This is another blog that is actually a letter. I was in conversation with an important Christian leader and I had asked him this question: “Why did Jesus come?” He answered, “So we can go to heaven when we die.” I told him this was the wrong answer and explained the true purpose of the Incarnation and the true nature of salvation. A short time later he asked me to to put what I had said to him in writing so that he could preach on it. The following is my reply. It is by no means a full treatment of the subject, but the “notes” of what I said during our conversation:

Why did Jesus come? The answer is not, “so we can go to heaven when we die.”

The problem with saying that Jesus came so that we can go to heaven when we die is that it diminishes the full scope of salvation and misunderstands the purpose of humanity.

God created man from the dust of the earth, breathed into him the breath of life and in this act man became the creature that is uniquely human. (Genesis 2:7)

Animals are physical creatures (dust of the earth) while angels are spirit beings (breath of God), but humans are neither animals nor angels. Humans are a hybrid creature suited for both the heavens (spiritual dimension) and the earth (physical dimension).

Humanity’s purpose is to bear the image of God as a spiritual-physical creature, as a heavenly-earthly being. This is part of what makes us uniquely human.

Humanity’s vocation is to bear the image of God and exercise wise rule (dominion) over the earth. (Gen. 1:26f)

In the Fall (original sin) man lost his vital connection with God and might be describe as having fallen down into his physical or “animalistic” nature. The primary result of this fallen state is death.

But God has intervened with what the Scriptures call “salvation.”

God’s purpose in salvation is not to whisk us away to a non-spatiotemporal existence in what we tend to call “heaven”, but to restore man to his original purpose—bearing God’s image and exercising dominion as creatures who are fully human. Salvation restores our humanity.

Remember what Jesus did when he appeared to his disciples on Easter evening—first he breathed on them, which is reminiscent of God’s creation of Adam in the garden. Then he spoke to them about conferring forgiveness to others; he commissioned them to act as ambassadors of reconciliation. (John 20:19-23) The resurrection of Christ is all about two things: New Creation and Reconciliation. The Elevation from the Fall.

In Christ, through his death, burial and resurrection, we can be restored to God’s original intent for human beings. God’s original intention for humans was not to escape to heaven, but bear his image and wisely rule the earth. That’s why God made us physical beings in the first place. It is important to understand that a non-physical being cannot be fully human. Human are by definition physical beings. God’s salvation is not to turn humans into angels. (This is the opposite of incarnation.) God’s salvation is to restore fallen humans to full humanity.

Christ has given us an entirely new way of being human.
-Maximus the Confessor

Christianity is not about religion—it’s about humanity.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The glory of God is a human fully alive.

I am not looking to get rid of my physical body—it is an essential part of who I am—I am looking forward to the resurrection and glorification of my physical body. This is the teaching of the New Testament.

Most of what is commonly called “heaven” by modern Christians (especially in the last two centuries) is actually the Bible’s prophetic language for the earth fully restored through the return of Christ. Things like gates of pearl, streets of gold, the new Jerusalem, the eradication of pain, tears and death, etc., is the poetic-prophetic language in the books of Isaiah and Revelation describing the earth set right upon the return of Christ.

When a believer dies they are “absent from the body and present with the Lord”—but the bible doesn’t say much about this interim state between death and resurrection. This is because the emphasis is not on going to heaven at death but on the resurrection. This is what was preached by Jesus and the Apostles. In the book of Acts we never find the Apostles preaching salvation in terms of “going to heaven when we die”, but in terms of the resurrection of the dead. In fact, none of the sermons in the book of Acts talk about going to heaven—and I find this quite significant. The sermons in Acts all emphasize resurrection. This is also the emphasis in the epistles.

The hope of the resurrection is why Christians bury their dead, while pagans practice cremation. Burial and cremation represent two different ideologies—one Christian, the other pagan. It is a pagan idea that the material-physical world is evil and that we need to escape it. This is not Christianity—this is Dualism; a pagan philosophy which has far too much infected Christian thinking. When God declared creation “very good”, he meant it. And God is not going to abandon creation—he is going to redeem it! This is the gospel.

The reason this matters and is not just about getting our doctrinal ducks in a row is that it effects the way we think and live as Christians. If we think the great goal of Christianity is to go to heaven, we will develop an escapist mentality which will cause us to abandon the very purpose for which we were created: To bear the image of God as beings who are authentically human and who exercise wise dominion over the earth. If we misunderstand the nature of salvation we will be trying to escape the earth while God is trying to enter the earth. We will being trying abandon what God is trying to redeem. If we make this mistake in our thinking (theology) about God, man and salvation, it will be very difficult for us to fully cooperate with God’s great purposes in redemption.

Another point: Reducing salvation to “going to heaven when we die” makes death a friend and not an enemy. Granted there are many sentimental sermons and songs which do just that, but they are all grievously unscriptural. Death is never presented in Scripture as anything but an enemy—an enemy which has been defeated in the resurrection of Christ and will be destroyed in the resurrection of the redeemed. The entire fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is all about this. Paul begins that chapter by establishing what is the true gospel (the death, burial and resurrection of Christ) and then spends the rest of this lengthy chapter talking about the supreme importance of resurrection as the cornerstone of Christianity.

It must be understood that resurrection is not a spirit going to heaven, resurrection is just what the word Greek word anastasis means: the physical resurrection from the dead of the physical body. Jesus did not “spiritually” rise from the dead on Easter…he physically came out of the tomb! The gospel is about resurrection. Let me say it again: THE GOSPEL IS ABOUT RESURRECTION!!

Perhaps you have heard Christians say, “This world is not my home.” (I heard a preacher say it on TV last night.) Forget it! That is not Christian at all! In fact, it traces back to the original Christian heretics, the Gnostics. The very opposite is the truth of Scripture: This world is our home. It is the home God created for man and God intends it to ever be so. God is not going to hand the earth over to sin and Satan. In the end sin and Satan will win…nothing. God in Christ is going to redeem and restore the earth and the last two chapters of the Bible present the picture of heaven and earth being reunited in a kind of marriage ceremony.

There is much more I could say about this, but let me sum it up like this: We need to emphasize what the New Testament apostles emphasized. They did not emphasize “going to heaven when we die.” That kind of language is virtually non-existent in the New Testament. The Platonic idea of heaven as a non-spaciotemporal existence instead of a restored creation is far too similar to moksha in Hinduism and nirvana in Buddhism. The distinctly Christian hope is not a Christian version of Plato’s eidos, Hinduism’s moksha or Buddhism’s nirvana—but the resurrection of the dead! An emphasis on the primary New Testament theme of resurrection keeps our feet firmly planted on the earth as we sincerely pray, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Happy Easter!