Further Insight n. 17 (from Acts 17).
PARADISE WITHOUT RESURRECTION: AN “ACTUAL HERESY”
1) Introduction. The resurrection is a common thread that permeates and connects the whole book of Acts: it begins with the risen and therefore living Jesus (1:1-3), with the apostles’ preaching that focuses on Jesus’ resurrection and the final resurrection of the dead (1:22; 2:24,31;3:15;4:2,10,33;5:30; 9:3-5; 10:39-40; 13:28-37;17:3,18,31; 22:6-8; 23:6; 24:15-16,21; 26:6-8,23).
Significantly, the word “Paradise” is entirely missing from the Book of Acts, while today’s Christianity makes it the centre of its hope, mostly neglecting the resurrection, so much so as to sometimes even be confused between Paradise and resurrection. It is therefore necessary to examine the issue further, taking into account not only Acts but the general context of the Bible; we will, therefore, focus on those New Testament passages which seem to justify the common Paradise concept, but only because they are not read carefully, and because their immediate or wider context is not considered.
2) Blessed forever in Paradise?
Almost all Christians identify themselves with the profession of faith of the “Apostolic Creed”, which ends by affirming the «resurrection of the flesh» and the «eternal life». In reality, though, what happened is that the doctrine of the resurrection was gradually marginalised and placed in the attic, with a concurrent development of the “Paradise” concept. A place where one would feel good even without the body and where one is thought to be forever blessed in the presence of God.
The devaluation of the resurrection and the portrait of a “bliss without body” is clearly due to the prevalence of Greek culture in the Church, a process in which the so-called “Church Fathers” (Origen, Augustine and others) were main characters; these interpreted the Gospel by trying to align it with Plato’s philosophy, with the concurrent development of an anti-Jewish reading of the New Testament, to the point of turning the contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees into a conflict between Jesus and the Old Testament.
The reaction to these Platonic intrusions was mainly driven by some minority groups and individual personalities from larger settings. Minority groups include Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Among the individual personalities, however, in the Catholic context we limit ourselves to point out Sergio Quinzio, who lived dramatically the hope in the resurrection and on which he wrote a number of pages in his various books (e.g., in Mysterium iniquitatis, Adelphi, 1995). The theme then continued to be dealt with by his disciple Daniele Garota (e.g., in Fame di Redenzione, Paoline, 2005, pp. 301-332). Some Protestant authors have also highlighted the problem (e.g., Oscar Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul; or, Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament, Paideia, 1986). On the whole, however, for many Christians, the hope in the resurrection is nearly absent, while that of Paradise remains central.
In evangelical circles, for example, we have browsed a few issues of a monthly publication (from November 2009 to February 2010), in which also deaths are reported and commented on. In the fifty or so obituaries reported, the word “resurrection” is NEVER found, while the most frequent expression is that the dead brother «has reached the heavenly house», or similar. The word Paradise is mentioned only once, perhaps to not sound like the Catholics, but the substance is the same, because the «heavenly house» is seen as a «stable dwelling»: a concept explicitly affirmed with the conviction of «seeing one other together in heaven forever». After death, in short, one imagines that the believer is in the presence of God in a totally satisfying and stable way, as can also be seen from the following expressions: «Blessed hope he now enjoys», «he is at rest in the kingdom of God». Two other expressions are also very significant: «In view of meeting the Lord soon in the clouds», «he took possession of the heritage preserved in heaven».
It is clear that the above expressions of the evangelical monthly issue refer to specific passages of the New Testament, but we believe that these are interpreted badly, outside the general context of the whole Bible, of the specific biblical author and of the immediate context of those verses. Let us begin by seeing how the Bible views the human body.
3) The body is not a negligible accessory. When God created man, he began with the body.Then he breathed in us his «vital breath» (Gen 2:7). Whether we have a “bi-valent” vision of man (body plus soul), or if we have a “tri-valent” (body plus soul plus spirit), the body is an essential part of a human being.
