If you asked most Christians what the Christian hope for the future was they would probably say something about going to heaven when you die. That is the assurance given to those who put their trust in Jesus Christ. The man crucified with Jesus who turned to him in faith was promised that he would be with Jesus in paradise that very day. The same promise holds good for us too. Going to heaven after death is good news.
But it’s not the whole good news. It leaves too many questions unanswered. It gives no answer to the question of evil and suffering: when, if ever, is God going to do something about that? Nor does it answer the question of what God is going to do about his spoilt creation: is he just going to chuck it in the bin? Will heaven be all that is left? The full Christian hope answers those questions. Christ will return to complete what he began on earth. His plan is nothing less than “the renewal of all things” (Matthew 19.28 [NIV]).
We affirm it in the liturgy and the Creeds and we read about it in the Scriptures. But do we believe it? In my experience, the answer is mostly: not really! Or at least we don’t think it has much relevance to us…
Why is that?
The church has lost its grip on the hope of the resurrection. In Philippians 1 Paul talks about the real attraction of dying and going to be with Jesus. But having thought it through he decides that there is still work for him to do on earth, so he will stay. In Philippians 3 he talks about resurrection. About this he is unequivocal:
I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.Philippians 3.10-11 (NIV)
There is no question what he wants and longs for. Resurrection is the restoration of the whole created order in such a way as to put it beyond harm of any kind. It is the final overthrow of evil. The hope of going to heaven when we die is wonderfully reassuring. But there is more to look forward to: a hope that is compelling and satisfying – spiritually, emotionally and intellectually.
Then there is the problem of delay. Reading the New Testament you get the clear sense that the hope of resurrection was very much real and alive. Two thousand years later it’s easy to suggest that this might have been a mistake. But the problem of delay was real then too:
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.2 Peter 3.9
But there is one other reason, I think, which above all others makes a lively hope for resurrection hard for us. It is the culture we live in. For more than two hundred years, since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, religion has been largely removed from public discourse and relegated to a private sphere. Going to heaven when you die fits nicely into that scenario. It’s a personal thing, which you can believe if you like. It’s not going to make much difference to anybody else. And it’s not testable (you can’t see if somebody has gone to heaven), so it doesn’t much threaten those who choose to think otherwise.
Resurrection is different. Resurrection says that one day, at a time of his choosing, God is going to intervene in his world, bring an end to evil and suffering and restore everything to glorious perfection. Not only that, but this perfection will be forever immune to any further invasion of evil, pain, suffering or death. This will not be a private moment but a very public event. And that challenges our whole culture. There will come a time when people will no longer be able to go their own way, a time when the world will be called to account, a time for judgment. For some people, particularly for those who are doing well with life as it is, this is a very unwelcome idea.
The hope of resurrection is the hope that one day God will heal the rift between heaven and earth, between his world and ours, between the physical and the spiritual. This is not a side issue in the Christian vision of God’s purposes – it is central and foundational. Here, in one of his most magisterial expositions of the purpose of God, is how Paul puts it:
With all wisdom and insight he [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.Ephesians 1.8-10
Stephen Kuhrt describes how he explains to children God’s plan to restore all things in Christ. He recounts a conversation with a boy who had built a very impressive Lego castle:
‘Did anything go wrong when you were making this?’ I asked him. ‘Yes, quite a few times,’ he replied. ‘Then why didn’t you throw the whole thing away?’ I asked, to which the boy responded by speaking with some indignation about how valuable and important his castle was.Stephen Kuhrt, Tom Wright for Everyone (SPCK, 2011) pp70f
If we don’t preach and don’t believe the hope of resurrection we sell the gospel short. We run the risk of presenting a God who began something (his creation) but wasn’t able to complete it. Faced with the spoiling of his world by the invasion of evil, he threw in the towel and decided to wind it up and decamp to heaven with his followers. I don’t believe it; or rather, I don’t think it’s what the Scriptures teach us.
The hope of resurrection is the assurance that one day the Kingdom will come on earth as in heaven, as Jesus taught us to pray. Meanwhile, as we pray and work for that kingdom, we can see glimpses of it here and now. Going to heaven when you die is good; heaven coming to earth is even better.