The Hope of Things to Come or, The Beginning of the Real Adventure

IMG_0028This is a chapter out of my manuscript What Sinners Dare Not Dream. I have yet to publish this manuscript (though I am looking if anyone is interested), but wanted to post this chapter mostly to get some feedback and/or encourage those out there. Please enjoy and let me know what you think. 

There is little doubt that C.S. Lewis was a talented writer and a great thinker. One piece of his writing, however, stands out as my favorite because it summarizes the purpose in life. The last few lines to his book The Last Battle, the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia series, Lewis has Aslan addressing the children, saying,

“Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

Lewis goes on to narrate:

“All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Lewis did a masterful job of expressing the true reality of the mystery of heaven. We know that heaven will be a great adventure that will go on forever, that it will be eternal bliss; but we cannot describe it. We can try to guess, but what good does it do?

The reality in all of our talk of Heaven, however, is that Heaven is simply a backdrop to a greater truth; we enter into a perfect, glorious, uninhibited relationship with God. A perfect relationship, a perfect connection, a relationship that is so close that we cannot even begin to imagine what it is like. It is this hope of a deeper relationship free from the evil around us that gives meaning to our actions today. In fact, it is that hope that compels us to act in our world.

For Christians, “death” is a misnomer. Death is actually our first step into life. We’re dead for the time we’re here on this earth and become alive when we are finally able to leave. That isn’t to devalue life, but merely to offer commentary on the impact that evil has on us while we walk this earth. True life comes in death, and life abundantly comes in the resurrection.

What is it to die?

Part of the reason people fear death is because they don’t know what it is. For many, they fear that it is their non-existence. I’ve dealt with many people who say they believe that when we die that’s it and there’s nothing more. They say that they don’t fear death, but this is an absurdity; what is worse than not existing? Even in the darkest times of life when we pine for death, non-existence is still worse. Suffering, while horrible, still allows us to hope for something better. It allows for us to hope for a better tomorrow. But non-existence doesn’t allow for hope, it simply ends all that is good. It is this non-existence that people fear when they truly think about it.

The Bible is quite explicit on what it means for a human to die. We are body and soul (Luke 12:4). We are made in the image of God, but physical. The ancient philosophers described us as “rational animals.” We can run, feel pain, bleed, have sex, eat, and drink just like all the animals can. But we can rationalize, create art, have deep emotions, and adhere to strict moral codes, unlike any of the animals. We are physical enough as to paint a portrait, but immaterial enough to imagine it.

When we die, our souls continue on (Ecclesiastes 12:7). At the point of death, when we breathe our last, our souls leave our bodies. Our bodies then “sleep” and await the resurrection (Daniel 12:12). That is it; our bodies decompose and rot, turn into dust and are absorbed back into the earth. Here we see the paradox that in death we are both asleep and awake. Our bodies rest in the grave – just as Christ’s body was in the tomb – while our souls are present with the Lord.

During this process, our spirits wait for the resurrection of our bodies (Romans 8:23). Our bodies cease to work and our spirits separate from them. As noted earlier in the book, it is because of our sin that we must be divided in death. Sin causes our souls and bodies to separate from each other, at least for a time. Not only that, death also causes a disruption in our earthly fellowships. We learned that death is the ultimate end to the relationships here on earth. However, because of Christ, death does not need to be the end. Rather, while our bodies sleep, our spirits enjoy heaven.

The Heaven You Never Dreamed Of

In Western folklore, heaven is this place where spirits go and sit on clouds and play harps all day long. Others view it as a place where all we do is sing worship songs, and of course it’s always a modern style worship service, because God is a suburbanite American. Another myth about heaven is that we get to “start over” with no memories. If any of those are true, then heaven probably isn’t a place you would want to go. All of those views just sound so weird and/or boring.

In dispelling some of these myths, it is important to first realize that heaven is an actual place that, though spiritual, has a form to it. Heaven can be distinguished and isn’t just some cloudy residence (John 6:38). Christ kept saying that He came down from heaven and that He would go back up to heaven, indicating that it is an actual place. It isn’t some psychological state of mind; it isn’t a place where we float around; it isn’t anything we’ve learned in folklore. Heaven is a place we enter into (Luke 23:42), it is a place where God’s glory is displayed in full (Hebrews 8:1), it is being in the very presence of God (John 14:2). Heaven, then, is the resting spot for our spirits, who will rest in the presence of God.

It must be understood that while heaven is a place, it is not a physical place. Our bodies do not enter heaven (though a few in history have been allowed such an honor). The reason is that due to the Fall our bodies are corrupted and therefore cannot enter into the immaterial. This isn’t to say that our bodies are lesser than our souls, merely that our souls have been purified through Christ and our bodies await purification in the resurrection.