The fact that Jesus wanted to take back his body, precisely the one with the wound in his side (Jn 20:27), leads us to think that it was essential for him to go to heaven with the body (Acts 1:9). We can see how difficult this was to be digested by Greek mentality precisely by the fact that, on the matter of the resurrection, the dialogue between Paul and the Athenian philosophers came to a halt (Acts 17:32). Even in the Greeks who had become Christians, their cultural roots emerged again, and so Paul, despite teaching them for about two years (Acts 18:11, 18) was faced, at Corinth, with the spreading of a doctrine that denied the resurrection (1Cor 15:12), which was he was forced to oppose with a long chapter; here he stated that, «if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ was raised» (v. 13).
The Corinthian believers did not give importance to what they did “with the body”, confining faith to the “spiritual” level.Paul is then forced to write them that our bodies are part of Christ and that, therefore, believers could not join a prostitute thinking that what their body did had little “spiritual” importance. Paul thus concludes the passage: «Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? […] Glorify God in your body» (1Cor 6:13-20).
While he could, Paul opposed the “spiritualist” trends inherent to the Greek Platonic culture, but those cultural roots remained, though there was no longer a Paul to act as their barrier. This is why we find a Christianity that devalues its “material” behaviour and tends to confine faith to the world of feelings and pious intentions. Since it does essentially no longer believe in the resurrection, then what Paul foresaw happens: essentially not even Christ is seen as Risen. After all, if we’ll be blessed in the presence of Jesus despite not having a body, then also the body of Jesus has little meaning, because how would a real fellowship be possible between a Risen and non-risen ones? Besides, is the current presence of Christ in heaven imagined with a real body?
4) The resurrection already introduced by the “eternal life” of Daniel. Paul testifies his faith to the governor Felix this way: «this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers […] having a hope in God […] that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust» (Acts 24:14-15). These words of Paul closely recall the first clear and extensive revelation of the resurrection found in the Bible, namely that of Daniel: «Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt» (12:2). «Everlasting life» has a very simple meaning here, but it is often misrepresented, as we shall see in point 5 below.
Sometimes the doctrine of the “survival of the soul” is confused with that of Paradise, but to believe that after death “something” of us (soul) survives is far different from believing that that “something” can be in itself a wholeness. A soul that survives, according to the New Testament, can only be waiting for a restitution of its body, without which it can also survive, but not really live.
5) Paradise, eternal life, resurrection: the overturning of words.
PARADISE. On the original meaning of “Paradise” there is no doubt, because it comes from a Persian word that means “enclosed place”, which then, in Greek, took the more specific meaning of “garden”. The first “garden” that we find in the Bible is that of Eden (which in Hebrew means “delights”), where God placed Adam and Eve (Gen 2:8): yes, there was the presence of God, but it was a very tangible and… earthly place! Then the term signified a place outside of the Earth (Luke 23:43; 2Cors 12:4), but it should not be confused with God’s dwelling place, and so, with the “highest” place where Jesus is now, at the right hand of the Father’s throne (Luke 22:69; Acts 7:55; Heb 1:3,13; 10:12; 12:2).
For a broader explanation, see my Summary of the Old Testament (La Pietra angolare, 2016), where there is Further Insight n. 4 (The Afterlife between the Old and New Testaments, pp. 141-43). Here we limit ourselves to quoting again some statements of Nicola Martella, taken from his “Escatologia biblica essenziale” (‘Essential biblical Eschatology’), volume 1, ch. 6.
«It is clear that the resurrection of the body will take place only at the return of Jesus […] Confusing paradise with heaven leads to see a contradiction. Jesus assured the repentant thief that he would be with him in paradise that same day (Luke 23:43). Some, thinking that paradise is heaven, see this as an inconsistency, since Jesus ascended into transcendence (Acts 1:3-9) only 40 days after his death» (p. 195).
