Some recent reflection I’ve been doing has me thinking of how we deal with the present world and how we view eternity. There are certain ways of thinking, talking, and acting that can be found everywhere in our society, even in Christendom, that say quite a bit about what we believe the future holds.
You find this coming out especially in funerals and such where the question of what sort of existence the deceased is experiencing right now has to be dealt with directly. Most of the time we can put off thinking about what awaits us after death because it doesn’t feel immediately relevant. At a funeral, you no longer get to put that question off. Assuming you accept an afterlife of any sort, what does that afterlife look like? What occupies the time of all of those who have died? What, if anything, still awaits them? What thoughts or feelings do they have? Is someone who has died still the same person now in death?
Oftentimes, the description you hear of heaven or whatever you may call it ends up being an extension of life on earth. Your husband loved riding horses on his ranch and now he’s riding his horses off into the sunset in heaven. Your dad passed away some years ago and now your mom just died. Finally they get to go dancing again just like they would always do when they were alive.
Heaven becomes just like earth. A little better perhaps, free from some of the various struggles and grief, but you’re more or less doing the very same things there that you did before. It’s an idealized version of what you knew in life. Your friends and family are all there with you together and you get to relive all of the good old days, but now you get to live them forever.
We don’t get a lot of descriptions of the new creation in Scripture, and those that we do have often come in the form of visions which, by their very nature, aren’t meant to be taken as literal depictions. Of heaven we know almost nothing at all. It’s no surprise that heaven isn’t really described, since it isn’t the goal we’re ultimately waiting for anyway and it isn’t where we’re meant to spend eternity. What we do know of the new creation is that it truly is creation, a physical world. It is the world that has been remade without any flaw.
It’s an interesting point in the Exodus story that usually gets lost in the shuffle. You have all of the plagues. You have the Passover event. You have the parting of the Red Sea. All of these huge, dramatic events. Hidden in there is the goal, what God wants for His people. Even before the people begin crossing the Red Sea, God has already set their sights on the Promised Land. This is what defines them already. They are the people who are being led by God to the Promised Land. Their life in the wilderness or even back in Egypt will not resemble their life in Israel. The Promised Land will be radically different. Everything they did in Egypt will be left behind.
And yet, we find that their life in Israel is not confined to Israel. Some of what they will do and how they will live appears before they arrive. The giving of the Law through Moses is predominantly geared toward how they will live when they arrive in Israel. Inheritance laws, feasts, and so forth that will only have meaning once they get there. But the laws for life in the Promised Land are already given now before they get there, because the goal is already in sight.
The baptismal connection in the crossing of the Red Sea helps us to put this into perspective. The tendency we have in the present day is to take what we see around us now and assume the afterlife will be like what we have now, just better. But that would be like the Israelites assuming Israel was like Egypt, only better. This is not at all what we find. Instead, we see the opposite. The future is not a continuation of the present. Rather, the present is drawing on the future. The goal in Jerusalem was never to build a tabernacle that was just better than the one they already had. The goal was the temple, the place where God would put His name. The tabernacle draws the temple back into the Israelites’ present as they wander the wilderness. In other words, the temple is not a bigger tabernacle. The tabernacle is a little temple.
Here in our day, the same idea continues. The new creation will not just be more of the same. It will be radically different in many ways. How exactly isn’t all that clear, but Jesus’ debate with the Sadducees regarding marriage tells us it will be different enough that trying to understand it now is a bit beyond us. However, there are some things we know about life in the new creation and those are found in the one place that connects the present and the future, the kingdom of God. As Jesus goes about doing the work of the kingdom, He’s bringing the future back into the present.
We Christians know what the future holds. We are always looking toward that future and the fulfillment of God’s promise to us. It is because of this that we can put things in their proper perspective. We see the present in light of that future, as drawing on that future and bringing us into that future. We carry the future with us as we share the Gospel message, not just of what Christ has done, but also of what, in light of Christ, is as good as done already.
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