If you’re good, then when you die, you’ll go to heaven. This seems to be the traditional Christian view. In fact, Jesus never said any such thing.
The ideas of a glorious hereafter for some souls and torment for others, to come at the point of death, cannot be found either in the Old Testament or in the teachings of the historical Jesus. To put it succinctly: the founder of Christianity did not believe that the soul of a person who died would go to heaven or hell. (Ehrman, p. 16)
Ehrman is correct, but he is making some implicit distinctions that are not obvious. Jesus believed in the resurrection of the body, not the soul. Jesus also believed that the Kingdom of Heaven would be established on earth, not somewhere in the sky. So, one could just as well say that Jesus believed in a glorious life after death for some, and death for others. Hell plays a relatively small role in Jesus’ teaching.
Three views of the afterlife
Three views of the afterlife are present in the New Testament. The third is implicit, and probably the most important. The three are:
1. Heaven can wait. The dead who have lived good lives will bodily rise on judgment day, the apocalypse. This seems to have been Jesus’ view, with exceptions.
2. Heaven is the immediate reward of the dead who have lived good lives.
3. Heaven isn’t heaven. What we call heaven is the kingdom of God, experienced in how we love God and love one another. It is an experience of oneness. If you look at the version of heaven to which Jesus devotes most of his attention, it is this one. Only he doesn’t call it that.
Heaven can wait
Jesus was a Jewish apocalypticist. He believed that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Some of you, he said to his followers, will not taste death before you see the Son of Man coming to claim his kingdom (Matthew 16:28). When Jesus returns (he sometimes refers to himself as the Son of Man) he will physically raise first all those who have died after living good lives, and then those good men and women still living (John 5:28–29; 6:39, 40, 44, 54; Acts 4:1–2; 23:7–10; 24:14–15; 26:6–8; 26:22–23; Matthew 27:52–53).
This is the official position of the Christian faith, expressed in the Apostles Creed. “I believe . . . . in the resurrection of the body” (carnis resurrectionem). The Nicene Creed is virtually identical on this point, referring to “the resurrection of the dead” (resurrectionem mortuorum). I imagine that most Christians, or at least most non-Catholic Christians, are unaware that their faith does not call for their soul to fly off to heaven at the moment of their death. Yet, they deny their own beliefs every Sunday when they recite one of the creeds.
At first, I found the resurrection of the body a weird doctrine, but it makes sense. Jesus was bodily raised from the dead, and through the physical resurrection, we follow in his footsteps.
Paul gives it a twist that makes even more sense to those who believe that it is the soul, not the body, that lives on. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul emphasizes that our earthly body is transformed into a spiritual body when it is raised. This sounds almost like a soul. Finally, the physical resurrection of the body reminds us that we are embodied creatures; pleasure and pain are experienced in and through the body. Psychological states without an immediate physical cause, such as anxiety, have physical correlates. Without bodies, even the afterlife would lack depth and zest.
More generally, the resurrection of the body expresses hope for the redemption of this world we live in now, whereas the resurrection of a disembodied soul expresses the hope, often first attributed to Plato, that this body and this world will be transcended in a world above (see here).
About Hell, Jesus has relatively little to say. In his well-known story about Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus refers to the rich man’s suffering in ἐν τῷ ᾅδῃ (en tō hadē, “in Hades”), his only reference to Hell (Luke 16:19-31). Eleven times Jesus refers to γέενναν (Gehenna), a burning garbage dump outside Jerusalem generally considered a metaphor for Hell, but lacking any specificity. Hell plays a role, but not a central one, in Jesus’ teachings. Heaven comes first.
Heaven is now, but it’s complicated
There is a progression in the Gospels, from an apocalyptic view of heaven (heaven can wait) to heaven now.
In John, Jesus no longer speaks of the coming intervention of God to bring in his glorious kingdom. Instead, he principally talks about Heaven above and how people can go there by believing in him. (Ehrman, p. 204).
