A rumor needs to be stopped.
Dying is not a stage in life where one finally gets to be with dead friends and relatives. Being with friends and family is not the point of our lives nor is it the point of death. However, some Christians talk about dying precisely as the state of finally getting to be with their dead spouses, parents, brothers, friends, etc. They speak of death in a most peculiar way. They practically call death heaven, and then describe heaven as the place where happy couples finally get to explore the worlds together, very much like retired couples going about in cosmic campers. The American dream is to retire and explore the Grand Canyon and the other natural wonders, and it turns out the American version of Heaven is a lot like that.
This way of thinking turns the idea of Heaven into an invisible version of retired life on the fallen Earth. On earth, all kinds of Jesus-pretenders are consumed with their marital relationships and the escape they are planning when they turn 65. Retirement accounts, insurance plans and savings are all preparing us for vacations, R.V.s and life far away in exotic places (or in near places in bucolic seclusion with books, picnics, friends, cabins, country property or boats). None of these are sinful, but they become the end-game. We live for this stuff. And we go to family conferences to make sure we arrive there together as happy families. Legions of Midwestern families are working hard to reach a common place of comfort and enjoyment. And none of it has to do with suffering for the Gospel.
American Christianity in the Midwest (in the bible-belt) is dominated by the exaltation of families. It is a place where we focus on the family and not the Church as the true kingdom of God. It is an epidemic. Many churches are now family-integrated and family-oriented and family named. We are consumed with family. With this focus, we have created a new theology of the afterlife and the resurrection. The imagined heaven is an ideal version of the ideal version of this family-centered life. That is, when the family focused Christian dies, they get to finally be with the friends and family who died ahead of them. It is all about family.
In this scheme, heaven is the place where all the life application sermons finally work. Jesus is not left out — for the Midwest religion is not so crass as to exclude Jesus — but is brought in as the endorsement of such thinking. In fact, if you ask around, you’ll discover that Jesus died to secure this version of afterlife and heaven. And if you ask around (or listen to the radio) you’ll hear about the strange belief that dead Christians have entered into a final bliss. They roam about the universe on streets of gold as they occupy some kind of invisible space where disembodied happiness includes expeditions and exploration punctuated by huge family reunions where we interview loved ones. And they describe this invisible space as having lakes, trees, mountains, animals, and everything we know about this space.
Various versions of this belief exist, but what I have described so far will serve as my controlling example. It is a theology stitched together from carefully selected phrases out of the Bible. In the end, however, the wrong things have been stitched together, and the final patchwork is a fiction.
Are dead Christians family focused or Gospel focused?
The Bible says that the dead in Christ care about earth and the kingdom of God on earth. Granted, they don’t participate in the church in the same way as when they had a body, but they still participate. They are Jesus focused, and not in a boring way. They are not as far removed from us. They don’t go far far away so that they don’t care about earth. See Hebrews 11. They care. The Bible says that the dead in Christ ask for justice on earth (Revelation 6:10). Dead Christians are not doing the American dream in heaven, they are focused on Jesus and the expanse of his Kingdom.
The dead Christians care about the Gospel because Jesus cares about the Gospel
The Bible says that the dead in Christ will be with Jesus. And what does Jesus care about? Does he care anymore about the earth or about the prayer:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9-10)
Jesus cares about the Earth. He died on the Earth. He is the union of Heaven and Earth (a resurrected man who is the heavenly God). Heaven and earth combine in one flesh, and the flesh is Jesus. The dead in Christ don’t cease to care about earth, they go to be with Christ and draw closer to the perspective of the One Trinity that says, “On Earth as in Heaven.”
The dead in Christ care about the advancement of the gospel on the Earth. They care because now they are more like Jesus, not less like him. They aren’t running around having family reunions while Jesus is ruling over his kingdom on earth. The City of God on earth is not to be relegated to being Jesus’ thing while exploration of the heavenly playground and the ongoing reunion gets to be our thing. When we die, we will share in what Jesus cares about. Those who overcome this present evil age go to be with him to co-reign with him (Rev 2:26-27 and Rev 20:4). They share with him in his passion for the expansion of the kingdom and the triumph of his Glory. The dead in Christ enter the command-center not so that they can think about something else (their dead wife or husband who they really miss more than anything else), but so that they can be brought into a new phase of their participation.
Marriage Relations in the Resurrection
Jesus taught us that there is no marriage in the resurrection. However, the way family-centered worshipers talk, we would think that the whole point of life is so that we can get to be with our wife and kids when we die. We think that the kingdom of God is about our kids and the little families God has blessed us with. Ironically, since our little families are a blessing, Satan has been successful in getting religious people to focus on them and think of the family-unit as equal to the kingdom of God. We easily turn good things (families and marriage) into best things. Some Christians will make family first and they will focus on the family so that they exchange best things for good things. It is Satan’s ploy to get Christians to trade the real Kingdom of God for anything else (even lawful and helpful things). But Jesus won’t let our present marriages intrude into the resurrection. He has a greater purpose.
