A Compelling Future. Are Heaven and Hell Consistent with a Good and Loving God?

Does Christianity have a compelling vision for the future? It would be odd if you were considering the compelling reasons to trust in Jesus, but then upon asking about the afterlife you are told that you enter an endless cycle of being reincarnated as a bird if you receive Christ, and as a worm, if not. That should strike you as utter nonsense. Now what about Christian teaching? The idea that upon death we either sprout wings and play a harp while sitting in the clouds, or burn in an eternal fire, is for many people, too much to believe. Is the Biblical Christian vision for the future consistent with a good and loving God? Or is it nonsensical? When we hear what the Bible teaches about eternal destination, do we say ‘of course that is what a good God would do”?

Let us look first, to the Book of Revelation;

1 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.

Here we have, not a hope of going up into heaven when I die, to spend eternity there, but something much grander. This is a vision of God’s re-creation of all creation. All of creation was negatively impacted by the sin of humanity (see Romans 8:18-23). All of creation will be positively impacted by God’s rescue of humanity.

2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Here we are told of a city, not in the sense of roads and buildings, but in the sense of people. The holy city is the “bride,” that is, the people of God. Just as people are the focus in the creation account of Genesis, people are the focus of the re-creation account. God created humanity, the only creature we are told he created in his image, for a special relationship. That relationship is what is truly important.

3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;

There is much in the Bible about separation from God being a huge problem for humanity. It begins with Genesis chapter three and the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. It becomes apparent at Mount Sinai when the people cannot approach the mountain on which God’s presence was made palpable. It is emphasized in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, with the establishment of both the tabernacle and priesthood. While God was willing to dwell among his people, as symbolized through the pitching of his “tent” among them, God needed to remain separated from the people, for their sake. An unholy people cannot approach a holy God without becoming holy first. The sacrificial rigmarole of the priesthood was a constant reminder of separation from God and the need for atonement. The priesthood and the sacrifices pointed forward to something greater; God the Son making people holy through his sacrifice. In Christ the future of God’s people is wrapped up with being at home with God. There is no more separation from God.

The problems of this world, which separation from God creates, also are dealt with;

4 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.” Revelation 21:1-4 (NRSV)

The consequence of sin and separation from God is death. The consequence of being reconciled to God is eternal life. In Christ death is no longer part of the human condition. However the consequence of God’s grace is not just eternal life, but as we have already seen, eternal life with God.

In sum, the Biblical vision of the future is one of transformation, for all creation, for our bodies, and for our very selves. The transformation within us begins now through the Holy Spirit. The fact that the Christian is to look to God to fix everything in the future is compelling. The fact that the Christian need not wait for Christ’s return to fix everything in us is also compelling. The hope of meaningful change, not into brilliant cloud-sitting harpists, but into good people who dwell with a good God in a good creation, is consistent with a good and loving God.

However, is the future of those who reject God consistent with a good and loving God? The idea of being on fire forever does not seem consistent to many of us. In answering this we must first appreciate that the people of the Bible often speak in poetic ways, just as we do today. We sometimes pick apart the Bible as if we are in math class working out equations. Let us remember our English literature lessons and have an appreciation for the poetic and literary nuances which often escape the math whizzes. We will not dig into this too deeply, but it is best to take the language about hell, with the everlasting fire and torment, as poetic. The least poetic, the most matter-of-fact, the most precise and concise description of hell we have in the Bible is this;

9 These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (NRSV)

What is hell? It is separation from God. What is it like to be separated from God? Thankfully, no one alive can truly tell, for to be alive at all is to experience a measure of God’s grace. However, we do well to remember that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 NRSV). As you read through the Bible, watch out for how often salvation is spoken of as a matter of eternal life versus death. This is consistent with the Genesis account and the promise that death would occur if the forbidden fruit were eaten. What we can say with certainty is that to experience hell is to experience everlasting separation from God.

If hell is separation from God, then is separation from God consistent with a good and loving God? Consider first, the holiness and justice of God. That unholy people cannot dwell with a holy God is made clear in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers; at Mount Sinai, and through the establishment of the tabernacle and priesthood. God did not teach about His holiness and our sinfulness in the Old Testament then come to us in the New Testament and say “it doesn’t matter anymore.” It does matter, but God offers to make us holy in Christ and through his Holy Spirit. If you reject that offer of being made holy, then separation from God is a very natural consequence. The experience of death is a natural consequence of refusing the offer of eternal life. Therefore, the future of those who reject God is consistent with a good and loving God who respects the wishes of those who want nothing to do with him. Of course that is what a good God would do.

