Eternity: The World That Is To Come
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, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
A little girl was taking an evening walk with her father. Wonderingly, she looked up at the stars and exclaimed: "Oh, Daddy, if the wrong side of heaven is so beautiful, what must the right side be!"
Theologian N.T. Wright made a point similar to this little girl. Think of the most beautiful thing you have experienced in the past month. Maybe it was something you heard. Maybe some beautiful music. Maybe it was something you saw; moonlight gleaming on a landscape of freshly fallen snow. Maybe something you smelled or tasted; the smell of a favourite meal cooking on the stove as you entered the house and then sat down to eat when you were very hungry. Maybe it was the soft squeeze of a grandchild’s hand or their shrieks of delight at play.
Why is there beauty and why do we perceive experiences as beautiful? N.T. Wright calls these echoes of a voice—the voice of the One who created beauty and gave us the human endowment to perceive things as beautiful. There is much beauty in this world though it is a world that has been harmed by sin and evil. So what is the place like where God dwells that has not been thus harmed? We are thinking today about the Biblical promise of the world that is to come. The little girl was right that thoughts of such a place ought to fill our imaginations with delight.
1. According to the gospel, there is a world to come.
What keeps you looking forward, hopeful? In our work lives—whether in for profit company, non-profit, or charity—few things stifle good work and cause all manner of discouragement like a lack of vision. If employees perceive that leadership is unclear about the future they envision or that leaders lack a road map to get there confusion abounds. In that vacuum people are left to their own ideas; competing ideas and power struggles generally leave casualties in their wake. Think about having a financial plan—if we have no idea of what we want to achieve then disappointment is a likely result. Everywhere in life we value the importance of objectives, vision, goals. So why not an ultimate goal?
The Bible reveals to us the bigger blueprint for what God is doing and the future he has in mind. Throughout the Bible the story of history that is unfolding is seen to culminate in this world that is to come. It starts in the book of Genesis with a hint that God has redemption in mind even as the humans are being driven from the Garden (Genesis 3:21). It culminates with the extensive pictorial imagery in John’s apocalyptic vision of Revelation of a new heaven and a new earth; of Eden restored. God’s idea of redemption includes the cosmos itself.
In fact I would say that the reason we experience the importance of goals and objectives in various areas of life is because God is forward thinking. His forward look is embedded in the fabric of creation. God has an end in mind (teleos). It is another echo of that voice that is calling to us. Our human endowments that we possess with which we conceive goals and objectives did not come from ourselves, after all.
John’s Revelation was written to a people who were suffering under the severe persecution of the Roman emperor Domitian. It is intended to be a pastoral book to bring hope. In spite of what they were experiencing God had not lost control. There is a world to come. Stay the course. Look forward in hope. This theme that there is a world to come thunders across scripture and is always a word of hope for the believer.
To be clear about the blueprint in scripture. There is life after death—to be absent from the body it to be present with the Lord. Then there is the resurrection to life at the second coming of Christ. This is the world to come. The Bible presents the church as having two sections those now in heaven and those on earth. They are envisioned as one church. Both sections of the church are looking forward to the world that is to come.
2. With respect to the Biblical picture of the world to come, think renewed, restored, purified, transformed. In John’s vision he saw “a new heaven and a new earth.” The reason that he sees a new cosmos is because “the first heaven and the first earth passed away.” Because the first creation has been dissolved, the second has been established to replace it.
The word “new” in this text is a word that indicates newness in terms of quality. Newness in time is a typical nuance of another Greek word. What John sees is a qualitative distinction between two world orders. The “first” was impermanent and temporary, whereas the “new” is permanent and enduring. John’s vision is a figurative portrayal that connotes a radically changed cosmos involving not merely ethical renovation but transformation of the fundamental cosmic structure—including physical elements.
There are Biblical images where fire is said to consume this “heaven and earth”. (2 Peter 3:10-12) But this is not in the sense of being utterly consumed but in the sense of fire used for purification to consume dross or impurities. The picture is one of fire used in the process of perfecting a product.
Notice as well that it is identifiable as “heaven and earth.” John recognizes what he is looking at—much is different—but it is “heaven and earth” nonetheless. This new cosmos will be an identifiable counterpart to the first heaven and earth and a renewal of it. Just as the body will be raised without losing its former identity. When the disciples saw the risen Jesus they knew it was Jesus but he was different. Jesus’ former identity was not lost now risen from the dead. Of the resurrection body the Apostle Paul wrote, “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” He is describing qualitative difference but a body nonetheless.
Admittedly there is much mystery here. As St. Thomas Aquinas noted, “God destines us for an end beyond the grasp of reason.” Theologian Richard Mouw wrote, “My own hunch is that God has provided us with a rich storehouse of diverse images of the afterlife, all of them hints in the direction that is beyond our present comprehension, so that we can be free to draw on one or another of them as a particular situation in our life may require.” All these images hint at a spectacular future. The Apostle Paul said, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
The impression that many have, and that many preachers give, is that at the end of the world everything gets wiped out, thus there is little point in worrying much about this world since it is all going to be toast anyway. For instance, in the sixteenth chapter of Revelation we read of a vivid description of God’s judgement, God’s wrath. Many find John’s pictures off-putting; John expected his readers to find immense comfort and help and hope in the pictures. The point John is making is that God’s reaction to the cruelty and tyranny of Rome is that Rome will not endure—God has and will bring all such things to an end.
