What happens when we die? Where do we go? And what form will we have? These are questions asked by every human being that has ever lived, and throughout the millennia there have been many different answers. As a Christian minister who regularly takes funerals — for both young and old — the subject of life after death is never far away from my own consciousness, and as Christians, we also retell the story of Jesus on a weekly and annual basis, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus every Sunday and also at Easter.
Ideas about life after death have been shaped by culture. In Biblical times, it was first shaped by Jewish culture, then Greek culture, and in more recent times ideas about life after death were shaped by mediaeval culture. And so, today, we have cultural notions about heaven and about hell, where body and spirit have somehow become separated, and the pervasive idea remains that when we die our disembodied spirits will live on in heaven. At funerals we sing, “When we all get to heaven” and this is no bad thing, but let us have a true and correct understanding of what we are singing and what it means. Why? Because the truth is important, makes more sense of the here-and-now, and is much more exciting and wonderful.
We are physically created beings and when God made us he said, “It is very good!” The idea that somehow, after all this wonderful creation — this utterly, astounding gift of the body that touches, smells, sees, feels, and generates such joy — God will simply ditch it in favour of a non-physical body would, in itself, be extraordinary. Of course many of us live with imperfect bodies; bodies racked with infirmity, pain, illness, or age. But God still says you are fearfully and wonderfully made, that you are loved, and “very good”.
So let us try, if we are able, to ditch our ideas of disembodiment and look at what evidence we have — and to do this we look to Jesus. Jesus was bodily raised from the dead and Christians believe in bodily resurrection. We are physical and spiritual beings and our physicality and spirituality will never be separated. At some point we will be resurrected just like Jesus. And at the graveside, at an Anglican funeral, I say the words, “…in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our frail bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body.”
We will be resurrected like Jesus. We will have a physical body. It will be 100% physical. We will eat, speak, laugh, and play. But it will also be metaphysical. Like Jesus we will be able to materialise and dematerialise, and walk through walls (personally, I am kinda excited about that!).
So that’s the ‘how’ but what about the ‘where’? Both heaven and earth are created. Earth is physical and heaven is spiritual. They overlap and occupy the same space. And one day they will be fully aligned. When Jesus walked the earth he brought heaven to earth together enabling miracles and healings to happen. The miracles and healings that took place were both physical and metaphysical. We occupy the earthly bit right now, but one day, as we are both physical and spiritual beings, we will occupy both simultaneously. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, we will not have our future existence in a disembodied ‘heaven’. There will be no sitting on clouds playing harps (and besides, I am rubbish at the harp). We look forward to a physical resurrection where we hug, and smell, and taste, and swim, and eat, and enjoy all creation. This will be our ‘spiritual body’.
For those of us that love our science, I expect that our resurrected bodies will be somehow quantumly different. I wonder if we will be able to control our appearance — through manipulating our subatomic structure. It would perhaps explain the metaphysical aspect of Jesus’ resurrected body. Also, something that fascinates me is that the resurrected Jesus bore the scars of his crucifixion. I do not doubt that post resurrection he was able to control his appearance — and yet he CHOSE to retain the scars — something worth pondering on.
So that’s the ‘how’ and the ‘where’ but what about the ‘when’? Well, two things are simultaneously true. Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” and yet, we know that the resurrection of the dead has not yet happened. So, to reconcile this seeming paradox, I think that somehow when you die you jump in time to when heaven and earth are fully aligned, God’s Kingdom has fully come, and all things are made new. For us, still in time, here on earth, it is yet to happen, and those that have died still sleep, but for those that have died, it is true to say that they are with God, resurrected, and as whole as you and I are now. For those that have died, the resurrection has happened. They are smiling and laughing, and perhaps — and this will mess with your head — not waiting for us, because we are there too.
As we look towards Easter, we have hope in the resurrection of Jesus, that one day, we will again see those we loved and have lost. There will come a time when God and humans will again walk together in the garden, when there will be no more suffering or pain, because creation will be fully renewed, redeemed, and restored.