Thankfully, even if our bodies cannot enter Heaven, we know in death that we still go to be with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). Our spirits don’t float around or haunt the living; they are present with the Lord and, though spiritual and not physical, do have a bodily form to them (John 14:2). Having a bodily form, but not a body, means that we will recognize each other (Luke 16:23). One mystery is that though we will look different, somehow we will still know who is who, even without our bodies (Luke 9:30). We will recognize the fullness of fellowship, something we are unable to do while here on earth. As Scripture teaches, we will recognize loved ones who fell asleep in Christ, so for Christians, death is a temporary separation rather than a permanent departure.

Heaven and Earth Shall Pass Away…

One of the misconceptions we have about Heaven is that it’ll last forever, but the Biblical writers are quite explicit in stating that Heaven is temporary. The temporal nature of Heaven is because it is meant as a “holding place” for spirits until the resurrection of our bodies. Earth must pass away because it must be remade. All of creation, every single atom, every aspect of the material world has been infected with sin (1 John 2:17). It was not created this way, but was subjected to this. The Second Law of Thermodynamics – that all energy will move towards a state of equilibrium (entropy) – reminds us that every aspect of creation is infected by sin, even the laws of physics. Sin is such a part of this world that it actually changes the physicality of the universe and makes us reliant upon entropy and destruction; without decomposition the universe would be left in shambles. We rely on imperfection in order to exist.

With the above in mind, it should be no wonder that everything in the physical world will end. After all, how could a good God allow evil to continue perpetually? Romans 8:18-22 states:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”

Creation was subjected to futility because of Adam’s sin, but it currently awaits the glorious redemption of God. He will one day reshape creation and cleanse it of its fallen nature; He will remove the curse.

Yet if earth will be remade then it only makes sense that Heaven is also temporal. After all, who will populate the new earth? While Heaven is a place where we are perfected (1 Corinthians 13:9), we must always keep in mind that Heaven is not our final destination.

The Judgment

Sometime between the passing of Heaven and the foundation of the new earth, there will be a judgment of believers and nonbelievers. No one likes the idea of being judged, especially by God. But the Bible teaches us that there is a judgment to come. For believers, the judgment is not one of condemnation, for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1). The lack of condemnation, however, doesn’t free us from judgment (Romans 14:10). This judgment is based upon our actions (1 Corinthians 3:9-15) and we will either be rewarded for what we have done (Luke 14:14) or ashamed for what we have done or not done (1 John 2:28). In all of this, Christ will be our judge (John 5:22).

Christ will judge His followers based upon what they did for His Kingdom while here on earth. Christ loves us, He died for us, and we will enter into fellowship with Him, but He has left us here for a reason. While we are here, we are to grow in Him and perform works for His glory and abstain from works that dishonor Him. How we handle this responsibility will determine how we are judged. In reflecting on the past two chapters, ask how you have fulfilled your obligation to those who can’t help themselves. It is on this that you will be judged.

One can think of the final and extremely potent scene from Schindler’s List where Oscar Schindler, preparing to exile himself as to avoid being captured by the Allied advance, begins to say his goodbyes to all of the Jews he saved. He begins to break down at how much more he could have done to save more Jews; he points to his car and says that could have bought a few more, he looks to his lapel pin knowing it could have purchased a few more. Though he had given away his entire fortune, he was ashamed that he could have given away more.

Could it be that we Christians will face a similar shame when we are judged before Christ? Could it be that He will march in front of us the countless number of children who have perished from starvation around the world while we did nothing? Will He show us the scars of the oppressed we neglected to save so we could pursue a “better life”? It is a sobering thought that we spend so much time pursuing what will perish rather than using those items to pursue the eternal goods. But we must not forget that in the Final Judgment that what we pursue now will be our source of shame later.

Sadly, there is a second death for those who have rejected Christ.[1] While Hell is also temporary, the souls of those without Christ will be resurrected as well, but into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:12-15). While this sounds cruel, I believe I have sufficiently covered why people go to Hell, or in this case, the lake of fire (which is most likely metaphorical, but still no place one would want to go). Though I admit that this is an uncomfortable belief, we must remember that there are consequences for our actions (Galatians 6:8).

