One of the things people are most curious about, and at the same time very misinformed about, is heaven. In media, heaven is almost always portrayed as sitting on clouds, wearing expressionless togas, and playing harps forever. No matter the depiction, it’s always filled with lots of white. The basic idea people have of the afterlife in Christianity is something like this: When you die, your soul goes to heaven, and lives there for eternity with God. It’s understood as being “after” your life. However, what Scripture says about the hope of Christianity is actually a good bit different. I was recently asked the question, “Does the Bible say you can live forever on Earth?” Now, even the question might seem confusing, because you likely think (as most do) that Christians go to heaven forever after we die. The idea that maybe God can allow us to just live forever, on Earth, would seem completely false. After all, people have been dying, quite consistently, for as long as humans have been around. However, I can see a hint in the person’s question, that they’re probably a bit more informed than most people on this issue.
The idea that we go to heaven when we die is basically correct, but if that’s the extent of our understanding of heaven, it actually leaves out the best part. The real hope involved in Christianity is behind the idea of the resurrection. I don’t just mean the resurrection of Jesus on Easter (as crucial as that is!); I mean the resurrection of all Christians. In the book of Revelation it describes the “New Heaven and New Earth”. While Revelation is a highly debated book, and people have very different interpretations of it, biblical scholars from all different perspectives agree on this fact: the idea that Christians spend eternity in some otherworldly realm called heaven just isn’t true. We do go to heaven when our bodies die, but we don’t stay there for all eternity, because that’s not the end of the story. This is because there will be a physical resurrection. This is stated quite a few times, with John 5:29 being a good example. Jesus is called the “firstborn” of the resurrection, meaning, Jesus died, but death did not defeat Him, and He was resurrected. This is different from just “coming back to life” (like a zombie or resuscitation), because the Jewish/Christian concept of resurrection is that the person is physically brought back in the end, after being dead, and will be eternally alive forevermore. He’s referred to as the “firstborn” of the resurrection, because all Christians have this hope as well. Jesus being resurrected is a sign to them; a hope to look forward to.
I know this is a bit confusing, so I’ll try to spell it out in a timeline. What this means is that, if a Christian dies right now, they will become disembodied, meaning, their spirit leaves their body. The spirit will go to heaven if they have accepted the forgiveness Christ offers. 2 Corinthians 5:8 is a good example of that, where it says that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Then, at some point (the time is debatable, but somewhere related to the Second Coming), all the Christians will be resurrected. This means that, prior to that time, those Christians who were dead were disembodied spirits in heaven (a spiritual realm), and God will give them “glorified bodies”, which are physical. God will make the New Heaven and New Earth, which is basically a joining of heaven and earth in a new creative act of God. This will be a joining of the spiritual and physical realms, where Christians will be with God, in their new glorified physical bodies. NT Wright does a great job on this topic in his book “Surprised by Hope”. The way he words it is quite nice, referring to this as a marriage between heaven and earth, which is the way things were always supposed to be. God’s goal isn’t just helping Christians escape the world; His goal is the restoration of all creation.
Debate enters in as to whether this “New Heaven and New Earth” is actually the same earth we live on now. Some people believe it’s the present earth, and that anything we build on this earth will be in the New Heaven and New Earth. Rob Bell is an example of someone who holds that (although he’s been pretty universally classed as a heretic, for various reasons). Personally, I think the destruction God describes (in places like 2 Peter 3:7 and Revelation 21:1) is the destruction of the whole earth, and that the earth itself will be actually destroyed. The New Heaven and New Earth seems to be God recreating the earth, in the same way He recreates Christians. The old physical body/earth is gone, and God resurrects it in a new physicality.
Interestingly, no other religion has ever had a concept like this. When Christianity started, the Romans thought this was a crazy idea. This is one of the reasons why in 1 Corinthians 1 it says Christianity is “foolishness to the Greeks”. Basically, every other religion holds to a continued existence of each person, but it’s spiritual, not physical. When we see Romans writing about this aspect of Christianity, they thought it was very strange. This included the idea that Christians weren’t scared of death, because they knew Jesus had risen from death in resurrection, and had promised all His followers that this was their ultimate end as well. The idea that Jesus defeated death came about because, even if we die, we don’t stay dead. If we just go to heaven when we die, then death has won, but that’s never been the teaching of Christianity. The early Christians understood this idea, so while they were being persecuted they had no fear of death, because they knew death wasn’t going to stop them. They would be resurrected. The Romans saw this lack of fear of death, and belief in a physical resurrection, and it confused them. I touched on this more in my podcast if you wanted to check out this episode. Episode 23 - Mischievous Superstition
In this way, many Christians actually hold to more of a non-Christian view of eternity, where we leave the physical behind, and go to a spiritual realm like heaven for eternity. However, Christianity actually says, like the question presupposed, that we will be on a physical earth, united with heaven, for all eternity. It’s a subtle difference, but quite important to Christian theology.