Reading Surprise by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church unearthed my latent belief about bodies. I had come to believe that life after death was not about angels, harps and clouds. I had come to believe that the afterlife would be an active enterprise, working on Kingdom oriented projects, that our eternal existence would be about redemptive work in God’s presence and among His true community (now fully visible to us).
My sense about eternal living came from as season of hope rising, as best I can trace it. Influenced by Brian McLaren and Ron Martoia, I began a process of recovering from an abridged soteriology which limited salvific movement to discussions about having a personal relationship with Jesus, going to Heaven after you die and being evacuated from this tragically deteriorating world before its destruction. This truncated view of salvation routinely ignored injustice, like extreme poverty, neglected the care of creation and held little hope for the future beyond the rapture. This understanding offered an anemic view of the afterlife that only involved inactive bliss for eternity. But I have been recovering, as I said, a sense of hope for the true salvation God has in mind for the cosmos (and us in it). I believe that our story begins with creation, which moves toward restoration of all things in Christ. He is not tossing earth into the rubbish bin, as some eschatological schemes describe. I believe that He is restoring creation and inviting us into this enterprise. I sense the lift, the spiral upward!
But reading N.T. Wright challenged me with the fundamentals, basic truths the early Christians believed and built their faith around. Resurrection, okay, I believed it. Bodily ascension, really? While I had doubts about rapture as illustrated by Hal Lindsey and a recent string of apocalyptic novels, I had never seriously thought of the alternative. I had not seriously considered the true consequence of believing the resurrection, ascension and the second coming of Jesus. These bodily actions have solid ramifications.
While I believed in God’s restoration project, I still had hidden in me residue from Western fallacies, that Heaven and the afterlife would be spiritual, a disembodied sort of life. While I rejected the notion of a continued state of uneventful glee forever, opting for active engagement in Kingdom work on the other side of eternity, it never occurred to me that I would, once again, have a body. An actual material body. I had been lulled into believing that bodies were for earth and spirit was suited to the high altitudes of Heaven. I guess I envisioned (in an unconscious way) doing the new works for the new world as a spiritual being. It did not enter my imagination that I’d be engaged in an embodied spiritual life when the New Jerusalem married the New Earth. While I have come to believe that I will be part of God’s resurrection, I had a latent belief that even I would be radically changed. But again, it never occurred to me that a body would be involved!
So why does this matter? What difference does it make if I am embodied in an incorruptible physicality or not? How does this realization alter my self-understanding? So I’ll have a body again – so what?
I don’t quite know why this thought has captivated me. Maybe, in part, I am a bit in shock about how far adrift I’ve been from the bedrock understanding of early believers. They utterly believed in future bodily resurrection after Heaven, once the new creation was at last manifest.
They thought that upon death they would go to Paradise (or call it Heaven, if you wish) to be with Christ in a sort of temporary lodging (the many mansions Jesus spoke of). But they firmly believed when the New Heaven and Earth appeared, they would have new bodies. I was never taught this two-step understanding of the afterlife, yet it is the clear witness of the biblical text and the early church. How is it that I, a life-long Christian and seminary graduate, never really knew this? I don’t know if I ought to be angered, astonished or ashamed. So somehow these thoughts about being embodied again feel new to me.
But I think I am also captivated by the utter completeness of God’s restoration of all creation, down to a person. Down to every person, really! We will be embodied as Jesus is embodied, we will walk in His resurrection footsteps. We will be like Him in ways I’ve not ever imagined. He took on our body in the loving move of Incarnation, but then we are invited to take on His body in the Resurrection. Amazing, indeed. But this also means that restoration will be complete. We will again, as in the Garden, have incorruptible bodies as He originally intended. Incorruptible bodies died in the Eden, but we will finally inhabit the Garden as He designed; and so God’s dream for His world comes true. Nothing will be lost, so comprehensive is His restoration and new creation.
And one day I will be personally, physically and incorruptibly in the presence of Jesus. We will dwell in a new world together. When I meet my Maker, I will actually be able to shake His hand, to embrace Him and say Amahoro!
P.S. I don’t really know why this matters, but I step into the mythos and say that, somehow, it does!