I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25, NRSV)
What were you and I made to do? If someone has been engaged in work that is a good fit for them, we often speak of them as having been born to do that particular thing. I have a friend whom I can say with confidence was born to be a teacher. I've known people who were apparently born to be farmers, or to work with animals, or to be engineers. My own vocation isn't quite so clear––particularly during this time of year, I feel like I may have been born to eat Christmas cookies. Even though I'm closer to the end of the spectrum of the people in mid-life or later who are still wondering what they want to be when they grow up, I'm still grateful to–occasionally–have had moments when something I have worked on has brought a great sense of fulfillment, a feeling of having done the kind of thing I was created to do rather than just wasting my days.
Regardless of how clearly each of us can think about the question of what we were made to do, here it is from a different angle: What were you and I made to do––forever? If we have bought into inaccurate understandings of what the Bible says about our future, our thoughts about the nature of our existence forever will surely also be skewed, and––honestly––we've been given some pretty silly images for what we might actually be doing "when we've been there ten thousand years" and beyond. Sometimes we're told that heaven will be similar to an unending worship service. I've had people make comments to me indicating their belief that we will grow wings and fly around among the clouds. I'm sure you can probably think of other forms of these ideas, and I'm convinced (and relieved) that they are not the biblical picture of eternity.
We can zero in on some of the dissimilarities between popular thinking about our life in heaven and what the Bible says about our future by looking again at that line from the last stanza of Amazing Grace I quoted above, "when we've been there ten thousand years..." Where is the there we expect to be for so long?
Even though we often think that our eternity with God will be spent in a vague amorphous "up there," from the beginning of the Bible in Genesis to its conclusion at the end of Revelation, part of the understanding of what it means to be human is that we are meant to exist and glorify God forever, right here, within creation. In other words, our expectation as Christians isn't that we'll be going away to some never-ending non-bodily existence, but that when Christ returns, we will experience resurrection as he did and the veil now separating heaven and earth will be removed "and earth and heav'n be one."
Part of what this means is that just as we have work to do now, we will have work to do then. What we will do forever in this new creation will be similar to what Genesis says humans were given the task of doing in the original creation: to have dominion over it, care for it and cultivate it. The number of ways we could possibly do this is surely limitless, and as Paul described in the passage quoted above, creation itself is eagerly awaiting us to take our proper place and participate fully in the work of God's kingdom in creation––forever.
Two of the writers who have influenced me most deeply have both written about this, and their words are worth quoting directly. First, from Dallas Willard, one of the most hopeful, challenging, and meaning-packed few sentences I've ever read:
We should not think of ourselves as destined to be celestial bureaucrats, involved eternally in celestial "administrivia." That would be only slightly better than being caught in an everlasting church service. No, we should think of our destiny as being absorbed in a tremendously creative team effort, with unimaginably splendid leadership, on an inconceivably vast plane of activity, with ever more comprehensive cycles of productivity and enjoyment.(2)
That alone should give each of us enough to think about for, well, ten thousand years or so. And N.T. Wright summarizes much of what I have attempted to say throughout this week:
The New Testament picks up from the Old the theme that God intends, in the end, to put the whole creation to rights. Earth and heaven were made to overlap with one another, not fitfully, mysteriously, and partially as they do at the moment, but completely, gloriously, and utterly. "The earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea." That is the promise which resonates throughout the Bible story, from Isaiah (and behind him, by implication, from Genesis itself) all the way through to Paul's greatest visionary moments and the final chapters of the book of Revelation. The great drama will end, not with "saved souls" being snatched up into heaven, away from the wicked earth and the mortal bodies which have dragged them down into sin, but with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, so that "the dwelling of God is with humans" (Revelation 21:3).
...God's plan is not to abandon this world, the world which he said was "very good." Rather, he intends to remake it. And when he does, he will raise all his people to new bodily life to live in it. That is the promise of the Christian gospel. To live in it, yes; and also to rule over it. There is a mystery here which few today have even begun to ponder. Both Paul and Revelation stress that in God's new world those who belong to the Messiah will be placed in charge. The first creation was put into the care of God's image-bearing creatures. The new creation will be put into the wise, healing stewardship of those who have been "renewed according to the image of the creator," as Paul puts it (Colossians 3:10).(3)
We have attempted to cover a lot of ground very quickly this week, and tomorrow we'll consider what it all means for us now. If this is the picture the Bible gives us of what's to come and is that for which we are waiting during Advent, how should we live now because of it?
A Prayer for the Day:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*
Readings for the Week*:
*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. (1) See Revelation 21:1-5a (2) Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 399. (3) N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 217, 219.