In The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau criticizes Christians with these words, “Christianity is an entirely spiritual religion, occupied solely with heavenly things; the Christian’s country is not of this world. He does his duty, certainly, but does it with a deep lack of interest in whether the work he has put in has produced good or bad results.” Rousseau makes three claims about Christians. First, a Christian’s country is heaven. Second, Christians are occupied entirely with heaven. Third, Christians are not interested in things on earth.
The first claim is true since Paul says “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). Speaking of the Old Testament saints as our model, Hebrews says, “they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16). But Rousseau’s second and third claims are false. Christianity is not entirely a spiritual religion, which is seen when you consider that Christianity puts the redeemed into a sequence of three places. (A) It begins with physical life on earth, which is ended by death, (B) at which point the body and spirit separate and the disembodied spirit is in heaven with God until Christ’s Second Coming, (C) where body and soul are reunited to live in the new heavens and new earth with resurrected bodies.
The Redeemed Sequence
The above sequence needs further explanation. Since death is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23) it’s appointed for all to die because all have sinned (Rom. 3:23). Christians are not excepted from death but the sting of death (1 Cor. 15:55). For all people “in Christ,” death is the beginning of eschatological glory.
In Philippians 1:21 Paul says that “to die is gain.” Why is it gain? Verse 23 says, “I am hard pressed between the two [living or dying]. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” So, when a Christian dies, what happens? They are instantly “with Christ.” Their body returns to dust and sees corruption, but the soul is immortal and neither sleeps nor dies (1 Cor. 15:42-44). The spirit goes to be “with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8), where there is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11). This is why Revelation 14:13 pronounces a blessing on “the dead who died in the Lord from now on.” The Westminster Larger Catechism 86 describes this condition as “the commencement of communion in glory with Christ.”
It’s not that the soul is eternal, as the Platonists argue, because the soul has a beginning and is thus subject to time. It’s that in redemption, God gives the redeemed immortality (Rom. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15: 53-54; 2 Tim. 1:10). The Nicene Creed concludes by saying we “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
When Christ comes those who are alive will be “caught up together” with Christ (1 Thess. 4:17), who returns with all those saints who have previously died (1 Thess. 4:14). At that point, body and soul are reunited such that “We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:51b – 53). Then comes the final judgment where humans will be judged per what they have done in thought, word, and deed (Rev. 20:12). The righteous will go into everlasting life in the new heavens and new earth and the wicked will be punished with everlasting destruction away from the presence of the Lord (2 Thess. 1:9).
Should Christians care about this world?
Back to Rousseau’s charge. How can we expect believers longing for the next world to care about the common good of this world? For Augustine, the answer lay in virtue. Without a transcendently defined virtue to strain for, society is ordered without a mind to the true highest good of human life. G.K. Chesterton put it this way, “We must be fond of another world (real or imaginary) in order to have something to change it to.” C.S. Lewis said, “Because we love something else more than this world we love even this world better than those who know no other.” Civil life is a mockery when God is not given his due, which is the recipe for how to contort virtues into vices.
So, the only way to build this world is to long for God’s world—the new heavens and new earth. What is the new heaven and earth? It is the true temple that fills the whole creation (Rev. 21:1-3, 10; 21:22). The new Jerusalem comes to earth (Rev. 21:2) where “the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Rev. 21:3). When you work backward from verse three you see that the tabernacle of verse 3 (“the dwelling place of God”) is the same as the city of verse 2, which is identical to the new creation of verse 1. This informs our understanding of taking dominion of the world for Christ the King, which is to fill the whole earth with the knowledge of God (Is. 11:9).
Heaven or the New Heavens and Earth?
Life on earth now is the first step of the sequence. Life on the new creation is the third step of the sequence. Longing to transform this world into God’s temple may diminish the second step of the sequence, even though Paul describes it as “far better” than the first step (Phil. 1:23). Should Christians long for the second step of the sequence, that time when our disembodied spirit is present with Christ? Isn’t heaven just an otherworldly, Platonic, gnostic, intermediate state? Since the new heavens and earth are the once for all final destination, shouldn’t we long for that rather than heaven?
