Heaven Is Not Enough

Views about heaven abound. Some are helpful. Some are not. When it comes to the Bible, some passages about heaven come with surprises. One of those is the vision of the martyrs in Revelation 6:9-11. Now a martyr is by definition someone who has died and gone to heaven. They loved Jesus more than life, and so they were “slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given” (Rev 6:9). What’s surprising about this passage is the attitude of the martyrs. Most people think of heaven in terms of eternal joy and bliss. After all, if you’ve entered into the presence of God, what more could you want? Apparently, that isn’t how these martyrs view the situation. They have a complaint. And they’d like it resolved quickly. From their position under the heavenly altar they are said to cry out in a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Rev 6:10). They’ve died and gone to heaven, but heaven isn’t enough. They want more.

Dissatisfied with Heaven

So what are they waiting for? To answer that question we need to look more closely at their appeal. Their complaint revolves around the wrong done to them. They did nothing wrong, yet they’ve lost their lives. They were perfectly faithful, but they suffered deep injustice. They died for their faith. And from their perspective, entrance into heaven does nothing to make things right. They want to be vindicated. So they appeal to their “Sovereign” to do something about it, and they’ll be dissatisfied with heaven until he does.

Resurrection as Vindication

But we still haven’t answered the question. If heaven isn’t enough, what is? What does vindication look like for the faithful dead? The answer comes later in Revelation. After Babylon falls to God’s judgment (in Revelation Babylon is a symbol of the forces that oppose God and oppress his people), the martyrs are raised from the dead and participate in Christ’s reign. This is what they’ve been waiting for – the resurrection of the body. After all, if the body is killed, that wrong cannot be made right as long as the body is in the grave. To say they’ve died and gone to heaven is to say their bodies are still dead. The injustice of their deaths can only be rectified by bodily resurrection. Their bodies must rise from the grave for the wrong to be made right. And this is true not only for the martyrs. It is an affront to God any time a creature made in God’s image dies. That’s why the hope for resurrection permeates the New Testament. Heaven is great, but if we’re talking about a disembodied spiritual experience, it’s not the goal. Ultimate redemption only comes with bodily resurrection.

Check out this Seven Minute Seminary for more on what the Bible says about life after death.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

The Resurrection and Christian Identity (@sowhat_podcast)

The newest episode of the SoWhat? Podcast aired earlier this week. This one is part 2 of a discussion about the resurrection of Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed. We trace out a number of questions about and implications of Christ’s resurrection. Is belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus essential for Christian faith? What role does resurrection play in the formation of Christian social identity? How does a resurrection-oriented identity enable us to overcome the sin of racism? You’ll even get to hear a little debate over some good old inaugurated eschatology and discover which of the other contributors thinks I sound a little too much like N.T. Wright. All in good fun, of course, all in good fun. Be sure to check out the website, subscribe on iTunes, and listen below. 

The Resurrection in the Creed, Part 1 @sowhat_podcast

The newest episode of the So What? Podcast went live today. This one is in two parts, and the topic is one of my favorites. That’s right: Kyle, Dave, Brad, and I are talking about the resurrection of Jesus. We dig into what it means and why it matters as an article of faith. What are the objections to Jesus’ resurrection? What’s the rationale behind those objections? Does it matter if Jesus was or was not physically raised from the dead? What does the resurrection of Jesus have to do with our salvation? With Christian identity? What is the relationship between the resurrection of Jesus in the past and the resurrection of believers in the future? Click the player to listen now. If you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe.

Moltmann on the Immortal Soul vs. Bodily Resurrection

The immortality of the soul is an opinion – the resurrection of the dead is a hope. The first is a trust in something immortal in the human being, the second a trust in the God who calls into being the things that are not, and makes the dead live. In trust in the immortal soul we accept death, and in a sense anticipate it. In trust in the life-creating God we await the conquest of death – ‘death is swallowed up in victory’ (I Cor. 15.54) – and an eternal life in which ‘death shall be no more’ (Rev. 21.4). The immortal soul may welcome death as a friend, because death releases it from the earthly body; but for the resurrection hope, death is ‘the last enemy’ (I Cor. 15.26) of the living God and the creations of his love (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, 65-66).

In short, the immortality of the soul is not a Christian doctrine. Resurrection of the body is. 

