In November 2004, Kevin Malarkey and his six-year-old son, Alex, were involved in a car accident on their drive home from church.
While Kevin emerged from the collision unscathed, the force of the impact wrenched the six-year-old child’s skull from his spinal column, resulting in what doctors refer to as an “internal decapitation.” A helicopter airlifted Alex’s lifeless body from the scene of the wreck.
However, against all odds, Alex survived his catastrophic injuries. And, in 2010, he and his father wrote a book together: The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven.
In the book, Alex claimed to have been ushered through a bright tunnel to the gates of Heaven at the moment of collision. While in Heaven, Alex said he met Jesus, who told him he would survive. Alex described Heaven as an idyllic landscape of lakes, rivers, and grass.
The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven sold millions of copies worldwide and was an instant New York Times bestseller. The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven was just one of many “heaven tourism” books that crowded Christian bookstores at the time.
Nine years later, in an explosive 2019 article published in Slate Magazine, Alex admitted, “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven,” and confessed that he and his dad made up the story “for attention.”
Near-Death Experiences (or NDEs) have been reported across cultures and religions for centuries. In other words, they aren’t exclusive to followers of Christianity. Most NDEs follow a similar pattern: Bright lights, an idyllic landscape, seeing deceased friends and family members, and assurances of divine love and acceptance from an iconic religious deity – like Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Mary the Mother of Jesus, or Michael the Archangel.
Some neuroscientists believe NDEs could result from a “crash program” the brain activates to soften the trauma of death. Another theory posits that NDEs are simply hallucinations triggered when oxygen is cut off from the brain for too long or a consequence of pain-relieving drug cocktails often given to terminally ill patients. In both cases, the “experience” appears to be shaped by expectations of the afterlife pulled from the individual’s worldview or the surrounding culture.
But, NDEs are just as – if not more – controversial in conservative Evangelical circles as they are among the scientific community. Given the universal nature of NDEs, many prominent Christian pastors and teachers caution against taking “afterlife testimonies” as Gospel truth.
Regardless of our religious beliefs (or lack thereof), NDEs are an inherently fascinating phenomenon. Whether they’re a neurochemical firework show or an actual visit to the afterlife, NDEs offer a tantalizing hint at the universal inquiry that transcends history, culture, and religion: What happens when we die?
According to a 2015 Pew Research Study, 72% of Americans believe in Heaven, defined as a place where people “are eternally rewarded.” That percentage shifts dramatically when one accounts for religious demographics – 85% of self-described “Christians” vs. 37% of “Unaffiliated” (atheist, agnostic, etc.). For a majority of Christians, however, Heaven is an “exclusive” afterlife destination, with membership restricted to those who’ve made Jesus their Lord and Savior.
Some of Christianity’s harshest intellectual critics assert that religious belief is ultimately born out of our fear of death. And, honestly, that’s a fair criticism. Death is sad and frightening and sometimes is violent and unexpected. It makes sense that people (both ancient and modern) would develop and rely upon afterlife expectations to alleviate and process the fear and grief often associated with death.
So, what does the Bible really say about Heaven? Did views on the afterlife change throughout the Scriptures? How did Jesus’s earliest followers talk about Heaven? And is the Gospel just a way to escape Earth and have a pleasant experience after you die?
The Wisdom of the Ancients
Trying to figure out what the Bible says about the afterlife feels a little bit like trying to assemble a puzzle using scattered pieces from different puzzles. And this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, when you consider the Intertestamental Era (the 400-year gap between the Old and New Testaments), the Bible was written and compiled over more than 1,500 years (and wasn’t officially canonized until much later).
As a result, we can see certain beliefs and doctrines shift and evolve as God’s people come to understand better the deity they’re worshipping. While this can be frustrating for those seeking a consistent systematic theology, it offers us an exciting opportunity to explore the evolution of early Jewish and Christian beliefs about the afterlife throughout history.
So, let’s walk it back.
In the opening chapters of the Bible, a talking snake tricks Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. As a result, Yahweh boots them from the Garden of Eden and, in no uncertain terms, tells them they will die (“For you are dust, and to dust you shall return“).
While I believe this story is a mythic tale designed to communicate truths about the human condition without being literally true, it does establish a foundation for understanding early Judaism’s relationship with death and the afterlife.
For example, why would death be a curse for Adam and Eve if it meant they’d be spending eternity with their Creator in a heavenly realm untouched by the consequences of their actions? A straight reading of the text implies Adam and Eve were originally created as immortal beings, but God revoked their immortality as a result of their disobedience. There’s zero mention of any form of reward or punishment after death (or, for that matter, any form of existence in an afterlife).
This ambivalence toward the afterlife holds true through most of the Hebrew Scriptures. No popular character in the Old Testament appears to have any expectation for post-mortem rewards and punishments – for themselves or their enemies.