The progression occurs because of the failure of God’s kingdom to appear in the years immediately following the death of Jesus. In the absence of a day of judgment, Jesus’ followers began to focus on the rewards and punishments that would begin immediately after death (Philippians 1:23-24). Still, it’s a little more complicated. It seems that the soul goes immediately to heaven, while the body remains in an intermediate status (status intermedius), as in “heaven can wait,” until it is reunited with the body at the apocalypse. Christians who hold this view generally emphasize that even the disembodied soul will continue to be conscious of its personal existence and biography, unlike the feeble shades who populate Sheol in the Hebrew Bible (Sheol is mentioned 66 times in the Hebrew Bible [Strong’s Hebrew 7285]), and ancient Greek thought (Odyssey, book 11). Occasionally it sounds almost like heaven and hell, a place where the good enjoy eternal happiness, the bad eternal suffering.
Bart Ehrman argues that the transformation of Jesus’ teachings from “Heaven can wait” to “Heaven now” was made easier by the composition of later Christian communities, in which Jews raised on apocalyptic views of the coming judgment of God were a minority. The majority were converted pagans raised in Greek ways of looking at the world; for the Greeks of Plato’s day (or at least Plato) stressed the immortality of the soul rather than the resurrection of the body (p. 192). Ehrman, however, tends to assume that most Greeks were followers of Plato. It’s a naive assumption. Plato’s influence on the church, via Augustine and other Christian Platonists, is stronger today than two thousand years ago.
All in all, the “heaven is now” view has a rather unsatisfactory status in Christian thought. The soul must be split off from the body, but the body must be stored somewhere, remaining capable of revivification when Christ returns. Paul’s emphasis in 1 Corinthians 15 on the transformed status of the revivified body goes some way to bridging the gap, but that’s not the real problem, at least not today.
The real problem is that most Christians today are Greek. Not Greek Orthodox, but Greek in the sense that they think of the soul as separate from the body, liberated from the burden of the body at the time of death, as Plato does. That’s just not Biblical Christianity, even if it seems more familiar.
Heaven isn’t heaven
Reference to all three heavens can be found in the teachings of Jesus. To the thief crucified beside him, he says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43) However, the heaven he speaks about most, the heaven that is implicit in most of his teachings, is the heaven that is with us now when we love God and love each other.
Matthew begins his account of Jesus’ public ministry with these words: “Turn away from your mistaken thinking, because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (4:17) “At hand” means here, now, with and among us if only we would experience it.
Most Christians believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is a place and that, if we lead virtuous lives, we will enter this Kingdom of Heaven after we die. Where we Christians have made a costly mistake, in terms of our own spiritual growth, is in thinking that this after-death “heaven” is the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus dedicated virtually all of his preaching ministry to tell us about. It is not. Jesus devoted his preaching, not to that heaven, but to a Kingdom of Heaven that he said was here and now, near, “at hand” (Mark 1:15). (See here.)
Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, is an outline of the kingdom of heaven in this world now. It does not claim that there is no other heaven, no life beyond the grave. It claims that first of all, we can make this world like the heavenly one, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel of Thomas is not canonical, but it has received a great deal of attention in recent years (Pagels). One reason, and it is not always specified, is that it reminds us that “the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.” (saying 113). We are the kingdom of heaven, and we don’t even know it.
His disciples said to him, “When will the repose of the dead take place? And when will the new world come?” He said to them, “What you are looking for has come, but for your part you do not know it.” (saying 51)
God’s kingdom is located everywhere and nowhere. People make it real amongst themselves now when they act with love toward each other. Though the Bible refers to the appearance of a new heaven and earth as though it were an event in the future (Revelation 21:1), it is now for those who truly understand the sayings of Jesus. This is the message of the Gospel of Thomas (Ehrman, p. 210), but if one thinks about it, this is the message of almost everything that Jesus had to say.
Conclusion: many heavens and one heaven
These three concepts of heaven are not always distinct, and it is not simply true that the Gospels become progressively less apocalyptic. The Gospel of John (the last Gospel to be written) is not apocalyptic, but the apocalyptic influence can be seen. As Benjamin Reynolds puts it, “even though the Gospel contains similar elements of form, content, and function, it is not an apocalypse.” (p 120)
My distinction among the three heavens is a clumsy analytic device. No clumsier than most such devices, but it’s important to recognize its limits. The key point, in any case, is that the Kingdom of God is not “there,” it is “here,” when we make it so. Human nature being what it is, we shall generally not come very close, but thinking this way reminds us of the goal: not just personal salvation, but the creation of a world worthy of the children of God to live in. That’s heaven too.