Almost every week, we recite the Apostle’s Creed. The last words of that creed state that we believe “in the life everlasting.” When you say those words, what comes to mind? What does “life everlasting” mean to you?
This is both a tremendously important part of the gospel, and also a piece that we so often misunderstand or confuse. Let’s focus on two key ideas around our Life Everlasting.
Part One – The Return of the King
J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, the Lord of the Rings, is a trilogy that concludes with a book called “The Return of the King.” The title is a reference to the return of Aragorn (aka Strider) to the human kingdom of Gondor. His return is marked by a massive military victory against the evil armies of Mordor, the unification of disparate human countries into one fighting force, and, for the first time in ages, the invasion of the lands of the enemy – a reclamation of what was lost to evil.
There is a poem written by Biblo Baggins, years before these events, called “All that is Gold.”
“All that is gold does not glitter; not all who wander are lost.
Old that is strong does not wither; deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken; a light from the shadows shall spring.
Renewed shall be blade that was broken; the crownless again shall be king.”
The central hope for every Christian is that the true king will return. Everything that we do is staked upon this one conviction; Jesus is coming back.
Jesus’ return includes three key elements. Those are:
A) Jesus' appearance in the clouds with power and glory
B) the resurrection of the dead, and
C) the final judgment.
Read 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17
We will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect” (Matthew 24:30-31). Jesus’ impending return is discussed relentlessly throughout Scripture. In John 14:1-7, for example, which we often read at funerals, Jesus tells us that he is going to prepare a place for us, and that he will return and take us to where he is. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus includes a discussion of his return as part of his final teaching with the disciples, which includes the language of “coming on clouds with power and glory”. Numerous parables discuss the topic of his return – parables of the ten virigins, and the talents in Matthew 25, for example. Paul speaks about Jesus’ return and the Day of the Lord often, most memorably in 1 Thessalonians 4. And of course the book of Revelation tells the story of Jesus as the conquering king, riding at the head of a great army.
Resurrection of the Dead
We believe that as God created us (body and soul), so we shall always be. There is no “me” that exists entirely separate from my body. While Christians debate about whether we go to heaven in some transitional sense when we die, or simply “fall asleep” as Paul describes here, we know with certainty that we do not fully reach life everlasting until the resurrection occurs.
Note how different this is from our modern American individualist culture. I don’t get to heaven on my own – I’m waiting for Jesus, and I’m waiting for everyone else who is waiting for Jesus. We go together, and Jesus comes back to take us there. In Hebrews 11 we are told that Moses, and David, and the prophets, and all the heroes of Scripture, are waiting for us. The author says, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” Imagine – Moses is waiting on you!
The metaphor Paul uses about sleep is very intentional as well – for those who die, the resurrection is instantaneous, just as waking from sleep is from you in the morning. You might feel well rested, but even if you sleep for 12 hours, from your perspective waking happens immediately after falling asleep. So too, the resurrection is immediate for us, in the sense that it is the first thing we experience after death.
We also believe that after the resurrection, there is a final judgment, described in Matthew 25, where Jesus separates us into two categories; those destined for heaven and those destined for hell.
Part 2 – Heaven and Hell
Satre once wrote that “Hell is other people.” Yet the opposite is true; it is the complete absence of relationships and others. Hell is the fulfillment of our self-centered desires. It is the place where we are so perfectly focused on ourselves that nothing and no-one could possibly ever matter to us. Recall the description of God as Three Persons in perfect love with each other, completely selfless. Hell is the absence of that love and selflessness.
Jesus speaks about hell more than any other person in Scripture. He uses language that we assume is metaphorical (fire, burning sulfur, outer darkness) to describe this reality of total isolation.
Hell exists because God loves us enough to allow it. He loves us enough to allow us to choose to never love him or each other. C.S. Lewis famously wrote that the door to hell is locked from the inside. In other words, there are no persons in hell who did not chose that destination. But more importantly, there are no person in hell who would not PREFER to be in hell than be in heaven.
We should note that, from a Christian perspective, Heaven is being with Jesus, who is totally self-less. For anyone who refuses to be released from their self-centered desires and lives, one could imagine that being with Jesus might actually be miserable.
There is no option for wholeness or joy without Jesus and all that he represents; therefore, anyone who does not want Jesus, must experience life without him. That life is far more horrific than fire, burning sulfur, or outer darkness. That life is being completely alone.
We struggle to understand Heaven as well! Too often our images of heaven are drawn from cartoons of fat angels in togas, floating on clouds and playing harps. Or, we see heaven as a place of self-fulfillment, where we finally get everything we ever wanted and are with everyone we ever loved.
Scripture, however, describes heaven as both a great worship service (see Revelation 4-5) and also very much like normal life (see Isaiah 2:1-5). Revelation also speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, and a city designed by God. Part of the core takeaway is that heaven is not a static place where nothing changes. Work continues in heaven, as work was a gift of God to mortals before sin entered the world (and indeed, Jesus says “My Father is always working.”). Relationships continue in heaven, but are changed. The love that we once appropriately reserved for select individuals, such as our spouses, is now love that we share for all of God’s family (this is why Jesus says we will not be married in heaven). We are the same people we once were, including our bodies, but we no longer grow sick or old and no longer have any desire to sin.
Fundamentally, heaven is the place where we are fully ushered into God’s presence. It is the privilege of being with God – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And because God is infinite, we will spend infinity growing closer to him.
At the end of the Last Battle, C.S. Lewis’ conclusion to the Chronicles of Narnia, the heroes all finally enter the new Narnia – a beautiful and wondrous place that is similar to the old Narnia, but better in every way. And as they begin to explore this new world, they begin to run and dance and play, and repeat this refrain: “Further up and further in!” Further up and further in is the plan for our experience in heaven. We will grow infinitely closer to an infinite God through our time with Him, each other, and his new world.