If We Do Not Repent (#PPSellsBabyParts)

Many of us thought it couldn’t get worse than seeing a medical doctor swill her wine and crunch her croutons while speaking of “less crunchy” ways to dismember and murder a baby while still in utero. Then we saw video of Planned Parenthood employees digging through pie plates full of dead baby parts looking for the bits that would get the best price. Again, we believed it simply could not get worse. But we were wrong. Dead wrong. With the release of the seventh video exposing the barbarism of Planned Parenthood and its business partners, it got worse. Much worse. Now we know of the cruel violence done to a little boy with a beating heart outside the womb. They cut his face in half with a pair of scissors in order to harvest his brain and sell it for cold hard cash. His heart was beating. He had been born. He was alive. He was murdered. This cannot be denied. 
We know about this treachery because one of the guilty ones has come forward. In video #7, Holly O’Donnell, a licensed phlebotomist and former procurement tech for StemExpress, told us all the depraved and debased details. Make no mistake. She is no mere a witness or whistle blower telling us what she saw. As Doug Wilson observed, she is confessing her sins. She was a participant. She has blood on her hands. And yet she is seeking absolution. By confessing her sin to a global audience as part of the Planned Parenthood exposé, she is racing with all her might toward restitution. She wants to make it right. She wants to be clean. She wants it bad enough that she’s willing to tell the world her greatest sin. The good news is that the blood of Jesus Christ is able to wash the blood of the unborn from her hands. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. 
My point here is simple: the confession and repentance of Holly O’Donnell stands as a model of the confession and repentance that we the people of the United States must humbly make. She is showing us what we as a nation have to do. We must confess our sin. We must acknowledge our guilt. We must throw ourselves on the mercy of God. We must repent and turn from our wicked ways. We must do it, as a people, as a nation. And if we do not, we deserve every bit of judgment that God sees fit to pour upon us. To be sure, we already deserve it. But God, in his great mercy and love, is at this time giving us an opportunity to see the evil that our nation has legalized, funded, and executed. He is giving us an opportunity to repent and sin no more. What we do know is that even now the souls of more than 50,000,000 preborn slain surround the throne of the God and of the Lamb crying out, “How long, O Lord, until you avenge our blood?” What we do not know is how long they’ve been told to wait.  

Will God Destroy Our Bodies?

That’s what several standard Bible translations would have you think. The verse in question is 1 Corinthians 6:13a, and it turns out that a decision of punctuation makes all the difference in two contrasting understandings of Paul’s attitude toward the human body. Let me illustrate by showing you four different translations of this one verse. Pay close attention to the quotation marks included (not by me but) by the translation team.

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”– and God will destroy both one and the other (ESV).

You say, “Food was made for the stomach, and the stomach for food.” (This is true, though someday God will do away with both of them) (NLT).

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. (NRS)

You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.”  (TNIV).

Did you catch that? Each of these translations agree that Paul is quoting a slogan original to the Corinthians, but they disagree on the extent of the quotation. The first three close the quote before the assertion that God will destroy both stomach and body; the fourth closes the quote after that claim. To their credit, the translators of the NRSV include a footnote saying that “the quotation may extend to the word other.” But the question remains. Whose view are we faced with? Should the claim that God will destroy the body be attributed to Paul or to a group of Corinthians?
The problem arises because the Greek in which Paul wrote did not have quotation marks; so the translators have to decide where to close the quote when rendering it into English. To make this decision they must consider the verse in its immediate context and in light of all Paul’s letters. In this case, the decision about punctuation is really a decision about interpretation and how we understand Paul’s anthropology. What does Paul believe to be the destiny of the human body? Punctuation matters.
In this case, I would argue that the TNIV gets it right. The next verse tells us Paul’s view of the future of the believer’s body, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power” (NRSV). For Paul, the future resurrection of the body is an argument against the libertine attitude of appetite indulgence among some of the Corinthians. The body (and its parts) will be resurrected in a manner analogous to that of Jesus. That means that physical (though certainly transformed) bodies will arise from their graves. The corpse of someone who is in Christ will not be destroyed; it will not even remain a corpse. To the contrary, it will be made alive again by the power of God. It seems to me unclear how we can describe that as destruction.

