Our Oversimplification of Life After Death

Most people, if they believe in life after death at all, would subscribe to a basic Heaven for all or a Heaven and Hell model.  They would also believe the Bible supports these models.  It seems too few understand that the resurrection of the body leads not to Heaven but to a New Earth.  Why is this so?  I have even found pastors not clear about this.

The teaching that post-Judgment Day the saved will inhabit a New Earth is well attested in the Bible.  You can find it in Isaiah 65, 2 Peter 3 and Revelation 21 and 22.  This blog will eventually get around to each of these.  For now, I just want to ponder why were we taught that we will go to Heaven forever.

I starts way back with the first century church.  The Greek idea of the afterlife was a strongly “spirit only” model.  The body was seen as corrupt and worthless and had no part in life after death.  The Jewish understanding was different.  It was focused on the resurrection of the body.  Old ideas can die hard, and for quite a while the Church had to fight a Greek heresy called Gnosticism.  While repudiated, Gnosticism subtly had its influence just as the Greek worldview affected the thinking of Western culture.  Those influences and the scarcity of Bibles to read and for that matter the ability to read gave the common Christian the idea that Heaven was the end goal.  Even the presence of “the resurrection of the body” in the creeds didn’t dissuade people.  They just assumed that the resurrected body was made for Heaven.

Plenty of the Church fathers understood about the New Earth.  In fact, that is what is dominately talked about with respect to the afterlife.  Some question whether the hope of Heaven is biblical.  Heaven does show up in the Bible, however.  It is not part of Old Testament teaching as a destination for people most likely because God didn’t reveal it as a possibility until after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The teaching of our having a place in Heaven is found in Luke 18:22, 2 Corinthians 5:1, Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 5:4 and Revelation 6:9-10, 7:9-17.  In fact the 2 Corinthians passage speaks of “an eternal home in Heaven” which might have led some to conflate Heaven and the New Earth.

The conflation of the doctrines of Heaven and the New heavens and Earth seems to be a particularly big problem during the period of the Enlightenment.  I am not sure why.  That period also gives us a number of our hymns about Heaven.  Try to find a hymn verse about the New Earth in Lutheran Service Book.  There are only a few verses, typically something like verse 8 and 9 which you never sing, about the resurrection of our bodies.  This adds to the ignorance of the Bible’s promise of a New Earth.