We can ask how much sense it makes for God to cast us away for eternity when we’ve only existed temporally on this earth, but this is a false dichotomy. Humans are eternal because we are composed of both body and soul. The actions we commit now are not judged in eternity later, rather they happen in eternity now; what we refer to as “temporal” simply exists within a system of decay. Thus, the punishment of Hell, or the lake of fire, is eternal because we are eternal, and we will eternally continue to reject God. Psalm 6:5 says that no one even recognizes God and that none will turn to Him. Thus, once all things have been remade those who have rejected Christ will continue to reject Him. God will not hold them in the lake of fire against their wills or against their pleading, but rather He will hold them there because that is what they desire.[2]

The Old Will Become Brand New

Moving away from the sobering thoughts of eternal punishment, it is a good thing to ask how God will remake the world. Peter taught that God would bring about the end of this world with a purifying fire (2 Peter 3:10-13). We can think of God as the greatest metallurgist; He will take what is nothing more than a raw metal and through fire and hammering turn it into the perfect blade. When the earth is “burned up,” that means it will be purified of all its imperfections, like gold in a fire. Once this has been done, Heaven and Earth will pass away by uniting with each other (Revelation 21:2). John of Damascus paints a beautiful picture of what such a transformation means when he wrote,

“It is sown in weakness: it shall rise in power. It is sown in dishonour: it shall rise in glory. It is sown a natural body (which is to say, gross and mortal): it shall rise a spiritual body…not meaning a transformation into another form – far be it! – but rather a change from corruption to incorruption.”[3]

Beyond being made new, most importantly Heaven coming to earth means that God will dwell among us (Revelation 21:1-4). He will no longer ask that dreaded question, “Where are you?” He will no longer be an “object of our consideration.” There will be no debates over His existence. On the new earth we will walk with God just as He walked with us in the Garden. He will be our ruler and we will serve Him for eternity (Revelation 22:3). We shall, with joy and gladness, serve our King who loved us. It is on the new earth that we see the original purpose of God’s creation – community – completely fulfilled as He communes with His creation. Turning again to John of Damascus we read,

“And so, with our souls again united to our bodies, which will have become incorrupt and put off corruption, we shall rise again and stand before the terrible judgment seat of Christ…And those who have done good will shine like the sun together with the angels unto eternal life with our Lord Jesus Christ, ever seeing Him and being seen, enjoying the unending bliss which is from Him, and praising Him together with the Father and the Holy Ghost unto the endless ages of ages.”[4]

When he and the Bible speak of worshiping God forever, it is not meant in some modern sense of “worship.” Sadly in America “worship” is far more synonymous as a genre within music than as an action performed before God. Suffice it to say that “worship” in the way John of Damascus and the saints of old mean it does not entail acoustic praise bands singing the same stanza over and over again until they elicit enough tears from the crowd.

The idea behind worship, from a Biblical perspective, is to submit to God in the most humbling of ways. The Hebrew word (shachah) refers to the act of falling prostrate before a superior. The Greek word (proskyneo) isn’t too far off from a similar meaning. Both give us the idea of submitting and laying in awe of someone who is superior. Thus, on the new earth we will submit to God in everyway possible; sometimes we will sing, sometimes we will perform certain rites, sometimes we will simply walk with Him. In all that we do, however, we will be in a constant act of serving Him.

In submitting to God we will not simply do so in ways we consider “churchy.” While music, rites, and the like will be used in worshiping God, we will also live in civilizations and cultures and have vocations, but all will be done in service to God. It is often shocking that most Christians don’t realize that the new earth will be extremely similar to this one, only perfected. There will still be artists, businessmen, farmers, kings, and the like.

On the new earth we will live then as we do now, only glorified and in perfection. There will be civilization, agriculture, cities, and so on (Isaiah 65:17-21). We will till the ground, but without toil. The separation between man and nature will finally be lifted completely. Much to the chagrin of those hoping to lay around on a cloud playing a harp for eternity, we will instead be building cities and developing culture. There will be socialization on the new earth with the saints of old (Matthew 8:11). We will be able to speak to Paul or Abraham or any of the saints of the Bible. Most of all, we will socialize with each other, but in perfection. The separation between man and his fellow man will be no more.

We too will be restored. We will be given new, incorruptible bodies like Christ (1 John 3:2). In our bodies, we will be glorified with Him (Philippians 3:20-21). Even those who have turned to dust or been lost to the sea shall, in some mysterious way, be raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:35-38).[5] Our body and soul will be united and the separation of ourselves from ourselves will be eradicated. The resurrection we learned about earlier in the book is a resurrection into a real life and a future without end.

