This is a two-part series on the question, “What is eternal life?” It began with an article on the communion of the saints, which we published in November. The article described how the whole church has a mystical communion with Christ and, therefore, with each other. We united with all the saints, those on earth and those in heaven.
A discussion arose amongst the comments regarding where Christians who have died are resting. There were disagreements about the where, when, and how of what happens to Christians in death and about eternal life. Thus, I began a two-part series on what the Bible says about eternal life.
In the first part, I wrote that being alive means having a body and a soul, since that is how God made us when he created the first man. Death, then, is when the soul and body separate. When we die, a Christian’s soul goes to heaven to be with Christ. Theologians call that, the “interim state.” The word, “interim,” suggests that it is not permanent. Life means having a body and a soul, so eternal life must mean living forever with a body and a soul.
To understand what the Bible promises about eternal life, we need to begin with Jesus, himself. We know that Jesus was fully God and fully human. He was born, like any other human being, into a family. He grew up, and he lived like one of us. That means that he had a human body and a human soul, just like we do. Being God doesn’t mean that the humanity of Jesus was any different than our own.
Life happened to Jesus the same way it happens to us, except he lived without sin. Death also happened to Jesus the same way it happens to us, if by a different means. When Jesus died on the cross, his soul left his body. He cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” in Luke 23:46. They took his body down from the cross, and they placed it in a tomb.
Three days later, on Sunday morning, Jesus rose from the dead. His soul returned to his resurrected, healed body. We know this, because the gospel writers take great pains to show us that Jesus was physically alive.
Before we look at how the gospel writers show Jesus’ bodily resurrection, we should understand what the ancient world thought about the spirits of the dead . In The Odyssey , book 11, Odysseus travels into Hades for advice from the dead to guide him back to Achaea. He speaks to his mother, who describes the dead spirits in Hades:
“But this is the appointed way with mortals when one dies. For the sinews no longer hold the flesh and the bones together, but the strong might of blazing fire destroys these, as soon as the life leaves the white bones, and the spirit, like a dream, flits away, and hovers to and fro.”
In Greek thought, spirits entered the afterlife after their body was burned in a funeral pyre. These spirits had no physical being, because “the sinews no longer hold the flesh and the bones together.” They also had no feet. Odysseus’ mother says that the spirits “hover to and fro.” They don’t walk, they float. We, too, typically describe spirits this way. They are incorporeal, hovering above the ground with no feet.
In Matthew 28, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb. There was an earthquake, an angel that rolled back the stone, and an announcement that Jesus was alive. The women race away to tell the disciples when they meet Jesus. Matthew writes, “And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.”Jesus couldn’t be a spirit, because the women can touch him and grab his feet.
The Gospel of John, chapter 20, gives us detailed descriptions of Jesus’ physical interactions with the disciples. When he rises from the dead, Jesus appears to his disciples in the locked room, where he shows them his hands and his side. They touch him, seeing that he is physical, and the scars show that Jesus’ body is the same body that was killed.
In Luke 24, when Jesus appears to his disciples, it says that the disciples thought they saw a spirit. Jesus tells the disciples to touch him, and then he asks for some food. They give him a piece of fish, and he eats it in front of them.
Because Jesus rose from the dead, body and soul, we will also rise from the dead, body and soul. Paul writes in Romans 6, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” And again he writes in 1 Corinthians 15, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” The word, “firstfruits” tells us that Jesus is the first of many who will rise from the dead in the same way.
Again, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes, “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” On the last day, our mortal bodies will be changed into immortal bodies just like Jesus’ immortal body.
Jesus further describes this day as the day of his return in Matthew 24, “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
Again, in 1 Thessalonians 4, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.”
Eternal life, then, is not a spiritual existence in a floating state in heaven. Eternal life is when Christ raises from the dead and changes our bodies to be like his glorious body. Christ’s salvation reverses the curse that Adam and Eve brought on creation when the rebelled and brought death into the world.
Not only will Christ’s return change our bodies, it will change all of creation back to the perfect state in which God created it. Paul writes in Romans 8, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” All of creation waits for the day of resurrection, because God will change everything from this sinful state to a glorious perfect state.
Why does it matter that we talk about the resurrection rather than heaven? For two reasons. First, it reminds us that our bodies are important. We are not just minds or souls. When we care for someone’s body, we are caring for something that is eternal. When we feed our families, friends, or strangers we are supporting a body that will be raised from the dead on the last day. So, taking care of other people’s bodies, and our own bodies, is holy work.
Second, it changes how we talk about death and the comfort we give at funerals. It reminds us that death is never a good thing. Death is always the enemy, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Death is not the beginning of eternal life, but it is the beginning of a Christians wait for the day that Jesus returns. When you comfort friends who have are mourning the loss of Christian relatives or friends, we should point them to the resurrection of the dead. We should tell them that God has a plan to fix what was broken, and he will bring that person back. He will raise us from the dead.
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