Does human identity survive death? Descriptions of human souls floating off to an immaterial place after death do not reflect the hope that people long for. They don’t depict great joy or creative possibilities for an afterlife that will delight every fiber of our being. In fact, I find them more like whimsical tales distorted to make death seem like our friend, when in reality, it’s a tragic loss of life. According to the Bible, death is our enemy, but redemption results in the renewal of our lives (1 Corinthians 15).
We may have questions about our new embodied lives in the life to come. Will we be recognizable? Young or old? I must admit that the most popular versions of heaven and the afterlife are bland and boring. However, the Bible affirms that our human identities will be absolutely preserved, losing only the tragedies and hang-ups we now experience in our broken world. We are promised that when all things are made new, we will become the people we were always intended to be, in original loveliness and with every sense awakened to experience the fullness of life. Now, that’s a story I want to know more about.
Human existence finds its fullest expression in a fully participating embodied life that comes from God. There is no life without the source of life. We certainly won’t be raising ourselves from the dead. The solution to death must come as a gift from God. Our lives will only be reassembled by the same Spirit of the living God that raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 6:10–11). We are told that God alone has immortality (1 Timothy 6:16). Our bodies can’t be resurrected without a resurrected One who possesses everlasting life. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
In His far-reaching embrace, God promises everyone life, so they can share in His eternity. God is for us and longs to be with us, so He will never take that gift away. He can no more withdraw His gift of life than He can undo His sacrifice of love for the entire world (Romans 5:17). God promises that “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3, ESV). Even if this line is difficult to believe, I think it’s fascinating to know that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29, ESV). According to Jesus, there’s no death for anyone, except the one that ends in life and resurrection (John 5:28, 29). Jesus came to give mankind life, and we are all included in this wonderful gift. However, God won’t make us share in that life of love and plenitude if we don’t want it.
Prolific writer and scholar C.S. Lewis makes a notable distinction between bios, the Greek term for biological life, and zoe, a Greek term for spiritual life (Mere Christianity, 1952, p.159). This distinction becomes interesting when we contrast the nature of those who are raised (Daniel 12:2-3). When the righteous rise they sing for joy (Isaiah 26:19) and shine with immortal beauty (Matthew 13:43). When the lost are resurrected there is no “glorification” for them (Philippians 3:21). Those who do not want communion with God do not have the same quality of life as those fully connected to the source of life. They have only physical or biological life, which tends to run down when nothing stops it from decaying. Without the Spirit of the living God, we cannot move or embody our true being. Jesus says that He came so that we might have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10).
Without the Presence of God in our lives, we cannot become truly human as God intends. In Genesis, Adam only becomes a living human when God breathes into his lifeless clay form (Genesis 2:7). Access is given to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden which signifies the eternal and indestructible life from God. What makes life vibrant to its full capacity is the Presence of God in and among His people. In Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, we see a valley of skeletons awaiting a new life of resurrection. When the breath of God’s Spirit enters the picture, new life bursts forth. The breath of God enters the dry bones, and they live again (Ezekiel 37:5–14). The ancient wilderness Tabernacle (later known as the Temple) is also a place into which God breathed His Presence. The living Spirit of God dwelt in this space.
People often speak of the soul or spirit slipping off to be with God. Losing someone is painful, and we try to cope with the grief. Even in such loss, however, we do not separate our loved ones from their bodies. They remain in our hearts, to be sure, but we yearn with all our being for their bodily presence, their voices, their touch. The same is true with God. We do not cry alone. God experiences our heartaches and cries as He did at Lazarus’ tomb. Poet William Blake captures this well when he writes, “Till our grief is fled and gone, He doth sit by us and moan.”
Heaven is occupied by the resurrected and the embodied Jesus, so how can we speak of humans separated from their bodies in heaven? We can be assured that our identities are perfectly preserved and held by God and that He will remember us. Yes, we are held by God, and like us, God wants nothing less than an entire person. God’s goal is His Presence in and among us. He wants us to be all that we are intended to be in union with Him. God has made us beings that occupy a physical space constituted by His Presence. In the person of Jesus, we see God joining heaven and earth, being what we are in communion with Him. The resurrected Jesus gives us a glimpse of what new creation looks like.
The Tabernacle in Exodus teaches us about some of God’s aims, not only for us but for the entire creation. This is one image that symbolizes human life flourishing in the Presence of God: “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8, NKJV). God’s ultimate desire is to join heaven and earth, so He can be with us. We were made for this space—the union of heaven and earth that occurs through Jesus. Yet, this life is not just in our future, for God provides the Spirit that helps us start living it now. We get glimpses of the greater future in this broken world. We see it bursting through the best of our human experiences. The joyous moments that make life worth living are hints of eternity, and someday we will finally experience what we were always intended to be.
The life symbolized by the sacrificial offerings purifies the Tabernacle from evil and death. The wrongness of human death in God’s sight indicates His intention to bring an end to it, which suggests an ultimate goal. It offers a picture of the world to come, when God will dwell with a humanity free from sin and suffering. It provides hints of our promised inheritance: new bodies, perfectly whole and more glorious, and an earth restored in the fullness of God’s unabated Presence. This is what we can expect when we are raised, redeemed, and glorified and when all creation is set free from bondage to enter into the liberty and splendor of God’s resurrected children (Romans 8:19).
Love is also a glimpse of heaven and the world to come. New creation is built upon the undying love of God, which is defined by the selfless character of the Lamb that was slain. God dwelling with His people becomes the ultimate expression of divine love and relationship. We can imagine our desires for life and love finding eternal fulfillment in the world made new. As we are told in Revelation, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” (Revelation 21:3, NRSV, emphasis mine). That’s when the story comes to its destined end—when we finally become what we were always intended to be, living that full and more wonderful life of love on earth forever.
But what about notions of judgment and hell in the afterlife? Will life reign on earth and death be no more—except in the writhing flames of hell? How does Revelation contribute to this vision of eternal burning? Is there a better way to read this fiery description? I will addresses these questions in my next post.
Craig Ashton Jr.