As 21st century Christians, we’re conditioned to think of heaven as our ultimate goal. We know that when our bodies die, our souls will live on and be judged by God. As a result of this judgment, we will go either to heaven or hell (even if we have to stop off in purgatory before going to heaven), and we will spend the rest of eternity there as pure spirits, freed from our bodies.
However, there is a problem with this view: it’s not what our faith actually teaches. Our goal as Christians is not to spend the rest of eternity with God as disembodied spirits. Instead, both Scripture and the Church teach that there is something else, something better, that awaits us after our disembodied life in heaven.
Souls in Heaven
To begin, let’s look at what the New Testament says abut heaven. While it is not our ultimate goal, Scripture does acknowledge that our souls will leave our bodies and go to be with God when we die. For example, St. Paul tells us:
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. 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.” (Philippians 1:21-24)
Here, St. Paul is saying that he is in a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand, he knows that remaining alive would be better for the churches he has founded, but on the other hand, he knows that if he dies, his soul will go to be with Jesus. He wants to be with Jesus, but he cares so much about his spiritual children that this desire is rivaled by his desire to stay and help them for as long as he can.
The Resurrection of the Dead
However, when the New Testament speaks about our hope for the afterlife, it doesn’t usually talk about heaven. Rather, it usually describes this hope as something else, something beyond heaven: the resurrection of the dead. For example, St. Paul explains for us:
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23)
“But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep….For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise….Therefore comfort one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, 16, 18)
Simply put, Jesus’ resurrection 2,000 years ago wasn’t an anomaly. He and Mary are not the only ones who are supposed to spend the rest of eternity with their bodies. Rather, we are all supposed to rise from the dead and get our bodies back just like they did (Catechism of the Catholic Church 989-991, 1016-1017).
Better Than Heaven
In addition, St. Paul also tells us that the resurrection is going to be better than heaven. He explains:
“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” (2 Corinthians 5:1-4)
This passage is tricky and requires some unpacking, so let’s take a closer look at it and see what St. Paul means. Essentially, he’s using various metaphors to talk about our bodies and souls. It is especially difficult because he quickly jumps from one metaphor to another, so if we don’t pay careful attention to them, it is easy to lose track of his train of thought.
Specifically, he uses two images here: buildings and clothes. We see the first image in the very first line of the passage, where he talks about “the earthly tent we live in” and the “building from God.” The “earthly tent” is our current, earthly body, and the “building from God” is our resurrected body, the one we will receive back when Jesus comes again. Consequently, when he says that we “long to put on our heavenly dwelling,” he’s talking about our hope for the resurrection. He is saying that we hope and long for our resurrected bodies, which will not be subject to the ills and weaknesses of this life.
Why the Resurrection
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, St. Paul moves on to the next metaphor. He says that we “long to put on our heavenly dwelling” so that “we may not be found naked,” and at first, this doesn’t seem to make much sense. We don’t put buildings on ourselves as if they were clothes. The key here is to understand that he is mixing his metaphors. He starts the sentence by comparing our resurrection bodies to a building, and he ends it by comparing them to clothes, an image that he will continue to use throughout the rest of the passage.
And once we understand this second metaphor, the meaning of the next sentence, the key part of the passage (for our purposes, at least), becomes clear. St. Paul then says that we “sigh with anxiety” in our earthly bodies “not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed.” Being “further clothed” is a reference to the resurrection, and being “unclothed” means being a disembodied spirit, a soul without a body. As a result, when he says that we want to be further clothed rather than unclothed, he’s saying that the resurrection will be better than disembodied life in heaven between our death and Jesus’ second coming.
And why will it be better? He doesn’t explain that for us, but comparing the disembodied state to nakedness suggests an answer. In most contexts, being naked entails some sort of incompleteness; if we are naked, we are missing something that we should have (namely, clothes). Likewise, as long as we are souls without bodies, we will be similarly incomplete. We will be missing something we should have, and that something is the body. God created us with both bodies and souls, and he did so because he intends for us to remain that way. Death, the separation of body and soul, was never God’s plan; rather, it is a result of humanity’s Fall (Genesis 3:19). Consequently, as great as heaven will be, we will never be able to reach our ultimate goal until the resurrection. Without our bodies, we will always be incomplete, missing an essential part of what we are, and the resurrection of the dead is God’s remedy for that.
Our Ultimate Hope
All in all, St. Paul definitely did hope to go to heaven when he died. He believed that his soul would survive the death of his body, and he would finally be with Jesus. However, he also knew that this wasn’t his ultimate goal. As great as heaven will be, it is not our final destination. Rather, his ultimate hope was the resurrection, the time when he would get his body back just like Jesus did, and as Christians, that is our ultimate hope as well.
Yes, we look forward to heaven in the meantime, but we should ultimately have our sights set on the resurrection, the time when we will finally become all we were meant to be in both body and soul.