The are several problems with the common perception of life after death. Here’s what people think: when we die, our souls go to heaven to float around there forever. This is only partially true.
When we die, our souls do continue to exist (Phil. 1:21), but our ultimate hope is in the resurrection of our bodies. Our hope is that Christ “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). With the ancient church, “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come” (The Nicene Creed).
A second problem is that people think it is only our individual bodies and not the whole creation that will be redeemed. But the vision of our destiny in the Scriptures is one of a redeemed world (e.g., Is. 65:17–25). As the Apostle Paul says, “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:21).
Lutheran commentator R.C.H. Lenski argues renewal of creation against the idea that there will be an altogether new creation:
. . . man is the creature for whom the first heaven and the first earth were created, and if he is made new by creative acts without first having been annihilated, he the head of all this creation, shall God annihilate heaven and earth and create ex nihilo another heaven and earth? Combine what is here said with Rom. 8, and the answer is plain (Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of John’s Revelation [Augsburg Publishers, 1943 and 1963; repr., Hendricksen Publishers, no date], 615).
Jesus’ resurrection is not merely a pattern of what God will do for us as individuals. It is the beginning of a new creation. We need to think bigger.
A third problem is that our view of transformation is overly individualistic. If Jesus is making all things new, then this speaks not only to our individual life but also to our social and communal life.
National and individual life both reverberate through the resurrection. The description of the new heavens and the new earth speaks of nations and their glory being brought into the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 21:22–25). This indicates that communal actions and struggles have eternal significance.
You can see this same idea in Colossians. The Apostle Paul tells slaves that their work is not in vain and that they will be rewarded (Col. 3:22–25). The work that seems to be lowliest of all actually has eternal significance. The significance of work is rooted in the first creation (Gen. 1:26–28) and will have an effect in the renewed creation.
Of course, people may object to the idea that social and communal action has effects in the resurrection.
- For example, it is hard to say what the relationship between social action and the resurrection would be. Answer: it is also hard to say what the precise relation of our struggles against idolatry, lust, drunkenness, and temper would be to the resurrection, but that does not make it less significant (see Rom. 6:22).
- Objection: God is concerned about saving people, not society and the natural world. Answer: false dichotomy. God is interested in the natural world, society, and the salvation of individuals (see Gen. 9:1–11, cf. Jonah 4:11).
- Objection: We shouldn’t get entangled in this world, since it is not our home. Answer: this does not mean that we should not be involved in this life. We just shouldn’t make anything in this life absolute. By way of analogy, we should not make food an idol, but God has given it to us to enjoy (1 Tim. 6:18). There is no completion in this life, but that doesn’t mean it is not important (see my post on this here).
- Objection: social transformation is hard. Answer: yes it is. That does not mean that it should not be attempted. In addition, we have the power and resources of Christ’s resurrection.
So, what’s the payoff? We should think bigger.
We are all busy with our daily lives, work, and family, but God calls us to look out not only for own interests but also the interests of others.
We may think only of our own home, but God takes an interest in our neighborhoods. We may think of our children getting good grades, but God cares about our whole school. God always has a bigger interest.
And when we work to transform society and make families, neighborhoods, businesses, and other societal organizations better, God stands behind it. God wants us to think bigger. He is making all things new.
Where could God be calling you into something bigger?
It’s easy to see the institutions and big projects around us and think that these are out of your reach. But can you get your neighbors together? Can you attend a community event? Can you get involved in little league? Can you start a business? Can you help out an elderly person or young mother who is struggling? Can you start a small group at your church? Can you take a step to reconcile with a family member from whom you have been estranged? All these things are steps that bring us closer to the new heavens and new earth that Christ will bring in fully when He comes again.