The Bible gives us hints and images of what eternal life will be like. The one thing we can say for sure is that it will be glorious beyond anything we can imagine.
I have a confession to make. I love to read pulp fiction—spy novels, techno-military thrillers, murder mysteries, that sort of thing. Now I realize that these books are to literature what junk food is to fine cuisine, but I can’t help myself—they’re just so entertaining.
I also have a further confession to make. When I’m reading one of these exciting novels, I sometimes cheat. As the drama approaches its climax and the suspense becomes unbearable occasionally I’ll skip ahead to read the end of the story. You know how it is. The situation appears to be hopeless. So if I find myself becoming too anxious or depressed over how the plot is unfolding, I’ll just turn ahead to the end of the story to find out how defeat is turned into victory.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that in real life? When we find ourselves caught in the middle of nightmarish circumstances or trapped in tragedy with no way out, if only we could fast forward to a happy ending! But unfortunately we can’t. Life simply has to be lived through. There’s no way to bypass the pain or skip ahead instantly to better times. Having said that, though, there is one thing that Christians can do. We can read ahead to the end of the book. Whatever may be the twists and turns of our individual plot lines, we know how the larger story turns out. We know the way the world and its history are going to end. We know who holds the future. We know who the winner is.
Our Christian hope is that at the consummation of all things when Jesus Christ returns to earth in glory, the entire universe will be transformed and will experience the blessing of redemption. The suffering and futility of life in the old sin-spoiled creation will be replaced by the perfect joy of a new heaven and earth. And for each one of us, if we know Christ personally, that will mean eternal life of unimaginable glory in the presence of God. Someone has defined hope as faith projected into the future. Well, here is what our faith says about our own individual futures: “I believe in the life everlasting.” The last word literally in the Apostles’ Creed is “everlasting,” “eternal.” Our final confession in our confession of faith speaks of our hope — our faith looking forward — into an eternal future of everlasting life in the presence of the Lord.
“Behold, I Make All Things New”
At the very end of the book of Revelation, John is given a vision of the coming of “a new heaven and a new earth.”
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. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
Rev. 21:1-5, nrsv
John tells us that after the glorious return of Christ the old creation “had passed away” (v. 1). But the end of the world is not the end of the story, at least not for the people of God. When the heavens and the earth have passed away, behold, a new heaven and a new earth, says John! The new creation he sees is in some ways like the old one, but with a universe now transformed, redeemed, made perfect (just as after the resurrection our bodies will somehow be continuous with our old mortal bodies, but gloriously changed). Though we cannot begin to dream how all this could happen, we may be certain that in some unimaginable way the hope that the Bible holds out for the whole physical creation (see Romans 8:18-21) will be realized at the end when Christ comes again in glory.
Notice that the eternal future that we believers look forward to, the life everlasting, is very much a physical life. According to the Bible, our future is to live forever with real bodies, on a real earth, as part of a real universe—a life, in fact, that is more, not less real than the life we presently experience. Life in the world to come will be life as God meant it to be. It will be life made perfect, joyful and glorious beyond our wildest expectation.
The first thing we are told about the new creation is what is not there: “there was no longer any sea,” John says (v. 1). In the Bible in general, and the book of Revelation in particular, the sea represents chaos and the forces of evil; it was from the sea that the Beast who symbolizes Anti-Christ came (chapter 13). The fact that there is no longer a sea in the new earth doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to have any beachfront property! It means rather that all sin and evil have finally and forever been removed from the universe. And because evil is gone, that means a host of other things are gone as well. John lists many of them in the course of the last chapters of Revelation. Not only is the sea absent, so are tears and death and mourning and crying and pain. So is everything absent that is under God’s curse and darkness and night (21:1,4; 22:3,5). So the new Creation is a world without sin, without suffering, without loss, and without end.
What that experience will actually be like, I can’t imagine. The Bible uses words like “imperishable” and “unfading” (1 Peter 1:4) to describe eternal life. It says that “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9, niv). I sometimes try to picture how it’s going to be: beauty that never fades, strength that never diminishes, blooms that never wither, music that never stops, pleasures that never cloy, bodies that never die, relationships that never go stale. I’m at a loss frankly to even know what words to use to begin to describe it.
A new heaven and a new earth. The heavenly Jerusalem coming down to earth. Trees with leaves of healing that blossom all the year around and rivers filled with the water of life. The dwelling place of God with humans. Riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing, forever and ever, and ever, and ever. Hallelujah! That’s how the story ends for everyone who belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ; for me, and I hope for you too. Only it isn’t the end; it’s really just the beginning.
Here and Now
There is one more thing. The everlasting life that we believe in is more than just our hope for the future: “pie in the sky, bye and bye,” as the old mock goes. We believe in an eternal life that starts right here and now. The life everlasting is the life of the kingdom of God, the life of righteousness and joy and peace in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17) that begins for us the moment we are born again by the power of God’s Spirit through faith in Christ.
In the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a number of claims of the type that led C. S. Lewis to observe that a man who said the kinds of things Jesus did could not possibly be considered a good man or a great teacher if the things he said about himself weren’t true. In the space of a dozen verses in John 5 Jesus claims to be equal with God (v. 18), to do whatever God does (v. 19), to give life to whomever he pleases (v. 21), to be the universal judge of the human race (v. 22), to be the one to whom all honor and worship are due (v. 23), and finally, that one day he will raise all the dead by the power of his voice and save the good while judging the evil (vv. 28-29).
Then, in the midst of all these other astounding claims, Jesus says this:
Truly, truly I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. . . . an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
Jesus isn’t talking here about the physical resurrection of the dead at the end of the world. He isn’t talking about the life everlasting in the new creation. Notice the time reference, the present tense. The hour is now here; whoever hears my voice, hears my word, will live. Jesus is talking about a spiritual resurrection, a kind of hearing the Word that results in receiving eternal life right here, right now in this world. Here’s the good news: You can live forever. And the even better news: you can start doing that today. All you have to do is to hear — really hear — the voice of the Son of God, and believe the Word of Jesus Christ. To hear it so that you get it, to hear in faith, to hear and obey.
So how is your hearing? If you want to experience the life everlasting, you need to listen and believe in the word of Jesus Christ.