Sadly, most Christians don’t really spend much time or effort thinking about the afterlife.
- Dr. Ray Rooney, Jr.
As one of the key players and central figures in the Bible, Abraham, the father of faith (Rom. 4:16), had a very precise goal in life. The author of Hebrews puts it this way: “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). He was so firm in his belief in that city that he refused to build a permanent home choosing instead to live in tents (Heb. 11: 9). Authentic faith is fixated on what God is preparing for us in the future.
Sadly, most Christians don’t really spend much time or effort thinking about the afterlife. Consequently, a cogent theology about what’s beyond death is noticeably absent from their day to day lives. Unlike Abraham, they’re not looking for something as discernable and recognizable as a city. Rather, they seem to think only in terms of happiness or bliss neither of which has been universally discerned. Have you ever spent top dollar for that hot item toy for a child only to see her ignoring it and playing for hours with the box it came in? Or the celebrity whose fame and fortune afforded anything he could want who nevertheless took his own life in despair? Abraham was looking for something tangible.
Simply put, we aren’t as forward-looking as Abraham. We seem to quickly settle for the tone and tenor of our life as it unfolds putting all our focus on the here and now, considering the afterlife almost like a dream muddled in the midst of some ephemeral cloud that human understanding cannot penetrate. With little based in objective reality to look forward to, we slog through life pondering whether our post-death reality will be about playing harps on clouds, returning to Earth as angels commissioned to help struggling wannabe Christians, or just a long gray sleep.
But then along comes the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We are suddenly confronted with a very concrete and objective reality concerning the future. “Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have,” Jesus said to His disciples following His resurrection (Luke 24:39). This was no apparition. This wasn’t some kind of psychic remnant of a previous life. This was flesh and bone reality!
What are we headed towards? An eternal home that we will dwell in with indestructible immortal flesh and bone bodies! That home is the very city that was constantly beckoning to Abraham throughout his life. Revelation 21:2-4 describes it this way:
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
There is a rather lengthy and detailed description of the holy city built by God in verses 10-25 of the same chapter. There’s talk of gold and pearls and walls and gates. Oh I’m quite sure many of the intellectuals and academicians among us are rolling their eyes now. But spirits don’t need streets to walk on or gates to go through do they? I would assume that disembodied spirits are rather nonplussed by gold and pearls. It is only resurrection life in a real body that brings to life the description of New Jerusalem. Otherwise, it’s all just window dressing and quite incoherent. When Jesus physically walked out of the tomb He instantly legitimized Abraham’s city of God. He put it on a map of the universe and gave it a name. Suddenly, that cryptic saying recorded in John 14:2-3 comes to life and takes on meaning and urgency:
In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
He ascended into heaven, not to prepare a future state of being but a place of dwelling, that where His resurrected body is, ours may be with Him also. How can biblically literate Christians even begin to minimize the reality of Jesus’ bodily resurrection when it has so many implications for our future? As Paul says, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).
What happens to us after our death but before the resurrection of the dead is not clear. Believers are with the Lord but not in a physical body (2 Cor. 5:8). We do know Jesus reminded the Sadducees that when God revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush He said He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then Jesus pointed out the obvious: “He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:27). Not a whole lot to go on there beyond some form of consciousness after we die.
However, Scripture is clear that even though “it is appointed for man to die once” (Heb. 9:27) it is just as sure that “this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:53). Christians get too caught up and focused on the time between death and our resurrection (or we mix the two together creating something not found in Scripture). Instead we should constantly turn our attention to what Anglican theologian and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright calls “life after, life after death.”
When interviewed about his classic tome The Resurrection of the Son of God Wright said, “Somewhere in the late 18th and particularly through the 19th century, this [life after, life after death] got completely overtaken by a platonic hope for simply going to heaven, and the word ‘resurrection’ simply became a metaphor for that hope of going to heaven – which now is all that most Christians think about.”
That has been my experience in the pastorate. “Going to heaven” is preached far more than “in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order…” (1 Cor.15:22-23).
Abraham was looking for a dwelling place that God alone had created and prepared. Paul said, God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor. 3:17). How much more significance will those words have when we hear the voice of God commanding us to enter our brand new divinely created resurrection bodies? Life after, life after death. Jesus’ resurrection body could do strange things (suddenly appear without walking through a door, disguise itself from those who knew Him, and ascend upon a cloud). Those are the things that our minds should continually roll over and over. John knew this. That’s why he wrote, “what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Start contemplating that regularly and you may start looking for a city just like Abraham did.