Most people think they know the Bible teaches about the afterlife--but they are wrong. Much of what we know about it comes from Greek philosophy—especially Plato—not the Bible.
Here’s the idea that most people have. Bodies are mortal, but souls are immortal. Souls come from heaven, but visit earth for a short time. Bodies are not important, just temporary shelters for our souls. Death releases the soul to return to its non-material state. After death, we just float around on clouds. God is there, but mostly we are just hanging out with the rest of our friends and relatives to make it.
This picture doesn’t come from the Bible, but from Plato. He taught that human souls are a piece of God’s divinity temporarily broken off to live on earth, which somehow becomes trapped in human bodies. When we die, we are released from this flesh, and go back to God. This material world is bad because it keeps us from God. But the world we go to, Heaven, is a place without material existence.
We see versions of this idea everywhere, from ghost stories to Highway to Heaven or It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s such a widespread idea that most Christians have never heard or noticed what the Bible really teaches about the afterlife.
Here are four examples of the misconceptions that you’ve probably encountered.
Misconception #1: “Babies from heaven”. This idea is that that babies are immortal souls existing in heaven before they’re born. When a baby is born, it drops down into a fetus like a gumball from a machine--or maybe it’s dropped off by storks!
Misconception #2: “Ghosts”. This idea is that spirits of dead people spend their time looking down on earth. Sometimes these spirits visit us. One misconception is that angels are the same as ghosts. if they don’t quite get to heaven, they just hang around some creaky old house!
Misconception #3: “Reincarnation”. This idea has God “recycling” souls returning them to earth in other bodies. Hindus teach that insects, animals, people, and all living things have souls that are reincarnated—which means that if you swat a fly, you may have just killed your dead aunt again! Our lives are a reward or punishment for our last one. If we’ve been really good, we may return as a cow!
Misconception #4: “Dead Momma songs”. Once we had a bluegrass gospel concert at church. The music was great, but I started to notice a similarity in about two-thirds of the songs—they were all about meeting their dead mommas in heaven (for some reason, it was never their daddies). In these songs, their mommas were mainly sitting around heaven waiting for them to arrive.
What’s wrong with that, you may ask? Just this--people in heaven aren’t waiting for us. Time doesn’t exist there. In their perception, we are already there. They live in adoration of God.
So if we aren’t floating around like ghosts, what will the afterlife be like?
The Creed says, “The resurrection of the body.” In the afterlife, we will have bodies. I Cor. 15: 40 says, “There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. But the beauty of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the beauty of the earthly bodies is another.” We will be given bodies in heaven, not immediately, but when Jesus returns.
Not only will we have new bodies, but a new earth to go with it. When Jesus returns, they will all go to a restored earth. Rev. 21: 1-2, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
We aren’t just going to paradise. Paradise is coming here, along with all of its inhabitants. Look at what 1 Thessalonians 4 tells us, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
The Bible’s idea of the afterlife is Jewish, not Greek. In Jewish culture, body and soul are one. “Soul” doesn’t mean a part of ourselves, but all of us. Soul and body cannot be separated. When we die, our essential nature is held in Christ until the end of all things when our bodies are recreated and resurrected as new, immortal bodies.
Think of it like upgrading your computer. A computer has hardware and software. Software can be stored, but won’t run without the hardware. When your computer wears out, you save the software and reload it on a new computer. When our bodies wear out, our non-material nature is saved in Christ, to be reloaded into a new body at the end time. Our soul is resurrected in a new body.
God is making a new heaven and earth. The Bible doesn’t really say we’re going to heaven to meet Jesus. It says Jesus is coming here to meet us.
In Roman culture when a conquering king entered a city, the leading citizens of it went out to meet him, so they could join the royal procession. When Christ comes, we will join the dead in a triumphant procession as He claims the throne. This new world is still called earth, to retain continuity between this world in the new world.
Now, there is a lot about this I don’t understand and most of that I don’t need to know. All will be revealed in its appropriate time. So why do we need to know this? Why do we need to know that when Jesus comes again, He will resurrect our bodies? I believe it’s because of two serious errors the church makes when we don’t understand this.
Error #1—we can act as if this world doesn’t matter. If this world is just going to be destroyed, why do we need to worry about it? Just get saved and wait for heaven! Why bother with stewardship of the earth, or injustices or abuse, if all we see is just temporary?
Calling this new place “earth” stresses the continuity between this world and the next. Something of what we create here carries over into the new earth. Our work here matters to God for eternity.
We were put here to make a difference. Adam was put here to be God’s gardener—to be a co-creator with God in Eden. His contributions made it better. Sin got Adam and Eve’s children off track, and the whole world suffered. So God started an Israel to restore humankind’s original purpose. He made Abraham’s children to be a blessing to the whole world. When they failed to be that blessing. God sent Jesus to bring them back on track, and the rest of the world with them. Christians aren’t here just to wait around to go to leave. This world is still being created, and God is still using us to do it.
The same is true of our bodies. What you do with and to your body matters. From the physical shape that many Christians are in, we have to conclude that most Christians don’t consider ourselves stewards of these bodies. We have become lazy stewards of what we have been given.
Error #2—We can act as if this world is all that matters. This error is the opposite of the first. Many people, believing that God has given up on this world and that we must make a new heaven and earth alone, through our own efforts. But the Bible is very clear on this—Jesus will restore the world, not us. No matter how much we work at it, earth won’t be restored until Jesus comes again.
The resurrection of the body goes with the recreation of the Earth. Just as God’s work and our work have gone into building the Earth as we know it, God’s work and our work both go into shaping our future lives. The bodies will not be destroyed, but perfected. 1 Cor. 15: 51-53:
“Listen, I tell you this secret: We will not all die, but we will all be changed. It will only take the time of a second. We will be changed as quickly as an eye blinks. This will happen when the last trumpet blows. The trumpet will blow and those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we will all be changed.”
We won’t disappear, but be transformed into something eternal. This body and this world is good, but it is just a template for the eternal earth and eternal body God will build for eternity.
Think of petrified wood. Millions of years ago, a tree produced a single seed, and that seed managed to grow from a single cell into a mighty redwood. When the tree died, that organic material decayed and dissolved, but it left behind a pattern that became immortalized in the surrounding sand, which hardened into stone. The struggles of that tree to survive can be read in the pattern that was preserved for us to see millions of years later.
Is it really so hard to believe that our lives, our accomplishments may have the same fate? Our accomplishments are not lost, but perfected in a more durable form, like wood to stone. In the process, our imperfections are replaced, our failures burned way, replaced in Christ with something more lasting and enduring.
Lately, I’ve been using a daily devotional that contains “commemorations.” Commemorations are the stories of old saints. There are monks, nuns, missionaries, martyrs, politicians, doctors, social activists and authors from all nations. Their lives are preserved in the stories that are told. They die, but theirs names did not. None of them were perfect people, but their faults are forgotten and their great deeds live on.
In the new heaven and the new earth is “life everlasting.” This world is Earth 1.0. It’s just a template for Earth 2. The next eternal life will be based on the template of this life, like a fallen tree can become a template for a stone.
What part of us survives into this new world? The part that looks like Jesus. He is the model for everything enduring and beautiful in us. As we seek to emulate Him in our lives, we create an enduring model for everything that is to come. Our good deeds will be celebrated, our bad deeds will be forgotten, buried in Christ forever as the good in us lives on.
We can take comfort in this--that when we die we won’t be forgotten. In Christ’s return, our good will last forever in the new earth.