Healing in Heaven
What can we hope for after death, especially with our physical bodies?
Dr. Nathan Hitchcock
Have you ever been in great shape? Maybe you were able to play on the playground for hours. Maybe you could run for miles. Me? I used to be able to dunk. Not any more. Not even close. Now I look at kids playing on the basketball court and am jealous of how invincible they all seem.
The failure of our bodies gets us thinking about the afterlife. We stop assuming that our physical health will hold up. We begin to reckon with the approach of death, and we wonder about what, if anything, comes after bodily life.
Getting a grim cancer diagnosis or some other life-limiting disease usually speeds up thinking about the afterlife. In the weeks and months of medical treatments, the mind wanders to eternal matters. Is there anything after death? Can I hope for something beyond this fragile bodily existence?
Is there healing in heaven if healing in this life doesn’t happen?
Healing for the Soul
While going through cancer or the side effects of therapy, or even just the gradual effects of aging, it can feel as if your inside self is trapped by the outside self. Your interior person doesn’t exactly match up with your exterior. To put it another way: it feels like your soul is limited by your body. You might find yourself asking the question, “What if the soul could exist without the body?”
The hope of a disembodied life (that is, existing without a body) was championed by certain Greek philosophers. In particular, Plato developed some rather certain ideas about the soul and the afterlife. He and his followers taught that the soul, which is rational and invisible and immaterial, is capable of existing in the heavenly realm, which is also rational and invisible and immaterial. Death meant that a person’s soul could be freed to experience the heavenly realities. This view influenced many religions. It is usually in mind when people talk about “going to Heaven.”
The Bible and the afterlife
Something similar to the Greek view of the afterlife can be found in the Bible. Believers are taught not to be dismayed by bodily death, for they will be protected. When a man who was being crucified with Jesus professes his belief, he is told, “Truly, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). The Jews understood paradise to be a place of protection, like a walled-in garden. To die as a believer means to experience rest from earthly troubles. In the same vein, the New Testament prefers to say that the dead are merely “asleep.”
The New Testament also clarifies what this other existence will be like. Believers will be in the presence of God. In this world it can be hard to feel close to the Almighty. It requires faith. But after death it is possible for one to see God and sense his nearness. Jesus, who is now in Heaven, makes it possible to be in God’s presence in Heaven. That’s why Paul says, “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Phil 1:23). The apostle Paul also recognizes that at death, “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). Upon dying, to be with the Lord is a tremendous consolation.
Death is not the end
Death of the body is not the end of the person. That much is clearly taught by the Bible. While it does not give a precise definition of the soul, it is apparent that a significant aspect of the self is protected and sustained in the presence of God.
After death there is no more physical suffering, and, what is more, God consoles his people. In the book of Revelation, John is given a rare look into Heaven to see a group of dead saints who died violent deaths. God comforts them, giving each of them a white robe and telling them to rest (Rev 6:11). The part of the person that goes on beyond death is cared for by the Almighty, given great solace. In this way, Heaven is a healing of the soul.
Healing for the Body
Does the healing of the soul mean that God isn’t concerned with the healing of the body? Some thinkers, including many followers of Plato, concluded just that. The body is something to be escaped. It has no future.
But this is where the Bible holds out a greater hope. Beyond healing for the soul, the Scriptures teach that there will be healing in heaven for the body itself.
How God intends to do this is through the greatest miracle ever: the dead will be resurrected. They will be raised to life again. At the end of human history people will come back to life bodily. “Your dead will live, LORD,” says the prophet Isaiah, “their bodies will rise” (Isa 26:19). The hope of full restoration carries through the New Testament: “He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:11).
The hope of resurrection
Jesus of Nazareth was the first one to experience this kind of resurrection. On Easter morning, the disciples reported that Jesus’ tomb was empty. He began appearing to them physically, showing them that he was alive, fully healed. It was clearly his same body, his same flesh, for Jesus still had the scars from his crucifixion. Yet the resurrected Jesus was now invincible. The Bible says that those who follow Jesus will have bodies that are like his: imperishable, glorious, powerful, spiritual (1 Cor 15:42-44). They will have total healing in heaven for their bodies, never to die again.
You may ask how resurrection will work, or how it is even a possibility. Lots of scholars and theologians have meditated on this great mystery. The important thing to remember is that God cares about you – the whole you. God offers healing for every part of you when you trust him. Entering into an eternal relationship with this God is possible because of Jesus, the one who has gone through death and come back again. You can learn more here.
Learning more about heaven
Do you have further questions about the afterlife? You may want to invest in learning more about heaven and resurrection so you have a clearer hope about life after death. For me, my questions led me on a winding path of education, eventually ending in a doctoral degree. I don’t recommend that option for many people! But I love sharing with others what I learned from the study of Scripture and cultural history.
Will I be able to dunk again in the resurrection? Well, I’m sure there are more important things I’ll be doing with my resurrected body. But yes, if you must know, I’m counting on it.
Dr. Nathan Hitchcock received his PhD in Divinity from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He has published extensively in history and religion, especially in afterlife studies. Aside from teaching, Dr. Hitchcock helps organizations set up competency-based training systems. He lives with his family and Boston terrier in South Dakota, USA.
For more help on your cancer journey, see The Pathway to Hope.
To learn more about heaven and the afterlife, see Dr. Hitchcock’s course, Heaven: A History which is available for self-paced learning and a special 63% off discount for Hope Has Arrived followers.