The Earth Matters to Jesus
The kingdom of God on the Earth matters to Jesus. The kingdom of God is the church and so the church on earth matters to those who love what Jesus loves (he loves his Church). The Kingdom of God on earth matters to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
With this in mind, nothing would lead us to believe otherwise: the kingdom of God on earth matters to the dead Christians. The dead in Christ are focused on the Kingdom of God. They are not retired Americans worshiping their families; they are co-reigning with Jesus.
The dead in Christ have the passion they had before they died. They don’t have bodies, so they have a different view, but they have the same passions. The dead in Christ participate in the Kingdom of God in a new way, but they participate in the same Kingdom.
The point is this, dead Christians still care about earth. They care because the Earth is our home. It is where we are from, and we are not going to abandon it. This is because Heaven is our home (Col 3:1-3). Heaven and Earth are going to unite and we will inhabit one realm that is the union of Heaven and Earth (2 Peter 3:13). This union of two realms is already started, and his name is Jesus. A man raised from the Earth is enthroned in Heaven, and he embodies both realities.
Bodies Matter to Jesus
The dead in Christ are disembodied, it is true, but not forever. And that is part of their caring. They long to have real fleshly bodies (remember, Jesus ate food, he was touched by his disciples, he had a real body). When we die, we will be waiting for our resurrection bodies. We are waiting now. We don’t have our resurrection bodies yet, so it won’t be new for us to wait. Like us, the dead in Christ want to be clothed (2 Cor 5:1-5). The whole planet is going to be restored, and that includes resurrection bodies. Dead Christians have not forgotten. God is going to restore the Earth to its proper order. They know about the Cross and the story of the Bible; their knowledge of God’s story of Genesis to Revelation is not erased. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth and all the rest still matter to them. They love what Jesus did on earth for them, they love his scriptures (Jesus cares about his Bible), and they want to see the glory of God expand.
Dying is not the final state and death does not define us
Dead Christians are not in their final state. They await the resurrection. They did not go to heaven so they could escape the Earth and finally be done with the planet. They are gone because death is an enemy that has caused a separation between body and soul. Jesus himself defeated that enemy at the very point of separation. Where body and soul were torn, Jesus reversed the order. He is raised from the dead, a human who is the God-Man, a whole human. The dead Christians are waiting to catch up with that. They too are going to have real bodies. We are all going to have real bodies (even the wicked will be raised unto damnation). Real bodies are in our future.
Jesus is our identity. Our present families do not define us.
Dead Christians are not waiting to go be with their loved ones. Dying is not so that we can finally see all the people who died before us. Death is an enemy. It is not the friend that reunites us with loved ones. This rival version of death and the afterlife is a family fiction that we need to recover from. God has turned the enemy around. We still die, but we go to be with Christ to be a part of the Gospel in the next stage of our participation. Jesus is our identity and passion, so much so that Jesus can say shocking thing about our idea of family.
If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. (Luke 14:26).
Religious people and family integrated people don’t talk this way (Matthew 19:29). No wonder religious people killed Jesus. His own kinsman according to the flesh were against him. Therefore he defines family for us:
For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother. (Mark 3:35)
The real family of Christ is the family that shares a Christian DNA. They have the same passion for Jesus. Our true family is the Church. Our physical family can join, but that is not our choice. We don’t integrate families into the Kingdom of God, the Holy Spirit does that. He creates a new family, which is the Church, which is the Bride, which is the New Jerusalem. The church is the city of God. It is not the city waiting to leave the Earth, but the City which will finally have the Earth as its own.
It is a rival “heaven” that teaches us that we should focus on anyone or anything other than Jesus. It is a rival “heaven” that tells us to focus on our spouse and children as if that is the meaning of death and dying.
I don’t have enough integers to enumerate all the people who I hear talk about heaven primarily as this: the time when we die and get to be with dead friends and family. It is the language I hear from all around me. At the same time, I can easily count the number of people who talk about dead Christians the way the Bible does: as people who care about the Gospel, the Church and the glory of Jesus. To be fair, I live in Kansas. So I only speak of what I know. And what I see is that Bible-belt Christianity has renovated heaven to match our own ideal of focusing on the family. I know many husbands who will pick their wife over Jesus. Wife first. Kids first. Family first. We focus on these things because they are good, but Satan has taught us how to trade what is good for what is best.
Families and Friends are a Blessing
Here is an irony that only a dead man can appreciate: It is in losing our families that we may gain our lives. This does not mean we must despise the good things God has given, it means that Satan is ready to turn the good into best. Satan wants us to trade down. If Jesus gets dethroned and replaced by a family, Satan is working. Whole movements and churches are built around the enthronement of the family. Families and friends are a blessing to be enjoyed, but not traded. We must lose our lives and focus on Jesus, and we will gain back our lives in the Resurrection. Dying is not when we gain back our bodies, for it is not until the resurrection that we are embodied again. Jesus has a body, and so shall we.