The Bible presents a compelling and beautiful vision for the future of those who receive Christ and accept God’s offer of relationship. While we might not use the word beautiful, the Bible provides a vision of the future of those who do not want a relationship with God that is consistent with His goodness and love. The consistency of the Christian vision of the future is yet another aspect of Christianity that is compelling.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)

The Resurrection Chapter: Concluding Thoughts on the New Beginning.

54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

Thanks be to God! What a fitting conclusion to this chapter on the resurrection of dead. Only this is not the conclusion as Paul, being the typical preacher that he is, goes on to say more. What more could he possibly have to say about it? Let’s take a look. . . .

 Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

“Therefore”

This is a deeply significant word that could easily be missed since it is a rather simple word. The significance lies in the fact it is a ‘therefore‘ and not an ‘if‘. It is not “the dead in Christ are raised if you excel in the Lord’s work,” but rather “the dead in Christ will be raised, therefore excel in the Lord’s work.” So often people think that God will love them if they work harder. God has already shown His love:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures . . . Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; 20-22)

The cross and the promise of resurrection is evidence of God’s love. We do not excel in the Lord’s work to earn that love, we excel in the Lord’s work because He loves us.

“My beloved”

While most English translations translate this as Paul’s expression of his love for the Corinthians, the Greek is a little more vague being something like “brothers of mine, loved ones.” Given the whole discussion of the resurrection of the dead in Christ in this chapter, perhaps we ought to be thinking of God’s love here and not just Paul’s?

Furthermore, the fact that he addresses the “brothers” (meaning brothers and sisters) is significant in that we ought not to think this chapter is saying all people will be raised to eternal life with Christ. This chapter only speaks about the dead in Christ. Those who die without Christ are spoken of elsewhere in the Bible, but not here. This promise of resurrection to eternal life is for sisters and brothers in Christ.

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

“Be steadfast, immovable”

We might think these two words mean basically the same thing, however as one Bible teacher points out, being ‘steadfast’ means that you do not take the initiative to move, being ‘immovable’ refers to not allowing other people or circumstances to move you. In what are we to remain steadfast and immovable? The very things Paul has been teaching, the truth of the Gospel including the death and resurrection of Christ and the hope of resurrection of the dead in Christ.

“Always excelling in the work of the Lord”

To excel could be translated “work enthusiastically” as one translation puts it. But how do we define the work of the Lord? It is the work God wills. It is anything the Lord calls and enables us to do in answer to the prayer “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I once heard someone say that the work of the Church is much bigger than church work. It is the work of the Church to be available and willing for God’s call in everything; work, play, relationships, parenting, learning, teaching, following, leading, in anything and everything in life the Lord can use us for impact that has eternal significance. Which brings us to our next point about “the work of the Lord.” To define what Paul means by it, we need only see how Paul is working:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

What was Paul working hard at doing? Helping people know Jesus! Anything that points people to Jesus is work that has eternal significance which is what the last part of the verse wants us to think about.

“Because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain”

We can tend to focus, as we often do, on ourselves here and think something to the effect that “oh good, my excelling in the work of the Lord will lead me to extra rewards for it is all about me.” Or we can remember that Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and that the apostle Paul was helping people know Jesus for their benefit, not his own. Our labour in the Lord is not in vain, because it has lasting impact for others.

 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)

I had a moment of rejoicing recently when I stood on the weigh scales and realized I had lost another pound. Will I be rejoicing over that fact five years from now? Or even five weeks from now? How long will the rejoicing in the presence of angels last when a sinner repents and becomes a child of God? For that sinner who becomes a son or daughter, that joy will be eternal. The dead in Christ will be raised to eternal life with God, therefore let us devote ourselves to helping people know Jesus, a work God calls and enables us to do, a work has lasting value and is never in vain.

A Concluding Thought

Since in verse 58 Paul adds a concluding thought to this chapter about the resurrection, perhaps I can add a concluding thought to this sermon series. Given how we normally use 1st Corinthians 15, and given where we normally hear it quoted, at the bedside of a dying person, or at a funeral for example, we might think Paul’s conclusion ought to be “the dead in Christ shall be raised to eternal life, therefore be comforted in the face of death.” While this is certainly a good conclusion, Paul does not go there. Instead he ends with something that could be summarized more like “in the face of life, be encouraged.” The Biblical teaching on the resurrection can give us comfort in the face of death, but let it also give us encouragement in the face of life, to carry on in the Lord’s work, to keep in step with His Spirit, to live as Kingdom people anticipating the coming Kingdom of God, and to keep reaching out to others with the love of Christ.

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

(All Bible references are taken from the NRSV)