«Some infer that after death the spirit of the believer goes directly before God, where his throne and the heavenly sanctuary are present. Here [in Philippians 1:23], though, Paul did not speak of God but of the Messiah […] After the death of Jesus, his spirit arrived in paradise along with that of the thief who was crucified next to him. It is wrong to say that here they found themselves in the presence of God, because this contrasts with what the Bible says about the state of the dead and with Jesus’ own words to Mary Magdalene, according to whom he had not yet ascended to the Father (Jn 20:17)» (p. 194). «After death, believers find themselves in an “intermediate state” without body. They are by the Messiah and in paradise (not in actual heaven), but still without the resurrection body and therefore not yet complete» (p. 195).
ETERNAL LIFE. It’s often used in the New Testament, especially by John. In Mark it’s brought into focus when the “rich young man” asked Jesus: «What must I do to inherit eternal life?». The young man did not do what was then said; however, it was done by the apostles, to whom Jesus assured: Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers… or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time… with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life» (Mk 10:17-31). Jesus also works «in this time», showing some signs of his sovereignty, but the presence of persecutions makes it clear that his enemies are not yet made powerless, which will happen «in the age to come», that is, in the new world, on his return (Mt 24:30; 25:31-32; Heb 2:8; 2The 1:7).
The eternal life is therefore a kind of promissory note that Jesus signs for the disciples: they already have it, but they will be able to collect it truly and fully only at the resurrection (Luke 14:14; Titus 3:7). The “rich young man” and the apostles showed that they already understand the meaning of “eternal life” (cf. Jn 5:39; Acts 13:46), understanding which undoubtedly was given to them through Daniel (Dan 12:12): the life that, in this world, has been given to us through our parents is temporary, because it will end with death, while the life that will be given to us with the final and collective resurrection will be an “endless” life, “eternal”; however, it’ll be realised in another time, not in another place.
For brevity, we signpost only other significant passages that speak of eternal life, because their meaning can be framed within the framework outlined above (Mt 25:46; Jn 3:16; 6:47; Rom 6:22-23; 1Jn 5:13).
RESURRECTION. The concept seems clear, but we are able to darken even the sun! Indeed, in the apostolic time, already some believed that the resurrection had already taken place (2Tim 2:8), or that it was not necessary to take it literally, because in reality there would not be one (1Cor 15:12). Certainly, the resurrection poses many problems which Paul tries to tackle as much as possible (1Cor 15); however, it is clear that the risen Christ had regained his body that had been crucified, a body that could be touched and in which he lived forty days with the apostles, chewing and swallowing food even as Risen (Luke 24:39-43; Jn 21:9-13; Acts 1:3).
The resurrection, as we have mentioned, will be final and collective, with an act of God that will affect not only human beings, but also our world, which will finally cease to groan and be troubled (Rom 8:18-25). It will not even be limited to the Earth alone, because together with it heaven will also be renewed (2Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1). We stop here, because little is needed for those who want to understand, while for those who want to know more than they need or do not want to understand, the teaching of Paul was not enough.
ASCENDING OR DESCENDING. The original meanings of “Paradise”, “eternal life” and “resurrection” refer to tangible and earthly meanings. When in churches we read “eternal life” we usually think of Paradise, and the resurrection is also placed somewhere there. Everything in heaven, in other words, in a Paradise conceived in an ever-increasing manner, up to identifying it with the place where the throne of God is placed, where there would be nothing tangible and earthly. Christianity, therefore, has acquired an ascending mentality, that is, of ascension from Earth to Heaven. The biblical vision, though, is descending, because God descends into the Garden of Eden, descends to Sinai, descends into the Temple, descends with the Incarnation of Christ, will descend again with the return of Christ to the new Earth.
6) Without the context, the text becomes a pretext.
