This creation – this earth – will be your home for eternity. Many Christians do not recognize this fact. When they speak about their future home, they usually say that it is “heaven.” It is a commonplace for Christians to say that a believer who has died has been “called home to heaven.” However this language ignores, and even contradicts, a very clear emphasis of Scripture.
There is no doubt that God’s Word offers great comfort about those who die before Christ’s return. Death cannot separate us from Christ, and instead those who die in the faith are with the Lord. As Paul wrote, “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ (σὺν Χριστῷ εἶναι), for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23 ESV). This comfort is very important and it must be part of what pastors share with their congregation members.
We often describe this reality using the word “heaven.” There are several texts that speak about the “intermediate state” of Christians – about the state of a Christian who dies before Christ returns (Ps 49:15; 73:24; Luke 16:22-26; 23:43; Acts 7:59; Phil 1:21, 23; 2 Cor 5:8-9; Heb 12:22-23; Rev 6:9-11 is often cited in this way, but there are a number of reasons to question this). However, within the Bible as a whole they are extremely rare. Scripture says very little about this intermediate state. In truth, it is not particularly interested in it and instead places all of the focus upon the return of Christ and the events that will occur when this takes place. Christians commonly use the concept of heaven to draw together these few passages about the intermediate state, even though a number of significant ones (such as the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43, and John 14:1-3) do not even use the word “heaven.”
The word “home” carries with it a sense of finality. It is the place we really belong, and many Christians describe heaven in this way. But Scripture teaches us that heaven is not what God intends to be our home. Instead, heaven is like a five star hotel. It is wonderful and blessed, and it is good to be “there” freed from the struggle against the sin, the devil and our own fallen nature. But one does not live in a hotel forever, no matter how nice it is. Instead, it is temporary lodging until you return home.
This creation – this earth – is our home. Because of sin and the fall it needs a renovation. It needs a renewal (Rom 8:18-23; Matt 19:28). The same can be said of our bodies. God created us as the unity of body and soul in order to live on this earth. Scripture says that this was very good (Gen 1:31). God’s promise that has already begun to be fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that our bodies and his creation will be very good once again.
It is important to have the right goal in mind, the right home, because all of biblical teaching is interrelated. If we err in our understanding of the goal, then we begin to miss the interconnection it has with all that precedes it. The loss of the focus upon the resurrected body and the renewed creation prompts a loss in understanding and appreciating the incarnation and the sacraments. On the other hand, when we understand that bodily life in a renewed creation is the true goal we can fully appreciate the importance of the incarnation and the sacraments for us and our future. Indeed, we can better understand who we really are and what God made us to be.
I have traced out many of these interconnections in an article entitled, “Good Stuff!:The Material Creation and the Christian Faith.” It sets forth the marvelous way in which the material creation – the “stuff” God made – is central to his whole plan of salvation. We see this in his act of creation, in the incarnation, in the sacraments and in the goal of resurrected bodies in a renewed creation.