When I saw that the book “Heaven Is for Real” was being released as a movie, I knew that I would probably feel compelled to write a blog post about it. The topic of the resurrection of the body and biblical eschatology is something that has interested me greatly for quite some time. I have written about it in an article in the Concordia Journal entitled “Good Stuff!:The Material Creation and the Christian Faith” and also in various settings on the internet. The popular success the movie would certainly have (and in fact has had) and the non-biblical message that it promotes would be impossible to ignore. However, after writing my sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 for the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord, I realized that I already had written a post about the book and movie. The following is that sermon with biblical references added.
On Wednesday of Holy Week, the movie “Heaven Is for Real” was released and began to be seen in movie theaters. The movie is a film adaptation of the 2010 New York Times bestselling book by the same title. Written by Todd Burpo, it tells the story of how his young son Colton almost died after an undiagnosed ruptured appendix. The claim of the book and movie is that during the life saving surgery, Colton made a trip to heaven and returned with reliable knowledge of the fact that heaven is real and what it is like.
Now I am certain the movie will be a huge financial success, just as the book was. I have watched the trailers for the movie and can report that it stars Greg Kinnear who is perfectly suited to play the caring father. They have found the cutest little boy you are ever going to see to play Colton. The soundtrack will be filled with music that is deeply moving. And the story about the life after death of loved ones is something people want to believe.
Todd Burpo is a Wesleyan pastor, and so the story about Colton and his experience are framed within Christianity. Christian groups are pushing the movie as a way of getting people to think about eternal life. Naturally, the timing of the release of the movie is very intentional. It was released during Holy Week – just days before Easter – because this is a time when people are inclined to think about spiritual things. Easter is, of course, one of the few times during the year when many people drag themselves to church.
However, the timing of the movie highlights the degree to which many Christians fail to understand what the resurrection of Jesus Christ means. It underscores a failure to grasp what it means to be a human being created by God. And it emphasizes how often people fail to recognize the impact of sin upon us and creation itself.
The epistle lesson for Easter is the first portion of 1 Corinthians chapter 15 – Paul’s great resurrection chapter. Like so much of 1 Corinthians, we have this text and all of the important revelation it provides because of problems with the Christians in Corinth. It’s quite clear that the Corinthians were denying the resurrection of the body.
Now it’s not the resurrection of Jesus that they doubted. Instead, they didn’t believe that their own bodies would be raised. They had a spiritualized understanding of the faith in which they seemed to believe that in some way they had already shared in Christ’s resurrection. They thought that they already had arrived – that they were mature and wise in Christ – and that they already had everything. They didn’t have doubts about the resurrection of their own bodies. Instead, they rejected it altogether.
And it’s here that the message of the movie “Heaven Is for Real’ is relevant. In the strongest terms, the movie affirms life after death. But the question arises: What kind of life is this? What kind of life are we intended to live for all eternity? The answer is one that does not involve the human body in any way. In reviewing the book, Dr. Jeff Gibbs of Concordia Seminary wrote: “There is not one crumb, not one word in Heaven is For Real that God’s full plan of salvation in Christ means eternal life now, and on the last day, full bodily holiness and immortality for all believers and for the whole cosmos. There is no appreciation for the importance of our bodies, and of God’s promise in Christ to redeem them and raise us to everlasting life.”
If that is what we take away from Easter – from the resurrection of Jesus Christ – then we haven’t understood it at all. We haven’t understood what God made us to be. And we haven’t understood what sin has done to us.
In our text, Paul begins with the crucial fact about today – the crucial fact of the Gospel. Jesus didn’t just die. He also rose from the dead. Paul writes, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:1-4).
On Good Friday we focused upon the fact that Christ died for our sins. Isaiah chapter 53 told us in no uncertain terms that Jesus Christ took our sins upon himself and died for them in our place. Because of this we have forgiveness. It’s the same thing that Paul says in 2 Corinthians when he describes how God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
Jesus Christ did this. And then on the third day – on Easter – he rose from the dead. As we heard in our Gospel lesson, the tomb was empty. But it’s not just that the tomb was empty. Rather, the risen Lord appeared and was seen by his followers. In our text Paul provides a list of witnesses: Cephas, that is, Peter; all the apostles at once; five hundred believers at one time; James the brother of our Lord; and then finally Paul himself on the road to Damascus.
