God: No / Afterlife: Yes

Michael S. Horton
Wednesday, August 31st 2016
Sep/Oct 2016

In 1998, 49 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-old Americans considered themselves moderate or very religious. By 2014, that number dropped 10 percent. “Yet 80 percent of Americans said they believe in an afterlife in 2014, up from 73 percent in 1972–74,” according to a new study led by Dr. Jean Twenge, which indicates an apparent contradiction between declining belief in God alongside rising belief in an afterlife. It’s not a contradiction, however, in the minds of its most likely advocates: the Millennials. Apparently, the great majority of young Americans would like to extend their personal existence beyond death, even though they’re not entirely sure that God will be involved.

The Bible does not give us many details about heaven, but it makes one thing clear: the goal of human existence is communion with the Triune God. We’ll be with God, the wellspring of peace, love, righteousness, and goodness. It is not surprising that heaven is compared frequently to a rich feast, with well-aged meats and wines. It is not exactly the image one is likely to conjure after centuries of pop culture, from cherubs on cottony clouds to reports from briefly-dead youths about having seen a mesmerizing bright light. There can be little doubt that heaven has suffered pagan distortions. If the whole point is to be freed from the body, time, and matter in general, it is difficult to get excited about living forever in a world much like this one (minus evil, sin, disease, war, and suffering). But that’s not the point at all, at least from a biblical perspective.

Since no one has seen heaven (1 Cor. 2:9), we do not know how different it will be from the world we know. The best evidence we have is the risen Christ, who ate fish with his disciples and surrendered his body to inspection. As goes the head, so go the members—all Christians affirm that heaven is an affirmation of creation, not a flight from it. We should not think of heaven as the opposite of this world, where time and space surrender to immaterial eternity. Scripture describes heaven in stunning metaphors that direct us to the glory of God; it is the throne from which the omnipresent and infinite king exercises his creating, sustaining, ruling, and redeeming power. But our Savior went somewhere (Luke 21:50; Acts 1:11), and it is in that “somewhere” that he is preparing a place for us. We too will be raised and glorified, with the whole creation sharing in the festivities (Rom. 8:18–25).

And yet, the point is not simply that we will be raised bodily to enjoy a renewed creation with an endless buffet and bottles of 1928 Bordeaux. Rather, it is that we will be feasting with God—the white-hot source of goodness and love, whose presence even now stirs our hearts and minds with anticipation. It is not simply that it makes no logical sense to affirm an afterlife without a deity, but that anything short of a direct and immediate communion with the Triune God we meet in Scripture would be a kind of hell.

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Wednesday, August 31st 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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