Chapter 12: We Believe in Eternal Life
Man, whose earthly existence is so brief and uncertain, has nevertheless eternity set in his heart by the Creator. The words of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead bring to us the assurance that for the Christian death shall be swallowed up in victory. God is eternal, Jesus is the conqueror of the grave, and we, being united by faith with Him, share His everlasting life. Death is a doorway from a natural world into a spiritual world. Behind the thin veil that conceals from our human eyes the Blessed Country there stands One who has gone to prepare a place for us and who will one day receive us unto Himself in eternal glory. Heaven is the perfect companionship of the believer with Christ, and death is but a transition into the deeper fellowship of His nearer presence.
The Difference It Makes
"If a man die, shall he live again?" asked Job wistfully many centuries ago. This is still the query of our wistful, troubled generation. When our families and loved ones are in good health and things are going well, we may not think much about this subject. Then, too often, comes a sudden blow -- an unexpected illness, an automobile accident, a telegram of "bad news" delivered at the door. Life has a way, sometimes in a moment, of sweeping away old securities and leaving us only God and our faith to stand upon. Job’s question then becomes very real.
But suppose nothing of this sort happens. With minor ups and downs we may live out our "threescore years and ten" and --thanks to a good constitution and modern science -- quite a few more. Has Job’s question, then, any meaning? The one certain fact everybody confronts is that he must sometime die. The vigor of life will ebb and earthly ties will be severed.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark! (From "Crossing the Bar" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.)
sings the poet. And will there be dawn beyond the darkness? To this query our Christian faith gives a ringing and triumphant Yes.
There are some persons who say they do not care to live eternally and that they are not afraid to die even if it is a case of "after that the dark." This attitude, where it is honestly held, must be respected. But can we say this about separation from our loved ones when death removes them? Few can. Death is real; death is terrible; death without eternal life has a finality that severs our deepest ties and frustrates our best hopes.
The Christian faith in God’s gift of eternal life obviously offers comfort and hope in the face of grief. It also offers challenge in the midst of life. If we are to live eternally, this life ought to be of such a quality that it provides a worthy beginning for that which is to come. According to John’s Gospel, our Lord said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life." (John 5 :24.) Though not all the noble living of the world is limited to Christians or to believers in eternal life, there is a Christian conquest of death in the present life which is both a preparation and a foreshadowing of a greater conquest by God in the life to come.
But can we believe in eternal life? If so, let us see now on what grounds.
The Ground to Stand On
Man, whose earthly existence is so brief and uncertain, has nevertheless eternity set in his heart by the Creator. The words of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead bring to us the assurance that for the Christian death shall be swallowed up in victory. God is eternal, Jesus is the conqueror of the grave, and we, being united by faith with Him, share His everlasting life.
"How do we know?" is a common query. Many who would like to believe in eternal life have a rankling suspicion that it is a bit of wishful thinking intended to ease our loneliness and dread of dying.
Christians do not have the proof of eternal life in the same sense that we can prove a proposition in geometry or can verify a scientific theory. But this fact does not prevent us from having good and sufficient reasons for our faith. A faith it is, but a faith that fits in with all that we know about God and his goodness.
The first reason -- and no other is really needed -- is the Easter story. Let us imagine that we are a part of those great events that took place many years ago. On that fateful spring day in Jerusalem the first Good Friday must not have seemed very good to Jesus’ followers. Their Leader was dead; was not his cause lost too? We read between the lines the despair of shattered hopes in the words, "We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel." (Luke 24:21.) With the earthly future so uncertain, eternal life and what he had said to them about it may well have been forgotten.
Then something happened! Early on the first Easter morning, the women who loved him went to the tomb. There they learned that God was stronger than death.
Over my desk hangs a picture of Gutzon Borglum’s "Mary Magdalene." The light of glad expectancy and new hope is in her eyes as she turns from the empty tomb to the living Christ. For her God’s victory has conquered grief.
And so it was with the other disciples when this great, glad news was known. Again and again our Lord appeared to them until even Thomas could doubt no more. Gone were their frustration and despair. The little company was on fire with news they had to share. In this Resurrection faith the Church was born, and in its power the followers of the risen Christ witnessed to him in spite of persecution, pain, and death. We are the inheritors of that faith.
