Monday, September 07, 2015

What kind of afterlife can we expect?

Sigh! I guess these sorts of questions are on my mind—I just retired and am looking for a long retirement, yet I am mindful of how fleeting life can be. By the time a man has gotten into his sixties (as I am), he has generally lost his parents, various friends, and perhaps many others of his family. A generation comes and goes, and so the inevitable tide of death and life washes over us, and if we do live to be older we are doomed to see most of our loved ones pass away before our lives. Many of us live and die without any expectations of afterlife, and think the course of these things is just the way it was meant to be. I think it could be called the what-you-see-is-what-you-get philosophy of life. In computer-eze , it is shortened to WYSIWYG.

WYSIWYG refers to the idea that what you see on the computer screen is actually the product that is going to be produced, whether it be a slide show, a document, or something coming out of a printer. For those who are using computers, it is a very useful feature. But not so much when considering afterlife. The Bible says that God banished us from the Garden of Eden, and we can no longer have the visible fellowship with God that we had under Adam and Eve. We have lost sight of what fellowship with God is like and only have the Bible and our vain imaginations to tell us what it might be like. Our vain imaginations do not tell us much and I for one, frequently have had to reteach myself about what heaven might be like when my conceptualization runs counter to the Word of God. I am not the only one with misconceptions and when researching the answers to this question I came across this gem from David Lloyd George: “When I was a boy, the thought of Heaven used to frighten me more than the thought of Hell. I pictured Heaven as a place where time would be perpetual Sundays, with perpetual services from which there would be no escape.”1

I will be using Randy Alcorn’s Heaven to answer many dimensions of this question, and I commend its reading to those of you who want a through and Biblical treatment of the subject. What I like about Alcorn is his carefulness to present what the Bible says, and when he is forced to speculation to make sure that the reader knows it is speculation, even though that speculation may have Biblical roots.

In John 14, Jesus tells us that he goes prepare a place for us, that I will come back and take you with me. The first place that we shall be taken to is the home of God the Son, heaven. Christ will return first for his church and carry his bride back to show off to his Father. I know some do not believe in the Rapture, but for the purpose of this piece, let us leave off of that disagreement, and focus on what the Bible tells us about heaven, no matter when we may get there. What is heaven like? I opened this passage with a reflection on growing older, and I am growing older, in my sixties now. But I am in good health, and hope to be around for a bit longer. Still I cannot help but notice my parents passing, and many others, some indeed in an untimely manner, and it makes me think about the better place that Christ has prepared for us. I have an idea in the back of my head, most likely similar to yours, that the crippled or aged or infirm or blind might at last have a better place to go, but the Biblical concept of heaven goes far beyond that. “No wonder Satan doesn’t want us to learn the truth about Heaven. If we fall in love with the place and look forward to the future that God has for us, we’ll fall more in love with God, and we’ll be emboldened to follow him with greater resolve and perspective.”2

In heaven, likely though not absolutely clear, we will have the marriage supper with the Lamb of God. Conservative Bible scholars are unsure whether the marriage supper is during the tribulation, while we are in heaven, or whether it is just after the tribulation, when Christ returns with his saints to the earth. In either case, we will drink anew with him from the cup, which he promised he would not drink from again until we were together. He will have clothed us, not as I might imagine, with his righteousness, but he will clothe us with white robes, representing the righteous acts of the saints (Rev. 19:8). This does not negate our being made righteous by his sacrifice for us, as that is one of many things that happens to us at the point of conversion. Instead, he uses the righteous acts of the saint to clothe us—meaning I think that everything that we did in the power of God to advance his kingdom will adorn us then. The bride of Christ will be beautiful in God’s sight beyond all of our imaginings.

I am come that you might be free, and you shall be free indeed, proclaims Jesus. Our freedom will be evident on that day, when we are at long last taken from the presence of sin, of our own corruption. We shall become like him, says the scripture, for we shall see him as he is. And it will be complete with new bodies. Scripture says we will have new bodies; Plato did not like the idea of the body “imprisoning” the soul, and so he taught that one day the soul would be free of bodily restraint. However this is foreign to the idea set forth in the Bible; we are to have new bodies, and for a period of time, we will actively reign with Christ on earth. What does that mean? I am not sure, but am willing to be pleasantly surprised. Often people are surprised at the verse in Revelation 22:5, “And they will reign for ever and ever.” Alcorn has met people with this attitude, who say, ““But I don’t want to rule. That’s not my idea of Heaven.” Well, it’s God’s idea of Heaven.”3

I am not sure at all that I should be able to tell you what heaven is like—but I can say this much, you will still be you, be in a completed way. You and I, as long as we are in this life, are unfinished works of God—in that day we will be made complete. I will still have my family—my eight grandchildren will still be my grandchildren, my daughters will still be my daughters. But all of us will belong to God, in a complete sense, made what we were meant to be, and perhaps for the first time completely free.

