Hope beyond hope

We’ve all lost loved ones, or know someone who has.  Needing comfort, we point to heaven, telling ourselves and others that one day we will see our loved ones again.  I believe that’s a legitimate hope.

But at the risk of offending the bereaved, I would counsel Christians to exercise caution when thinking that way.  The idea of being reunited with those we’ve lost is comforting–but it can also slide so easily, so imperceptibly, into the idea that we will simply pick up our relationships where we left off, only better, with couples and families together again for eternity.

As far as I can tell, that’s not a biblical concept.

Matthew tells of an encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees (Matt 22:23-33), which occurred in the short space between his Triumphal Entry and his arrest and crucifixion.  Not much is known for certain about the Sadducees, a religious and political party thought to have ties to the high priesthood.  In Matthew’s story, their defining characteristic is that they don’t believe in the resurrection–the idea that one day, in an age that God would bring, faithful Jews who had already died would be raised together as one.  It’s the belief Martha clung to after the death of her brother Lazarus (John 11:24), and the belief which the Sadducees denied.

Looking to entrap Jesus, they came to him with a trick question. They told the sad tale of a man, one of seven brothers, who died without an heir to carry on his name.  In accordance with the law of Moses (Deut 25:5-6), one of the brothers married the widow, in an attempt to produce an heir.  Alas, he died too–and the cycle repeated until there were seven dead brothers, one dead wife who had been married to all of them, and still no heir.  “So, teacher,” they asked, no doubt a bit smugly, “at the resurrection, whose wife will she be?”

Was it a true story?  Possibly, though that beggars the imagination.  I take it as a deliberate exaggeration (the logic of the trap only requires two brothers, not seven), intended to make the whole notion of resurrection sound ridiculous.  The tone of it might be something like this: “Here’s a family that’s trying to follow Moses’ instructions to the letter.  And look what happens!  Seven resurrected men with claims on one resurrected woman.  Isn’t it obvious how ludicrous that would be?”

Jesus, however, retorts that resurrected people “will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30, NIV).  He is not, of course, giving them a completely worked out doctrine of anything–whether of resurrection, heaven, marriage, or angels.  But he is responding to what seems to be a mistaken notion of resurrection, in which people still married and worried about having an heir.

Is this really such a big deal?  Here’s my concern.  Paul seems to think that resurrection is central to Christian hope, beginning with Jesus himself as the “firstborn from among the dead” (Col 1:18, NIV),  or “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20, NIV).  Without that guarantee, there is no gospel and we have no hope:

…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.  (1 Cor 15:17-19, NIV)

Hope in Christ is hope for a life that transcends death.  But that life is not simply a matter of picking up where we left off or finding again what we’ve lost.  Resurrection isn’t merely to continued life, but to new life:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.  For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.  Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.  The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.  (Rom 6:5-10, NIV)

The old is being made new; life, even in the present, is being transformed, and that transformation in turn is a witness to our future hope.

I don’t want to take away anybody’s hope; I want us to have the right hope, the hope of a life lived to God.  I believe, for example, that my father is in heaven, and though I have no specific biblical guarantee, I expect that I will see him and know him.  But my hope is not that we will again be father and son.

My hope is to have the opportunity to rejoice in seeing him whole, freed of incipient dementia, able to walk–to run!–without fear of falling.

My hope is to have the privilege of seeing the person God made him to be–and to rejoice as God would in that handiwork.

And my hope is to rejoice in all of God’s handiwork–to en-joy the new heaven and the new earth (Isa 65:17; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1) that is our future home.

It’s not about getting back what I’ve lost personally, but celebrating the restoration of all that was lost to a good creation through sin.  May that glorious future be the resurrection hope we encourage in each other.

4 thoughts on “Hope beyond hope

  1. Paul writes:
    I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, … that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. … but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Phil 3: 7 – 14

    What possible earthly possession or experience can come close to the experience of knowing Jesus, of gaining Jesus, of attaining a life of face to face communion with our beloved Lord? For Paul, the answer is easy: There is none. He never allows himself to look back with longing at what he lost, only forward with anticipation at the prize of being called up to be with Christ. For the apostle, Christ Himself is the prize. His only desire is to be with the lover of his soul and experience His pleasure. He longs for the one who knows him and loves him better than anyone else in the world and who superintends his life and protects him and keeps him and labors alongside him. He lives for that moment when he will hand over the bag to Jesus and say, “You gave me 5 talents. Here! I have earned 5 more for you.” And Jesus will respond, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

    Many of us long for Heaven because we want to be done with all the pain and agony of this life. And that’s a legitimate longing. Many of us long for Heaven because there we will see our loved ones. But how many of us long for Heaven because we yearn for Him? Just Him? Longing to see Him, to be always by His side, aching just to hear His voice and look at His face, just to walk in His shadow, to serve at His feet, to be knit and bound to Him for eternity. That’s where my thoughts go when Jesus says they will not marry or be given in marriage. We need to cultivate our love for Christ and hunger for Him as our intimate Savior, Bridegroom and King, and long for Heaven so we can be with Him for eternity.

    There’s a song that tutors my soul in this direction. It says, “Give me Jesus. Give me Jesus. You can have all this world, but give me Jesus.”

  2. I got so much out of reading your commentary, as well as Suha’s take on this. My husband and I just celebrated our 30th anniversary last week, and we were discussing this very subject. There’s so little written about heaven, and we can only speculate as to how things will be between us and our loved ones. I lost my mother, father and sister over the last 5 years to death, and I also wondered what would the relationships be like. Would they be the similar? Would they be completely different? And would we all even remember or know what types of relationships we had?

    The Sadducees actually brought up a valid point, and it’s logical when one thinks about the mess that would result in having wives and husbands meet and try to resume the same relationships, especially if they’d remarried.

    My hope too is to see my mother devoid of dementia, my father able to move his body without gasping for air because of COPD, and my sister free of the racking, debilitating pain of RA. I too am looking forward to that new heaven and new earth, where suffering, anguish, and the emotional pain from the loss of people we love will be made right.

    I love what Suha said, too, about how many of us long for Heaven because we yearn for Jesus. That’s another thing that really struck me. My focus has been more on the loss and pain of life, but I forgot that we will all be able to finally see our Lord which will be a time of great celebration!

    1. I grieve with you for your loss, and celebrate your anniversary. May we all find ways not only to renew and focus our resurrection hope, but to help others do the same.

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