One of the most common things I see on social media sites on the anniversary of a particular person’s death or even days after someone dies is something like this: “I know my guardian angel is looking down on me,” or, “Heaven gained another sweet angel today.”
I am honestly not trying to be snarky or disrespectful because I know that the people who say, tweet, and post things like this are trying to find some way to honor their loved one who has passed away. I get that. I really do. But when I see these kinds of posts and tweets, I cannot help but think, “Do you really think your loved one transformed from a person into an angel?” But then I think, “No, surely not. They are simply searching for words to describe the intermediate state of believers awaiting the final resurrection of their bodies.”
But in the end, it really doesn’t matter. Whether these posts come from the errant notion that people actually become angels or from an incorrect expression of a true biblical reality, I think ignoring the physical dimensions of the new creation robs us of some incredibly sanctifying and fun thoughts.
When we think of what happens to Christians when they die, we typically think only of the intermediate state when the soul or spirit of a Christian is away from the body and present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). We think of Christian’s who have died to be currently floating on clouds, possibly with wings, flying around from cloud to cloud as they listen to harps play in the background. Truly it doesn’t surprise me to see “Heaven gained an angel” posts because when we try to envision what life will be like in this spiritual state, we have no idea what to think because we have nothing to compare it to. Granted, this is unnecessary knowledge that speculation can take to unhealthy extremes (see Heaven is for Real).
This kind of thinking causes us to focus most of our post-physical death attention on the spiritual aspects of that time. We limit our understanding and thinking of life after death to the time before Christ returns. By doing this, we tend to see tremendous value in spiritual matters while (possibly unintentionally) ignoring physical matters. The truth is that our redemption is not complete until we enjoy the eternal bliss of being in the presence of God with our new glorified bodies. IMB president, David Platt, once said,
Heaven is not a place where we have nothing to do but float on the clouds, but a new earth where we have everything to do: a God to worship, a kingdom to rule, a universe to explore, work to accomplish, and friends to enjoy.
This is what we ultimately long for. This is why we cry, “Maranatha!” In that day, Randy Alcorn posits, “Not only will we see his face and live, but we will likely wonder if we ever lived before we saw his face!” The physical dimension of the final blessedness of heaven brings not only incomparable joy, but highly relatable joy.
While it seems trivial to point out an ignorance of one single aspect of life after death, I believe it dramatically impacts the way we live. In fact, after just recently being reminded of the reality of the overtly physical realities of the new heaven and new earth, it has caused me to deeply reflect on the way I treat my own body by overindulging in food. There are innumerable practical implications connected to the physical realm of the final new creation. And to be honest, I see a direct correlation between the lack of emphasis on the physical side of eternal life and the lack of emphasis on care for the body before death.
Think about it. One of the most common criticisms that Christians in the American South face is that we love to point out sins like homosexuality, we love to ignore sins like gluttony. While such claims are invalid, as others have shown, there is some truth in them in that if you want to find an obese or overweight pastor, a good place to look would be churches in the southern part of the country. In this same region, life after death is spoken of often and almost always in spiritual-only terms. You will likely hear the famous C.S. Lewis quote, “You are not a body with a soul, but a soul with a body.” True statement. Just incomplete. Could it be that we have indirectly, maybe even subconsciously, excused poor treatment of our bodies because we know that our bodies will pass away and the true us is found in our spirits? I am not so much as making a claim as much as I am asking a sincere question…of myself.
Like many of you, I have been mostly exposed to the spiritual, non-physical aspects of new creation theology. It is very sanctifying to start thinking of the certain eschatological future residence of believers as being physical. Though there is no absence of joy whatsoever in thinking of our future eschatological home in terms of being in God’s presence outside of an actual physical place with a physical body, there is almost a special feeling of joy that can be found in realizing that this home in God’s presence will be somewhat familiar to the place we call home now. Randy Alcorn’s words on the doctrine of the New Earth make total sense and speak directly to my heart on the matter.
The biblical doctrine of the New Earth implies something startling: that if we want to know what the ultimate Heaven, our eternal home, will be like, the best place to start is by looking around us. We shouldn’t close our eyes and try to imagine the unimaginable. We should open our eyes, because the present Earth is as much a valid reference point for envisioning the New Earth as our present bodies are a valid reference point for envisioning our new bodies.
I have resolved to think more about the physical realities of life after death. While I rejoice and anticipate the day that I will be in the presence of the Lord without my body, I desperately long for the day when Christ receives the final fruit of his work; a fully redeemed creation full of wonder and majesty. In thinking about these glorified physical realities, I pray it serves as a grace to cause me to think and act rightly with regard to my body before I die.
Christian, you will not be an angel when you die. You will be much greater than an angel. You will be an incomplete being in the perfectly joyful presence of God awaiting complete redemption when your new, glorified body is given to you. With this perfect and flawless body, you will reign with God forever. And when that day comes, unimaginable physical joys will be at your fingertips. Wonder with Alcorn when he dreams,
Skydiving without a parachute? Maybe, maybe not. Scuba diving without an air tank? I hope so. Will we be able to tolerate diving to depths of hundreds of fret without special equipment? We know that our resurrection bodies will be superior. Won’t it be fantastic to test their limits and to invent new technologies that extend our ability to explore and enjoy God in the mighty realms he makes? Those who know God and believe his promise of bodily resurrection can dream great dreams. One day we will live those dreams.”
Dream today about what a perfectly glorified physical world will look and feel like. How will we experience this world? The confidence we have in the work of Christ on our behalf grounds our confidence to biblically speculate about the specifics of this place. I look forward with great hope to this day and instead of closing my eyes to imagine being in God’s presence outside of a physical place, with eyes wide open I will anticipate standing, crawling, walking, running, jumping, flying? in an abundantly joyful, satisfying, and perfectly redeemed earth with the God whose glory shines in it all.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.