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.
Our celebrations of Christ’s resurrection at Easter tend to be narrowly focused. The focus, all too often, drills down onto the individualistic issue that the resurrection makes personal salvation possible. Christ has been raised so that you can go to heaven. Now don’t get me wrong. I happily affirm that the salvation of each person depends on the historical bodily resurrection of Christ: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). The problem comes when we fail to consider how the implications of the resurrection extend beyond individual salvation. And in doing so we don’t have to worry about overlooking or neglecting the personal saving power of the resurrection. To the contrary, we establish it.
So, what is the resurrection about? If we turn to the Gospel of John, we soon discover that the resurrection of Jesus is the basis for the Church’s vocation in the world. Easter means mission. Consider the words of Jesus to his disciples on the evening of the day of his resurrection: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). The first thing Jesus does is set before his closest followers the task he intends them to fulfill. He is sending them out into the world with a mission, a mission that flows out of and is similar to the one for which Jesus himself was sent into the world. And what is this mission? John has at least two things in mind: reconciliation and new creation.
Mission as Reconciliation
Twice during this first post-resurrection meeting, Jesus tells the disciples, “Peace be with you” (20:19, 21). His mission to them is a mission of reconciliation. And rightly so, for all human beings come into the world estranged from God. To draw on John’s own language, “No one has ever seen God” (1:18). God is light. We stand in darkness. Jesus comes to make peace between God and us so that we can become the children of God, so that we can experience the pure and unqualified joy of seeing God’s glory.
And he does this reconciling work in his own body. This is why the incarnation is so important. This is central to the significance of the Word made flesh. Because he is fully God and fully human, he brings the two disparate parties together in his body. God and humanity are reconciled in the very body of Jesus that died on the cross and was raised from the dead. Without the incarnation and bodily resurrection, there is no reconciliation between God and humanity. This is what the Father sent Jesus to do, and Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” If the Father sent the Son to work peace between God and the human race, then Christ sends his Church to be agents of that peace making mission to the rest of the world.
But the mission goes much deeper than any initial reconciliation between God and humanity. John also gives us a few clues to help us understand that our mission is to cultivate the new creation that God is working through Christ and the Spirit. We know John likes Genesis. No first-century Jewish writer starts out a book with the words, “In the beginning,” and does it on accident. He is intentionally drawing on the creation narrative in Genesis 1 to inform our reading of the Gospel. And if Genesis 1 is telling the story of creation out of nothing, then John 1 is telling the story of new creation out of the old. John 20 offers a couple more clues that Jesus has been sent to work new creation. Ever notice that John is telling us about the most important day in the history of the world and never says a word about anything that happens while the sun is up? The story starts in the dark of early morning only to jump forward to the dark of evening. Morning, evening; evening, morning. That John is drawing on Genesis 1 ought to be clear. If it isn’t, John repeatedly reminds his readers that this is the first day of the week. If Genesis 1 tells story of cosmic creation structured by seven days of evenings and mornings, John 20 sets up the story of the resurrection as the work of God on the first morning and evening of the new creation. And as the Spirit hovered in the darkness over the face of the primordial waters, so now the Spirit is at work in the darkness of that first Easter morn raising the dead as the first act of God’s new creation. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” If Jesus has been sent by the Father to inaugurate the new creation, the Church has been sent by Jesus to cultivate it.
If our job, then, is to be agents of reconciliation between God and the world and to cultivate the new creation everywhere we go, then personal salvation is obviously included in that along with much, much more. And our vision of salvation is enlarged way beyond the old “go to heaven when you die” sort of “fire insurance” that has so often characterized American Christianity. The mission is to facilitate peace between God and the nations. That peace is part and parcel to personal salvation, but it is neither a salvation of mere forgiveness nor is it a salvation of escape. Rather, it is salvation in which we are made new creatures for life in the new creation. It is incarnational. It is transformational. It’s the whole package. Easter is mission.
Here’s the latest installment
of Seedbed’s Seven Minute Seminary series in which I discuss several questions related to life after death, bodily resurrection, and the pastoral significance of the Christian hope. Watch to the end to discover why this doctrine is so very near and dear to my heart. Be sure also to check out this great little discussion guide
that the Seedbed team has put together to accompany the video for use in a small group setting.
Check out my other contributions to the Seven Minute Seminary project: