COMMITTED BIBLE BELIEVERS EAGERLY ANTICIPATE spending eternity in the spirit realm designated in the gospels the “kingdom of God”, or “kingdom of heaven”, and described in the book of Revelation as the “new Jerusalem” (21:2). This realm is currently occupied by God and His hosts, the angels (Matt. 18:10). Can we have any idea at all of what eternal life in that kingdom will be like? Few people have given as much thought to this topic as the early theologian, Augustine of Hippo, whose thoughts on the matter are contained in his monumental tome “The City of God”. In spite of all his thought, he had to make this amazing “confession”: “To tell the truth, I have no real notion of what eternal life will be like, for the simple reason that I know of no sensible experience to which it can be related” (Book XXII, Chapter 29).
We can identify with his point. However, we can have certain insights inasmuch as we do have some experiences to which at least certain aspects of it can be related. This article looks at one such experience we now have, and what insights it can give us into our future joy.
The joy of relationships
A recent TV show about the Chinese residents of Cuba presented a fascinating account of their unique culture, such as their predilection for sitting around in cafés playing mahjong. The spirit of camaraderie among the participants as they played and chatted came right out of the television set into my lounge room, warming the soul.
Surely one of God's greatest gifts to us is the comfort, the security, the love that intimate human relationships provide. Take away a person's relationships, and you no longer have a real person but only a shell of a human. God made us social animals, needing the embrace of others. As Bryce Courtenay put it,"People are people through other people, we constantly seek confirmation of our own existence by how we relate to others" (The Potato Factory). When we lose a loved one, we are actually losing part of ourselves.
Though recluses may feel relaxed and happy in their self-imposed isolation, they nevertheless are incomplete; without even realizing it, they yearn for human company. Though I'm an introvert, and need time alone to recharge my batteries, isolation would drive me nuts. Solitary confinement has long been known to constitute one of the cruelest punishments that can possibly be inflicted upon social beasts.
Though we rarely, if ever, stop to give it a thought, as every day goes by we strengthen bonds of friendship and love and, often, make entirely new ones. Few experiences provide more satisfaction to a human being than the tangible sensation of drawing closer to another person through something shared, even if that something is just time together.
Such bond development, though, cannot balance the hurt that comes when long-established bonds are severed. Sad to contemplate, every human relationship, without exception, will be shattered, every bond snapped, without any seeming consideration on the part of heavenly powers of how much it hurts those affected; grief and mourning dog our footsteps relentlessly. Three months ago I lost my father. A week ago I lost a friend. Sadness weighs heavy on me.
The lacerating pain that cuts us when we lose a loved one can have a positive value! For it should help us better grasp the opposite emotion of joy we can experience in the kingdom of heaven where we will be surrounded by untold billions of loved ones to whom we will never, ever, have to say goodbye.
Why is it so?
The natural human reaction when we lose a loved one is to blame God for letting it happen. We can be truly thankful that God understands our grief, that He realizes we are but dust and therefore not inclined to think rationally at a time of loss. But if we did stop and think we would realize that a lost relationship is only possible if first we have a relationship. Though I have felt a heavy sadness at times since Dad died, reflection leads me to realize that I have enjoyed countless hours in his company. Rather than being angry with God when we lose a loved one, we should, with Job, thank God constantly for the bonds that we do enjoy:
And he said: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21).
However, facts is facts, and one of life's hardest facts is that the death of loved ones, which we will all be touched by in life, lacerates our emotions. God Himself calls death an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), probably because of the trauma it brings to the survivors. Those who have been widowed know this feeling of forlornness probably better than any others, with the possible exception of those who have lost a child.
The Grills family
Which makes me think of the Grills family. In the local community cemetery just up the street from where I live lie the graves, in one large family plot, of almost the entire Grills family, the last of whom died about 1970. What makes them stand out is the story their graves tell. Examination of the dates of death shows that mom and dad Grills outlived every one of their six sons! Only a daughter survived them.
One son died on the battlefields of WW1. Nothing on the tombstones gives any hint as to how the others perished. One died at one month old, another at three years. According to the local historian, one died from an infection that set in after having teeth removed. Recently I met an ageing relation of the family. She revealed that most of the others died of tuberculosis. Can you imagine the intensity of the parents' grief as they buried son after son? I cannot.
Death truly is an enemy. How can we thank God enough that He has committed Himself to killing death? His plan and intention is to save from death all who are willing. As a result of His infinitely wise plan of salvation, the vast majority of us humans will one day taste the power of the resurrection to eternal life in the Kingdom of God. Through the immortality granted then, the fear of the "last farewell" will be banished forever, permanent goodbyes will cease, the experience of them will be but a fading dream. All who truly accept Jesus Christ will join His never-ending, ever-strengthening family.
Stop and think. Creating an eternal family is God's ultimate goal. Those who are saved will not disappear into self-imposed isolation. God never intended the glorified saints to scatter to the infinite recesses of space, there to build for themselves untold numbers of hermit's huts. No. He intends for them to enjoy His presence and the company of their fellows for ever.
In sum, the construction of a glorious, infinitely satisfying eternal family composed of billions of brothers and sisters is what eternal life is all about.
The joy of relationships
Families can go wrong, as every episode of Dr. Phil illustrates all too clearly. You probably know some families whose members refuse to talk with one another. Tragically, some become so divided that the son or daughter may totally renounce any further dealings with a parent, or vice versa. A television program two nights ago related a few of those examples; the bitterness felt by one mother towards her two daughters who had gotten angry with her over a housing situation was plainly evident in her body language and tone of voice. You couldn't help but weep. Leaving aside such unfortunate sagas, consider this simple truth: we love our own families. Sure, conflicts occur in the happiest of them. But by and large we all love our parents, children, grandchildren, spouses, brothers and sisters. Living under the same roof with people who share much of our genetic makeup, or with whom we are in love, produces bonds as tough as steel and as resilient as silk. Doesn't your heart melt at the merest thought of a loved one whom you adore, or a glance at their picture on the mantelpiece? What a blessing from God — who created the family structure — loved ones are. How lacerated we feel when one dies.
Even when a nuclear family begins to shrink due to children growing up and leaving the nest, those bonds generally remain unbreakable forever. Most people anticipate extended family gatherings, such as at Thanksgiving, with relish.
And then you have friendships, which sometimes belie the old saying "blood is thicker than water" (Prov. 18:24). Do you have a loyal soul mate? If you do, you know just how satisfying a deep friendship or mateship can be. What words can describe the sheer pleasure of being able to share your innermost thoughts with someone who doesn't try to find fault with your every word and action. Who takes a genuine interest in you, but not a controlling one. Who supports you through thick and thin, but won't take your side when you are wrong. Who will encourage you, but not flatter you; who, rather, will tell you when they think you are doing something to hurt yourself. Someone who, in modern parlance, is on the same page as you are. A soul mate loves you in spite of your warts and follies and will not abandon you even when you are on the nose. But they also are sensitive to your feelings, and know when to leave you alone. If you have never known such a close relationship — and many haven't — try to imagine what it would be like. Scripture describes just such a friendship:
Now when he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan took off the robe that was on him and gave it to David, with his armor, even to his sword and his bow and his belt (I Sam. 18:1 4).
Few people mentioned in all of Scripture attain to the degree of noble, selfless virtue displayed by Jonathan. David was a hero in Israel, God's chosen servant, destined to "usurp" (by divine decree) the throne that was Jonathan's by right of birth. The history of earthly thrones is littered with a trail of blood — fathers killing sons, sons killing fathers and even mothers, brothers slaying brothers, and friends betraying friends in the hope of gaining throne and crown. Jonathan, also a man of valor, should have been jealous of David's popularity in Israel and furious at the prospect of losing his throne to this upstart. But no; Jonathan willingly surrendered his royal station to his friend. He voluntarily and joyfully gave David his armored paraphernalia to show his acceptance of the new order. He kept back not the smallest token of the kingship that should have been his. Can you imagine having a friend as devoted and good as that? I've got news for you — you will have billions.
Kingdom life and family
Having pondered the joy of bonding between loved ones and dearest friends, we are now prepared to try to imagine the incomparable thrill of eternal life in the kingdom of God and the new Jerusalem. One often hears at funerals that the departed "lived life to the full". The truth is, we don't know what "full life" is all about! The best that we can enjoy now is small change indeed compared with the real thing — the quality of life into eternity. Though we can look forward to an endlessly rich fare of thrilling experiences of every conceivable type, plus numerous more that we cannot conceive of, most would probably agree that what they really look forward to is the deeply-satisfying social aspects of eternal life. (Even the most confirmed hermit relishes the "right" company.) How well I remember as a child sharing a picnic ground with a huge, and I mean huge, extended Italian family. Sure, I remember an argument or two springing up, and the elderly grannies severely scolding naughty children. Who could help but remember the smell of garlic bread, oily sausage, olives and strong red wine?
Now try to grasp this staggering thought — the weakest relationship you will have in the Kingdom of God will be intimate, exhilarating, deeply satisfying. Happy earthly families and friendships are a type or shadow, pale as they may be, of the one huge, eternal family or, if you prefer, circle of friends, that God is building. Jesus declared that,
But you, do not be called "Rabbi"; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren (Matt. 23:8).
Though no passage explicitly declares that all members in the Kingdom of God will constitute one gigantic happy family the common use of terms such as “brethren”, as in Jesus' statement above, to describe that which bonds God's people together, and “sons” to express the essence of that which links us with God, suggests a familial kind of connection. Family and friendships here and now give us merely a taste spoon of our ultimate extended family forever nurtured and built up by our common Father and elder brother. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus provides us with a tantalizing hint into the nature of our eternal family:
So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom… (Luke 16:22).
A few verses later Jesus tells us that “in Abraham's bosom” the poor man received comfort. Ponder what Jesus did not say: He did not tell us that the man found comfort in the bosom of his then-resurrected earthly family. His new family, it would seem, is made up of Abraham and his spiritual seed. The image being presented is that of reclining at a meal table — the ultimate expression of a close bond between individuals (other than marital relationships) — with Abraham. Are we being given a hint here that current family relationships will not continue as they are into eternity? Probably. In other words, our earthly sons and daughters will not continue as our sons and daughters in the kingdom. When a believer's spouse dies, he or she is free to remarry. Which of the two will be his or her “eternal spouse”? Neither. Certainly, current loved ones may forever remain special to us, but the point is that the lines of relationship will be redrawn in the kingdom of God. In the Father's house every saint will be given “a name better than that of sons and daughters…” (Is. 56:5). Surely if one's new “name” is better than having sons and daughters in this life, then kingdom relationships between saints will be much better than those linking people in flesh-and-blood relationships now.
Psalm 113 speaks of the power of God's love and what it will accomplish. In love, God will “raise up the poor out of the dust” and “set him with princes” (vss. 7-8). These words surely carry a kingdom connotation. Consider, then, the significance of the following words:
He grants the barren woman a home, like a joyful mother of children. Praise the Lord! (vs. 9).
Though earthly family ties give us a “feel” for life in the kingdom family, these ties themselves will be transformed in the everlasting family. We know from current experience that few relationships are as fulfilling as those linking a mother with her children. Women who have never had that experience in this life will enjoy even more satisfying bonds in the eternal family. Praise the Lord indeed!
We may find it hard to imagine that we will grow closer to every member of that eternal family than we have ever been to a loved one in this life. Your children will be nearer and dearer to me in the kingdom than my own beloved children currently are. Stop and think. Why are you bonded to family and friends now? Because you have lived with them, shared experiences with them, and bonded with them over time. Adoptive parents will hasten to assure you that love for a child is not genetically governed. Eternity is a long time to develop closer and closer bonds with every kingdom member. Flesh-and-blood relationships of this life will rapidly fade as they are replaced by far stronger bonds with every single fellow saint, including, of course, those who once were brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters.
Enemies no more
In this day and age when reconciliation is a buzzword bandied around, it would be easy to react with cynicism at the mere hearing of the word. Folks talk about East being reconciled with the West, the rich with the poor, blacks with whites and Muslims with Christians. A power word, reconciliation can give a lot of mileage — politicians use it all the time in the hope that constant use will bestow on them a façade of concern, an air of legitimacy. However, in this "wicked world", reconciliation of enemies is, by and large, a pipe dream. The truth that all hatreds, all animosities, will one day be forgotten and that erstwhile enemies will stand shoulder to shoulder in the kingdom of God must rank as the most staggering and unbelievable of all ideas imaginable. It's no pipe dream:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ. having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth — in Him (Eph. 1:3, 9-10).
Those that are gathered together "in one" will be just that — "one", with no divisions or schisms. Much of the book of Ephesians deals with the division between Jews and Gentiles, which stands as one of history's most long-standing divisions. In modern terms, these verses tell us that the divide between Muslims and Jews will be smashed to smithereens. Can you picture Osama bin Laden sipping from the same chalice as Ariel Sharon or George Bush? Let me make a personal bet with you — one day they will. Note also Colossians 1:19-21:
For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled.
God's plan of salvation will work; the vast majority of the human family will enter the eternal family. Since all will be reconciled to their Father through Jesus Christ, all will be reconciled with one another. No room will be found in the kingdom of God for a single hateful spirit. Hey, if I am reconciled to God, and you are too, we are, logically, reconciled with each other. Can you believe it? It sounds too good to be true, but it's God's truth. The assertion that former enemies will become bosom buddies seems too shocking to accept; yet if we have faith in God, who promises that all will be made one in Christ, we must accept the idea.
As a young man, I attended a small college in England with only about 200 students. For four years I lived with them, ate with them, worked and studied with them. In addition, we all espoused Christian ethical principles and sought, generally, to live in harmony with one another. The friendships made during those four years were incomparable. Now that we are scattered all over the world, few opportunities arise to see any of them. Nevertheless, I look back on those four years as the most amazing and delightful human relationships experience one could have. Though now I have children, children-in-law, and grandchildren, all of whom I adore, I can never forget the unique opportunity of living and working together with almost 200 friends.
Naturally, the limitations of the flesh and the inbuilt preferences for some kinds of personalities over others means that each tie with each of those 200 people was unique. One naturally felt closer to some than to others. Stop and think: when such constraints are removed and one's appreciation for different personalities is enhanced, how much more satisfying and fulfilling will all relationships in God's eternal family be compared with the best we can enjoy now. Eternity is a long time. Bit by bit you will get to know the life story of every brother and sister.
Stop and think. With eternity to foster relationships, every link will grow eternally stronger, deeper, more satisfying. It will blossom, flower and bear never-ending fruit. Can you imagine it? Imagine having billions of soul mates, because eventually every other member of God's family will be closer than your closest living friend. Fellowship will improve from day one to the end of eternity.
As spirit, not flesh, the limitations currently imposed on your speed of communication will be almost abolished. You will be able to process much more information than a computer now can — in essence, you will be able to "talk" to more than one fellow at time, at least as seen by an observer in the physical world (if they could see). After all, we will be like the resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ (1 John 3:2). Do we imagine that Jesus, active high priest to the saints, can minister to only one individual at a time? We'd be in awful trouble if that's the best He could manage.
The removal of all impediments
Let's face it. You can think of hosts of folks you would not want to spend eternity with. They have either hurt you, or you simply find their company irritating — anything but uplifting and inspiring. But God has set Himself to remove these impediments, ensuring that you will not feel that way about a single brother or sister in God's family. How will He do that?
Not just loving but liking
Consider the simple truth that you simply don't enjoy the company of some people, even though they have never done anything to hurt you. You may love them, in the Christian sense of wishing that God would prosper them and that they would suffer no calamity. But you don't like them. Herein lies a marvellous mystery. Human personalities are limited. Just as you cannot be both fat and skinny, you cannot be both outgoing and reserved. Observation suggests that God has made us in such a way that we each like some personality types more than others. Some traits we each find plain irritating. (But guess what. It works both ways. Your personality irritates some people. Christian maturity involves recognising that we are not everybody's cup of tea.)
Incredibly, even Jesus Christ in the flesh, having had, by the mystery of incarnation, certain limitations imposed upon Him, found some people more to His liking than others. How else are we to explain the four references in the Gospel of John to the disciple whom Jesus loved (19:26 and others)? Having the mind of God in full (Col. 2:9), Jesus loved all in the purest sense equally, showing perfect impartiality towards all. But as a man, even Jesus had that mysterious, almost indefinable thing we call “personality” and found Himself drawn naturally to some personalities more than to others. Thus, you and I need feel no guilt whatsoever in light of the simple truism that we like some people more than others. However, sin steps in when we allow personal preferences to lead to a partial spirit, leading us to treat different people differently, to judge others with a varying yardstick.
Part of the challenge of Christian living incorporates recognizing our dislikes, and refusing to allow them to govern our actions towards those we don't naturally feel drawn to. The ability to override our natural inclinations towards those we dislike can only come from the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. The Bible calls that ability "longsuffering", and declares it to be one of the fruits of the spirit (Gal. 5:22). A truly mature Christian will not spurn the company of those he doesn't like. No law says a Christian must have a close friendship with every soul; but a Christian will treat all the same, not allowing personal preference to color his attitude towards others.
Good news. When you are perfected, those personality "limitations" will be removed, and you will no longer find it so difficult enjoying the company of those you didn't take a shine to in the here-and-now. And the perfecting of your longsuffering will complete the process, making you perfectly capable of overriding any repulsion you may have formerly felt. In sum, you won't have to exercise considerable self control to talk to a single soul in God's family. You will not only love every brother and sister, you will like them. And they will all like you!
World without sin
A workmate blurted out yesterday while pointing to a man outside the window, "That man over there is a complete waste of space. He's trash." Clearly, she had little time for the bozo. A 17 year old lad standing by guilelessly responded, "And he probably thinks the same about you". She had to agree. But then she whipped out a list of "facts" about the man that, if true, corroborated her verdict.
Some folks are cockroaches. All folks are sinners. Sin destroys friendships and family ties. One of the most exciting teachings in all of Scripture is the simple truth that in the Kingdom of God sin will be no more. Cockroaches won't be found in the Kingdom of God; they will be destroyed:
But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death (Rev. 21:8).
All the sins listed here, in fact all sin, eventually destroy the joy of social interaction between individuals. Sin must be totally annihilated in order to ensure ever-improving camaraderie, friendship, and brotherly love.
Your enemies are usually those who have sinned against you. Sure, we don't usually describe their foul deeds in terms of "sin", as that is not chic in today's world. But just as a rose is a rose by any other name so is sin sin. Can you imagine the quality of life in a community in which not a single individual ever harms you (sins against you) in any way?
God will destroy all sin before eternity begins. First, He will perfect those who seek His Kingdom such that they will never sin again. Second, He will destroy those few who refuse to cooperate. As a result, righteousness will prevail in the eternal Kingdom of God. Please read 2 Peter 3:13, which says,
Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
Hasten the day!
The best relationship of all — seeing God face to face
Yet developing staggeringly deep connections with all our brothers and sisters will be small change compared with one relationship that will outshine all others by comparison — our personal, one-on-one relationship with God Himself. David tells us,
In Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11)
The context indicates that David is speaking of man's future experience of God's presence in the "house of the Lord for ever" (Ps. 23:6).
For the first part of eternity, our communion with God will take the form of direct, intimate, personal contact with Jesus Christ — our Father's "use-friendly interface" with His glorified children. Paul looked forward more to fellowship with Jesus Christ than to fellowship with his family of billions of "siblings" (Phil. 1:23)! Yes, to walk and talk with Jesus will prove more satisfying, more fulfilling than fellowship with the rest of our family put together. Hard to believe, but true. We won't have to line up and wait for our turn to talk with Him; the chief joy of kingdom life is instant and ongoing communion with Jesus Christ. By comparison with that, fellowship with our spiritual family is merely a bonus. (But oh what a bonus.) (For more on our future with Jesus, see "Where I am you will be also" and "Mourning our bridegroom".)
Revelation 22:4 tells us that, later, we will "see God's face", which is merely a way of saying that we will have intimate communion with Him. If we find it hard to imagine the delights that wonderful bonds of friendship with our fellows will bring, how much less can we imagine the immeasurably greater ecstasy face-to-face contact with God will give. Augustine got all excited over the question of whether or not glorified saints will be able to close their eyes and thus shut out God from view. Though we see little virtue in debating such a question, his question nevertheless underscores a vital point — we will never be out of range of God's presence. No matter where we are or what we are doing, fellowship with the Creator of all things will only be a blink away.
Does all of this talk leave you cold? If it does, it would be helpful to analyze why and to deal with your feelings in a rational way. If you do, you will find that all objections can be swept away.
Who wants to be part of a family?
Some folks, tragically, find the idea of membership of an eternal family distasteful for the simple reason that their own experience of family has been anything but positive. To such we can only say that others will assure you that happy families do exist, and are one of life's greatest gifts. Don't despair if you haven't experienced it. Trust in God and you will.
One charge that some lodge against God is that He has made eternal relationships sexless, lacking salt and pepper. They quote Jesus' words in Matthew 22:30:
For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven.
Some feel that life would not be worthwhile without the sensual embrace of a loved one. Though one cannot imagine how it can be so, faith tells us that we will not be cheated by sexlessness in the Kingdom of God. Stop and think. God created the sexual relationship, as well as the chemistry that lies behind the sexual urge; don't you think He knows how to give us far greater thrills in the Kingdom? We simply have to trust His wisdom and power.
But what about us loners?
Does all of this talk about millions of intimate relationships bother you, yet you don't know why? It's all very well and good for party animals; but what about us introverts who shudder at the thought of wall-to-wall socializing, finding constant jaw-jawing quite draining? We need time on our own to reflect and to recharge social batteries. Don't worry, as about 50% of us are like that. A smaller number finds any kind of dealings with their fellows exhausting and unpleasant.
Good news. This trait is wrapped up in the limitations imposed by our fleshly experience. If God can make some people able to thrive on interaction as a result of their make-up, He can easily give us all this ability in the resurrection. Glorified sons of God will find nothing draining. The family of God will not cater to party animals only.
Besides, as spirit we can both attend a concert with others and be enjoying a day off dangling our feet in a lonely lake all at the same time! Sound crazy? Think about it.
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