My wife and I were talking about this very thing once, perhaps because my thinking tends to be rather far-sighted, and looking off ahead to the coming of our Lord I commented to my wife that I couldn’t imagine myself not wanting to be her best friend. I know the teaching of Scripture where Jesus tells us that we neither marry nor are given in marriage, and that I think I can understand. This time is the time for making more people, for building families, and for making marriages. The time to come in heaven will look past that and I believe perhaps that every believer we are caught up with will be exceedingly precious, and that deep relationships will abound. But that does not mean that my daughters will stop being my daughters, nor will my wife stop in being my closest confidant. Everything and everyone will become so much more meaningful to us.

I think for me, anyway, the pull in our world about socialism is putting the wrong ideas about heaven in my head. When I think of that many saints (one billion is a very conservative guess) being altogether, I think of the sameness of socialism. I remember an old episode of Star Trek, where the population is severely overcrowded, and the people are nose-to-nose bumping into each other, and to make it worse, later we learn that all the people come from the same few prototypes. But, if I know anything about heaven, trying to impose that image from Star Trek would border on blasphemy. We have a God who created us all so differently, and we love and worship him acceptably in so many different ways. We all bring so many talents that are so different with us, of course given by the Giver in the first place.

I am quite looking forward to spending time talking deeply with many great people that I just wonder about now. Did you ever want to sit down in a one-to-one with Billy Graham? I certainly have. We will have all of eternity, time without end, to do that. It doesn’t matter that the line to see Rev. Graham is ten miles long. It’s eternity we are talking about! I also have many favorite musicians that I look forward to listening to. (I am trying to refrain from listing them here so you do not find out how hopelessly quaint I am.) Do you think they will all lose their talent in going to heaven? No! They have been given their precious talents from God, and laying them at his feet, will he not allow them to continue? I have quite made up my mind about which concerts I will want to hear. Keith Green concerts will probably head the list. (Oops! I wasn’t going to mention any.) Can you imagine the celebration that we saints will through when we are finally there? I can’t. But in thinking about it, my heart is stirred, and I know that God has more than we can imagine or think.

How then shall we approach our thinking about heaven? First, I would highly recommend Alcorn’s book, Heaven, as it is an honest attempt to bring out all that the Bible tells us about the time to come. In the end, though, you may be like me, and that won’t be enough. Our hunger and thirst for a better place, at the side of our Lord, ought to be a consuming fire within us. For me, the only thing that works when I am wondering about that time to come, is to remember just how precious and personal the love of God is for me. I think being older helps a bit here, because I have walked a long path with him beside me all the way, showing consistently how deep and wide, and how absolutely unfathomable his love is toward me. He tells us that his thoughts about each of us outnumber the sands on the seashore. Do you trust him enough to believe that when Jesus said he goes now to prepare a place for us that it will be better, and indeed more right, than anything we might vainly imagine? Keith Green, in one of his concerts long ago, pointed out that God spent six days and nights making the earth, but when Christ told us that he was going to leave us, but to make us a place, that where he is we may be also, he has now had over two thousand years to make that better place!

Tolkien perhaps has the spirit of it when Sam returns home from the Grey Havens after saying farewell to his best friend: “But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap. He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”4 When we get there, there will come a moment, sooner rather than later, when we realize that all we have done, all that God did in our busy worlds, everything that happened us, both evil and good, has been bound into that moment when we step into eternity, sit by the warm hearth in the chair made for us, and say, each of us, to our own wonder, “I’m home.”

Perhaps you are as me and think it cannot get better than that. Well, we are wrong. It is just the beginning of a fairy tale, if you will, that was no ending other than that which every small child knows to be true, “And they lived happily ever after.” The wonders of God will not cease to amaze and thrill us. And the real fairy tale we will find has no end. The “ever after” will not ever stop, is without end. Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus. I just want to go home.

1. Alcorn, Randy (2011-12-08). Heaven (Alcorn, Randy) (Kindle Locations 1449-1450). Tyndale House Publishers. Kindle Edition.
2. Alcorn, Randy (2011-12-08). Heaven (Alcorn, Randy) (Kindle Locations 3122-3123). Tyndale House Publishers. Kindle Edition.
3. Alcorn, Randy (2011-12-08). Heaven (Alcorn, Randy) (Kindle Locations 4105-4107). Tyndale House Publishers. Kindle Edition.
4. Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-02-15). The Lord of the Rings: One Volume (p. 1032). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

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