This was originally posted on January 14, 2016
“For the Christian, death is not the end of adventure but a doorway from a world where dreams and adventures shrink, to a world where dreams and adventures forever expand.”
- Randy Alcorn, “Heaven”
Everyone has heard of a bucket list if they don’t already have one themselves. Of course, the idea is that there are a certain number of things that you would like to do before you die, during your time here on earth. While typically this is a fun exercise that is meant to facilitate dreams and wishes for this life, it can also be a troubling reminder that we are quite finite, especially depending on ones view of eternity or what lies beyond the horizon of this life. A worldview that is more natural and atheistic would most likely lead to the conclusion that this life is indeed all we have, which adds incredible pressure to the necessity of a bucket list. Instead of a list of things we’d like to do, it becomes a necessary set of tasks and dreams that have to happen otherwise we’ve lost the only shot we have at fulfillment.
For the Christian, this should not be the case. One would think that a view of the life beyond this life would facilitate some kind of peace or contentment, and so it should. But too often, because of a faulty theology and a flawed way of thinking about eternity, we as Christians can often fall into the same category of looking at this life as really all we’ve got. It is true that what we do in this life matters and impacts eternity, but the scriptures make it very plain that this is not “it”. This is not the only shot we’ve got at a real life, only to fly away and play a harp on a cloud in some ethereal, timeless setting for the remainder of forever.
Now there have been books on this matter, specifically what Heaven or the New Heavens and New Earth will look and be like, that do a much better job at expounding this concept than I would have the space to do in one blog post. What I do hope to accomplish is to provide a brief scriptural basis for the idea that eternity future, in the New Earth, will be very physical and corporeal. This is a far cry from the notion that Heaven will be boring, or that it is necessarily immaterial - a thought partially based in truth, but not seeing the complete picture. The implications of this are far and wide, and the freedom and perspective that this opens to us is incredible. But let’s begin with scripture.
“For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.
This is the first instance of God referring to a new heavens and a new earth. As context would demand, we should be careful about how much of this we carry over as there are parts that still speak of people dying at 100 years of age as a young man. But the point is that here God mentions the very fact that He will recreate the heavens and earth. So it would make sense that it is very conceptual and not at all fully flushed out. Does this mean that we won’t remember anything from this life? That’s really hard to say, and I’m not sure that this particular text is quite solid enough to make that kind of a final statement other than to say that what lies ahead will make the best parts of this life pale in comparison. And even if we have no memory of this, it will be what a good God deemed fit, and it will be perfect.
Now we move on to the New Testament.
2 Peter 3:10-13
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
Peter is encouraging his audience to draw hope and motivation for personal purification from the end of times. There is all this talk about fire and burning and dissolving, which sounds rather apocalyptic, but then he ends it by talking about waiting for the new heavens and new earth. So really, its not about dreading the end times, but looking beyond even that to the new heavens and new earth where everything will be made right and be set back to what it was supposed to be in the garden, or as Peter states: “a new earth, in which righteousness dwells”. Still, that doesn’t tell us much of what this new heaven or new earth will look or feel like, does it? Interestingly, the burning and dissolving seem to refer to the heavenly bodies with only one word, sometimes translated “elements” possibly referring to something on earth. So could it be that this earth will go through some kind of transformation setting it back to its intended glory and perfection? There are many opinions and thoughts at this juncture, but what stands is that the path to the new heavens and new earth is through a violent, disruptive process of purification. But what emerges is still recognized as heaven and earth, just new.
Here is where we must part ways with the notion that we are bodiless, ethereal beings sitting around on clouds for all of eternity. True, 2 Corinthians 5:8 says, “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord”. And this would indicate that for this moment, to die and pass away from this body is to be in a state that is void of the physical, but in a conscious presence of God Himself, and that it is everything perfect and good. So it is still much to look forward to, it is a perfect satisfaction of the soul because we are reunited with our Creator.
Still, its not everything that God has up His proverbial sleeve for us. He still talks about a new heaven and earth, and He speaks much of the bodily resurrection from the grave. 1 Corinthians 15:35-58 speaks to the bodily resurrection, where Paul compares it to the way a seed is planted in the ground and transforms into something new. So we are planted in the ground at death but look forward to a transformed body in the end of times, where Revelation 20:13 tells us that even the sea gives up the dead ultimately. While many speculate and debate about the nature of this resurrected body, it is safe to say it IS a body, it is quite physical, but it is also quite different. At the very least, it is perfected - exactly what God intended it to be from the beginning. So no disease or maladies or imperfections. But it is a body.