This was no mere vision or apparition. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:38-39). And then to prove the point he asked for something to eat, and ate some broiled fish in front of them. Jesus wanted them to know that it was a true resurrection of the body.
Actually after the resurrection it was – and still is – a bodily existence that is more true than what we know now. You see, God created Adam’s body from the dust of the ground and breathed into him the breath of life. He created human beings as a unity of body and soul. And the only way you can have the life God intends for you is by having a body. That’s simply the way God set things up.
Created in God’s image, Adam and Eve lived in perfect harmony with God, with one another, and with the very good creation God had made. They lived that way, that is, until they were tempted by Satan into disobeying God. They sinned. And sin brought pain. It brought sickness. It brought death. As Paul say in this chapter, “in Adam all die” (1 Cor 15:22).
Unless Christ returns first, you are going to die. In fact, you are already in the process of dying – the pictures don’t lie. On Facebook, Thursday is called “Throwback Thursday.” It’s a day when people post picture of themselves and their family from the past. Now the pictures of children when they were younger are cute. But when I look at pictures of myself or the adults I know, the thought that crosses my mind is, “Man we are getting old.” We are aging, and that process of aging is a one way ticket to death.
You are aging. You get sick. You have aches and pains. And all of this bears witness to the fact that you are sinner. The impact of sin on your life is not merely about the fact you think and do things you shouldn’t, and fail to do things you should. Instead, it is also the fact that your very existence is warped and twisted by sin. Because of sin, you have an expiration date. You just don’t know what it is yet. You have that expiration date because you are a sinner who sins. As Paul told the Romans, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).
The Gospel as Paul defines it provides the answer to all of these problems. Christ died on behalf of your sins. Because of his death you are justified – you are righteous now in God’s eyes and will be declared to be this on the Last Day. And then on Easter, Christ rose from the dead. When he rose from the dead, he defeated death. He began the resurrection of the Last Day.
Now we confess that in the incarnation the Son of God took humanity into himself, without ceasing to be God. Though he was without sin, we saw something on Friday that you should stop and ponder: Jesus Christ was mortal - he was “killable.” And the Romans used a cross to do just that.
On Easter Jesus rose from the dead. But this was no mere returning to the same existence he had lived before – a human existence once again plagued by mortality. Instead, Jesus Christ was raised by the Spirit with a body that was transformed so that it can never die again. This is what the resurrection of the Last Day is all about. Easter declares that it has already begun in Jesus. Just after our text Paul writes, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Cor 15:20-23).
Many Christians have died during the last two thousand years before Christ’s return. You may die before he returns. And so the good news is that the one thing the book and movie have right is that, yes, heaven is for real. For the Christian death is not the final world. When Paul contemplated the possibility of his own death he told the Philippians, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil 1:21). Death cannot separate you from Jesus Christ. If you die your personal existence, what the Scriptures call the soul, will be with Christ and this is what Bible also calls heaven. In Christ you already have eternal life now and death cannot change that fact. There is tremendous comfort in this.
But if you die, there will be a funeral and your body will be buried in the ground. And that is not very good. That is not what God intended for you. Yes, heaven is real. Yes, heaven is good. But heaven is not enough. Heaven cannot be the final destination because it is not the bodily existence that God created you to have.
On Easter, Jesus Christ rose from the dead with a body transformed so that it can never die again. That is what is going to happen to your body when Christ returns on the Last Day. Paul went on to say to the Philippians later in the letter, “…we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:21). Your body will be transformed, and so will creation itself as it too is freed of sin’s impact – as it is freed from the slavery of corruption (Rom 8:18-23).
Bodily existence in God’s good creation - that is what God declared to be “very good” in the beginning. That is what God has already begun in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is what you will receive on the Last Day when Jesus Christ returns in glory. Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and because he has, your body will be transformed too.