Have you heard a sermon about heaven lately? If not, it could be because your pastor focuses on the new heaven and earth instead. That’s a healthy emphasis. The bodily resurrection of Jesus encourages it. The new heaven and earth will be our ultimate home, and we will live there in our own resurrected bodies.
Jesus spent only 40 days on earth in his resurrected body. Then, as his apostles watched, he ascended into heaven. Ever since then, Jesus has been in heaven. And he has been there in his resurrected body. But how can that be?
Yes, Jesus is divine. He’s the second person of the Trinity. “He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time” (Athanasian Creed). But every bit as much, “he is human from the essence of his mother, born in time” (Athanasian Creed). So how can this human being, Jesus, be in heaven?
Heaven is a spiritual realm. When God wanted to take on flesh, it happened on the earth. Earth is where flesh belongs. But flesh in heaven? A human being in heaven? How can that be?
When we die, we go to be with our Lord in heaven. But we don’t do that in the flesh. We leave our flesh behind. Our bodies are returned to the earth. We don’t take them with us to heaven. It just wouldn’t work.
There’s a proper environment for every creature. Fish don’t swim on dry land; they’re created for water. In the same way, human beings are for the earth. The earth is our proper environment. Take us off the earth, and there’s no place for us―not unless we take a bit of earth with us in a capsule or in a spacesuit. Set us down on the surface of the moon, and we wouldn’t last a moment. Move us to Mercury, and we’d melt. Put us on Pluto, and we’d freeze solid.
We are earth creatures, physical. And there is a proper place for us to be. Heaven is not that place. Not in the body.
But Jesus, in his ascension, went from earth to heaven—and he did it in the body. In that body, he is seated at the right hand of God. As the Catechism puts it, with amazement, “we have our own flesh in heaven” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 49).
Again, how can that be? Did Jesus, like some heaven-bound astronaut, put on a “heaven suit”? Something over his skin? Something to take a bit of earth with him—some atmosphere, some water, some food? Not at all. He went as he was.
It’s as if heaven is perfectly suited for Jesus, for his flesh. Or it’s as if his body is perfectly suited for heaven. It’s as if he’s somehow different from the rest of us; the same as us, but still different. Jesus is different, different in a way that really matters.
Unlike Lazarus (see John 11) or the widow’s son (see Luke 7:11ff.), Jesus isn’t merely a dead person who came back to life. He is “the firstborn from among the dead” (Col. 1:18). And although he was raised in the flesh, it’s new flesh, transformed flesh. It’s the flesh of the world to come. Still flesh, but different. Still subject to hunger, but able to appear in locked rooms. Still of the earth, but able to be fully in heaven.
Christians for a long time have had a firm belief that our destiny is in heaven, that heaven is our home. Heaven is where we will go by the grace of God. However, we often picture heaven as an everlasting existence with God, but without a body. And that’s not the biblical picture.
Bodies are our destiny. To be human is to be embodied, to be flesh and blood, skin and bone. Maybe your pastor doesn’t say much about heaven because heaven conjures up a body-less existence. Because, in our minds, bodies and heaven don’t fit together. But the ascension of Jesus addresses the puzzle of bodies and heaven.
Though I suppose that’s a puzzle we typically don’t care to solve. And no wonder. We don’t like how our bodies look, not when we’re 12 and not when we’re 48 and certainly not by the time we hit 70 or 80. And we know that things are only going to get worse as far as this flesh of ours is concerned.
Time takes a toll. We get out of shape. Our joints break down. Our arteries clog. Our minds dim. There comes a time when we’re ready to say, “Enough!” The last thing we want is to be stuck with this body forever. So we’d rather imagine a future without bodies, a future without all the ugliness, without all the pain, without all the malfunctions.
Yet when Jesus ascends to heaven, he goes in a body. And it’s his own body. It’s recognizably Jesus, still scarred and wounded. But at the same time, it’s a different sort of body, a body suited to life in heaven. A body not bound by the usual limitations of time and space (see John 20:19). It’s a body that can be present at the right hand of God and at the same time be present in the sacrament of the Table, a body we can take into our own bodies, by the Spirit through faith (see Belgic Confession, Article 35), and so be fed for a new kind of life. For the new life that will be ours on that coming day when the dead are raised and “we will all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51).
It’s not just that the dead will live again. It’s more, much more. Our weak, broken, corrupt, old-creation bodies, bodies subject to so much failure and complaint—our old bodies will give way to new bodies, new-creation bodies, bodies for a world where there is “no more mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4). Bodies without arthritic joints. Bodies without cardiac stents. Bodies without exercise-induced asthma. Bodies without a rainbow of pills to ingest every morning. Bodies without hearing aids. Bodies without speech impediments. Bodies without tumors. Bodies without root canals.
But it’s not the “without” part that matters. It’s the “with” part that really counts. We will have bodies in which we will live with one another. And most important of all, we will have bodies in which we will live with God. We will live with God in a new world that outstrips our dreams and defies our imaginations. With his ascension, Jesus has paved the way.
Questions for Discussion
- How have you typically envisioned heaven? What about the new heaven and earth?
- How do you currently feel about your own body? What about your body do you feel good and grateful to God for?
- The Heidelberg Catechism states that “we have our own flesh in heaven—a guarantee that Christ our head will take us, his members, to himself in heaven” (Q&A 49). What excites you or intrigues you the most, thinking about being with God with our bodies in the new heaven and earth?
- In the meantime, what are some of the ways we can honor God with our bodies during our time on this earth?
About the Authors
Thea Leunk is a pastor at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Bob Arbogast is the pastor of Olentangy Church in Columbus, Ohio.