In Reflections of the Psalms, C.S. Lewis writes,
“It seems quite clear that in most parts of the Old Testament there is little or no belief in a future life; certainly no belief that is of any religious importance.”
According to Job, “life is but a breath” and “man dies and is laid low; he breaths his last and is no more.” In Psalms, David says, “When you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust,” “Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow,” and “It’s not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to the place of silence.” In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon writes, “The dead know nothing, and they have no reward” and “a living dog is better than a dead lion.”
Not exactly something you’d put on a sympathy card, huh?
By far, the most frequent way the Old Testament writers refer to someone dying is by saying they had “gone to Death.” No mention is made of anyone “going to Heaven (or Hell)” after they die. However, the Old Testament does contain about sixty references to a place called “Sheol” as a final resting place for the dead.
Sheol is translated as “the grave” or “the pit in most modern Biblical translations.” Its exact meaning, however, is hotly debated among Biblical scholars. In some places, Sheol appears to reference a literal grave in the ground (like when David sings about being “rescued from the pit” in the Psalms – he’s literally thanking God for saving him from a life-threatening situation). And, in other places, it appears to be a reference to a shadowy underworld populated by sad and sleepy spirits (like when Job describes Sheol as “the land of gloom and deep darkness“).
Details about Sheol found in the Old Testament don’t exactly sell it as an ideal afterlife destination. And, perhaps most troubling, it’s the final destination of the righteous and unrighteous alike.
In Heaven and Hell, Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman writes,
“[Sheol] clearly was not a place of reward for the righteous. On the contrary, Sheol was the realm of death, to be avoided as long as possible. It is not that it was boring; it was that it was a complete diminution of life, to the point of virtual nonexistence.”
This doesn’t mean the God of the Old Testament was unconcerned with morality and how it relates to divine punishment and reward. Far from it. But the Old Testament’s views on punishments and rewards were associated with “concerns of the present” – like fertility, military victory, and land ownership – and not on appeals of an improved afterlife experience.
And, while reading the Hebrew Scriptures in English, we may come across the word “heavens,” but it’s almost always a reference to the sky or the cosmos above. A divine realm populated with spiritual beings existed, but people weren’t rubbing shoulders with angels in Heaven after they died. As David writes in Psalms 115, “The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He has given to mankind.”
And then Jesus arrived on the scene and blew all of that to pieces.
In Jesus’s first recorded words in the New Testament, he proclaims, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
The “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Kingdom of God” are often used interchangeably in the New Testament. Sometimes the phrases are used to refer to God Himself, as many Jewish traditions find it offensive to refer to God by name. Or, the phrases refer to a divine realm (or idealized version of reality) where, according to theologian Dallas Willard, “what God wants done is done.”
Jesus never referred to the Kingdom of Heaven as a disembodied spiritual realm where believers go after they die. In fact, if we take Jesus’s words in the Gospels seriously, the Kingdom of Heaven is right here, right now, and within our grasp.
Imagine two circles, one labeled “Earth” and the other “Kingdom of Heaven.” In the Old Testament way of thinking, the circles overlap at temples, sacred sites thought to have housed the presence of God. The Garden of Eden was originally designed to be a temple, a place where God’s presence and humankind dwelled together in harmony to cultivate creation. But humankind’s disobedience ended that initial setup almost as soon as it began, an event (or state of being) Christians refer to as “The Fall.”
An avalanche of violence, oppression, exploitation, and injustice followed in the wake of The Fall, as humankind’s lust for power and control took center stage, and this sickness spread to creation itself. Throughout the Old Testament, the Jewish people held onto the hope that one day (the “Day of the Lord“) Yahweh would purge the world of its sickness and fully restore the relationship between Earth and the Kingdom of Heaven.
According to the early Christians, this grand reconciliation project was spearheaded by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, a man who claimed to be the Son of God. By defeating death, King Jesus ascended his throne, and his kingdom is steadily advancing and breaking into our reality. In other words, our two circles (“Earth” and the “Kingdom of Heaven”) are in the process of overlapping at this very moment.
In Simply Good News, theologian N.T. Wright writes,
“The Bible, and the good news at its heart, are about the rescue and renewal of the whole creation...[Jesus] will transform the whole world and fill it with his justice, his joy, and his love. That is indeed good news.”
The Bible uses all kinds of poetic language to describe this cosmic renovation project, like “a new heavens and new Earth,” “reconciling all things on Earth and heaven,” “the restoration of all things,” and “making everything new.”
And all of this sounds like really great news, right? Unfortunately, many of us – old and new Christians alike – have never been introduced to the “Gospel of the Kingdom” and have instead inherited a doom-centric narrative in which the world is getting progressively worse and our only hope is God ending it all so our souls can live forever in a magic sky palace.