Let us now examine those references usually quoted by those who wait to go “blessed and forever” to Paradise, without feeling any need of resurrection. We’ll begin with the Letter to the Philippians, because there are three passages concerning our subject, from which we can derive a general framework that helps to better understand also the other verses of the New Testament that we’ll consider.
PHILIPPIANS. In Philippians 1:23-24 Paul writes unambiguous words, which clarify a doctrine less covered in other parts of the Bible: «My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account». «To depart and be with Christ» and «to remain in the flesh» clearly indicate that Paul did not think that, with death, his whole being would cease to exist, but that, at his death, something of himself (soul or spirit, we do not dwell on the most appropriate name) would come out of his body to go with Christ. I avoid mentioning other passages because I think this is enough to believe in the “survival of the soul”.
Paul’s statement that he prefers to depart to be with Christ, rather than remain in the body, is, in any case, to be understood in Paul’s context and in the Bible’s general context. The Letter to the Philippians was written when he was a prisoner in Rome (1:34) and with the prospect of suffering martyrdom, conscious of having completed the task assigned to him by God (2Tim 4:6-8). The whole Bible exalts living and sees death negatively, so that exceptional passage in which Paul speaks of himself in specific circumstances cannot be raised to the norm for all.
Later on, however, Paul clarifies that being with Christ right after death is not his “final goal”, because he wants to «know him and the power of his resurrection … that by any means possible [he, Paul] may attain the resurrection from the dead» (Phil 3:10-11). In short, the “survival of the soul”, for Paul, was not the “self-sufficiency of the soul” and the whole of his Letter shows how he harmonised the two aspects.
Further on still, there is another sentence of Paul that is often quoted outside its context and in which he affirms that «our citizenship is in heaven»: it seems precisely a confirmation of a blessed dwelling of believers “in heaven”. But Paul goes on to write «from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body» (Phil 3:20-21). Paul is in accord with the whole teaching of the Bible, whereby A DESCENDING AND TANGIBLE DYNAMIC is continuously expressed; however, we have succeeded in distorting it into an essentially ascending and immaterial dynamic. Regarding that «citizenship in heaven», the Apostle Paul was waiting to fully enjoy it when it would be brought to earth with Jesus’ return and when it would be redeemed from the humiliation of being without body. All this, however, is also confirmed by the other passages that we will look at.
JOHN 14:2-4. It is the most beloved passage of those who wait for Paradise: «In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?» Then usually you skip a few words, to get to the consoling and confirming statement: «I will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going».
We must first consider that the apostles, at that time, were able to understand very little of God’s overall plan. For example, they understood «nothing» even after Jesus tried to make them understand, for the third time, his crucifixion and resurrection (Luke 9:22; 9:44-45; 18:31-34): what could they understand, then, about Jesus’ ascension into heaven and his return? Jesus himself would soon have made it clear that many things were not yet within their reach (Jn 16:12); therefore, at that moment, Jesus’ revelation could only be vague and partial, even though it was certainly not false, as one can understand by paying attention to those words in verse 13, which are usually skipped and which we now report in italics: «In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I WILL COME AGAIN and will take you to myself» (Jn 14:2-3). After all, it was clear for the apostles that Jesus would return to have dinner with them and drink a good glass of wine together once more (Mt 26:29), as good as the one he had been able to do at Cana (Jn 2:10).
The picture Jesus sketches here does not look like the boyfriend who goes to America to prepare the place to welcome his girlfriend in after the wedding. Instead, he looks like the boyfriend who, after an earthquake, goes to prepare a caravan which he comes back with to welcome the bride. Since Jesus has not yet returned, obviously THE «MANY DWELLINGS» ARE NOT YET READY, and when they are, they will descend from heaven to the Jerusalem that is heavenly as a manufacturing location, but made to be inhabited on earth, where God will permanently return! (Rev 21:3,10).
