Here’s what George Bernard Shaw thought about life after death:
Heaven is always thought of as a perpetual holiday... and as conventionally conceived, is a place so inane, so dull, so useless, so miserable, that nobody has ever ventured to describe a whole day there, whereas plenty of people have described a day at the seaside… [And he goes on to say:] The genuine popular verdict on it is expressed in the proverb, ‘Heaven for holiness and Hell for company.’
Ie, it’s not a great place to be – ‘I’d rather be in hell with my mates.’
But at least Shaw talked about the idea, even if he was cynical. Whereas there was a woman on Radio 4’s Today program recently whose work is to help people talk about dying and their dying wishes. And the presenter, Justin Webb, said, ‘Now we all know death is the end, but you’re wanting us to be better at talking about it – is that right?’ Which was breathtakingly arrogant and false: ‘We all know death is the end’? Even if I wasn’t a Christian I hope I’d have the intellectual humility and integrity to say, ‘Some people believe death is the end; but nobody can know it is.’
Well, this is the end of a series on the Nicene Creed. Last time we covered the line, ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead.’ And the creed ends, ‘and… the life of the world to come.’ So last time we zoomed the camera in close to see what we will be like beyond this life – if we’re believers in Christ. And we saw that we won’t be disembodied spirits – but have resurrected bodies. Today we’re panning the camera right back to see what the life of the world to come will be like – what the place will be like, what we’ll experience, what we’ll be doing – if we’re there, that is, through knowing Christ.
And we need to do that because looking forward beyond this life is what will keep us going as Christians in this life. We’ve just booked our first holiday abroad with the children. And I was the one with concerns – you know, ‘Is it really worth the extra hassle and cost?’ And Tess found this great deal which pulled the cost rug from under my feet – and asked me what I thought. So I consulted Google maps and got the little man down into this Spanish village – and you can look at everything, even the swimming pool. And my concerns melted away in the warmth of those pictures of the sun. Well today we’re going to look at the Bible’s greatest picture of the life of the world to come. It was given to the apostle John when believers were facing growing hostility, and needed reassurance that being Christian really was worth the cost. And John says to us, ‘Look what the Lord showed me in a vision of the world to come.’
So would you turn in the Bible to Revelation 21. The question is: what will the world to come be like? And the answer is,
Firstly, IT WILL BE A RENEWED CREATION
Look at v1:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… (v1)
Now that doesn’t mean that God is going to replace this fallen creation with something completely new – like our throw-away culture which just chucks out the broken kettle and buys a new one. It means he’s going to mend or renew this fallen creation. So if you look on to v5 it says:
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (v5)
So, not ‘making all new things’, but ‘making all things new’. And last time (in 1 Corinthians 15) we saw that he’ll do that with our bodies – like a seed becoming a plant, or a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, our present, sinful, mortal bodies will become resurrected bodies. We don’t know exactly how –but we shouldn’t think of a crude reassembly of all our original molecules. (I have no idea whether I contain any of the original molecules I was born with!) It’ll be something like the way a baby in a sense ‘passes away’ to become the toddler and then the child and then the adult: there’s massive physical discontinuity, and yet the same person throughout. That’s how it will be with our bodies. And v1 says that’s how it will be with the whole creation:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away [in the sense that the baby ‘passes away’ to become the toddler, or the caterpillar to become the butterfly]… (v1)
And if we believe in a God who created everything from nothing (Hebrews 11.3), we shouldn’t find it an intellectual problem to believe he can renew what he’s created in a way that’s beyond our imagining.
So the world to come will be a renewed creation. Which is why I’m not going to refer to it as ‘heaven’. Heaven is where God the Father and the risen Lord Jesus are right now. And, thanks to Jesus, heaven is where I would go in spirit if I died right now. But heaven is not my ultimate destination – this new creation is. So last time, we dispensed with the idea that we’ll be disembodied spirits. Today we can dispense with the idea that we’ll be floating around on clouds – or whatever airy fairy picture we may have. It’s going to be a gloriously renewed creation. So in C.S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce, he imagines himself on a visitor’s bus journey to the new creation. He writes:
I got out. The light and coolness that drenched me were like those of a summer morning just before sunrise, only there was a certain difference. I had the sense of being in a larger space, perhaps even a larger sort of space than I had ever known: as if the sky were further off and the extent of the green plains wider than they could be on this little ball of earth. I had got out in some sense that made the solar system itself seem like being indoors. But I despair of conveying the real quality of what I saw and heard. (The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis)
I was talking to an elderly person recently – not a Christian, and not really interested. And when I asked why he said, ‘I wouldn’t want to live forever.’ And it turned out he was thinking of the world to come in terms of quantity of life – more of the kind we have here. Well who would want that – even if you were granted a reasonable degree of health? The new creation obviously will be quantity of life – although I don’t begin to understand what time-unlimited or timeless life will be like. But what the Bible stresses is its quality. Look, eg, at v4 which says that
[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (v4)
So there will be no more doctors or nurses or physios (no practising ones, that is). No more illness or ageing or dying. No more final goodbyes. No more loneliness or rejection or disappointment or sadness. Nothing to spoil it – because sin and all its consequences will have been eradicated. Richard Baxter wrote a classic book called The Saints’ Everlasting Rest. And on the strength of v4 he says: ‘Use each earthly sorrow to remember heaven by saying, ‘This will never happen there.’’ And he also says, ‘Use each earthly pleasure to remember heaven by saying, ‘It will be unimaginably better there.’’
