Anticipating the New Heavens and New Earth pt. 1
“But wait, there’s more!” That seems to be the tag line of every infomercial ever, trying especially hard to sell us on their “fantastic product” that can “only” be ordered “right now” (at 3 in the morning) for the “low, low price of $19.95” in 5 monthly installments. But the “wait, there’s more!” often seems extraneous and unnecessary. You see, I don’t need, or really want for that matter, a dishrag that can walk the dog and help the kids with their homework. I just want a dishrag. I think this is a helpful analogy to the way most Christians tend to think about eternity. At least it is a pretty apt analogy for how I used to think about eternity. For most of us, when we think about eternity, we envision being with God, and that is really all that matters for us. Anything beyond that, including the where, the how, and even the what of eternity, is like the “but wait there’s more” line from the informercials to us. Extraneous and unnecessary and, therefore, not worth our attention or contemplation. But what if the Christian hope fully realized goes beyond just (and I don’t say “just” carelessly or callously) being with God for eternity? What if the Bible wants us to long for the "something more”?
One prevalent view of eternity is dwelling with God in heaven, in some disembodied state, attending an eternal worship service. Perhaps we envision spirits floating on the clouds, playing “spiritual” harps (whatever that means). This is all well and good, and I love singing praises to God as much as anyone, but it is not quite the picture painted in the Bible of our final hope. Actually, it is quite literally worlds apart from what the Bible envisions.
Believe it or not, the Bible never expresses the Christian hope for eternity as “going to heaven when we die.” Sure some passages talk about being with God/Jesus where they are after death, but these are not quite as frequent as we might imagine. More importantly, while this is something indeed to long for, these passages leave something more to be desired. The four passages that address this explicitly are Jesus conversation with the thief on the cross about being with Him in paradise (Lk. 23:42-43), Paul as he faces the possibility of death in prison who longs to “depart to be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23), Paul who looks forward to a day when he no longer groans from the troubles of this world and longs to be at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), and finally, the souls pictured before the altar of God in Revelation 6:9. These passages look forward to being with God/Jesus after death, yet there is something left incomplete and unfulfilled.
Notice in Philippians that while Paul’s immediate hope is to be with Christ, presumably as a spirit in some disembodied state (1:23), his ultimate hope is for Christ to come down from heaven and transform his lowly body to be like His glorious one (3:20-21). And even though Paul clearly recognizes that it would be better to be away from his “tent”/unclothed = out of the body and home with the Lord in light of the present brokenness of the body/world (2 Cor. 5:8), his ultimate longing is to be further clothed/given an eternal dwelling = newly transformed, God-given body (2 Cor. 5:1-5). And finally, we get a vision of disembodied souls pictured in heaven in Revelation 6. This comes on the heels of the great throne room scenes in Revelation 4-5, where the 24 elders and 4 living creatures (representing all creation) praise God and fall down before Him in worship. And yet the souls in Rev. 6 are not pictured joining in the chorus of praise, nor are there cries of joy for being the presence of God, but rather cries of despair, and vindication, and longing. Immediately, the red flags stand erect in our minds. If being with God in heaven, worshipping Him for eternity is all that really matters, what gives? Why is Paul not content to leave it at that? Why speak of something more? Why do the souls in Revelation still seem broken, less than complete, unsatisfied, and unfulfilled? To answer this question, we must go back to the beginning and get the story straight from the start.
Whether we realize or not, the place we often start from is from a perspective that is deeply rooted in our culture and has been since the days of Plato. It is a perspective that intrinsically sees this world is bad, our bodies are bad, physicality is bad, the material is bad, and so we long for a reality that has no affinity with this world, nothing to do with the body, non-physical and immaterial. “Spiritual” if you will (though Biblical defined this term intends much more than just the absence of physicality). Everything is shot to hell quite literally in this view, and so it is believed that we are to long for an escape from a material world that is inherently bad.
But if we begin at the beginning, we remember that when God created this world, it was good, and indeed very good (Gen. 1:31). So our starting point is not of brokenness but of beauty. Of course, sin came into the picture and made a mess of everything, but we must get this order straight. This world and everything in it is not inherently bad but is now corrupted by sin. The escapist view of eternity, floating away from this world, leaving it and our corrupted bodies behind and entering into some blissful disembodied, immaterial state is a line bought from the culture, not the Bible. In fact, it sends an implicit message that should be anathema to us as Christians. That message is this. God loses. Satan, sin, and suffering win. Death gets the final word. At the very least, it is gridlock where both parties decide to stop fighting an retreat. It is the divine version of “taking my toys and going home.” Or, as we spoke about yesterday, it’d be like sitting down for a rousing game of monopoly, getting frustrated, flipping the board, and then having the audacity to declare victory. You see, if God is going to truly win as Gen. 3:15 suggests, He can’t just concede to the brokenness of this world, pack up His toys and go home. The escapist view of eternity is unChristian and unBiblical. Let’s think about this further.
To be continued...