One way to describe this new resurrected life or to summarize the new earth is that it will be a land of “no more.” Much of what we encounter in this life simply won’t exist in the life to come. The writer of Revelation states, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (Revelation 21:4).” The idea that we shall one day be held in the arms of Christ while He takes away our sorrows is a source of great hope for Christians. We know that there will be no more evil (Ezekiel 37:25-27) and therefore no more cause for suffering. On the new earth there won’t be victims or perpetrators of crimes. How odd to think of a society where there are no police because they simply aren’t needed. Political philosophy will be void of any comments on the “oppressor/oppressed” dichotomy, because all will be equal in the Kingdom. The new Kingdom will be free from sorrow, from burdens, and from all that harms us in this life.

Death, too, shall be defeated. Our bodies will no longer get worse with age, because we will never move toward death (1 Corinthians 15:42). We will not get sick. We will not have to worry about having friends ripped away from us. We will not distress over losing a loved one. We will enjoy each other fully because we will know that we will never be robbed of each other’s presence. There will be no crying, no funerals, no mourning, no more goodbyes. This new society will not have any hospitals or psychiatrists. There will be no need for either because of the incorruptible nature of our bodies and souls.

The great poet of the Church, Ephrem of Syria, described the new earth as such:

“In Paradise the cripples, who had never walked, leap around; the deformed, who had never even crawled, fly about through the air; the eyes of the blind and deaf, who had yearned from the womb, hungering for the light which they had failed to see, now rejoice to behold the beauty of Paradise, and the mighty sounds of its harps gives comfort to their ears…None toil there, for none go hungry there; none endure shame there, for none do wrong there; none feel contrition there, for there is no cause to repent there. Those who run the course find rest and quiet. None grow old there; for none die there; none are buried there, for none are born there. They know no worry, for they have no suffering; they have no fear, for no snare awaits them; they have no adversary, for they have passed through the contest. They count themselves blessed unendingly, for their warfare is over; they have taken up their crowns and found rest in their new abodes.”[6]

Seeing as how we will live in God’s presence and never experience the ill-effects of this current life, it is not hard to imagine that this place is one of eternal bliss (Psalm 16:11). Some might say that it is utopian, but I would contend it’s consistent with what we know about God. Considering that God is perfect and a God of love, considering that He is maximally good and He created us to exist with Him and in perfect communion with Him, is it really a stretch to believe that His plan culminates in our bliss? Turning to Ephrem the Syrian once more, we read,

“Paradise delighted me as much by its peacefulness as by its beauty: in it there resides a beauty that has no spot; in it exists a peacefulness that knows no fear. How blessed is that person accounted worthy to receive it, if not by right, yet at least by grace; if not because of good works, yet at least through mercy.”[7]

A place of peace, where there is no fear, and a place of beauty, a beauty we can’t even imagine. The new earth might sound too good to be true, but that is only because we dare not dream it to be true.

It is okay to cry now for those that we have lost, for Jesus did (John 11:35). Though we have a future hope, we still live very much in the present. We still suffer from the pangs of hunger, from the blow of someone who wishes to harm us, or from evil in general. We still sin and in our sin we bring suffering to others. We should hate our sinful nature in the present, but realize that it will one day be eradicated by a God who loves us so much that He sent His only begotten Son to die for us.

The Mystery of Heaven

In all that I’ve said about Heaven I’ve only offered generalities. The reason for this is that Heaven, or more accurately the new earth, is a place that cannot be described. The simple truth is we don’t know what Paradise will hold because all the Scripture concerning it is written in hyperbole or metaphor; Paradise is too great for any human tongue.

What we can know is that Paradise will be far greater than anything we can possibly imagine. When Christ describes it as a place with streets of gold we know that He is being hyperbolic; He’s saying it’s a place of wealth beyond our wildest imaginations. After all, in our world gold is rare, so rare that we’d never think about using it to build a road! But on the new earth, gold (or money) will be so inconsequential that we’ll simply use it as a commodity. While I may not know the details of what such a metaphor means, I do know that Paradise is beyond any attempt to explain it.

The simple truth about Paradise is that our minds can’t fathom the glory that awaits us. We are like little children on Christmas eve, looking at a present and trying to decipher what it is. But no matter how much we guess, we’ll never fully understand what it is until we open it. Turning to the Poet and his description of Paradise, we read,

“The tongue cannot relate the description of innermost Paradise, nor indeed does it suffice for the beauties of the outer part; for even the simple adornments by the Garden’s fence cannot be related in an adequate way. For the colors of Paradise are full of joy, its scents most wonderful, its beauties most desirable, and its delicacies glorious.”[8]

We don’t know exactly what Paradise will be like because it’s too glorious for us to understand in our current state. Right now we think of everything through a fallen paradigm. We see everything as racial, or in terms of class, or in terms of gender. But such issues simply won’t exist in Paradise; but beyond these generalities we can know nothing. Paradise is too glorious for our tongues, too good for our thoughts, but it is a reality that we will one day experience.