To these findings and evidence within the text others can be added, taken from a wide-ranging context. For example, it is by no means self-evident that, in saying «my Father’s house», Jesus and the apostles meant the heavenly abode of God, since, with the same expression, Jesus had clearly meant the earthly abode of God, namely the Temple, when he replied to his human parents: «Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?» (Luke 2:49).
Jesus himself, a few verses later in the same text, suggests that there is a way to begin to live, in the here and now, that life with God announced for the future: «If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him» (Jn 14:23).
Already in the Psalms, moreover, reference is often made to a dwelling with God which, in the context, clearly refers to the Temple, even though Christianity abuses it without limit. In my Summary of the Old Testament 45 Psalms that refer to the Temple are listed (ch. 24/11/A); in Psalm 27:4, for example, it’s written: «One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple». Someone will object that it is written that Jesus, on his return, will abduct us and we will go to meet him in the air, to be then taken to heaven and to be with him always. Let’s, then, look at this passage.
1THESSALONIANS 4:15-17: «We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself… And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive…will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord».
Also in this case a descending movement that is twisted in its opposite is described, making it look as ascending. In those days, people travelled mostly on foot and there was a habit of meeting those who were coming. We have seen that those in Rome did so at the arrival of Paul, whom they met in order to go with him the last 50 km or so (see comment on Acts 28:15). This behaviour is also described in the Gospel, when Martha goes to meet Jesus (Jn 11:20), when the father goes to meet the prodigal son (Luke 15:20), when the crowd goes to meet a Jesus who is entering Jerusalem (Luke 12:12-13).
Even more significant is the parable of the ten virgins, clearly referred to the return of the “bridegroom”: when the wise virgins go to meet him, it is not the bridegroom who comes back, but they are the ones who return to the starting point, to escort the groom in the last part of his journey.
Paul takes up the subject discussed in 1 Thessalonians again in the following 2 Thessalonians too, therefore the two texts should be seen together and unified. The passage in 2 Thessalonians begins as follows: «Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him» (2:1); a clear reference to what is written in 1 Thessalonians (in 2 Thessalonians it is omitted that the meeting will be «in the air», however, it is clearly implied). Then later it’s written: «The mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming». At the “coming” of Jesus, in short, the antichrist will be present on earth, whom Jesus «will bring to nothing», clearly coming all the way down to earth, not remaining in mid-air to then go back.
We reaffirm, in conclusion, that Paul speaks of the COMING of the Lord and of our going to meet him in the air to join him in the last part of his journey. A COMING on Earth that the Platonic frenzy often overturns in an expectation of being raptured and then continue towards heaven!
COLOSSIANS 3:1-4: «Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory».
It is true that our life «is hidden with Christ in God», but we will not take possession of it by going up there, but rather when Christ «appears» in a glorious way and we will share in his glory; that is, on his return to earth, when we too will be resurrected.
MATTHEW 6:19-20. Jesus invites us not to make treasures on earth, where thieves steal, but to make treasures in heaven, where thieves cannot steal.
These verses seem to contradict what we have been saying, but it does not seem so difficult to reconcile them with others. We have already mentioned another similar teaching of Jesus, who invited us to do good to those who cannot repay us, so that the reward may be given to us by God «at the resurrection of the just» (Luke 14:12-14). The invitation to make treasures in heaven, in other words, appears similar to one of not accumulating money under the mattress where the thieves get to easily, but to keep them safe in the bank (heavenly); not to enjoy them inside the bank though, but to withdraw them at the appropriate time.
2CORINTHIANS 5:1-2: «For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling».
When a believer, TODAY, reads these two bible verses, he is reassured that there is ready for him, “in heaven”, an “eternal dwelling”, which he will take possession of right after death. It is difficult to deny this interpretation, but one gets a different understanding when keeping in mind not only the context of the whole Letter, but also the somewhat wider context represented by what Paul had already communicated to the Corinthians (both during his stay of a couple of years – as seen from Acts 18:11,18 – and with 1 Corinthians). Finally, we must consider the context of the whole New Testament and the Old Testament’ “frame” in which the New is inserted.
