Heaven is often portrayed or stereotyped as a cloud-filled place where we all wear white robes, play harps, float around, and don’t do much of anything else. I’m not sure where this image came from, but it’s definitely not the biblical model of what happens when those who have called upon the name of Christ die. [As a distracting aside, I really don’t like the euphemism “pass away” as it refers to death. Its modern usage has its origins from Christian Scientist founder Mary Baker Eddy, who rejected the notion of death in favor of someone merely passing away from one level of consciousness to another.]
The biblical concept of heaven and the final hope for a believer is not floating around on clouds. Believers’ final hope is in the resurrection of the body at the last day. Ever notice the little phrase in the creeds we confess? “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” It’s a crucial phrase that not only refers to Christ’s resurrection (which is mentioned earlier in the creeds), but the bodily resurrection of the dead when He comes again.
What happens when we die is often referred to as the “intermediate state,” in which the souls of believers are with Christ immediately upon their death (see Jesus words to the thief on the cross and Paul in Philippians 1 writing that to die and be with Christ is far better). This intermediate state is definitely something to look forward to. But that’s not all there is. It’s not our final destination. Believers’ even greater hope is the day of resurrection, when Christ comes again in glory and the dead are raised and our souls are joined again with our bodies.
Doug Wilson adjusted the old spiritual “This world is not my home, I’m just a’passing through” to “Heaven is not my home, I’m just a’passing through” to point out the error of viewing the intermediate state as heaven prevalent in evangelicalism. We’re not Gnostics; we believe in the real, physical resurrection of the body and to quote Ken Myers, we “affirm the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul.” To die and have our souls be with Christ is excellent, but we will still have something to look forward to even then: the resurrection of the body.
Concurrent with the resurrection of the dead is the redemption of the world through the new heavens and the new earth. We will have bodies and senses, but they will be maximized. I think C.S. Lewis, in his allegorical work on heaven, has it right in that our resurrected bodies and the new creation will be more real, more sensuous, more weighty. The flip side to all this is that the resurrection of the body will be a reality for those who have rejected Christ as well. The place of eternal punishment will also be even more real, more sensuous, and more weighty.
So if this resurrection and new heavens and new earth is the final destination for Christians, it follows that it should be our ultimate hope as well (Titus 2:13). We have the amazing hope of seeing ourselves as we truly were meant to be, and – even more importantly – we will see Christ as He truly is. As the line of the old hymn says, “when we stand before the throne dressed in beauty not our own, we will see You as You are, love You with unsinning heart.” There will be no more tears, no more sin, and our sanctification will be made complete in our glorification. Even more, this glorification has at its heart the manifestation of Christ’s glory; our glorification has no meaning apart from the glorification of Christ.
John Murray’s chapter on glorification in Redemption Accomplished and Applied is excellent. He acknowledges that upon death the believer is immediately with Christ, which is an intensely personal experience. But the resurrection of the dead and glorification of believers is an intensely corporate experience.
“This truth that glorification must wait for the resurrection of the body advises us that glorification is something upon which all the people of God will enter together at the same identical point in time. There is no priority for one above another…Each saint of God who dies has his own appointed season and therefore his own time to depart and be with Christ. We can see that this event is highly individualized. But it is not so with glorification…Glorification is an event which will affect all the people of God together at the same point of time in the realization of God’s redemptive purpose. It will bring to final fruition the purpose and grace which was given in Christ Jesus before times eternal (2 Tim. 1:9)…
“Without the resurrection of the body from the grave and restoration of human nature to its completeness after the pattern of Christ’s resurrection on the third day and according to the likeness of the glorified human nature in which he will appear on the clouds of heaven with great power and glory there is no glorification.”
If our final hope truly is the glorification of Christ in the resurrection of the body and glorification of believers, what ramifications should this have on the elect’s lives, their corporate worship, and their witness before a watching world?