Living in the Now

It is because Paradise is ultimately a mystery that it does us no good to dwell on it. Though we look forward to Heaven and look forward to the new earth, we must live in the now. After all, Heaven is not the end of the Christian faith. The new earth is not our goal. Our goal is a relationship with Jesus Christ, one that is manifested in all that we do; Heaven just happens to be included in a relationship with Christ.

We must never forget that we are citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3:20). That means we should live as though we have already been to Heaven and come back.[9] We should act like we are citizens of Heaven and not citizens of this earth (1 Peter 2:11). This means that we live holy lives now and do not adopt the morals of this world, but it also means we are to bring a taste of Heaven to this earth.

The great thing about Christianity is that we can live a paradoxical life; we can hope for the Kingdom of God while living in the Kingdom of God. Though we have not fully experienced the coming of His Kingdom, it has come and we can live in it. This might seem like a contradiction, but it’s not. His Kingdom began to come with His conception in the Virgin Mary and will culminate with His eventual return. While we hope for better times and hope for the hastening of His return, we also recognize that we are to live as though He has returned.

We cannot keep our heads in the clouds and live in some Christian bubble, waiting for Christ to return. Instead, we must go out into the world. The hungry will feast in Heaven, so we should bring them a feast now. The sick will be healed in Heaven, so we should do what we can to heal the sick now. The homeless will be given a mansion in Heaven, so we should give them shelter now. The unloved will be loved in Heaven, so we should love them now. The orphaned will be given a Father in Heaven, so we should introduce them to their Father now. The oppressed will be liberated in Heaven, so we should liberate them now. We are citizens of a superior nation with superior laws, so let us follow those laws as they will make us better citizens of our respective nations on this earth. But let us work to bring Paradise to earth in the now as much as we possibly can, for even if we cannot achieve it, just a little is better than nothing.

What we should learn from Paradise is that everything is ultimately reconciled. In the resurrection humans find that they are no longer separated from themselves. On the new earth we will build new cultures, showing that we are reconciled to each other. In Paradise we will work the fields, but without toil, indicating that humans and nature will be reconciled. Finally, we will worship God in perfection, showing that we will be reconciled to Him. In all of this, we should live for eternity now because we are eternal beings. We do not wait for eternity, but instead we recognize that we currently live in eternity.

All that will be accomplished in Heaven should be strived for now. That is what it means to be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. We will not live like the world, but we will live to love the world. We will not serve the morality of this world, but we will serve the people of this world. For that is what Heaven will be; Heaven will be us loving God, God loving us, and us loving each other. That is our hope. Death has already been defeated; it holds no power over us, for those of us who are in Christ. The Kingdom has not been delayed, rather, the Kingdom is here and we simply need to live like it.

[1] Many people worry about if children will be in Heaven. After all, a three-month-old or even a three-year-old don’t hold the capacity to accept Christ. From Scripture, it seems clear that our children go on to be with the Lord and that we will recognize them when we see them (2 Samuel 12:23). Jesus even said that the kingdom of God belongs to the children (Matthew 19:14). What is interesting is that He said previously, in Matthew 18:14, “For it is not the will of my Father in Heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” So it seems from the grief of David and the words of Christ that children are somehow not condemned in their early stages of development. If there is some “age of accountability,” then it is beyond me when it occurs (it is most likely subjective to each individual). However, we can say with confidence that young children and infants most certainly go to Heaven.

[2] As for those who have never heard the Gospel, the Bible is relatively silent on the issue. What I would say with much confidence is that simply having never heard the Gospel does not qualify one for salvation (otherwise sharing the Gospel would be absurd). Whether that means that some might be granted mercy having never heard the Gospel or not is not up for me. But such a debate is ultimately superfluous; what ultimately matters is how we who have heard of the Gospel shall respond to it.

[3] An Exact Exposition, 405

[4] Ibid. 406

[5] Some struggle with such a thought, but it is interesting to notice that in our current world this isn’t even impossible. In physics we know that information cannot be destroyed, even in a black hole. How such information is preserved is still debated (with it mostly being Hawking/Bernstein vs. Susskind/Hoof and almost the entire physics community). Regardless, in theory one could retrieve the information and build whatever it originally came from. Thus, if it is possible within our fallen universe, certainly it is possible for a God who is the origin of all information.

[6] Hymns on Paradise, 123, 127

[7] Ibid. 106

[8] Ibid.

[9] This is a big theme in Francis Schaeffer’s book True Spirituality: How to Live for Jesus Moment by Moment (Tyndale House Publishers, 2001).


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