Anticipating the New Heavens and New Earth pt. 5
Having made a case for what I believe is the Biblical picture of eternity and the essence of the Christian hope, we now turn to ponder what this will be like (to be sure a fuller treatment could most certainly be undertaken, and perhaps I'll return in the future to deal with some other issues relating to this including some common objections).
A word of caution is in order. As one writer put, we are merely given signposts of eternity. Markers which point us in the right direction but don’t actually drive us all the way there. They invite us to anticipate with eager longing, giving us a taste of what is to come. But it is merely a taste. Perhaps it is analogous to the vantage point God granted Moses before his death (Deuteronomy 34:1-4). God shows us at a distance what He is preparing for us, and while we may bask in the glory of the whole, the splendor of the particulars remains a bit fuzzy. That necessary disclaimer behind us, let us press on to ponder.
What will eternity be in the New Heavens and New Earth be like? Hopefully, by now, we’ve been disabused of the notion that we will be floating on clouds as spirits (what would that even look like?) in some eternal worship service. Not to say worship is bad or that we won’t be doing it for eternity; it's just to say maybe that won’t always look how we typically picture it. We’ll come back to this. Along with that, hopefully, we’ve come to appreciate that the notion of leaving the physical world behind to dwell with God in some non-physical realm is actually quite literally worlds apart from the Biblical picture.
The first thing that we want to affirm about eternity is that we will have bodies. Newly transformed resurrection bodies (Rom. 8:11, 23-24; 1 Cor. 15:35-57; 2 Cor. 5:2-4; Phil 3:20-21; Col. 3:4; 1 Jn. 3.2). The pattern we see in Jesus’ own resurrection is that the new body will be both similar and dissimilar to the ones we had before (Lk. 24:31, 36-40; Jn. 20:19-20, 26-27; the transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-13; Mk. 9:2-8; Lk. 9:28-36) also points in this direction). Furthermore, Paul’s seed metaphor also suggests that our new bodies will be both similar and dissimilar to the old (1 Cor. 15:42-49). Now, how much similarity or dissimilarity our bodies will have is unspecified, and we are reminded that these are only signposts. But, at the very least, we have assurances that we will have glorious bodies that are unplagued by disease, death, and decay. Untouched by age, aches, or ailments. Unharmed by coughs, cancer, and COVID. This is not because we’ve somehow escaped the physical or mortal, but because God has transformed our bodies for immortality. A new physicality, if you will. “Further clothed” as Paul put it, with a body fit for eternity (2 Cor. 5:4). Can you imagine living in such a body? I admit, as I sit here with back hurting, head aching, and throat scratching, it is hard to envision. But oh how I long for it! And I’m certain you do too!
Secondly, we affirm and anticipate that just as we will have newly transformed bodies, so too will the world as we know it be transformed (Rom. 8:18-25; 2 Pet. 3:10-13; Rev. 21:1-2). The curse, chaos, and corruption will give way to light, life, and lavish abundance. Suddenly, texts like Isa. 11:6-9 or 65:25 don’t seem as obscure or as in need of harmonization through “spiritualization.” We can appreciate and anticipate a new world without violence, predation, or scarcity. The lion and the lamb really will lie down together. Natural disasters will be a distant memory. We will inherit a world that doesn’t ruin, rundown, or run out. No thorns, nor thistles, tornados, or tsunamis. The beauty, glory, and majesty of God’s good creation will be restored.
These are glimpses, albeit imperfect and incomplete ones, of what eternity will be like. But the question remains, what will we be doing in our newly transformed bodies in this newly transformed creation?
As we’ve already mentioned and have probably come to expect, eternity will be a time and place for worship. But this won’t be, as it is often conceived of now, just something we do or an event we attend. It will become part of the very fabric of our being. We will be people whose identity is rooted in the worship of God. In large part, the book of Revelation divides people into two categories, those who worship God and those who worship anything else (Rev. 20:4). In the New Heavens and New Earth, we will be given a renewed identity as priests who serve in the presence of God (Rev. 7:15, 22:3). We will join in the chorus of the elders and the four living creatures with the rest of the 144,000 singing the new song of victory (Rev. 14:3). Struck by the majesty, brilliance, and glory of God, we will not be able to help but sing His praises (Rev. 21:22, Rev. 22:3). But not only will we honor God with our lips, as priests, people whose identity is wrapped up in the worship of God, everything that we do will be to the honor and glory of God (Rev. 21:24-26). This prepares us to think of our role as divine image-bearers.
If you remember way back to the spring of this year when we began to talk about what it means to be made into the image of God, we noted that this is a concept that probably cannot be boiled down to any one bite-size idea. At the very least, to be made in the image of God means that we resemble Him in some way, we represent Him as His imagers here on earth, and we rule with Him by exercising stewardship and dominion over creation, or if you just need some more alliteration, we share an affinity, an agency, and an authority with God. Really these are not three separate things, but three ways of getting at the same thing. This God-given purpose, vocation, and identity are not abandoned upon death, nor is it deemed unnecessary in eternity. If anything, it will be heightened in the New Creation. Notice how often the hope is held of God’s people reigning with Him in eternity (Dan. 7:18, 27, 1 Cor. 6:2-3; 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 2:26-27; 3:21, 20:4; 22:5). This must be more than just flowery descriptions of the future and empty words. I don’t know exactly what it will look like for us to reign with God in eternity, but perhaps we can take a cue from what it means for us to reign now and what it meant for Adam and Eve to reign in the beginning. For the first man and woman, reigning meant using their God-given abilities to tend to, care for, and preside over the livestock and the vegetation in their care in such a way that reflected God’s glory to the world and gave glory back to God. Even today, though the spaces, the skills, and the situations have changed, it ultimately looks much the same. Whether it be raising kids, selling insurance, making carpet, managing franchises, seeing patients, going to school, our running a business, we are all called to exercise our abilities, and take advantage of our opportunities in such a way that demonstrate the glory of God to the world and brings glory to His name. Again I don’t know exactly how this translates to the New Heavens and New Earth, but we can be sure we won’t just sitting around on cloud somewhere or even a mansion over the hilltop. Can you imagine engaging in projects that never fail? Finding only fulfillment in your given task? Work without waste?
Finally, (this is the final word we will say about the New Heaven and New Earth at this juncture but certainly not the final word on the matter) eternity is often pictured both in the Jewish and Christian hope as a banquet or feast in the presence of God (Isa. 25:6; 55:1-2; Mt. 8:11; 26:29; Lk. 14:15; Rev. 19:9). I struggle to contemplate what it will be like to sit at the Lord’s table. Of course, we get a taste of this every Sunday, but surely we await something far better (Mt. 26:29). Again this is merely an approximation, one that stretches our imagination beyond its capacities. Indeed, John can only describe the presence as a permeating light from which nothing is hidden (Rev. 21:22-24). But oh what it will be like to bask in the radiance of the glory of God, to rejoice in the hope that has become reality, to commune with Father, Son, and Spirit in perfect fellowship, perfect harmony. To be in the presence of our ever-loving, always wise, supremely powerful, wholly beautiful, and absolutely majestic Father, our beloved Elder Brother and Savior, and the Blessed Spirit who has seen us through to the end. Don’t you want to go to that land? Or perhaps we should rather ask, “Can you wait until God victoriously transforms and recreates this reality as we know it?” Not quite as succinct, but that is Christian hope. “Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).