Quite a few Christians are now following this blog and I’d like to issue them with a challenge: show me where Jesus or the gospel writers or St Paul or any of the New Testament authors promise you that you’ll go to Heaven when you die.
Because, you see, the Bible doesn’t make any such promise.
Jesus was adamant that ‘the righteous’ (he’s not even talking about Christians!) would soon transfer into God’s new Kingdom on Earth. When you say the Lord’s prayer, Christians, this is exactly what you’re asking for: ‘Thy Kingdom come – on Earth as it is Heaven.’ As the former bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, puts it, ‘at no point do the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels say, “Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven.” It says that Christ is coming here, to join together the heavens and the Earth in an act of new creation’… in the first century, we might add.
Paul, with a version of Christianity that bears little resemblance to Jesus’ own, doesn’t teach that the believer will go to heaven either. In attempting to explain why the Kingdom is late in arriving – so late, in fact, that Christians were dying without seeing it – he invents the idea that the deceased will be woken up by Jesus when he returns to Earth (1 Thessalonians 4.14-16. And yes, he really did make up as he went along).
And after Paul? It was becoming increasingly apparent to later Christians that Jesus really wasn’t coming back any time soon. So they invented the idea that they would go to be with him. As Bart Ehrman puts it ‘with the passage of time, the apocalyptic notion of the resurrection of the body becomes transformed into the doctrine of the immortality of the soul’. But this is not what Jesus himself promised – and you’d think as ‘the Son of God’ he’d have known how it all worked – it’s not what St Paul taught and it’s not even what the trippy writer of Revelation claims. He too insists that everything is going to happen here on a recreated Earth (Revelation 21).
So the choice for you today, Christians, is whether you believe ‘God’s Word’ where, for once, Jesus and Paul say much the same thing, or you go along with those later, post-biblical believers with their altogether different idea of what happens when we die.
Of course, you opt for the latter – even you have doubts that the Kingdom will come at this late stage – instead of facing the fact that when we die, we are just that: dead.
Ehrman D. Bart (2009) Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions of the Bible. Harper Collins: New York, page 266.