Not only does this narrative make Christianity sound like a death cult, but it prioritizes self-preservation and resurrects the “Who’s In/Who’s Out” religious framework Jesus sought to turn upside down through his interactions with Pharisees and Sadducees.
In The Divine Conspiracy, theologian Dallas Willard refers to this bastardization of the original Gospel message as “Barcode Theology.” According to barcode theology, the entirety of someone’s life (and eternity) boils down to whether or not they believed the right thoughts about God and said the right words to earn an exclusive “barcode” that’ll be scanned upon their death that’ll grant them access to Heaven.
In What’s Wrong With Religion?, minister and speaker Skye Jethani writes,
“The message most young people hear is a call to use God rather than to love him. God is merely how one reaches the real goal which is entering Heaven and/or avoiding Hell. People fixated on Heaven and Hell, however, are missing the message of Jesus.”
Another unfortunate consequence of barcode theology is that it generates anxiety, shame, and guilt for deriving pleasure, appreciation, and significance from the world around us. This existential angst is probably a result of a misapplication of Paul’s instructions to the Colossians to “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”
Paul isn’t telling his readers to direct their thoughts to a heavenly afterlife; he’s telling them to align their lives to the values of the coming Kingdom (compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience) right now – values that stand in sharp contrast to the values of the world (anger, malice, lust, greed, and slander).
The world, though admittedly broken, is still a beautiful and wondrous place. And you shouldn’t feel bad about reveling in the beauty of it all, nor should you frame you entire life around escaping it. The redemptive work of Jesus is at play right now, liberating the whole of creation from the “bondage of decay,” and we’ve been invited to participate in that work.
As Dallas Willard writes in The Divine Conspiracy,
“It is a world filled a glorious reality, where every component is within the range of God’s direct knowledge and control – though he obviously permits some of it, for good reasons, to be for a while otherwise than as he wishes. It is a world that is inconceivably beautiful and good because of God and because God is always in it. It is a world in which God is continually at play and over which he constantly rejoices.”
Isn’t that story so much better than the “everything’s going to Hell in a handbasket” narrative you grew up with? Read that quote again. How would that mindset transform the way you interacted with the world? Your neighbor? Your enemy?
So, how did we get so misaligned? There’s a lot to say about how a consumer-centric Gospel message thrives in societies that prioritize individualism over the common good. But, part of our problem stems from the compartmentalization of specific Bible passages and rarely challenged assumptions about certain phrases and words.
For example, when we read the phrase “eternal life” in the New Testament (like John 3:16), our brains immediately leap to a never-ending, spiritual existence after death. But in John 17:3, Jesus literally defines “eternal life” for his disciples as “knowing the one true God,” not a disembodied spiritual existence to be experienced after death.
If you grow up thinking the Bible is just a long-winded instruction guide on “how to get to Heaven,” that’s all you see when you open its pages. But if you open up your mind to the possibility of the Gospel of Kingdom, an entirely new way of experiencing the divine right now will be the only thing you see moving forward.
It reminds me of an old Twilight Zone episode in which man dies and is ushered into paradise. At first, he’s overjoyed. But after having all of his deepest desires and fantasies fulfilled, he begins to grow bored. A couple of months pass by in paradise, and his boredom turns into a deep depression. In desperation, he begs an angel to take him to Hell. The angel responds, confused, “Who told you you’re in Heaven? This is Hell.”
Life After Life After Death
“Well, thanks for the lessons in linguistics and history,” you may be thinking. “But, seriously, what happens after we die? And what is Heaven like?“
I can’t answer those questions.
No one can.
As I said above, the Bible just doesn’t spend as much time talking about the afterlife as we’d expect. And, despite the best efforts of neuroscientists, we still have zero evidence that any type of consciousness exists after death.
Many of our popular conceptions of Heaven (clouds, golden light, angels, etc.) derive from Dante’s Paradiso, Renaissance-era artwork, and Greek mythology. It’s fitting, therefore, that our afterlife expectations are shaped by art and imagination rather than measurable data, eyewitness testimony, and reproducible evidence.
So, if not disembodied souls frolicking atop puffy clouds, what was the original Christian hope for the afterlife?
For starters, a better way of thinking about what the Bible has to say about the afterlife is that the Bible is more concerned with life after life after death than life after death.
The hope of the early Christians specifically centered on a physical resurrection of the dead, just as Jesus had been resurrected after his crucifixion. In Romans, the apostle Paul writes, “We wait eagerly…for the redemption of our bodies.” And, just like Jesus’s resurrected body that had special properties, our bodies too will be transformed. Paul makes this clear when he writes in his letter to the Philippians that Jesus will “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
The seeds for this are planted in the Old Testament, and they come to fruition with the resurrection of Jesus. Without a physical resurrection, death will always have the final word.
