Why don’t so many Christians functionally believe in resurrection? I say functionally, because if you ask these same people if they believe in resurrection, they would answer ‘yes, of course’. But the language they use about death and salvation betrays the fact that the doctrine plays no real part in their conception of salvation.
What language do I mean? When Christians talk about death as ‘going to heaven to be with Jesus for ever’, this is a functional absence of a doctrine of resurrection. When Christians say of a saint who has died that ‘they are now in glory (or crowned with glory)’, this also betrays the same functional absence. When a deceased Christian is described as ‘enjoying the blessings of eternity in heaven’, I see the same problem. There are so many Christian clichés about death that reflect an un-Christian conception of salvation. They are spoken in our churches and sung in our hymns and songs.
The apostle Paul, for one, wouldn’t recognise these clichés. Note his words….
But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you…. the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. Rom 8:11,22-23
Glory is not received when we die, but when we are raised. Resurrection life, not heaven, is our great hope. It’s the same with salvation. So much of our talk is about the salvation of the soul, or of our ‘completed sanctification’ upon death. Our salvation (our full adoption) is not completed when we die, but when we are raised. Salvation is not simply of the soul (however you want to understand that), but of the body. Christian salvation is salvation of the whole person. It’s not just Paul who would argue with these common clichés. The author to the Hebrews is clear that those who died before the appearance of Jesus the Messiah did not receive what was promised.
And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect. Hebrews 11:39-40
No-one who dies will be ‘made perfect’, i.e. receive salvation, before anyone else. Because being ‘made perfect’ happens at the resurrection. The apostle Peter gives the same outlook…
Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ…. 1 Peter 1:13
When the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory…. 1 Peter 5:4
Focussing on death and ‘heaven’ is the wrong focus. The apostolic focus is on the return of Jesus and the grace to be brought to us in our salvation in resurrection. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes the incomplete salvation that is in heaven:
The souls of the righteous…[are] waiting for the full redemption of their bodies…. WCF Chapter 32
If Paul himself had written the WCF (now there’s a thought!!), I think he would have written ‘waiting for full redemption, the redemption of their bodies’, which would be much better. According to the WCF, the souls of the righteous are waiting for something. Their salvation is not complete.
Biblical scholars interpreting the Corinthian letters sometimes propose that the reason why some of the people in the church at Corinth denied the resurrection was that they held an ‘over-realised’ eschatology. That is to say, they thought that the benefits of ‘resurrection’ were enjoyed in this present life, not in the next life. For them, there was no ‘next life’. We read about two guys who held a similar view in 2 Tim 2.17-18. Now, I don’t happen to believe that was among the main problems at Corinth. However, it is a problem in the Church today. So many Christians have an over-realised eschatology. Not over-realised in this life, but in ‘heaven’, by which people expect the full glory of salvation to be realised at death in a bodiless existence of the soul in a spiritual realm. I’m not certain that there will be such an experience, but if there is, it’s definitely not Glory, and it’s definitely not Salvation. ‘Heaven’ is not ‘the next life’. Because it is not ‘life’; it is existing in a state of ‘death’. That’s not salvation – at least it’s not Christian salvation. It’s salvation if you are a follower of some of the Eastern religions, or if you are a Gnostic (a heresy the Church has struggled to shake off), but it’s not Christian. And yet, functionally, it’s what so many Christians believe.
Whatever happened to the doctrine of resurrection? If Christ has been raised, why do some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?