“For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mk 12.25).
The Sadducees made great 1st-century conservatives but even better 21st-century liberals. They denied all things supernatural, especially any notion of bodily resurrection from the dead (cf. Mt 3.7; 16.1, 11-12; 22.23, 34; Lk 20.27; Acts 4.1-2; 5.17; 23.6-8). Their creed was Sola Torah (Torah alone); whatever Torah did not clearly teach was not to be believed. As their Torah did not command a resurrection they denied its reality.
They tried to stump the resurrection-believing Jesus with a stock apologetic argument against resurrection (Mk 12.18-23). The Pharisees fell for it every time so why not Jesus? “Riddle me this, Jesus. Seven brothers marry the same woman according to the law of levirate marriage (Dt 25.5-6). Who of the brothers has dibs on this woman in the so-called ‘resurrection’ you so firmly believe?” They were sure they’d stumped the Truth.
But Jesus quickly dismissed their straw man argument on grounds of ignorance of both Scripture and God’s power (Mk 12.24). They had no clue about the nature of the resurrection life. It’s not the unending continuation of this life, but a whole new life in a whole new dimension. Ain’t no marriage in heaven because there ain’t no death in heaven and therefore no need for procreation (Lk 20.3). Resurrected folk become like angels in that they do not maintain familial or conjugal relationships (v25). Again, Jesus did not say the brothers became angels at death, but became like angels in the way that they don’t marry and have families.
So let’s be clear: people who were “good” in this life do not become angels when they die.
This may not be news to you, but it will be to many who do not understand Scripture’s teaching on life after death. How many funerals—even those considered “Christian”—have this underlying assumption that our deceased loved one is now floating around in heaven with fluttering wings and a flowing white robe, looking down on us and following us around in the breeze wishing we wouldn’t cry.
I remember at Mom’s funeral (20 years ago this year) how many would console me with the thought that she was now an angel. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but now I realize that wasn’t good news. And it came from folks who should’ve known better. So, let’s make sure we know better before the next funeral!
This news may be a profound disappointment to you or someone you know. After all, what could be better than becoming angel and flying around wherever you want, being willingly invisible and invincibly powerful for eternity? Not becoming an angel doesn’t sound like good news.
While it may seem like harmless sentiment, it actually cheapens several important biblical doctrines. So I want to try to defend why it is not good news that people become angels when they die. Stated positively, I want to prove why it is actually good news for the Christian that we do not become angels when we die. I suggest five theological areas where this “harmless” sentiment actually harms how we understand humanity, Christ, salvation, sanctification and judgment.
Anthropology: God created humans to be physical, corporeal beings.
To discount the body as less important than the spirit is a product of Greek—namely, gnostic—heresy. It was common in 1st century Greek life to assume the body to be evil and the spirit to be good. And as such, one could do whatever he wanted with the body because it’s evil and will be destroyed. What one does with his body has no affect on his spirit.
To assume we become angels at death is to consider the body to be worthless, temporary and unnecessary to being eternally complete as a human being. This is why Paul spent so much time defending the glory and importance of what we do with our bodies:
“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom 6.12-13).
“For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6.20).
What we do with and how we treat our bodies matters because our bodies matter to God. God created us as unified, holistic beings with a spirit that impacts the body and vice versa (for examples, see Ps 32.3-4; Is 40.31). By nature, when we suffer spiritual strain we lose appetites. By nature, when we’re sick we feel spiritually drained. This is why the gospel is so radical: it gives strength where there is no strength to be had!
For example, why do post-abortive moms suffer spiritual affects? They’ve been sold the line that it’s their body to do with what they want (there is no connection between body and soul), but they suddenly realize that to monkey with the body has far-reaching spiritual implications. They realize God has created our bodies to respond to and affect spiritual realities. This is why our spiritual appetites lead to physical actions (cf. Jas 1.14-15; 4.2).
God did not create us as physical bodies with a spirit, or spirits with a body, but as spiritual bodies to reflect his glory both inside and out. To separate the soul from the body is to be sub-human.
Christology: Jesus’ bodily resurrection anticipates what will happen with all believers in Christ.
God promises to conform all believers to the image of his Son (Rom 8.29). God will “transform the body of our humble state inot conformity with the body of [Christ’s] glory” (Phil 3.21). When we see Jesus we will be like Jesus (1 Jn 3.2). Therefore, whatever Jesus is in his glorified state is what we will be in ours. And Jesus was raised bodily to become the first fruits of God’s intention for true humanity.
Stated negatively: Jesus did not become an angel when he died. God promises we will be like Jesus. Therefore, we will not become angels when we die.
Stated positively: Jesus was raised bodily. God promises we will be like Jesus. Therefore, we will be raised bodily.
“But if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8.11).
To assume we become angels at death is to say we would rather be an angel to be like Jesus for all eternity. That’s an insult to Jesus.
Soteriology: God’s salvation is complete when our physical bodies are redeemed/glorified in a bodily resurrection.
Given God’s valuing the body, his salvation must necessarily include—and his grace experienced by—the redemption of our fallen bodies. What happened with the Fall in Eden was the destruction of the body and soul. We die in every sense of the word. We die physically and we die spiritually. In Christ, God reverses that curse so that both body and soul are redeemed restored to unrestrained, eternal glory.
