A Question on Heaven
A question was asked of me recently regarding Heaven and whether or not we will recognize one another in Heaven. The background to this question was in the context of deceased loved ones. For example, if a beloved spouse dies at a ripe old age with signs of dementia, will that person be in heaven with an old body and a failing memory? Another example, suppose a child dies in the womb and never has a chance to live and grow, will that child be in heaven in the body of an unborn child?
These are serous questions regarding our future hope, the resurrection of all believers at the return of Christ. This same question was also on the minds of the believers in the first century Corinthian church, which Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 15.
There were some in the church who were questioning the resurrection of believers. They believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but not in the “resurrection of the dead.” Paul addresses that in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19. His argument runs like this: If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen from the dead. If Christ is not risen from the dead, then we are fools to believe in Christ and we are stuck in our sins. He ends his argument in v. 19: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.”
There is a lot of truth in that statement. The resurrection of Christ is the main hinge upon which our faith is based. No resurrection of Jesus, no Christianity. But it doesn’t stop there for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is called “the firstfruits:” “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a foretaste of a glorious end times harvest of souls when Christ returns. As Sinclair Ferguson puts is, Christ is the “prototype” of our own resurrection.
Okay, having established the fact of the resurrection of Christ and all believers upon His return, the next question that can be asked is “How are the dead raised up, and with what body do they come?” Here Paul uses the familiar analogy of sowing seed. When you plant an acorn, does the acorn look anything like the oak tree it will become? No! But the acorn contains all of the necessary molecular material needed to produce an oak tree. In other words, what you plant in the ground is both like and unlike what grows up from the ground. The same can be said of our own bodies, as Paul says:
1 Corinthians 15:42-44 (NKJV) 42 So also [is] the resurrection of the dead. [The body] is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.
When we die, we are “sown” corruptible, dishonorable, weak, and natural. This is the normal state of the flesh in this world. But when it is raised, it is raised incorruptible, glorious, powerful, and spiritual. Just like the acorn and the oak tree, our resurrection bodies are both like and unlike our natural bodies. There is a continuity, but also a radical transformation as well.
That means an 80+ year old man with dementia who dies will not be raised on the last day like an 80+ year old man with dementia, but an incorruptible, glorious, powerful, and spiritual man. The same can be said of the baby who dies in utero, he/she will not have the body of an underdeveloped fetus in Heaven, but an incorruptible, glorious, powerful, and spiritual body. The principle being, the body that is sown is not the body that is raised.
As to whether or not we will recognize each other in Heaven given that our bodies will be radically transformed, I believe the answer to that is “Yes.” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:49 “And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.” In other words, when we are born into this world, we bear the image of Adam, we are natural men and women. When we are raised from the dead in our glorious resurrection bodies, we will bear the image of Christ, the heavenly Man. Now when Christ was raised from the dead, He was recognizable by His disciples; they knew it was Him. In fact, when Peter recognized it was Jesus, he jumped off his fishing boat to swim to shore and see Jesus (cf. John 21:7). I believe we can draw from this that we too will be recognizable in Heaven with our glorious bodies.
To not hold to this would be to make Heaven less than earth. To not recognize our departed loved ones in Heaven and to have the marks of this world carry into the next world would put the lie to Paul’s words “to die is gain.” Having an 80+ year old body with dementia in Heaven and not being able to recognize anyone is not gain. I can’t tell you exactly what it will be like in Heaven, but I can tell you on the authority of the Bible that it will far surpass our wildest expectations.