I grew up in the church. All my life I've heard Christians say things like, "I can't wait to leave this 'ol world and body behind and go to heaven," or "Won't it be wonderful when we are in heaven with Jesus, and this world passes away?" or "This world is not my home; I'm just passin' through," or "This world is going to burn in a fervent heat!" I've even heard several pastors, in tears, say during a sermon that the thing they look forward to most in life is leaving this universe to go to heaven.
Never, even as a child, have I been able to relate to this feeling. Whenever I heard Christians talk this way I always thought, "But there's so many things that I love about the world: the warmth of the sun on my skin, the smell of pine trees, the sound of a river, the colors of autumn, the taste of a really good beer, the feeling of cold air in my lungs, the invigorating satisfaction of doing hard labor, etc., etc. Despite all the evil in it, there's so much that is beautiful and good about our world. Why would I ever look forward to its destruction? Yeah, there's a lot that's wrong with it, but why would God just trash the world that he created. Didn't he say it was good? It seems like such a waste. It makes me sad." Of course, I felt guilty for having these thoughts. I felt like I was not as good of a Christian as those that couldn't wait to go to heaven. I felt too "worldly." But what could I do? It's what the Bible taught, and so I had to accept it if I was going to be a Christian. At least, that's what I believed up until a few years ago.
Over the past several years, I began to discover what the Bible really has to say about the afterlife. Through conversations with older wiser Christians, and by studying the Bible for myself, I found that much of what I believed about the biblical teaching was wrong. The Bible does not teach that God is going to trash the cosmos at the end of time. Nor does it teach that the eternal state Christians look forward to is an ethereal disembodied heaven. Rather, the Bible teaches (and the earliest Christians believed) that God will recreate the physical cosmos - he will heal it from its present corruption. Similarly, the Bible teaches that Christians will be given new bodies - bodies that cannot die. Christians will then live forever with their new bodies, in the renewed physical cosmos; where the heavenly realm (God's domain) and the physical realm (our domain) will become one. Sounds heretical, doesn't it? Or at least a bit sci-fi? That's what the Bible teaches. Nowhere does it say that Christians will float around for eternity as disembodied souls in an immaterial heaven.
For me, the biblical teaching of the afterlife is revolutionary for a couple reasons. First, it vindicates the physical world, and the human body, as something good, even though it's flawed. The impression I had growing up was that, at our core, we humans are just souls. Our bodies (and the physical universe) are a kind of prison. And we will be released from this prison in the end, when our soul goes to heaven. This view (which is closer to Greek dualism than it is biblical Christianity) tends to promote a value system in which physical things are seen as bad, while "heavenly" (i.e. spiritual) things are seen as good. But, in Genesis, the Bible says that God created the physical cosmos (and everything in it), and declared that it was "very good." Likewise, God created humans out "of the dust of the ground." So, we were originally created as physical creatures - embodied creatures - not just souls. In other words, having a physical body is part of what it means to be a human being.
This idea is reinforced by the Incarnation. Jesus became human - he had a physical body. If God could become man, then there is nothing intrinsically evil about being human. Nor is there anything bad about physical existence itself. According to the Bible, physical embodied existence was our origin, and it is our destiny.
Secondly, the biblical doctrine of the afterlife promotes a very different system of values than the escapist, Gnostic version I grew up believing. When you believe that this world is bad, and God is eventually going to trash it anyway, it doesn't make you want to take care of it. However, when you believe God is going to redeem the entire cosmos, it gives one a very different picture. Suddenly, this world (and how we treat it) matters. According to the Bible, Christians are not only supposed to anticipate God's future redemption, they are also supposed to reflect it, in the present, by how they live their lives. This has tremendous implications for things like environmental stewardship, cultural renewal, and many other important issues that are pressing on the minds of people today.
That is not to say that dealing with current issues is the point of our existence. Just that, for a Christian with a biblical perspective, acknowledging those issues (rather than ignoring them) and working to help solve them will come naturally. In other words, the Christian that lives from a truly biblical perspective will be engaging culture, not isolating herself from it; she will actively work to help in healing society, not just watch from the sidelines; she will be a good steward of the environment, not helping to trash it. On the other hand, those that adhere to a Greek dualistic version of Christianity will simply continue to huddle together in pockets of cultural isolation, as they wait out the storm of this life; anticipating their escape from physical existence into an immaterial heaven.
Give me the real and tactile faith of the Bible any day - a faith that actually makes a difference in this world. Let the dualists have their ethereal Platonic heaven. It's overrated. "Heaven" (as they conceive it) is not my home. I was not made to float around on a cloud somewhere. As a human being, I am created for terrestrial (not celestial) existence. I want to feel the ground beneath my feet, solid and real. Thus, the home I look forward to is one that will be right here, in a renewed physical universe - when heaven and earth become one.
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. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. '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." He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" (Revelation 21:1-5)
Whether you are a Christian or not, I think it is important to know what the Bible actually says, and what the earliest Christians really believed, and why it matters. Too often people unconsciously (and uncritically) absorb religious ideas from their peers, popular culture, or even their pastors, and simply assume those ideas accurately represent biblical teaching or Christian doctrine. That's what I did for a long time. And that's why I was ignorant of what the Bible actually says about the afterlife. There is great value in studying the Bible for yourself, whether you believe its teachings or not.
If you are interested in further reading on this subject, I enthusiastically recommend N.T. Wright's book Surprised By Hope.
1. See Isaiah 65:17-25; Romans 8:18-25; 2 Peter 3:10-13; and Revelation chapters 21-22.
2. See 1 Corinthians 15:50-58.
3. See Genesis 1:31
4. See Genesis 2:7
5. See 2 Peter 3:10-13