I grew up being told about Jesus. Jesus came to die on the cross to save us from our sins so we could go to heaven, it was said. I’ve come to believe that such a presentation short changes the gospel and leads to all kinds of difficulties, not the least of which is a platonic/gnostic view of heaven and the afterlife.
N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, in the Church of England writes in his book “Surprised By Hope” that to speak of life after death is really the wrong way to look at it. Life after death implies a disembodied spiritual and ethereal existence as the final goal. This in turn stems from a view of creation that denigrates matter and time and space. These things are bad, it is thought, if not down right evil. We need to escape the flesh and in doing so we will be happy in heaven. Wright points out that the New Testament teaching on the subject is radically different. Matter and created things are good, not bad. The body is not something to be escaped. Indeed, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead in his physical body proclaims loudly that God’s intention is to re-create the entire cosmos/universe not by replacing it with something new and discarding the old, but by transforming it into perfection. Just as he did with Jesus’s physical body. Therefore it is not life after death that we are to anticipate, but life after life after death. We will be bodily raised in the self-same bodies we have now. That is the great hope of the Christian. Not simply to “go to heaven when I die” but to be raised with Christ in a glorious body like his.
Heaven then, is not some place ‘away from here’ but it is where God is, which is everywhere. It is not separate spatially from earth but is another dimension of existence. One which touches the visible creation and exists alongside it. In the Day of the Lord, when Jesus returns, he will, by an act of power, merge heaven and earth into one. That will be the ultimate fulfillment of the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
No where in the New Testament is the gospel ever presented as salvation from hell or going to heaven when you die. It is always and only presented as salvation from sin and death via resurrection.
We live in a gnostic age. The concept of the bodily resurrection from the dead of Jesus and us is hardly understood or known. Yet this is the great central hope the New Testament presents for us. We have exchanged the truth for a lie and have worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. By his resurrection, Jesus declared the Kingship of God and that he himself is Lord (YHWH). He further declared that the Kingdom has been inaugurated and we can begin living the kingdom life even now. Every good thing we do, every Kingdom work, counts for the final day. No work is in vain. God does not forget our good works but keeps them and holds them in store for the Final Day when they shall be restored to us before all people, glorified and enhanced and perfected.
I highly recommend Bp. Wrights book “Surprised by Hope”. It is a marvelous work. It’s probably the best and most challenging book I have read in the last 20 years or so. If you are interested in what the New Testament says about the Gospel and what we are saved for and what it means to be saved, get this book.