Soundings

LIFE EVERLASTING

Sep 2003    

CONCLUDING THE SERIES OF MEDITATIONS ON ‘FAITH TO LIVE BY’

BEWARE OF 2 MISTAKES

IDENTIFYING the biblical teaching of everlasting life with the idea of the “afterlife” that is found
in most religions,
THINKING of everlasting life in terms of the immortality of the soul.

AS WE turn to the final statement of the Creed, which concerns eternal life, we must be careful not to make two common and serious mistakes.

The first is to identify the biblical teaching of everlasting life with the idea of the “afterlife” that is found in most religions. This common mistake is made by those who are too eager to establish common grounds between the teachings of Christianity and those of the other world faiths. Such endeavours are not confined only to the doctrine concerning life hereafter. Attempts are made to find common grounds in the doctrine of God, and even in christology, the Church’s teaching concerning Christ. Such attempts, however, often result in distortion, as edges of the various doctrines that do not fit the common mould are trimmed off.

In the case of the doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Trinity has to go because it simply fails to fit. A unitarian view of God is much more convenient. In the case of christology, the incarnation, virgin birth, atoning death, and resurrection all have to go. The Christian doctrine of everlasting life will also suffer the same fate if it is forced to fit the procustean bed of a general idea of the afterlife or immortality.

The second mistake is to think of everlasting life in terms of the immortality of the soul. While the first mistake is usually identified with liberal theology, the second is sometimes found in evangelicalism. This mistake is incipient in statements like “God will save your souls”, which, if taken literally, would be erroneous theologically, even heretical. Much of this is the result of Christianity’s close relationship with Platonism.

Greek philosophy is generally dualistic: it teaches that the spirit is good and the body evil. Salvation is therefore seen in terms of the liberation of the soul from the prison of the body. The Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body is therefore an affront to the Greeks.

Sometimes Christians unwittingly also think in dualistic terms. Furthermore, what Paul calls the “flesh” is sometimes mistaken to mean “body”. But according to Paul “flesh” does not mean “body” but the whole person who is driven by carnality and sin. Salvation is therefore for the whole person, body and soul. The Christian faith does not teach the immortality of the soul as such, but the resurrection of the body.

This statement on everlasting life is therefore an extension of the previous statement about the resurrection. In the life hereafter, we will not be disembodied spirits floating freely in some ethereal realm, but resurrected beings with spiritual bodies residing in the new heavens and the new earth.

This brings us to the next point: that salvation does not only concern human beings but the whole of creation. Human sin has damaged the creation, bringing it under a curse, and preventing it from reaching its God-intended goal. But at the end of time, God will bring about a new creation – the transformation and transfiguration of this sin-scarred cosmos.

Here again we see that salvation involves the material world and not just the spiritual realm. All the fragmentation, the disease and wanton destruction that we witness in our world will cease, and a new reality will emerge. Believers in the resurrection will be a part of this new creation and inhabit the new earth, where God’s glory will be seen and his shalom (peace) will be experienced by all.

What will life in the new creation of God be like? The Bible provides us with very little data regarding this, and it would be unwise to let one’s imagination run wild and go into biblically unwarranted flights of speculation. However, with the little information that we have we are able to sketch – albeit only in broad strokes – what life in God’s eternity may look like.

The first word that describes our future life with God is rest. This concept is associated with the Sabbath and employed in the book of Hebrews to refer to the eschatological rest that awaits faithful believers. The writer of Hebrews exhorts Christians to strive to enter the rest in these rousing words: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:9-11).

In the new creation, the toil of work that we now experience will be a thing of the past. We will enter into a state in which the painful struggle that is intrinsic to human work here is replaced with restfulness, ease and fulfilment.

It would be wrong, however, to think that life in the new creation will be characterised by blissful retirement. There will be work in the new creation. (This may be a disappointment for some readers, but work is not the result of the Fall, but an activity that is ordained by God).

There will still be work in the new creation

A point that is often missed even by careful Christian writers is that although during the Sabbath God rested from His creative activities, He did not cease all His work. Similarly, after the creation of the new heavens and the new earth, God will still be at work. The new creation will disappear into oblivion if God would cease His sustaining work.

In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus indicates that those who use their talents wisely and faithfully will be given greater work. To the servant who doubled his five talents Jesus said, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness” (25:21).

Since this parable is set within the eschatological discourse of Jesus, most scholars believe it indicates that work done faithfully here on earth will be rewarded by work (of a different sort) in the new creation. It is, however, unclear what this future work would entail, although it must surely be service to God in a profound sense.

Another important facet of life in the new creation is worship. The service of believers in the new creation will be “liturgical”, and our experience of worship now will be heightened immeasurably and will embrace everything that we do. Sketches of the worship that takes place in heaven provide a glimpse of what our own future existence in the new creation will be like.

One such glimpse into the heavenly life is found in the description of Isaiah’s vision of the Lord on His glorious throne. “I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they called to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory’ ” (Isaiah 6:1-3).

The same brilliance and grandeur is captured in John’s vision recorded in Revelation 19. The voices of the multitudes thundered “Hallelujahs” repeatedly, celebrating the glorious salvation of the saints and praising God because salvation, glory, honour and power belong to Him. The joyous sounds of their worship resonate throughout the world even as the Shekinah glory of God pervades the new creation.

The long struggle against evil is over and God’s faithful servants have entered into the heavenly rest. The time for mourning has passed, and a new dawn has broken, a new day which will never again be swallowed by darkness. There will be feasting at the great messianic banquet. God’s people will forever be in the lovely presence of God and they will be filled with unspeakable joy.

Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. A member of Fairfield Methodist Church, he now worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

With this essay we conclude our series of reflections on the Apostles’ Creed. In the next issue of Methodist Message, we begin a study of Ecclesiastes entitled “Wisdom to Live By: Modern Reflections on an Ancient Text“.

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