Paul has more to say about death and resurrection in chapter 15 of the same letter, where the language of destruction comes up again, but not with regard to the body. Paul says that, at the coming of Christ, death is the thing that will be destroyed when the bodies of believers are raised from the dead (15:26). Death is the enemy of Christ, and Christ will destroy his enemies. The final enemy that Christ will destroy is death itself. We might say that, as the nails spring loose from the coffins of those who belong to Christ, the final nail will be hammered into death’s own coffin. 
Paul fills in the picture later in the same chapter by saying that the presently mortal and perishing body will be overcome with immortality and imperishability (see especially vv. 50-55). The body will be transformed, not destroyed.  I see no way that this transformation could plausibly be construed as destruction; it is the opposite of destruction. 
This evidence weighs strongly against an interpretation (or punctuation!) of 6:13a that attributes to Paul the belief that God will destroy our bodies. Destruction is defeat. Resurrection is victory. Destruction is what happens to death. Resurrection is what happened to the body of Christ, and it’s what will happen to the bodies of those who belong to Christ. 

Jerry Walls Responds to my Question on Hell (@rachelheldevans)

Jerry Walls is taking a turn in Rachel Held Evan’s “Ask a…” series, and he is answering question on hell, free will, and possibility of postmortem repentance. I raised a question about a surprising, if not disturbing, passage in Revelation that portrays the torment of hell as taking place eternally in the very presence of Christ. Here’s the passage from Revelation 14:9-11:

Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name” (NRSV, the italics are, of course, mine).

Here’s my question:

Revelation 14:9-11 portrays the eternal torment of the condemned as taking place “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (14:10). What does this mean? And how should we understand this portrayal in relation to other traditional images of hell as banishment from the presence of Christ?

Here’s Walls’ response:

Well, I’d start here with Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill, where he observes that God is “not far from each one of us. For in him we live, and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28). In this passage, Paul is applying this point to people who may be seeking God, but have not yet found him. So the point here is that even people who may be “far” from God in terms of meaningful, loving relationship are still “close” to him in the sense that he continually sustains them in existence.

So the unhappy creatures in this text in Revelation are in the presence of the Lamb by virtue of the fact that he sustains them in existence, and they may even be aware of this fact. However, they are utterly separated from him by their sinful rebellion.

Indeed, the paradoxical nature of this observation may illumine why fire is used as an image of the torments of hell.  Fire in the Bible is a common image for the presence of God, not his absence (cf Deut. 4:24; 5:24-5; Psalm 50:3; Hebrews 12:29). But his presence is experienced very differently by those who are rightly related to him, as opposed to those who are not.

David Hart has noted that there is a long theological tradition, particularly in Eastern Orthodoxy, that “makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before the divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement” (The Beauty of the Infinite, 399).  

As the Psalmist noted, there is no place where we can successfully flee from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7ff). The God of love is everywhere, and we cannot exist a millisecond without his sustaining grace and power. But our freedom does allow us to refuse his love and go our own way, even as it remains true that “in him we live and move and have our being.” If that is our choice, his glorious love will be experienced like a burning fire rather than “the spring of the water of life” that will deeply quench our thirst (Revelation 21:6).

I’ll begin by saying that Walls raises a couple of interesting points I’ve not considered before. First, he’s right that fire is often an symbol of God’s presence, which is fascinating (and troubling!) when applied to the image of “the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14). Might the lake of fire be the very consuming fire that is God himself? Should we be thinking of Hebrews 12:29? Second, I’m not read-up on the Eastern tradition that makes no distinction between the light of God’s glory and the fire of hell, though it is initially both compelling and satisfying. It certainly resonates with all the Lewis I’ve been reading this year.

In the end, I think Walls’ suggestion that we need to understand God’s presence in two ways is on target. This surprising passage appears to mean that, while a person can be spatially near to Christ, physical proximity is not joyful intimacy. Two people can be in one another’s presence and still a rift stand between them. In fact, the physical nearness of those against whom we are opposed may even cause our anger and frustration to burn with heightened fury. Lewis holds this tension in balance in many of his works. For those who love Aslan, his presence is unspeakable joy; for those who hate him, it is a terror. Nearness to Christ is not necessarily love for him. Nearness can inflame antagonism. As Orual, who stood unseeing on the threshold of heaven, blind though she had entered the gates of the home of the gods, full of fiery hatred, for him. 

_____
NB: You may be interested in Robert Mulholland’s assessment of this passage in Revelation, which sets it in a Jewish context and resonates with Walls’ reflections. Also, be sure to head over to Rachel’s blog and read the rest of the questions and Walls’ answers.