“If it’s all about where we will spend eternity, how does anything I do now matter at all?”
This is a question we received from a teen at our church recently. It’s not the first time it has been asked.
Here’s the dilemma (as the teens see it anyway): Compared to eternity, this life is but a breath and a whisper. The pain and joy we experience now are temporary. If our destination is Heaven then any joy we experience now will be small in comparison to the joy we’ll experience in a life untainted by sin and pain. Any sorrow from pain we have experienced will be wiped away. If our destination is Hell then our joys from this life will be immediately forgotten and our pain will feel slight by comparison. If this life is just a test (how do you respond to Jesus?) why have all the other stuff in between (growing up, going to school, having a family, working in a career, etc.?) Or, in another arena: If either God forgives all sins in Jesus, or just a single sin is enough to separate you from God, why even try? In light of eternity, what difference does it make if it all comes down to whether or not I trust in Jesus for salvation? Why would God give us this life in the first place? It just seems so arbitrary.
Some of the issue here comes from how we sometimes explain the gospel. Is it really all about heaven and hell? Is this life nothing more than a test? One of the biggest challenges, especially for young people, is seeing past the nose on their own face. They are caught up in the Now, in the immediate challenges, in the temporary pleasure or pain they are experiencing. So we rightly point out to them the temporary nature of those things and urge them to have a long-term perspective, an eternal perspective. But sometimes when we do this we lop off parts of the gospel. We boil it down to just what happens after we die. I think this adds to the confusion.
Here’s what the gospel often looks like:
We live a short life (seventy or so years) and then we die. When we die we face the Judge and we will be judged based on how we respond to Jesus. This moment is the “final exam.” If we have accepted Jesus as our Savor, we spend eternity with God. If we do not, we are condemned in our sin and spend eternity apart from Him. If this is the whole story of the gospel, then everything we do in this life matters to the extent that it prepares us or others for eternity. In other words, I try to be a good student or a good worker so that I have integrity in my witness and thus prepare others for eternity by helping them to respond to Jesus in the right way. I’m a good parent so that my kids will accept Jesus. I’m a good preacher so that the unsaved will hear and believe and so that the congregation will be prepared to witness to their friends and family. This view of the gospel is correct. I don’t mean to belittle it in any way. But it’s not the whole story.
To get the whole story we need to take a step back and look at more than just our own stories.
This picture represents the history of the world. The history of the world starts with God’s creation of the heavens and the earth. In this short stage, everything was very good. But Adam and Eve sinned and brought about the Fall. Since that time the world has been under the curse of sin. Everything good is twisted. Everything whole is broken. Every good gift is abused. This creation/fall duality explains why we live in a world of such beauty and such tragedy. The beauty is the result of God’s creation. The tragedy is the result of our rebellion, so much so that all of creation groans under the weight of the curse.
But God has not left us to our own devices. Instead, he has been working throughout history in order to redeem (buy back from spiritual slavery) a people for himself. This people is blessed in order to be a blessing to the whole world. We live in a world, then, that is both getting better and worse at the same time. One force (rebellion) moves the world away from God. The other force (God’s redemption) moves the world toward God and more in line with the original created goodness. This constant tug and pull will never be resolved in this age, though. For that we await Christ’s return. At this point the battle is won. Goodness and justice will reign.
The final stage of the journey is when God brings about the “New Heaven and the New Earth.” This is an earthly existence. In some ways it will be radically different than the world we experience now, since it will lack a few things we take for granted; sin, sorrow, and death. But in other ways it will be very similar. I expect that will be still be able to do things like plant gardens, build buildings, make art, sing songs, take walks, engage in conversation, and act creatively. We won’t be mere spirits then, but will have spiritual bodies, not unlike that of the resurrected Christ, who is the firstborn over all creation.
The blue line in the picture above is your life and it is a miniature version of the first diagram. You live, you die, you go to either Heaven or Hell. But when Christ returns something new happens. You experience what the Bible calls “the resurrection.” Your spiritual existence is clothed with an immortal and imperishable body and you take up your residence on the above mentioned new earth. Heaven (as in, the place where your soul goes when it is separated from your body at death) is not the end. It’s where we wait (albeit in the presence of Jesus) until God makes all things new at which point we resume a physical existence in a physical world without sadness, sickness, sin, and decay.
It’s with this new broader understanding of the gospel that we can now to see how everything we do in this life has meaning. It does have meaning in that it prepares us and others for eternity, but it has meaning in and of itself as well.
But before I extrapolate on that more, I need to clarify that the relatively short time we experience on earth compared to eternity on the New Earth does not thereby nullify the meaning of the life here and now. When I give my child a toy on Christmas morning I know that there’s a decent chance the she will only play with the toy until Christmas night. She’ll get bored or move on to a different toy or it will break. But even if she only plays with it for a few hours her joy in those hours is not wasted. She enjoys the gift and, as the giver of the gift, I am pleased. It’s not the most important thing in her life. The joy it gives is temporary. But it’s not meaningless. It still matters.