So at the very least, let us give up the notion that we will somehow spend eternity in a metaphysical state of consciousness. No, it will be a very real, physical experience. It will be the ultimate fulfillment of what this existence was meant to be, but without the sin, suffering and death that plague our experience here. And we will be with our Creator, which is actually what makes anything else perfect. That fact alone would be enough, but God lavishes His redemptive heart upon our eternal existence by eternal blessings of a new heaven and earth.
The clearest description of this place is found in the final book of the Bible.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, 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. 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. And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
In the end, John sees the new heaven and earth. It is important to distinguish between the New Jerusalem and the new heaven/earth. The streets of gold and precious gems embedded in the walls, etc are descriptive of the city, the New Jerusalem. But the rest of the earth is going to be trees and mountains and water and valleys and all the beauty we know now, only perfect. The rest of this text describes more of what this existence will be like, only from the perspective of our sin. There will be none. No more mourning or crying or pain, no more sin, no more cowardice because there will be nothing to shrink away from… it will be everything our souls long for. Every heart cry that begins with “how long” will be answered and filled up in that day. We see echoes of this longing in this life, in the human soul, whether a follower of Christ or not. Even in the world at large, movies and songs and poems and art show us the longing of the heart to something more, something perfect - for security and peace and fulfillment.
We only ever find this, now or then, in our Creator God. And we can only reach this through what Jesus did. If He did not come, if He does not bring us to God, we can never approach our Creator much less have any chance or hope of spending our eternity with Him.
There is a need for a proper view of heaven and eternity. There is also clear scripture that corrects our wayward thinking about what that will be like - that it will never be boring or mediocre, but will be the fulfillment of everything God intended life to be. So the significance, the implications of this truth are far-reaching, incredible and life-altering. If we have the right view of heaven and what it is (and isn’t) it truly transforms the way we live now. We are freed from so much of what ties us down and constricts our ability to live well now. We are freed to enjoy, to love and to find our every satisfaction in God alone.
Here, then, are several ways that the significance of a real, physical eternity on the new heaven and earth transform our earthly existence now:
1. Life Unlimited
If this life continues into the next, not merely some metaphysical, un-tantalizing, floating existence, then we don’t have to “get it all in” now. In other words, this is not the only shot we get at life, there’s more. Rather, this life is a kind of smudgy reflection of what it was supposed to be, and what ultimately will come to those who are in Christ. Another way of looking at it would be that if eternity is in any way a restoration of Eden, then why wouldn’t we be infinitely more alive and creative and inspired than we ever could be now? This implication is tremendous because we tend to think that we are most inspired and alive and human now, but then we will be some floating orb of light or an angel, or some other kind of robotic sort of creature. If the throne room in Revelation 4 is any indication, there will still be race and language and ethnicity, all the diversity that God created and intended within His creation, just without the marring of sin on those relationships. How freeing to imagine that we don’t have to squeeze everything we could possibly want to do into this short blip (biblically, “vapor”) of a life, there’s more coming.
Practically, that means that we can spend this life for Christ without worrying about whether we’ve wasted it, because it’s not all we get. Its rather an investment into what lies ahead. And that’s not to say we cannot or should not enjoy what we can in this life, because that is truly a taste of what is to come. We should love and be loved, enjoy times with friends, good food and drink, and so on. But we don’t have to make all of life a pursuit of that either, because what this life may lack will be more than made up for in eternity.
Personally, I have thought about this in regard to where I am living right now, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. If love this place, the beauty of creation here is arguably some of the most gorgeous you will see on this earth. I love it and could honestly spend my life here. But even if God called me away, even if it meant leaving the people and places I’ve come to love, the mountains and forests that have grown dear to my heart, its okay. I don’t have to live here my whole life, because even if I have to “give that up”, I’ll have eternity on the new earth to explore whatever the New Shenandoah Valley looks like. So you see, I am free to follow the Lord wherever He deems me to be and whatever He deems me to do. I don’t have to follow what my desires and preferences might demand, because this isn’t ‘it’. There’s more, and it will be better and more beautiful and perfect than anything I could dream of now.