Is it all bleak?”, someone asks, “doesn’t John recognize a genuine human good in life somewhere?” Yes he does. In fact, John is as quick to acknowledge genuine human achievement as any humanist is. When John speaks of the New Jerusalem (the creation of God healed) he tells us that the kings of the earth are going to bring their glory into it. Not God’s glory (they have no jurisdiction over that), but their glory; the profoundest human accomplishments are going to have a glorious place in the New Jerusalem. John knows that human cultural achievements are glorious indeed. He knows that the very best of human creativity will be honoured in the kingdom of God. Nothing of genuine worth in God’s sight will ever be lost.
John knows that however cruel tyrannical Rome might be, however shallow and decadent affluent Rome might be, there remains in it much that is humanly good. And this good, of genuine worth in God’s sight, God will preserve.
We can think of humanity’s great music, mathematical and engineering insights, philosophical insights that penetrate human experience, administrative genius that make for good order on a massive scale. We could imagine such things being incorporated and transformed in the new heaven and new earth. But also keep in mind, that the work done that promotes human flourishing in the day to day of the enterprises we are engaged in is not disdained by God. Nothing of genuine human worth will ever be lost in the kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem.
I find the promise of the world to come a great word of comfort and encouragement for living. I had a conversation recently with a man who had recovered well from significant surgery. He described himself as “driven” person—rather obvious to those who know him—and that he was struggling with the actuality that he could no longer do what he once did. His body was rebelling—you can’t keep doing that. He put it this way, “I have to keep reminding myself that I’m 54 and not 24.” How many of you have said the same thing? Our aging is accompanied by diminishing capacity and we are ticked about it. In the world to come all such diminishment will be at an end.
We find the words of the Psalmist very true about the latter years of life. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” When I visit someone in hospital, observing this toil and trouble—as the Psalmist so aptly put it—I am profoundly encouraged and informed by the hope that there is a world to come. The difficulty the person is experiencing now will not endure, but by faith they will.
3. With respect to the Biblical picture of the world to come, think remarkable spiritual intimacy.
As John sees this future heaven and earth, the new city coming down out of heaven he describes a stunning spiritual intimacy this way: “and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 21:3-4) I presided at a funeral not long ago for a man who lost his life to ALS at 38 years of age. One of his care givers was speaking of his relationship with this young man; as he spoke tears came to his eyes. Seeing his tears a little boy in the front row—the deceased man’s nephew—took a box of tissues and reached up and put them on the podium so this man could wipe his tears. It was a beautiful scene.
In John’s picture Jesus comes with the tissue and wipes the tears from your eyes. It is a very personal thing born of intimacy—is it not—when one person wipes the tears of another. What we now apprehend by faith will then be sight. I remind you that the intimacy between us and God in an intimacy that turns us to one another; it is for the “healing of the nations.” It is the ground of that world to come where nothing will inhibit love; love will only give way to more love.
I have highlighted this to remind you that to invest in building and promoting friendships is to invest in the stuff of eternity. I think of some treasured moments spent with good friends and the utter delight of those occasions. We all have quirks that good friends overlook—I am sure my friends do this for me (though I can’t imagine what those quirks might be). Imagine a future were spiritual intimacy is so strong that nothing inhibits the joy of friendship.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon a great preacher of the 19th century noted this about friendship. “Friendship is one of the sweetest joys of life. Many might have failed beneath the bitterness of their trial had they not found a friend.” To be a friend is to do the Lord’s work; it is of the actuality of eternity.
His Italian mother named him after the gospel writer Mark in the hopes that he too would tell the gospel truth. But 13th Century Europeans found it impossible to believe Mark's tales of faraway lands. He claimed that, when he was only seventeen, he took an epic journey lasting a quarter of a century, taking him across the steppes of Russia, the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, the wastelands of Persia, and over the top of the world through the Himalayas. He was the first European to enter China. Through an amazing set of circumstances, he became a favorite of the ruler the Kublai Khan. Mark saw cities that made European capitals look like roadside villages. The Khan's palace dwarfed the largest castles and cathedrals in Europe. It was so massive that its banquet room alone could seat 6,000 diners at one time, each eating on a plate of pure gold.
Mark saw the world's first paper money and marveled at the explosive power of gunpowder. It would be the 18th Century before Europe would manufacture as much steel as China was producing in the year 1267. He became the first Italian to taste that Chinese culinary invention, pasta. As an officer of the Khan's court, he travelled to places no European would see for another 500 years.
After serving Kublai Khan for 17 years, Mark began his journey home to Venice, loaded down with gold, silk, and spices. When he arrived home, people dismissed his stories of a mythical place called China. His family priest rebuked him for spinning lies. At his deathbed, his family, friends, and priest begged him to recant his tales of China. But setting his jaw and gasping for breath, Mark spoke his final words, "I have not even told you half of what I saw." Though 13th Century Europeans rejected his stories as the tales of a liar or lunatic, history has proven the truthfulness behind the book he wrote about his adventures—The Travels of Marco Polo.
1300 years before Marco Polo wrote about China, another man, the Apostle John, went on an amazing journey to heaven itself. At times we jaded post-moderns shake our heads in disbelief at the Apostle John's vision and other biblical witnesses to the glory of heaven. But the biblical writers who describe heaven would declare to us, "I have not even told you half of what I saw.”
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth … Amen.