The same is true in life. Some of the things we do, or the things we enjoy, are temporary and fleeting. They are not the most important thing, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter at all. And, when done or enjoyed to the glory of God, it is imbued meaning by that same Eternal God.
At this point I want to introduce two terms. The first is shalom. Shalom is a Hebrew word that means “peace.” But it means “peace” in a much fuller sense than we typically use it. One sense of “peace” is “cessation of hostility,” and shalom certainly includes this meaning. But it means more than that. It means wholeness. It means that everything is working as it should. It means that life is in harmony.
Shalom is what the world experienced in creation. Before sin Adam and Eve had a perfect relationship with each other, with God, and with the world around them. They were whole. They were in harmony with creation. Shalom is also what we will experience on the New Earth. We will live without hostility, without jealousy, without depression, without sickness, without death. We will be at peace with God and with each other. Life will be exactly the way it’s supposed to be.
The second term I want to use is flourishing. Flourishing is a word used to describe plants and other living beings. When plants flourish they grow, they bear fruit, they flower, and they scatter seeds. Flourishing means life, and it means abundant life. When a plant fails to flourish, it droops, it doesn’t bear fruit, it shrivels up and eventually dies. When a civilization flourishes it produces wealth and art and culture. When it fails to flourish it falls into civil war, disease, and death. I’ve seen people flourishing, too. I’ve also seen people shrivel up like a plant that lacks sun and water. They turn in on themselves, or turn on others, even their friends. This is always a sad and pitiable sight.
Again, flourishing is what we had before the Fall and it’s what we will have on the New Earth. Once again we will see abundant, growing, creative life. Those who live and reign on the New Earth will experience shalom and flourishing in every possible sense.
And it is within this framework that we begin to see how everything might matter now.
The Bible describes salvation as a new birth, as a new creation. When we are united with Jesus, we are united with the One who not only grants us eternal life (future) but who actually is the resurrection and the life. When are saved we are, in some sense, already experiencing aspects of the future Kingdom of God on the New Heavens and the New Earth.
The experience of the believer is one that not only anticipates the flourishing and shalom of the future state, but experiences it now, though to a lesser and more uneven degree. This isn’t a prosperity gospel, since the prosperity gospel tends to understand shalom and flourishing only in terms of health and wealth. But the Bible understands what it means to be blessed in very different terms, in terms of peace, contentment, joy in all circumstances and, even more fundamentally, in finding complete satisfaction in the person of Jesus as we enjoy with gratitude each gracious gift our Heavenly Father provides us with, even when those “gifts” feel painful, like periods of trial, testing, and discipline.
But this taste of the future is not only for our lips. God’s act of salvation is cosmic. He is redeeming the world, and he is doing it through a redeemed people, those who have decided to trust him as their savior and receive the new birth which he offers. In other words, we remember God’s original good design in creation, we anticipate the re-created shalom of the New Earth, we experience a taste of it in salvation, and then we extend it to the world around us.
So how do we extend it to the world around us? Let’s see this in a few ordinary and concentric circles of life:
When we personally obey God’s Word we bring ourselves into alignment with him. Often we think that we will have the most peace and joy by disobeying God. We see him as a cosmic killjoy. But this is, in fact, just the deceptiveness of sin. God, as our Creator, knows best what will bring about our lasting joy and happiness and his laws are for that purpose. Sometimes obedience is hard and it involves self-denial but, in God’s economy, this is actually the way to abundant life. That could mean treasures in heaven, but often times we experience earthly rewards our obedience as well (hard work typically pays a lot better than laziness). My point is this, the way to experience shalom is to obey God.
We extend this shalom to others in various ways. When we are a good friend we extend peace and joy to our friends. When we work in a job we extend the goodness of creation through the service of others and the building up of civilization. When we raise a family, we say “yes” to others around us and “yes” to the world, bringing about care, and stability. Even when we are playing a game I believe that God is pleased, that he sees this as us gratefully (assuming we’re doing it gratefully) receiving a gift and enjoying it with others. When we do all these things to the glory of God we experience and extend the goodness of God’s original intent in creation and we get a foretaste of what is to come on the new earth.
One of my college professors preached at our church recently and his take way line was “Everything matters, but somethings matter more. Some things matter more, but everything still matters.”
This is true. Eternity matters more, but that doesn’t mean this life ceases to matter. God gave it to us as a gift. He wants us to use it in a way that glorifies him. When we do that it is pleasing to God. If it is pleasing to God, it matters for eternity.