Yesterday Kevin DeYoung wisely pushed back against Christians who so emphasize the new earth that they dismiss the benefits of going to heaven when they die. Dying saints may be encouraged by the renewal of all things, but they also want to know what happens the moment they leave this earth.
Kevin is right that we need to avoid an either/or situation. It’s not either we go to heaven when we die or we live forever on the new earth. It’s both/and. Sunday night I spoke about the new earth to a group of Junior Highers. I emphasized that I’m not taking away their hope for heaven. I’m just adding to it. Praise God that our souls go to heaven when we die, and praise God more that he will resurrect our bodies and put us back together to live with him here, on this restored earth.
The new earthers must not despise the promise of heaven, but they rightly warn that a fixation on heaven easily distracts from our even greater hope of the new earth. It’s no accident that heaven obsessed evangelicals no longer believe in their future resurrection. This is no small detail, but a threat to the foundation of the Christian faith.
While I appreciate the thrust of Kevin’s post, his final two paragraphs contain a whiff of Platonism that new earthers are concerned to correct. He wrote:
“I understand that some good Christians have an underdeveloped eschatology that rarely touches on crucial New Testament themes. But many of these same Christians have a sweet and simple longing for heaven, a commendable confidence that because of Christ they will, in fact, die and go to a better place. Correcting eschatological imbalances is good, but not if it means undermining or minimizing one of the most precious promises in all the Bible; namely, that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). Even the intermediate state is indescribably good–better to be away from the body and at home with the Lord is how Paul put it (2 Cor. 5:8).”
“In trumpeting the good news of cosmic renewal let us not lose sight of the hope that anchors the believer in hard times and is the reality awaiting us on the other side of suffering and death: we really do go to heaven when we die.”
Here are my concerns:
- Is heaven a “better place”? This is a complex question that belies a simple yes or no answer. In the most important way heaven is better than earth, but only because Jesus is there. If heaven by itself were superior, then Jesus would not have raised Lazarus from the dead. Earth is the best place for humans, because this is where God made us to live. The problem of “better place” will not be resolved until Jesus returns and unites heaven and earth. Until then, we should be careful not to unequivocally call heaven “a better place,” as it isn’t better in every way and saying so promotes the Platonic idea that heaven is our final home. Who would want to leave the better place to come back here? (This is not merely a hypothetical problem, as Irenaeus makes this mistake in Against Heresies 5.31-32).
- Is “to die is gain” “one of the most precious promises in all the Bible”? Well, it’s not technically a divine promise (such as John 6:54, “I will raise him up on the last day”), but more a description of a benefit that follows death. Specifically, we are with the Lord. When we say “to die is gain” is a promise, we risk confusing good and evil. David Platt makes this mistake in Radical, when he says that we must “see death as reward.” He explains that a missionary’s death was a reward rather than a tragedy because she immediately went to heaven (p. 179-81). Praise God that the missionary went to be with Jesus, but this does not mean that her death was not a tragedy. God brings good out of death (i.e., he takes our soul to be with him), but this does not make death itself a good thing.
From start to finish, Scripture calls death our great enemy. It is the first enemy to appear in Scripture (Gen. 2:17), and it is the last enemy to be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). Paul does not call death a good thing. One chapter after saying “to die is gain,” Paul says that God had mercy on Epaphroditus and spared his life (Phil. 2:27). So Paul clearly doesn’t think death itself is good. If we minimize death, calling it our reward or something less than the tragic end of Adam’s sin, we also minimize the victory of Christ that conquered it.
- The “intermediate state is indescribably good,” but not in every way. The martyred saints in heaven are impatient, shouting “How long?” to the Lord and told to “wait a little longer” (Rev. 6:9-11). Paul longed to be with Jesus, and push comes to shove, he was willing to die to make that happen. But Paul’s desire was to be with Jesus not by dying but by Jesus’ coming. Paul’s cry of “Maranatha!” (1 Cor. 16:22) echoes the closing prayer of Scripture, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).
Here’s the tension: we must hold the comfort of heaven with the ultimate hope of the new earth. If we leave the impression that our loved ones in heaven are perfect in every way, we minimize the need for Jesus’ return and the resurrection of the body. If we only talk about the promise of the resurrection, we omit the comfort that their souls are now with the Lord. The solution is to rejoice that our loved ones are with Jesus, while claiming God’s promise that the best is yet to come.
- This is what is lacking in Kevin’s final sentence. Going to heaven is not by itself “the hope that anchors the believer in hard times.” If “going to heaven” is shorthand for “seeing Jesus,” then of course that is the largest part (though we’d have less confusion in our Platonically saturated churches if we avoided “going to heaven” language and spoke more directly about being “with the Lord”). But the anchor for hard times includes even more than being with Jesus. Jesus himself said it requires the resurrection. “Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:40). Paul ends his resurrection chapter by saying this bodily hope is the anchor that causes us to stand firm, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because we know that our labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).
I hope this post sparks conversation rather than ends it. It should be viewed as a small, though not insignificant disagreement between ministers who are on the same team. I thank God for Kevin and David, and would be happy to continue a mutually enriching dialogue as providence permits.