Heaven on Earth?: Some Hard Questions & Some Help
It is fitting that Christians should love the springtime of the soul, the bodily resurrection that will come in God’s time. But how much do we really know about the resurrection? Children often ask, “Will I know my mommy and daddy in heaven?” Wives want to know what kind of relationship, if any, they will enjoy with their husbands (Matthew 22:23-33). Some have concerns about cremation, while others are distressed over the bodily loss of a loved one due to some tragedy. These, as well as other questions can be vexing but they need not be. The resurrection is the great hope of the Christian not the great fear. Let me introduce you to someone who might be of help.
Meet St. Augustine
We might describe Augustine as an untamed and rebellious fourth century youth. However, his redeeming quality, which also led to great temptation prior to his conversion, was his intellectual ability. Augustine had a keen mind and his pilgrimage of thought is sketched out in his autobiography, Confessions, but so are his many temptations leading up to his conversion. Consequently, upon his conversion God added a mighty intellect to the Church.
So, how might Augustine provide answers to those resurrection “mind-benders?” Well, let’s start with the barbarian invasion of Rome in 410 AD. Rome had been the mistress of the world for many long years. Some thought the Eternal City would stand forever! However, when she fell those who followed the pagan gods, and it seems they were not a few, looked around for a scapegoat upon which to lay the guilt for this catastrophe. For some Christianity was the likely choice. So, in 413 AD Augustine took up his pen to prove the absurdity of such a charge. The twenty-two books of The City of God were written slowly and appeared in parts over a thirteen-year period. The last two books concern the resurrection of the wicked and the righteous.
Augustine on the Resurrection
In The City of God Augustine provides a helpful roadmap through the myriad questions surrounding the early Christian understanding of the resurrection. However, early in book twenty-two, so as to lay a firm foundation for what follows, Augustine insists that all Christians affirm three central beliefs about the resurrection. First, Christ himself has been raised from the dead and is alive in heaven. Second, there will be a future resurrection of humanity. And third, the human body itself is immortal. Interestingly, the verse from which each of these fall out is, for Augustine, Romans 8:29, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” Now, with that as a foundation and Augustine as our guide let’s tackle some tough questions concerning the resurrection.
First, and I will have to be selective, what about aborted children and children who die outside the womb? What will be the nature of their resurrected body? Will they have the body of a child in heaven? Augustine does not think so. Rather, by what Augustine describes as a “marvelous and instantaneous act of God,” those who die young will “gain that maturity they would have attained by the slow lapse of time.” Can you guess why Augustine might think this way? It’s simple, for Augustine the stature and size of Christ’s body shall be the measure of the bodies of all those who shall be in His Kingdom. Talk about Christ centered!
Now, some folks may not like this answer. I have even heard people say that if there were no children in heaven they would not want to be there. But why? Are you looking for your heaven or God’s heaven? What if it is true that by an instantaneous act God made all deceased children mature? What if heaven is made up entirely of physically mature saints who resemble Christ’s earthly age at His death? Would that really make you want to forfeit heaven?
Another question concerns human stature of the resurrected body. What will it be like? If I am six feet tall now, will I be six feet tall at the resurrection of the dead? Augustine answers in the affirmative. Just as Jesus appeared in a form that was familiar to them so too will we experience the same continuity. Not surprisingly, Augustine links his answer to the words of Jesus, “Not a hair of your head shall perish” (Matthew 10:30). So, if I am shorter in my resurrected body than in my present body Jesus’ promise would appear to fail. Therefore, concludes Augustine, “every man shall receive his own size which he had in youth, though he died an old man, or which he would have had supposing he died before his prime.”
Augustine poses a third question, in light of Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:30, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels of God in heaven” will males be raised male and females female? Will such distinctions be maintained in the age to come? Some, during Augustine’s day argued that a sexual distinction would not persist. But according to Augustine “they seem wiser who make no doubt that both sexes shall rise.” After all, sexual distinctions were part of the created order before the sin of Adam and Eve. Therefore, according to Augustine, Jesus simply means that the sexual lust connected with the Fall will be eradicated in the resurrected state.
Augustine also deals with the question of human defect and deformity. Will deformities remain in the resurrection? Even though Augustine has argued that not one hair will perish from our heads he assures us that present defects and deformities will not be retained in our resurrection body. Augustine’s regenerate reasoning is simple; healing the body does not necessitate a loss of anything essential to the body itself. Indeed God will perfect our bodies in the resurrection, removing the distorting effects of the Fall and its penalties, with beauty as the result. However, interestingly Augustine says that martyrs may retain some mark of their afflictions, as did Christ. However, these will only add luster to the appearance of the body.
Finally, Augustine is hesitant to describe a spiritual body, simply because “we have as yet no experience of it.” But he does not hesitate to describe what we shall be doing in our immortal bodies. We shall worship Christ and see Him as He is and we shall rejoice and possess a peace that surpasses all understanding. However, Augustine is not sure whether we will behold the beatific vision with our eyes or with our intellect. But whatever the case may be Augustine is certain that we shall enjoy the “perpetual Sabbath” of God’s uninterrupted presence.
Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.