So it’ll be a renewed creation. But equally it will be a renewed creation. Which means we will still have bodies and be in a physical place – although how similar and different to this creation, we can’t imagine. And it also means we’ll still have human community. Just look down to v2:
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God… (v2)
So in the Old Testament (OT), Jerusalem was the city where the temple symbolised God’s presence – and Jerusalem itself came to symbolise his people living together in community, in fellowship. So having dispensed with the ideas of disembodied spirits and floating around on clouds, we can also dispense with the idea that we’ll be like monks and nuns – so absorbed in contemplating God that we won’t really relate to one another. I once heard an interview with a nun called Sister Joan, who’d founded a community of solitary nuns. (That seemed to me a contradiction in terms – if you want to be solitary, why get together with others to do it? But we’ll let that pass.) And they each lived in a separate caravan in these woods. Which doesn’t remotely appeal to me. So it’s good to see the life of the world to come described in terms of city life – ie, highly relational. That of course is why, in this fallen creation, the dream is to escape the city to your cottage in the country – to get away from people’s inability to live together (including your own!). But there won’t be that inability in the new creation. You’ll have a perfect capacity for other people – and, anyway, other people will be perfect. Which is why the New Testament (NT) so strongly calls us to work at unity and love among ourselves now – as training for then – which is a challenge, as that old bit of Christian doggerel reminds us:
To live above with saints in love,
That surely will be glory;
To live below with saints we know
Is quite another story.
Now look on to Revelation 22 and v3 for another insight into what this new creation will be like:
No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. (22.3)
Or you could better translate that ‘his servants will serve him’. It’s a picture of a place where there’s still work to be done. So we can dispense both with George Bernard Shaw’s idea of a perpetual holiday which is purposeless, and also with the idea that it’ll be one unending church service. It won’t be: there will be purposeful work to be done. And the Lord Jesus hinted at that in the parable of the talents, when he says to the good servant,
‘Well done... Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ (Luke 19. 17)
So although the new creation is described as ‘rest’, that’s not rest from work and responsibility – it’s rest from all the effects of the fall – including the way it’s made work always to some extent frustrating and dissatisfying here and now. So as a Christian you’re often working for organisations and goals you don’t really believe in; or under an ethos or management or Government that militates against your efforts to be a thoroughly Christian businessperson or doctor or lawyer or school or whatever. But in the new creation we’ll have totally fulfilling and satisfying work. Because the goals and the ethos and the management and the government will be God’s.
So, what will the world to come be like? The first answer is that it will be a renewed creation. But then,
Second, IT WILL BE THE CONSUMMATION OF A BELIEVER’S RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD
So look down again to v2:
And I saw the holy city, 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, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (vv2-3)
And then look on to v9:
Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb [the Lamb being the crucified and risen Lord Jesus].” (v9)
So the Bible pictures believers in Jesus as his bride, and him as the bridegroom. So that right now, if your faith is in Jesus, you’re engaged to him. But only in the new creation will you be married, and your relationship with him consummated – by which I don’t mean anything sexual, but that your relationship with him will be finally complete and perfect. Because engagement involves distance when you want to be together, and it involves frustration at unfulfilled desires. And that’s the picture of our relationship with the Lord now – when we wish we could be closer to him; wish we could see him and not doubt him; and wish we could be what he wants us to be – but consistently fail. But Revelation then describes the world to come as ‘the marriage of the Lamb’ (see 19.9) – when as v3 says we’ll finally be with him. And if you turn on again to chapter 22 and v4 it says simply,
They will see his face... (22.4)
Now throughout the Bible we’re told that we can’t see God – i.e., relate that directly and immediately to him – because he can’t have even the slightest degree of sinfulness in his presence (e.g., Exodus 33.18-23). So this is clearly saying that our sin will have been eradicated from us in the process of resurrection. And isn’t that something supremely to look forward to? Listen again to Richard Baxter in The Saints’ Everlasting Rest:
Christian, once you are in heaven, you shall sin no more. Is that not glad news to you, who have watched and prayed against sin so long? ... We shall no more have this rebelling principle which still draws us from God; no more be oppressed by the power of our corruptions nor vexed by their presence: no pride, passion, slothfulness, insensibility shall enter with us; no strangeness to God and the things of God; no coldness of our affections nor imperfection of our love for him; no inconsistent walking or grieving of the Spirit... we shall rest from these forever. Then shall our will correspond to God’s will, as face answers face in a mirror. (The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, Richard Baxter)
And to love God perfectly – as we ought to and, in our heart of hearts, want to – will be one of the greatest joys of the new creation. By contrast, I looked up how the Qur’an describes those in Paradise. It says:
Round about them will serve youths... with goblets and cups filled... No after-ache will they receive, nor will they suffer intoxication; and with fruits, any that they may select; and the flesh of fowls, any that they may desire. And there will be companions with beautiful, big and lustrous eyes, like pearls well-guarded: a reward for deeds of their past life... virgin-pure and undefiled. (q56:8-38, translation found in A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Islam, Patrick Sookhdeo)
You get the picture: food, drink and available women will be the great reward. Whereas in the Biblical – ie, true – picture, your consummated relationship with God will be the great reward. That is It, with a capital I. And that’s part of the reason why there won’t be human marriage there.
