‘Why be a doctor? Why should I bother to heal and cure bodies if everyone is going to die in the end? Why don’t I become an evangelist instead?’
I was leading a discussion group for medical students when one of them asked these questions. At first, her line of reasoning seemed logical. If the most important question of our lives here on earth is the eternal destination of our soul, then why do medics spend their time healing bodies when those bodies only get ill again and eventually die? Why spend six years at medical school and countless years practising medicine if our bodies are destined to become nothing but dust when we depart this world? Surely, if we take our faith seriously, then we should all be evangelists and spend our energies on saving souls for heaven? Would this student be right to give up medicine and become an evangelist? Well not necessarily, if we understand what the Bible really says about ‘heaven’ and the life to come.
We often think of heaven as a place where God and Jesus live and where the non-material part of us, our soul or spirit, goes when we die. Many Christians believe that at the end of time, when Jesus returns, he will destroy the sin-infected material world and take the souls of the righteous to be with him in heaven. In this understanding, the purpose of the Christian life is to save as many souls as possible for this heavenly bliss, and the main question that the gospel answers is ‘how do I get to heaven when I die?’
But if we explore the Bible, we see that the idea of heaven as an escape route from earth is a reduction of the full gospel of Jesus Christ. It owes more to a Neoplatonic dualistic worldview,1 in which evil matter and good spirit are in opposition to one another, than it does to the witness of the Christian Scriptures.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul doesn’t say that God’s will is to save souls for a spiritual heaven, but rather to ‘bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ’ (Ephesians 1:10). The Christian story begins in Genesis with the goodness of the created physical world and of human bodies (Genesis 1:31), and it ends not with the destruction of the earth and an escape into heaven, but with a renewed heaven and a renewed earth2 (Revelation 21:1-5).
The story of grace told in the Bible is of a loving God who does not give up on his creation or on humanity. Even though what God intended has been marred and twisted by human sin, God’s work in salvation history is not to destroy the creation he loves, but to redeem it. As Paul puts it, ‘the whole creation has been groaning’ as it waits to be ‘liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21-22). We too groan as we suffer the sicknesses, diseases and death that mark this fallen world. But God’s answer to this groaning is not an escape into an otherworldly paradise but to bring about the restoration of his creation, including our physical bodies. We see this clearly in the healing miracles that Jesus performed in his earthly ministry.
When Jesus first began to preach, his key message was: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matthew 4:17). His message was not about escaping into another world but about the kingdom of heaven coming to this world. And the first signs of this kingdom were his healing miracles. Outcasts with leprosy were restored to health (Luke 5:12-16), a man so violent that he had to be constrained by chains was returned to his right mind (Luke 8:26-39), a dead girl was brought back to life and a man born blind could see for the first time (John 9:1-12). These were no counterfeit miracles of a confidence-trickster. These were miracles that required complete re-creation of a broken and fallen world. Only the re-creative power of heaven could re-wire a visual cortex that had never received neural input so that it could see again and bring cells that had ceased to function back to life. However, it was Jesus’ resurrection that really convinced the disciples that Jesus had not come to provide a spiritual escape into heaven but to bring the restoring power of heaven to earth.
When the disciples first encountered the risen Christ after his crucifixion, they assumed he was a ghost, a disembodied spirit (Luke 24:37). But Jesus encouraged them to touch him and even ate some fried fish to prove that he still had a body (Luke 24:36-43). When he ascended into heaven, he did not leave his body behind on the hillside, but took it with him (Acts 1:9-11). And when Jesus comes to earth again it will not be to take our souls to heaven but to resurrect us, body and soul (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) so that we can live in a renewed heaven and earth. This is why the earliest confessions of the Christian faith has always affirmed belief in ‘the resurrection of the body’.3
So when, as medics, we care for bodies, just as when an ecologist cares for the natural world, we are not wasting our time. Rather we are participating in God’s work of restoring his creation. Being a doctor is not a secular occupation while the really spiritual calling is to be a full-time evangelist. Of course, telling people the gospel is vitally important because they need to know about the forgiveness and new life that God offers through Jesus Christ. But caring for bodies is to participate in the hope of this new life just as much as evangelising.
When we care for bodies we proclaim the uniquely Christian hope that God is bringing his kingdom of heaven to heal and restore the earth, not to destroy it. The gospel is a lot bigger than just saving individual souls for heaven. The work of God, in and through Jesus Christ and his church, is to save whole human beings, whole cultures, and the whole of human history, for the glorious joy of his new creation.
1Neoplatonic philosophy arose in the third and fourth centuries AD and taught a basic division between pure spirit and sinful matter. It influenced some sections of the early church to interpret Christian faith in a similar dualistic direction.
2The Greek for ‘new’ in Revelation 21:1 is ‘kainos’, which describes something that has been renewed or made new again, rather than something brand new.
3This statement is found in the Apostles’ Creed, one of the earliest statements of Christian belief which dates from at least the fourth century AD, although what it teaches goes right back to the writings of the early Church Fathers, the apostles and the Bible itself.
Dr James Paul is the director of the English branch of L’Abri Fellowship. Previously, he practised as a doctor in London, UK, specialising in hospice care for the terminally ill.
If you want to think more about heaven (and earth) Dr James Paul’s book What on Earth is Heaven? is published by IVP on 18 February 2021 and is available at IVPbooks.com and on Amazon. In it he explores what the Bible has to say about questions such as:
- What is heaven?
- Where is heaven?
- Why can’t science find heaven?
- What happens to us after we die?
- What does heaven have to do with our lives now on earth?