2. No Ticking Clock
Humans, as the image-bearing creation designed for God Himself, were not meant to live within a limit of a lifespan. It was not until the fall that death is introduced into the world. That means we were meant to live forever and not even think about the end of our time on earth. But we do, because of the curse and the effects of sin even in the physical world. We worry about the passing of time and fret about all that is slipping by us. We find it hard to be diligent about the tasks that are right in front of us when we are consumed with the thought that each moment counts simply because they may be the only moments we ever get. However, if we live in light of the truth that we will live forever in a very physical way, perhaps that liberates us from the burden of carrying each moment with such weightiness. Of course, what we do here echoes into eternity, and there is always a sense of urgency for that reason. But it should not be the panicked, frantic sort of urgency that drives us to spend ourselves fully every moment. There can be time for rest, there can be time for relationships because its not just about accomplishing more stuff or doing things that will leave a permanent mark on this world which survives us long into the future.
In fact, even the things that we love and enjoy in this life have meaning in themselves. The food and drink, the times with friends, the scenery and beauty of creation, all are not in vain or pointless because they’re all going to burn one day. Even in this sin-cursed world, we can see imagery of the beauty and perfection that God originally designed, and which one day we will live in again. So we can enjoy and love and live well, and not with regret or some kind of depression because we will only have a crystal city to dwell in walking shiny streets and playing a harp. No, we will live and well and love and live much like this life, only better, only perfect, only with God the center of everything that exists.
3. Unbound to Accomplishment
Thirdly, we are unfettered from the felt need to accomplish a certain amount of things, or even one certain thing in our life. Its not wrong to spend ones life well, or to have ambition or drive, or to have a sense of calling. This is not any of those things. Rather, what we can be freed from is the sense that if we don’t accomplish a certain amount of things in this life, we will be devoid of purposes. Our one calling is to walk with the Lord. After all, we were created for His purposes, His pleasure and fellowship with Him. If we understand that then we don’t have to live up to anyone else’s expectations, a malady that we all struggle with to some degree. Really though, if God is pleased, and ultimately I will spend my eternal years on the new earth with Him, then what does it matter how many people I make happy now, or how popular I am, or how much in the worlds eyes (or my own) I have accomplished?
To gauge my life by the measurements of humankind is to settle for a reading that is far understated. God sees beyond the time and space we find ourselves in, from eternity past to future. We only see now and can only imagine the past and future. This means that we can trust Him completely with our lives and the direction they take. We can make choices that please Him, we can follow His direction completely and not worry so much about what it all means or whether it has mattered. If it mattered to God, then that is really enough.
But try living with a view that its really only this life that counts for anything and you will burden yourself with stress and anxiety that no human can bear. Jesus understood all of this, He saw eternity past and future and actually knew the years He would spend before His death, and yet He rested. He frequently went out on a boat with His closest followers, or up on a mountain or in the wilderness alone. If only these short years counted for anything, that would never make sense.
4. No Apocalyptic Threat
How many movies have there been, are there now, and will there yet be which contemplate the end of the world? If we subscribe to the idea that we will dwell on a new earth, then there really is no “end of the world”, but rather a dramatic transformation from this fallen creation into the new one. However you view what the Bible teaches about what it takes to get there, the fact is that we will dwell on a perfected, beautiful creation. Whatever anxiety there might be about how this world could end - by some massive earthquake, nuclear war, widespread disease, or even into the more ridiculously imagined conclusions, we need not fear that. And if we are in Christ, we are promised His return. Oh, there will always be trouble and trials and persecution and even death for the followers of Jesus, but there is that ever-present promise that we will see Him again which both keeps us pure and keeps us hopeful.
Even recently, I noticed a cartoon that referred to the idea that heaven will be boring. There are now more than ever, brilliant minds who are unpacking what the scriptures really teach about our future eternal home, and its wonderfully exciting. My hope in this simple post is that we might catch a glimpse of what such a truth implies for we who follow Christ in this present day. It means everything. Simply put:
It means we have to impress nobody save our Lord. It is a true liberation from the fear of man into the fear of the Lord, which is full of meaning and purpose.
It means there is no bucket list we must fulfill for our life to mean something.
It means we do not have to accomplish the things that the world tells us must happen for our life to have counted.
It means there is no threat of global extermination that we need fear if we understand what God has spoken about the end of days.
It means we can enjoy the life God has given us now, that the things we so cherish about this life are just a taste of what is to come.
It means we are free to throw ourselves at the mercy and sovereignty of God, to follow Him unwaveringly and pursue Him with our whole hearts, without flinching at what it could mean for our life’s purpose.
In other words, a new-earth-eternity means everything.