“. . . we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom 8.23).
“For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked” (2 Cor 5.1-3).
Christ’s work is not complete when we die and go to heaven. His work is complete when “all who are in the tombs will hear his voice, and will come forth; those who did the good to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil to a resurrection of judgment” (Jn 5.28-29).
So we don’t breathe a sigh of relief at the funeral of a dead Christian because God has finally taken them to a better place. While we’re thankful that is true, we also groan because there is still something wrong with seeing a soulless corpse decaying in a box. God’s plan of redemption is not yet complete until the redeemed soul is reunited with the redeemed and resurrected body.
The gospel does not end at “going to heaven when you die.” It ends at the resurrection, where recreated body and souls enjoy and worship Christ’s unrestrained glory in the recreated cosmos. It ends when all our senses are redeemed from the curse of sin so that we know God with every faculty of our being.
Sanctifcation: Being human for eternity is necessary for understanding, appreciating and enjoying God’s grace for eternity.
As a sub-category of soteriology, we should say something about the affect this has on our sanctification: our becoming like Jesus by growing in the understanding and enjoyment of the gospel. God designed the plan of redemption so that he will be worshiped for his being the God of sovereign and unending grace, displayed in Jesus Christ.
“He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to himself, according to the kind intention of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, which he freely bestowed on us in the beloved” (Eph 1.5-6).
So the content of our worship for eternity will be to glory in God’s grace. It will be praising him that though we deserved the fullness of God’s wrath in hell, we now enjoy the fullness of God’s blessing in heaven. As the smoke of hell rises up forever and ever (Rev 19.3) we will proclaim, “Hallelujah! We’re not there, but we should be! We’re not where we deserve to be, but where God chose us to be!”
The glory of the gospel is that in Christ alone God saves forever those who otherwise deserve to be damned for their sin. They experience God’s grace for no other reason than God chose to love them for his own sake.
These are things, Peter wrote, “into which angels long to look” (1 Pt 1.12). In other words, angels love to watch God’s plan of redemption working out in the lives of his people. But, they watch it as outsiders looking in. They will never experience what it’s like to be cast under the wrath of God only to be redeemed from that wrath by the work of Jesus. In a word, they will never know what it’s like to experience the fullness of God’s grace.
Neither unfallen or fallen angels (cf. 2 Pt 2.4) will experience the fullness of God’s grace. Only redeemed and resurrected humans will.
So it is better to be created by God, left to fall into sin and under his eternal and just wrath, to be dogged by sin and pain of repentance, and then to be rescued from that wrath by grace through faith in Jesus Christ than to be created as or become an angel. Becoming an angel at death would actually shortchange the worship God is due and our eternal joy of being the object of God’s sovereign grace.
Wings would actually interfere with our enjoyment and vision of God!
Judgment: God’s ultimate judgment of sin will be the physical, bodily torment of all unbelievers.
Just as the eternal enjoyment of God’s grace in the new creation will be a bodily, physical experience, so will the experience of God’s wrath in hell. To make light of the body with respect to eternal life is to make light of God’s grace in the gospel. To make light of the body with respect to eternal death is to make light of God’s judgment.
Hell is not en vogue these days (if it ever was!). But all of Scripture, and especially Jesus is quite clear that hell will be the eternal, conscious, physical (bodily) torment of all those who resist Christ in this life.
“If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell” (Mt 5.29-30).
“Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10.28). Satan doesn’t destroy the soul and body in hell. God does!
“In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame” (Lk 16.23-24).
We’re all familiar with John’s image of the “lake of fire” that will receive all unbelievers and Satan himself (Rev 20.14f.; 21.8).
Every description of hell depicts a physically painful experience of God’s eternal wrath. And regularly the image of hell is a place where people suffer skin-scorching fire and lung-filling toxic fumes. Now, that may all sound fanciful and a bit cartoonish to you. But, even if the language is symbolic then how much more will the reality be!
I’m told that 3rd and 4th degree burns create the most horrific pain we could ever experience. So if you wanted to describe the fullness of God’s wrath it would be appropriate to depict the unending pain of 4th degree burns. Death would be a favor, but there will be no favors in hell.
Hell is not the absence of God, where all unbelievers are left to their own devices. God will be just as present in hell as he is in heaven. Only, he will be present in the fullness of his wrath rather than the fullness of his blessing. And all those there will have every one of the their senses fully sensitive to that wrath. Just God must raise our bodies to be equipped for heaven (unending life without pain) so must he raise and prepare the body for hell—unending pain without death.
To assume good people become angels at death you must consistently assume bad people become demons. Just as becoming an angel would shortchange joy, becoming a demon would be getting off easy!
I don’t suggest interrupting a funeral or demoralizing a grieving friend with a theological coup d’état at a viewing. Be careful how you wield these truths. But be sure to wield them! There is far better news than that we become angels when die. We actually get raised from the dead so that we see, hear, taste, touch and smell the glories and excellencies of Jesus Christ for all eternity. Boneless wings may taste good in this life, but heaven only wingless bones are on the menu for all this in Christ.