The question about what happens after we die is a question Christians have been confused about for centuries. Some friends asked me what I think about this. I suggest reading Preparing for Heaven: What Dallas Willard Taught Me About Living, Dying, and Eternal Life. And, this video by N.T. Wright is a good place to begin.
Remember that Wright and other New Testament scholars are not interested in how recent cultures (like American Christianity) view the biblical texts, but on how the original Jesus-culture heard and understood the Scriptures. Wright is looking for a correct biblical view. Here are some things he says about what happens when we die, especially in light of our ultimate hope and final destination.
Wright argues that a correct biblical view does not say Jesus-followers are ultimately destined for heaven. Instead, at the end of time, God will literally re-make our physical bodies and return us to a newly restored earth. Heaven is important, but it is not our final destination.
The N.T. speaks far more about this final destination than it does about heaven. So then, what is "heaven?"
Biblically, “heaven” is a temporary holding place. That is "life after death." The Bible gives us few clues about this. Paul says, in Philippians 1:21-23: "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far." So, immediately after death, we shall be with Christ, in heaven. And that, of course, is good.
While that is important and interesting, what the New Testament is more concerned with is what Wright calls “life after life after death.” Or, the "after-afterlife." Here we have far more about our ultimate destination upon being physically resurrected.
For Wright, our final destination should affect our lives in the here and now. He says because he believes in God’s kingdom of justice and peace, it gives him focus to work on God’s kingdom coming in the present. Remember that The Lord’s Prayer was never understood to be a purely future hope. Unlike the total-paradisiac-future of Islam, the Christian hope includes redemption now. This is the “age to come” invading “this present age.” (See Ladd's eschatology here.) And while the age to come will come in its fullness at the final resurrection of the dead, the in-breaking of the kingdom (heaven coming to earth) has been happening since the earthly life of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus.
Wright's position is:
- When a Jesus-follower dies they go to heaven, to be with the Lord.
- Heaven is not our ultimate destination. It is a holding-place, until the final resurrection.
- At the final resurrection, God will re-make our physical bodies.
- We will live, in a state of everlasting time, in God's newly restored creation. This will be the unifying of heaven and earth. When "the times reach their fulfillment" God will "bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ." (Ephesians 1:10)