The Lord Jesus said,
For when [people] rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage... (Mark 12.25)
And I take it that’s partly because procreation will no longer be needed where death is no longer taking people away. But it’s also because human marriage was always meant to be a visual aid of what our relationship with God could be – and a sign-post pointing us to that relationship that we need above all others. But once you’ve reached the destination of consummated relationship with the Lord in the new creation, you no longer need the sign-post. So every marriage here is a pointer to the relationship with God that we all need far more than we need marriage. And every person here who is single is a pointer to the new creation when human marriage will be a thing of the past, and when we’ll all be single in that sense – and yet enjoying with one another a quality of relationship deeper and better than anything we knew in this life.
So, what will the world to come be like? It will be a renewed creation. It will be the consummation of a believer’s relationship with God. And I hope, in the words of the Nicene Creed, that does leave you saying I ‘look for the life of the world to come’ – that is, ‘I look forward to it – I can’t wait!’ But it has to be said, lastly,
Third, IT WILL ONLY BE POPULATED BY THOSE WHO ARE SAVED BY JESUS
Look down to Revelation chapter 21, v7, where God says:
The one who conquers [which in Revelation means ‘conquers the temptation to give up believing in Jesus because of all the pressures to do so’. The one who conquers] will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.” (vv7-8)
Now, as with many parts of Revelation, that is imagery – but it’s an image of something real. And the hard reality is that there are two eternal destinies. There is the new creation – but it will only be new if all sources of sin have been removed from it. So for any given person, either God must remove their sin so that they can be part of the new creation; or if they refuse to let him change them and be their God, then God must remove them – which is what v8 is talking about. It’s talking about hell. And it’s like C.S. Lewis says:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Your will be done’, and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Your will be done.’ (The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis)
And elsewhere he says:
I believe that those in hell are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside; and that they enjoy the horrible freedom from God that they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved; just as those in the new creation, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free. ’ (The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis)
So whether a person ultimately ends up in the new creation or in hell, either way it will be the consummation of the relationship they had with God in this life.
Now I don’t like talking about hell, but faithfulness to the Bible requires that we do. And I know mentioning hell means there will now be many questions in peoples’ minds which there’s not time to answer now. Eg, there are the pressingly personal questions about loved ones – ‘Where are they now?’ To which it has to be said that only God knows what’s finally transpired between him and any other person – and we must take responsibility for our own response to him in ignorance of others’ ultimate responses. But there’s also the intellectual question: ‘How can hell be just? Isn’t it utterly disproportionate?’ But the Bible sees no justice problem with anyone being in hell. It says that if throughout this life I’ve said ‘No’ to God being King, then it’s ultimately perfectly just for him to say ‘No’ to me being in his kingdom. That would be giving me both what I want and what I deserve – as well as what is necessary for the new creation to be the new creation. No, as the Bible sees it, the great problem is how there can be anyone in the new creation – how anyone can be forgiven a lifetime’s sins and changed and welcomed in. And if you’re a Christian, you’ll know that that problem was dealt with at the cross, where Jesus took on himself the judgement for our wronging of God so that we could be forgiven justly.
And that’s why, as we’ve seen, Revelation 21 calls believers ‘the wife of the Lamb’ – that is, Jesus, the sacrificial lamb. Because those of us who are there in the new creation will never for a moment forget that we are there solely because of him.