For example, in the previous letter, Paul had already specified that we will be made alive in Christ «at his coming», not right after death (1Cor 15:22-23). Scrolling through 2 Corinthians in a similar way, later, we see that Paul had already expressed twice his faith in the resurrection (2Cors 1:9; 4:14), which was not conceived as individual and right after death, but rather as collective and at the return of Jesus: as the Corinthians also knew well from the preaching received from Paul (see 1Thess 4:15-17, examined above). The very expression «on the day of our Lord Jesus», contained in 2 Corinthians 1:14, is a clear reference to the time of his long-awaited return. Right below these verses we are examining, Paul makes clear that «we groan, longing…not that we would be unclothed», that is, to be platonically “freed” from the body, but to «be further clothed» (2Cor 5:2-4).
In summary, the context of the two letters to the Corinthians, the analysis of other New Testament passages conducted in this paragraph, and the whole commentary on Acts, I believe, should prevent justifying the common view of Paradise using 2 Corinthians 5:1-2, verses on which we will now make some further consideration.
If our «earthly home» that «is destroyed» is our body (not the apartment we live in), then our house, «not made with hands, eternal» can only be our risen body: it is not therefore a new place (according to the Greek sacredness, which is made of “places”), but of a new condition at the end of time (according to the biblical sacredness, which is expressed over time). Our risen body is «in heaven», in the sense that it has already been prepared for us and is there as if set aside and waiting to be given at the coming of the Lord (as can be better seen in the passages of Col 3:1-4 and Jn 14:2-4, which we have examined earlier).
In 2 Corinthians 5 it’s not specified when we shall «put on our heavenly dwelling», and, therefore, when we shall put on our new body, but the thought that it will be right after death clearly contrasts with other biblical passages and, if we believe that the whole Bible is inspired, we have a duty to try to reconcile its many parts.
The new body is described as «heavenly» not because it’s “immaterial” (according to the usual Greek assumptions), but because it’s more suitable for our full fellowship with God (1Cor 15:35-49).
7) Paradise and resurrection as opposing systems.
Having as hope Paradise or Resurrection is not only two different doctrines, but also two different attitudes and systems. Indeed, more than different, they are opposed.
-Because Paradise is part of a system of elevating that which is earthly, while the resurrection is the descending on Earth of a heavenly reality.
-Because in Paradise one thinks to enter right after death and individually, while the resurrection will be accomplished by God at the end of time and collectively.
-Because in Paradise we, but not the world, would be saved, whereas at the resurrection the redemption of nature and the world will be wrought, where there would be not only a new Earth, but also new heavens (Rom 8:19-21; Rev 21:1).
-Because Paradise is asking God to “wait for us in heaven”, while with the resurrection we say to God “Your kingdom come” (Mt 6:10).
-Because the concept of Paradise devalues the body in general and, as a paradoxical consequence, the incarnation, resurrection and return of Christ. In fact, if in Paradise the body is not essential, then neither is that of Christ and his incarnation would be essentially temporary. The final resurrection of believers, on the other hand, makes the incarnation, resurrection, ascension and return of Christ consistent.
The biblical God not only created the world, but from the very beginning He desired to be on Earth with man. When Adam sinned, God removed him from Eden, however He continued to engage in person with men on Earth. During the Exodus he adapted to stay even in a tent, to be close to his people. Then, in their midst, he had a house of stone built for Himself and, after he had to destroy it for the bad use that men did of it, shortly later he had it built again. Then he becomes incarnate and thus becomes “man among men”, eventually accomplishing a dwelling on Earth in harmony with His “images”, namely, us men (Rev 21:3).
The common hope of Paradise, and so to be fully blessed in heaven right after death and forever, in conclusion, profoundly distorts the biblical teaching and is, therefore, to be regarded not only as an error, but essentially as an actual heresy.