“You can’t take it with you!”
I’m sure you’ve heard these words. A warning against materialism, you might have heard them to counter a phrase attributed to Malcolm Forbes (wealthy entrepreneur): The one who dies with the most toys wins.
Okay, so materialism is bad. Got that. But what can you take with you? That’s the question I’d like to address today. It’s an important question because of something I call lifeboat theology. Let’s get in the boat and wait for rescue. Lifeboat theology isn’t complete heresy, but it’s sufficiently misleading that it can do some serious damage.
I was raised with lifeboat theology. It goes like this.
You’re lost in your sin. You need saving. Jesus died on the cross to save you so that when you die, you will go to heaven. End of story.
We are immaterial souls waiting to go to heaven. Take a look at this section of the Apostle’s Creed:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
The Apostle’s Creed is wonderful . . . as far as it goes. But did you notice the vast gap in the middle? What took place between Christ’s birth and his arrest and crucifixion? It’s as though he never actually lived a human life. Why the need to live a human life at all? He could have walked out of a mist onto a cross and died for us, without ever needing to live with us.
And that’s a problem. It’s a big problem.
Lifeboat theology emerges from a form of Greek thinking, which splits the body from the soul. At its worst, it has resulted in Gnosticism and various forms of pietism, which denigrate the body and call believers to focus solely on the realm of the spirit. Biblical terms like “the world” and “the flesh” are viewed not as the human being in rebellion, but the corruption of the body, from which we must escape. For the Christian, the soul has therefore been saved for one purpose alone: so that it can take up residence in heaven. No need to consider the body.
But that simply isn’t true. It’s not our destiny at all. Verses like Colossian 3.2 – set your hearts on things above, not on earthly things – are incorrectly applied to bolster lifeboat thinking.
Unfortunately, vestiges of this belief linger today in many churches. It probably lingers in your congregation.
Sadly, there is . . .
No awareness of the importance of bodily life. No understanding of the need to care for creation. No thoughts about justice or care for the poor. Just “I got a ticket to the sky, where I’ll meet my Saviour in the sweet by-and-by.” Why make sacrifices for my Lord, when I’m already holding a golden ticket?
Not buying it. And nor should you or your congregation.
First, I must encourage you to read N.T. Wright’s fabulous book, Surprised by Hope. A treasure, which will give you new eyes. Second, what can you take with you? Two things.
One day, when God makes all things new, we will live in his new heavens and new earth (See Rev. 21). No, I don’t know what that will look like, but I do know that I will be there. And so will you. I also know that memories are essential to human beings. People with Alzheimer’s start to lose their sense of self. When a person cannot remember who they are, they become a husk. It is a tragedy. So I am confident that God won’t simply re-set me without my memories. My memories are an essential part of my identity. When Christ was raised from the dead, he gave us a template for our experience in a resurrected body. He also brought his memories with him. He knew his disciples and he re-instated Peter.
There’s no question in my mind.
In the new heavens and the new earth, I will bring my memories with me. Without them, I am not me.
More importantly, I will bring my transformed soul with me. Christians use the word “sanctification” a lot. Being made holy, or growing in grace, or the development of the soul, they’re all ways of describing what happens as we grow in our relationship with God. When we die, we will one day be given a new resurrected body to live with God. 1 Corinthians 15 is the chapter which lays out our future.
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
1 Cor. 15. 42-44
The phrase “spiritual body” must not be confused with non-physical. Essentially, it means a body animated and led by the Spirit of God. One day, we will live in perfect relationship with creation, our fellow creatures and our God. We will be there – the people who have lived our lives here on earth, transformed and given new pain-free bodies.
That’s why our growth here on earth matters so much. One day, our new bodies will be animated and led by the Spirit, but it is we ourselves who will live in these bodies. People made into the likeness of our Saviour. So there are two ways of thinking about salvation.
In your churches, you will have some who focus almost exclusively on “saved from.” Saved from the world, saved from judgement, saved from my sin, saved from the devil. That’s all fine, but spiritual growth is driven far more by “saved for.”
I’m saved for the purpose of becoming like my Saviour. To grow in the grace and knowledge of God. I’m saved in order to develop my gifts, so that I can bless the body of Christ. I’m saved so that I can share Christ, care for others, do all for the glory of God. To do these things, I will need my body. I’m not just a saved soul waiting in an ante-room for my trip to heaven. I’m an embodied soul, created by God to live in his creation, with all its wonder and beauty, to live out my days with his calling on my life. A life empowered by his Spirit to bring him glory.
That’s the missing piece of the Apostle’s Creed.
The life of Christ, which shows us how to live. The Sermon on the Mount, in which he calls us to a new life with him. A life of purpose and meaning, committed to partnering with God in the establishment of his kingdom – his sovereign reign in our lives – so that we pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done.”
So what will you take with you?
A transformed “you” who has grown in grace and shows ever growing signs of resembling your Master. That’s the “you” who will put on a new, wonderful resurrection body to live in God’s new heavens and new earth. In his fully established kingdom. Jerusalem lowered to earth. God coming down, not us going up.
Lifeboat, anyone? Sitting on a bench waiting to be scooped up to heaven?
No, thank you. That’s not your destiny.
And it isn’t the destiny of the people you serve. Instead, you are in the job of making disciples, who are being transformed each day more and more into the likeness of their Saviour. That’s why the life of every precious child of God matters so much.
That’s why making disciples is a task riven with eternal significance. That’s your job.
It matters hugely. You matter. And the growth of God’s kingdom within the people you serve, that will make a difference eternally.
To the praise of his glory.