Having been a Christian for most of my life, I was until recently feeling quite assured that I had the Bible’s teachings about heaven all sorted out. My understanding, like that of most Christians, was that Heaven is our goal and our ultimate home for eternity. Therefore, the central message of the Gospel is that people need to believe in Jesus so they can enter heaven. But there is one striking problem with this view, and that is the fact that no-where in the Bible does Jesus or the disciples present a Gospel message along these simplified lines.
Could it be that the first century Jewish understanding of life after death was quite different from ours? D. Thomas Lancaster’s brilliant book ‘Elementary Principles: Six Foundational Principles of Ancient Jewish Christianity’ sheds important light on the ancient Jewish understanding of eternity, and with its help this article will attempt to provide fresh insights on this topic.
A More Jewish Understanding of ‘Heaven’
Matthew 5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.
Bible encyclopedias list verse after verse like the above under the topic of ‘heaven’. Lancaster explains that it was common practice of first century Jews to use the word ‘heaven’ as a way of referring to God while avoiding taking His Name in vain. So, a Jewish understanding of this and similar verses is that they are speaking, not of an eternal dwelling place for spirits, but instead of the kingdom of God coming to earth and what we must do to enter the kingdom.
The Kingdom of God
Christians today have many different views on what the ‘kingdom of God’ means, however the expectation and understanding of the first century Jew was that there was coming a day when the Messiah would rule a literal kingdom of Israel from Jerusalem. While Jesus’ did not establish this physical kingdom on His first coming, if He is to fulfill every Word spoken about Him, then they will have to be fulfilled in His second coming. These prophecies include sitting on the throne of His father David (which is not in heaven but in Jerusalem, 2 Sam 7:13, Luk. 1:32), Israel finally having the larger borders God promised (Gen 15:18), all nations being subservient to Israel and coming up yearly to the Feast of Tabernacles (Is. 60:12, Zec. 14:16).
While some will dispute that this view, I believe that just as the prophecies of Jesus’ first coming were so literally and physically fulfilled, so it is fair to expect the remaining unfulfilled prophecies to come to pass as literally and as physically as at all possible.
The resurrection is the time when God’s promises will literally be fulfilled here on earth…
What about the Dead?
Ancient Gnosticism viewed heaven as a place for our spirits to ‘float around’ for eternity. In their view the body is a cage to be escaped and mankind is essentially viewed as spirit beings. Over time, this perspective crept into Christianity, clouding our view of eternity and God’s plans for us.
In contrast to Gnosticism, the Bible presents man as being ‘body, soul and spirit’ (1 Thes 5:23), and when God first created mankind, He said it was ALL ‘very good’. Furthermore, the role of the body isn’t over after death, rather it is placed in the grave with the expectation that it will rise at the end of the age. (John 5:28-29).
At the time of Jesus, many pagan societies would just burn or discard a dead body. In contrast, first century Jews treated dead bodies with great respect. They would wash them, clothe them and prepare them for burial (as did the early disciples in
Acts 9:37 and John 19:40). For cleansing, those who were involved in this process, would undergo ritual immersion in a mikveh (Jewish baptismal pool). Paul refers to these customs in 1 Cor. 15:29 when he exclaims, “if the dead do not rise at all… Why then are they baptized for the dead”? In other words, what is the point of all this fuss over a dead body—unless there truly will be a resurrection of this physical body here on earth?
Interestingly, Judaism to this day counts belief in the resurrection as a core part of their faith (as did Paul in 1 Cor. 15:16-17). Furthermore, Judaism teaches that you will be raised with the same body—yet healed. In other words, your body would carry the same scars as now—but without the pain or disability associated with it. This view is particularly interesting when we consider Jesus’ resurrection body, which was physically recognisable, could touch and eat, and also carried the same scars as before (while being able to walk through walls!). Paul describes Jesus’ resurrection as the ‘first fruits’ (1 Cor. 15:20)—meaning that we can likewise expect to be raised according to the pattern He set and with a similar body.
While many Christians today speak about heaven, the resurrection was central to the teaching and hope of the early church (Acts 4:2, 4:33, 23:6, Heb 6:1-2). In fact, Roman persecutors remarked how fearless the Christians were because of their faith in the resurrection (see esp. persecution at Lyon in AD 177).
We have seen that the resurrection was a core part of the message of the early church. The resurrection is the time when God’s promises will literally be fulfilled here on earth and peace will finally come to this beleaguered planet.
With a bodily resurrection to come here on earth, we can look forward to a very different future than that presented by mainstream Christianity. Instead of just meeting our loved ones in spirit form somewhere above the clouds, we can expect to one day meet them again face to face-—in their resurrected bodies—here on earth in the Messianic kingdom. What a glorious day it will be when God himself finally dwells among us here on earth!
In essence then the Gospel message is as both John the Baptist and Jesus preached ‘repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’ (Matt 3:2, 4:17). In other words, get ready for the life that is yet to come, and live today to prepare for that Great Day!