According to the surveys, most Australians believe in heaven. I would guess that what most of us believe about heaven is that our loved ones are there. Even for committed Christians, heaven can simply be a way of saying that the people we cared about in this life have gone to be with the Lord and one day, when we die or the Lord returns, we will be with them.  

At one level, there is nothing wrong with this. But it is much less than the biblical picture of life after death. Going to be with the Lord when you die is only the beginning. Those who have died trusting in Christ are with the Lord, certainly, but they are waiting for the renewal of all things – what the whole of Scripture calls “the new heavens and the new earth” (eg. Isaiah 65:17-25), when they will be clothed with a new, imperishable body and we will all live in a renewed creation with the Lord forever. 

On what possible basis could anyone entertain such a fantastic future expectation? Life after death, lived in a body with those who love the Lord, and the Lord himself in a restored and renewed earth, forever.  Why would anyone believe in such a thing?

The answer of Christians throughout the ages is the one, glorious reality that we celebrate at Easter. Resurrection!

On the first Easter Day, when Jesus was raised from the dead, heaven broke into this world. But when the Bible speaks of heaven it does not mean a pale and ghostly life in the clouds of human speculation, but the glorious, imperishable, physical and eternal existence of “the new heaven and the new earth”, when everything is made new, restored, renewed, perfected and indwelt with the glory of the living God. 

Most often when the Bible speaks of heaven it just means, “up above”. It is also the place where God is, but since there is no part of God’s creation from which God is excluded it makes better sense to say that heaven is the place where God’s presence is manifested in an utterly unrestrained and uninhibited way, his perfections shining in unimaginable splendour and beauty.  

God is at home in heaven and fills it with his glory. Eventually, the realm of God’s glory will be united with this realm, the world as we know it (eg. Rev 21:1-4). At that time, the world will be transformed by the presence of its Creator and God. Here is the heaven that we will live in when we are resurrected and given new resurrection bodies. But “here” will be completely transformed by the presence of God.   

From John’s account of Jesus raised from the dead in John 20 we can observe several truths about the heavenly or new creation life that awaits all those who trust in Christ. 

First, new creation life is life in the body. All the gospel writers draw attention to the fact that Jesus’ tomb was empty and that he appeared to many people over an extended period. If the tomb was empty but he had not appeared, we might have thought his body was stolen – by his friends to worship it or by his enemies to demoralise his movement. If the tomb had not been empty and he had “appeared”, we might have thought his appearance was merely spiritual rather than physical and real. But the tomb was empty and he not only appeared but spoke, ate, talked and walked with people.

The sheer physicality of the resurrection appearances of Jesus played a direct role in the almost immediate way in which the earliest Christian communities began to care for the people whom ancient pagan culture abandoned – the elderly, the feeble, infants and the incapacitated. Human bodies, no matter how aged or weak or vulnerable, are not the prisons of frustrated souls but the bearers of the image of God that will finally be made perfect in the new heavens, the restored creation. 

Second, new creation life is personal. In the exchanges recorded in John 20-21 it is clear that the resurrected Jesus is the same man whom the disciples knew and loved. Mary does not recognise Jesus at first – she was hardly expecting to see him! – but when she hears his voice, she knows it is him and reports to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”.

Similarly, Thomas is not convinced by the reports alone; he, too, was not expecting to see Jesus. But again, his encounter with Jesus takes away his doubts. Jesus’ body has certainly been transformed and yet it is recognisably the same Jesus who stands before Thomas so that he is able to place his fingers in the scars of Jesus’ crucifixion (John 20:27-28).

The distinctive doctrine of Buddhism, the religion in which I was raised as a child, is that there is no “self”. There is no person who can be called “I”. There is no soul that is reincarnated. There is only the energy of consciousness, endlessly shifting and reforming according to your karma. But the resurrection of Jesus says that the self with which we were endowed by the Creator will endure to eternity. We ourselves will behold the face of God and share in the life of heaven. Death cannot destroy those who have put their faith in Jesus. Our personhood is immortal, and those who die in Christ will inherit heaven. 

Third, new creation life is fulfilled life. Jesus’ first word to his disciples when he appears to them in the upper room – where they are still hiding from the Romans who put him to death – is “Peace” (John 20:19). 

In biblical usage, the word “peace” conveys ideas of wholeness, completeness, embracing the blessings of justice and righteousness and joy and peace. Resurrection life will mean the fulfilment of the image of God in us, freedom from the bondage of sin, from the memory of past failures and present guilt, liberation from the limits of fallen understanding and mixed motives. 

No longer subject to decay or disease or death. Peace with God – no longer hostile to his purposes or ignorant of his character; instead, delighting to please him and able to please him. No longer incapable or unwilling but set free to love God and others, not for ourselves, but for God’s glory. 

What the Holy Spirit has begun in us as a deposit of the future, will be completed when we are resurrected in the new creation. Resurrected to eternal life, we ourselves will finally experience the fullness of humanity that God intended for us from the beginning.

Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!  Hallelujah, what a Saviour!