Jesus and his disciples didn’t teach an afterlife-centric Christianity. It’s telling in Acts – the book of the Bible that recounts the early spread of Christianity – that none of the recorded apostolic sermons make conversion appeals on behalf of the afterlife.
In Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, theologian Brian Zahnd writes,
“Life is not an elaborate testing center for afterlife placement based on theological acumen. Life is a gift from God, a gift that is properly appreciated and respected by loving God and neighbor.”
An afterlife-centered Christianity reduces life on Earth to a cosmic board game, of which there are winners and losers. It transforms the message of Jesus to a Prosperity Gospel of the highest order – “Accept our religious beliefs, and you’ll be blessed beyond your wildest dreams (after you die).” Also, and perhaps most distressingly, it diminishes the experience of living the life of the Kingdom right now.
Or, to quote American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.”
To be a follower of Jesus is to believe you’ve already died to your past self. You’re already living in the “afterlife.” Eternal life is already here. And you can “enter life” whenever you want. You don’t have to wait for death, or the end of the world, or a revelatory moment of spiritual enlightenment. It’s to participate in the “heavening of Earth” through self-sacrificial acts of love, justice, mercy, and service.
And though it may feel at times like the dark is winning, we rest in the knowledge that our work isn’t in vain. We hold onto the hope that all of this culminates with the reunification of Earth and the Kingdom and Heaven, the establishment of the new humanity, and the restoration of everything we know and love.
With our 24/7 news cycle, it’s easy to fall for the myth that everything is falling apart. But it’s not. By nearly any conceivable metric, life on Earth is improving. This doesn’t mean there aren’t huge problems that need to be addressed (like climate change, systemic racism, wealth inequality, and human trafficking), but justice, human rights, and enlightenment are on the move. Contrary to popular belief, the light is winning.
To quote Martin Luther King, Jr. (himself paraphrasing the 19th-century abolitionist minister Theodore Parker), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
And, until that moment of final victory, we focus on what we can do right now to bring about God’s will “on Earth as it is in Heaven” in whatever creative, beautiful, and nonviolent ways that speak to our unique talents, gifts, and passions. That’s the job. That’s the mission.
As Jewish theologian Abraham Herschel said,
“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
Addendum: Rediscovering Home
I know for many of my readers – especially if you were raised in a traditional Evangelical environment – what I just shared was a lot (in word count and theme).
I can hear some objections, some with Scriptural backing, like when Paul writes in his letter to the Philippian church, “We are citizens of Heaven.”
There’s a familiar refrain in some old Gospel hymns and contemporary Christian music that speaks to “Heaven being our true home” and “going home when we die,” and the sentiment often crops up as a platitude to those grieving a loss. There are a couple of verses that seem to indicate an idyllic experience after death (like when Jesus says to thief mounted on a cross next to him, “Today, you’ll be with me in paradise”), but we shouldn’t stop there.
If we read a couple of sentences further after Paul’s “citizens” remark, we find out what he really meant: As citizens, we align ourselves with Kingdom values, and Heaven’s not a place we’re going, but a place where Jesus comes from to transform our bodies and restore all of creation.
In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell writes,
“One of the most tragic things ever to happen to the Gospel was the emergence of the message that Jesus takes us somewhere else if we believe in Him. The Bible ends with God coming here.“
Earth is our home. The Bible makes it clear – the Earth was lovingly designed for us and declared “good” by our Creator and it will one day restored to its original goodness. It’s not like we were initially born in Heaven, dropped on Earth, and spend our days waiting to “go back home.”
The Gospel isn’t a spiritual evacuation plan.
It’s so much better than that.
The Bible describes death as a curse, and the writer of Ecclesiastes depicts death as great equalizer, cutting down the strong and weak alike. Nature is equally brutally uncompromising; every Instagram-worthy landscape cloaking a pitched battle for survival. But there’s also a savage beauty to death’s efficiency, its ubiquity.
In Like Streams to the Ocean, Jedidiah Jenkins writes,
“Death is what gives life meaning. The act of not being alive makes being alive special. There is no life light without darkness. There is no waking without sleep.”
And there’s no resurrection without death.
In the closing chapters of the Bible, we’re told of a tree sprouting up from the transformed Earth. The imagery is clearly designed to evoke the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil planted in the Garden of Eden. However, instead of death and destruction, the fruit from this tree brings “healing of the nations,” yielding a new crop every month.
I don’t know what that means.
But it’s probably better than you and I could possibly imagine.
For a deeper dive into the Gospel of the Kingdom, I recommend:
Simply Good News – N.T. Wright
Garden City – John Mark Comer
All Things New – John Eldredge
The King Jesus Gospel – Scot McKnight
The Very Good Gospel – Lisa Harper
Futureville – Skye Jethani
and, of course, The Divine Conspiracy – Dallas Willard
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