think about it, once there who’d ever want to come back to earth?
I began to see how this hope of Heaven had completely overshadowed the hope of resurrection. It made a bodily resurrection unnecessary. Yet wasn’t the promise of being included in Jesus’ resurrection victory over bodily death the good news that electrified the world in the first century? If resurrection is just a graduation of disembodied spirits to the unseen spiritual world of Heaven, which Plato taught, then death still reigns as the final arbiter of life on this planet. And the joke is on us. As Paul said, “If the dead are not raised [on earth], let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32).
It seems in the course of history Yeshua’s message about the kingdom of Heaven got twisted to mean we had to go to Heaven to receive it. But the kingdom Yeshua talked about was coming to earth! Didn’t he teach us to pray to the Father…”Thy kingdom come?” And wasn’t John told in his heavenly vision that all those Jesus had purchased with his blood “shall reign upon the earth?” (Rev. 5:9,10).
This promise of a heavenly kingdom on earth is nothing less than the fulfillment of the covenant promise made to Abraham and his seed that they “…would inherit the earth” (Rom. 4:13). “For all these died in faith without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, confessed they were strangers and exiles upon the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own” (Heb. 11:13,14). There are no countries in Heaven!
Anthony Buzzard in his book, _Our Fathers Who Aren’t in Heaven, _writes: “Our fathers…looked forward, as did New Testament Christians, to entering and inheriting the land of promise, the Kingdom of God on earth, by resurrection from the dead.” (pg. 69).
Well, if we don’t go to Heaven after we die, where do we go? The New Testament never really says, but seems to remain consistent with the Old Testament view that Sheol (“Hades” in the Greek) is our temporary destination. It is not a place of reward or punishment, but a place of unconscious rest. “For there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going” (Eccl. 9:10).
The phrase used repeatedly in the NT is that we “have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:6, 18,20,51). But wherever our spirit goes between death and resurrection, whether conscious or unconscious, we are assured of one thing: Father God will never let go of us. “For neither death nor life…can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38,39).
There we will stay until the trumpet blows and “the dead in Messiah will be raised, and we [who are still alive] will be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52). And life on our sin-sick planet will finally become – Heaven on earth!
Brian Hennessy is the author of Valley of the Steeples, available at: ketchpublishing/BrianHennessyBooks.htm