Paul was not wrong when he expressed an earnest desire to depart from this life and be with the Lord (Phi. 1:19-21; 2 Cor. 5:5-8). Neither was Peter wrong when he used the hope of heaven to encourage God’s people, saying they were begotten “to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). Neither was the angel wrong when he testified to John about the glory and happiness of the intermediate state, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors …’” (Rev. 14:13).
Neither was John Calvin wrong when he wrote, “If we reflect that by death we are recalled from exile to inhabit our native country, a heavenly country, shall this give us no comfort?” In the same section of the Institutes, he says, “No man has made much progress in the school of Christ who does not look forward with joy to the day of death and final resurrection.” Neither was the Westminster Confession of Faith wrong when it spoke of the Christian’s life after death, “Their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect of holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory.” Expressions like this can be found throughout the history of the church.
The witness of Scripture and the wisdom of our fathers teaches that the intermediate state is a blessed one. Yet, those who have a fixed eye on the new heavens and earth may feel squishy using the phrase “going to heaven” since heaven is not the final destination. Perhaps it’s because we’ve adopted modern, ethereal definitions of the word “heaven” and dispensed with the more robust, ancient definition.
The modern ideas of heaven are as an ill-defined space beyond the clouds where spirits maintain airy existence while waiting for the resurrection. But in ancient cosmology, the heavens were a place of life where the stars and heavenly hosts sing praises to God (Job 38:7, Luke 2:13-14). The book of Revelation is filled with images of beauty, praise, and glory that resonates to God from angels and saints before the final resurrection. And it doesn’t stop there. Scripture not only describes what they do, we’re told in Hebrews 12:22-24 that we have come unto “the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.” Since the heavenly entourage is already our privilege in this life (though we can’t see it with our physical eyes) how much better will we be able to enjoy that status after we come into “the presence of the Lord”?
Scripture provides brief glimpses of saints in the intermediate state. For example, when Moses and Elijah joined Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, Luke specifically says that they—not just Jesus—appeared “in glory” (Luke 9:30-31). While we don’t know precisely what this means, they certainly appeared in a greater, more majestic state than they were in their earthly lives. If Moses and Elijah enjoyed this status before the completed work of Christ, what more can departed saints hope for after His victory?
While it’s not the final glory of the new heavens and new earth, the words of Paul, Peter, Luke, and John about the intermediate state should be enough to fill the heart of any believer with hope at the prospect of death. Christians no longer should look at death as a powerful enemy. Rather, death is a good, though slightly contrarian, friend who ushers Christians from this mortal life to the throne of God, which Jesus calls heaven. From there, the souls of the saints wait for Christ’s Second Coming, where body and soul are reunited in resurrection glory. Rousseau’s mistake is when he frames it as this world or the next. In truth, it is this world and the next and the next. Rousseau’s vision means that people should be a citizen and nothing but a citizen. The Christian vision means people are more than earthly citizens, which is the only faithful way to live on God’s earth.
Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.
Matt Carpenter is the Associate Pastor at Trinity Reformed Church. He taught history for fifteen years and has served in pastoral ministry for eleven years. He is married to Amanda and they have four children: Phoebe, Simeon, Emmaline, and Olivia. In his spare time he enjoys cooking, reading, hiking, and fishing.
 Rousseau goes on to say, “Provided he has nothing to reproach himself with, it doesn’t matter much to him whether things go well or ill here below. If the state prospers he hardly dares to share in the public happiness, for fear he may become puffed up with pride in his country’s glory; if the state goes downhill, he blesses the hand of God that is hard upon His people.”
 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 106.
 C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, 150.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 10, Section 5.
 Westminster Confession of Faith, 32:1.
 See Augustine, City of God, Book 13:2. John Chrysostom, Homily 41 on I Corinthians.
 Acts 7:49, Matthew 5:34, Revelation 4:1-6, Hebrews 8:1, Psalm 11:4