Easter should be about Jesus and His resurrection, and not about a recently released book or movie featuring the latest near-death-experience story.
The number of bodiless travelers to heaven and back is on the increase. They, we are told, go through the light and the heavenly gates where they meet their deceased husbands, wives, mothers, brothers, uncles, friends and angels, and sometimes Jesus. In fact, everyone who has ever mattered to them is there to embrace them with a loving welcome. But then, although they would love to stay in heaven, they are sent back. Apparently, their mission on Earth was not complete. Once they are back their messages to the world resemble each other, regardless of whether they are told by the Christian, Buddhist, pagan or New Age returnees. They urge us not to worry because “at the end of the day we will all get there”, with or without Jesus. Only an odd ‘Hitler’, here and there, or some extremely wicked ‘Stalin’ might possibly end up elsewhere.
I have heard pastors using various near-death stories to illustrate the hope of Easter in their sermons. They preach that the resurrection of Jesus is a metaphor picturing the indestructible human life. They say that “some of those who went to heaven came back to tell us that ‘heaven is for real’ and waiting.” This kind of reasoning, cherished by many Christians today, assumes that the death and resurrection of Jesus were some kind of purely spiritual, ghost-like transfer of Jesus’ soul from our earthly domain to the heavenly one; a mere change in the modality of life. In fact most Christians today, including many pastors and religious leaders, do not see that the resurrection of Jesus necessitates the resurrection of believers, if the historic Christian creeds are to remain to voice the Biblical truth rather than just a human opinion. Those creeds claim: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” They assert that the resurrection of the body precedes the life everlasting.
When was it the last time when you heard a sermon, during the Easter season or at a funeral service, that presented the resurrection of Jesus or the resurrection of believers with clarity? I feel comfortable in the company of N.T. Wright, John Stott, Edward Fudge and a growing number of Biblical scholars who dare challenge the infusion of Plato’s dualism into the Christian holistic worldview of life. In his book “Surprised by Hope” N.T. Wright, a leading New Testament scholar and retired Anglican bishop, states that the first and second century Christians understood well that “resurrection meant bodies”. He writes: “They were not talking about Jesus’ soul going into heavenly bliss. Resurrection to them did not mean going to heaven or escaping death or having a glorious and noble postmortem existence but rather coming to bodily life again after bodily death.”
Today only a few dare preach, even fewer believe it any more, that there exists an organic connection between the bodily resurrection of Jesus and our own resurrection at the end of the ages. Instead many assume, without a second thought, that they will be automatically transmitted into their eternal immaterial existence at the moment of their death. This kind of superstition is easily revealed in the fuzzy statements we make about the deceased we love when at their funeral services we say something like: “He is now with the Lord meeting with the loved ones who went there ahead of him,” or – “She is having a good time in the company of angels”. Thus, in the imagination of millions of Christians, and non-Christians alike, death rather than resurrection is the door to heaven.
However, faith in the resurrection of our complete persons, is central to the anatomy of the gospel. NT Write writes: “Take away the stories of Jesus’ birth, and you lose only two chapters of Matthew and two of Luke. Take away the resurrection, and you lose the entire New Testament and most of the second-century fathers as well.” The abundance of the Bible statements and references, including many spoken by Jesus himself, unmistakably state that the resurrection of Jesus was a physical as much as spiritual experience, and so will be the resurrection of his children at the last day. About both resurrections Paul writes: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firsfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” 1. Cor. 15:20.52. NIV Likewise, Jesus repeatedly made statements such as: “I shall lose none of all that the Father has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear the voice and come out.” John 6:39; 5:28. NIV (John 6:184.108.40.206; 5:25.)
It is hard to find any statement in the Old and New Testaments that would suggest that the assurance of the life to come means a phantom-like transition from this life to another at the time of our death. But not so with the statements addressing the resurrection of many at the culmination of our history as we know it (John 11:24-25; Luke 14:14; 1. Corinthians 15; 1. Thessalonians 4:13-18; Acts 23:6; 24:15; Daniel 12:2; Job 19:25.26). We are sidetracking from the plain evidence of the Scriptures when we miss the abundance of statements that speak with clarity of the future bodily resurrection of believers as their entrance point into the eternity with God. To quote Paul again: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, … and the dead in Christ will rise first.” 1. Thessalonians 4:16. NIV
Why is it so hard for many Christians to believe that the resurrection from the dead will be a defining moment bridging our current earthly existence with the age of the things to come? One of the reasons is in confusion between the dualism of Plato, embraced by Augustine and Christian holistic orthodoxy. Belief in the oneness of human life that embraces body, soul and spirit inseparably into one, and belief that body is something inferior or evil, only to be discarded at death – those two beliefs exclude each other. Both cannot be true.
Another reason is that we find it hard to make sense of two “resurrections”, a purely spiritual, immaterial one at the time of our death, and the resurrection of our bodies at the coming of the Lord. If it were true that upon the post-mortem arrival to heaven we are complete and whole without our bodies, why on earth would we need to be squeezed into physical bodies again at some later stage? And since we do not know what to make out of the time that separates the two we find it sweeter and more believable to believe that “heaven is for real” at the moment of our dying, rather than to take seriously the overwhelming amount of Biblical evidences that support the resurrection.
God willing, I am planning to stay around for a while. But should my earthly life journey finish before the Lord surprises us with His Coming, I know that I will depart with the certainty of resurrection. I am not concerned at all with the time lapse between the two. I know that my God is in control of time. And when the day of my departure comes let it not be said about me: “He is in a better place now.” Instead, let it be said: “This man died believing in the resurrection of the last day”. I share the faith of the English poet, priest and lawyer John Doone (1572-1631): “One short sleep past, we awake eternally, and death shall be no more”.
May the Lord help us to see the beauty and truthfulness of resurrection with the eyes of the Biblical revelation. This would by itself take care of all the books, TV shows, movies, seminars and stories that feature the increasing number of so-called near-death experiences, however moving or impressive they might be. Heaven is for real, but the near-death-experience travelers will not help you find the way.