Eternity as an afterthought


How often do we really think about Heaven?

With the mundaneness that comes from working a typical desk job and the excitement of summer’s arrival, I have found myself “living for the weekend” of late.

As great as the weekends are, full of friends, fellowship and fun, I had to ask myself recently: “Is this really how I should be living?”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I thank God it’s Friday about as hard as anybody when the time comes. Saturday, in line with God’s creative intentions, is normally filled with sweet rest. Sunday, of course, is a day to enjoy fellowship with God’s people, as well as giving of ourselves and our resources while receiving the impartation of God’s word.

This three-day period, however, is not what God has set in the hearts of men; rather, it is eternity (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

Eternity seems like a forgotten concept these days. Maybe the notion is so distant and removed that we have simply placed it on the back-burner. While the early church earnestly awaited Christ’s imminent return, his prolonged delay has made us somewhat complacent, making retirement plans more urgent than eternal plans.

Valuing the qualitative experience of the present life with such a high regard makes our faith look drastically different. Some believers in the Corinthian Church were content with a faith that did not look beyond the grave—denying the resurrection of the dead—to which the apostle Paul replied, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

Faith in Christ, foundationally, grants us the ability to look beyond the present with expectation of an everlasting joy. The most popular verse in the Bible puts it this way: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). After making a decision to follow Christ, one is not to wear this new found life like a gold chain, but to live with eternity in full view. To this effect, Jesus has these words for his followers:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

To accommodate our desire to be rich in the present, however, we have contrived a theology that makes the present as heavenly as possible. The realities of Revelation 21, when God’s new heaven, new earth and new Jerusalem appear, seem to have manifest themselves preemptively. In essence, people are being conditioned to expect that in the present “[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes” and do away with “death,” “mourning,” “crying” and “pain” (Revelation 21:4).

On the contrary, Jesus’ own words to his disciples indicate a much different reality: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Our hope is not to be in the present circumstances, but in the one who has triumphed through the cross in order that he might prepare a place for us (John 14:1-3).

Unlike those who are nearing the end of a lease, we cannot move into our new place as quickly as we may want. What happens, then, is that the delayed gratification that Jesus offers becomes detached from our present reality. We lose sight of eternity and embrace the here and now.

Scripture, though, urges us against complacency and encourages a healthy longing for our heavenly dwelling. Paul, in particular, is quite vocal about having an earnest desire for eternity. He writes:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 5:1-5)

When eternity is properly in view, it allows us to, in turn, have an appropriate view of the present life. Christ’s procuring of our eternal life compels us into service out of a deep appreciation, devotion and love for his sacrifice (2 Cor. 5:14, 20), while also fostering a desire to see our future hope come to fruition.  In Philippians 1:20-24, Paul adds:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

Tension between a future reality with Christ and our present reality is to be expected. The only thing that makes this tension healthy, however, is the desire to remain for the sake of Christ’s mission and the benefit of others. Otherwise, you cannot really call it “tension.” It is more along the lines of comfortable assimilation rather than living as “aliens and strangers” (1 Peter 2:11).

Without this tension, it is nearly impossible to not fixate on what will make for the most pleasing lifestyle. Comfort will be at a premium, while eternity remains the thing that happens when we are done enjoying our lives. This kind of living is not beneficial, as it leads to hedonism and the deterioration of the Christian testimony. Colossians 3:1-6 reads:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.

Lives that look decidedly different from those of the world are ones that prize an eternal reward. To these, heaven is such a reality that it invades their hearts and minds and influences their actions. Material possessions, sex and wealth become trivial compared to the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. As Jesus said, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30)

This concept, unfortunately, has been undermined by some strands of Christianity that are more like glorified self-help. While I do not find anything intrinsically wrong with self-improvement, this is certainly not to be the preoccupation of the Church. And, most certainly, there is no way we can use the New Testament to support this ideology.

This is not an exposé on the prosperity gospel or anything like that. What I am trying to do is reclaim a biblical reality, with that being the dominance of a blessed hope in the hearts, minds and lives of believers.

One of the ways this has been skewed is the misrepresentation of passages with eternity in view as referring to the present. For instance, Romans 8:18—“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us”—has been classically misconstrued as to refer to sometime later in our present lives. Read in context, one will clearly see that Paul is referring to “the redemption of our bodies” (v. 23), this being the “hope [in which] we were saved” (v. 24).

There are plenty of other misused texts (1 Cor. 15:57, Galatians 6:7-9, Philippians 3:10-14, etc.) but the motivation remains the same, a lack of desire for patience to have its perfect work (James 1:4) that facilitates a desire for instant gratification. The whole point of Christ’s delay is that people would turn to him (2 Peter 3:9), through the appeal to be reconciled to God made through the Church (2 Cor. 5:18-20).

At the heart of our plight, though, is the fact that by-and-large we really do not identify with Christ’s sufferings as believers in the Western world. A life devoid of suffering just does not produce a longing for eternity, because, quite frankly, right now is not really all that bad.

A lot of the language the New Testament employs regarding our eternal life in Christ is directly correlated to an experience of suffering: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11); “But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).

I think it is best to say a life that truly has eternity in view has Christ as its end—not eternity itself. What Christ guarantees those who believe on him is unending fellowship, apart from everything that is wrong with our present age. Genuinely pursuing Christ will result in a life with tension between now and eternity, as “it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil. 1:29).


~ by christianballenger on May 31, 2013.

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