"Because I live, ye shall live also," was our Lord’s promise. That is our first and best reason for believing in eternal life. But it is not the only reason. Both the goodness of God and the nature of persons, his supreme creation, point the way. This is not to say that we ourselves are good enough to deserve to be immortal! But God has made us "in His own image," not "like the beasts that perish." It is not reasonable to suppose that the God who made us and who loved us enough to give his Son for us would let us simply "go out" at death like snuffed candles in the dark. If the goodness and laughter, the faithful living, and the richness of soul in those we love seem precious to us, how much more that is worth preserving must God see in each of his children! The God who has set eternity in man’s heart must think of man as destined for it.
What Is Heaven Like?
Death is a doorway from a natural world into a spiritual world. Behind the thin veil that conceals from our human eyes the Blessed Country there stands One who has gone to prepare a place for us and who will one day receive us unto Himself in eternal glory. Heaven is the perfect conpanionship of the believer with Christ, and death is but a transition into the deeper fellowship of His nearer presence.
It will not do for us to try to describe the next life too precisely. There is much we should like to know yet shall not know while we are on earth and while we "see in a mirror dimly." But God has given us all the knowledge we need. We know that we shall be in God’s nearer Presence, and that this will be joy. There is every reason to suppose that we shall have fellowship with our loved ones. Perhaps God will give us further work to do. Then our freedom from bodily limitations that too soon cut off our usefulness here will help us grow in the power to serve him better. If we need some type of bodies to serve as vehicles of the spirit there, God will give us what we need.
The Bible does not tell us a great deal about the nature of the future life. The biblical writers knew, as we may know, that it is the gift of God and that we can be safe in the Father’s hands regardless of its precise nature. In general, they speak of it as resurrection, which emphasizes that it is given by God’s act and is not simply a natural endowment. They also give us the idea that it is a new life under new conditions, not simply a continuance of the soul when the body dies. Some theologians today prefer not to use the term "immortality" when they speak of the future life, lest the Greek idea of the natural immortality of the soul be suggested by it. But if "resurrection" is substituted as a better biblical word, we must be careful not to assume a resuscitation of these same bodies in which our spirits now are housed. When these die, we are finished with them.
Paul used both terms, and in a marvelous statement found in 1 Corinthians 15:35-58 he said as much about the nature of the future life as can be said from this side of the veil. He begins with a very simple but meaningful analogy -- a grain of wheat falling into the ground to die so that new life may come from it. God then "gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body." What follows can best be stated in Paul’s own words:
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.
. . . . . . . . . .
For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
"Death is swallowed up in victory."
"O death, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?" (I Corinthians 15:42-44, 53-55.)
These words have a stirring challenge, a hope, and an assurance that never wear out. What the nature of the spiritual body is, or in what form "this mortal nature must put on immortality," we do not know. But what does this matter? God can be trusted to give us what he knows is best for us. There is so much in earthly existence that cannot be foreseen from one stage to the next as persons grow from infancy to childhood, to adolescence, to maturity, to old age, that it hardly seems wise to be too much concerned about what lies beyond.
So, without complete knowledge of what follows this life, millions of Christians through the ages have been enabled by a triumphant certainty to meet death without anxiety or fear. The words with which Paul closes the chapter from which we quoted may well be ours:
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (I Cor. 15:57-58)
We noted earlier that one of our gravest concerns regarding this subject centers upon our loved ones who are taken from us. Again and again our souls cry out, "Their going would be endurable if we could believe we shall see them again. May we believe this?" Why not, if what has been said thus far is true? Though the Bible does not speak very specifically on this question, it does have great words to say about the kingdom of God; and the Kingdom, we saw, is always a social concept. One of the greatest visions of this coming Kingdom is found in the Book of Revelation, where we read:
There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 22:3-5.)
Pictorial language? Certainly. But it is imagery that suggests the joy of God’s presence in a great fellowship of which both we and our loved ones may constitute a part. Furthermore, we may well believe that the God who has made us for love and fellowship with one another here on earth will not shatter this fellowship in the life beyond. It is obvious that conditions and circumstances will be changed. But love is stronger in death, and the love of God is stronger than any human love. So why not trust him to reunite us in this larger, more glorious life?
Eternal life means no solitary or static "going on" in some bare existence devoid of meaning. If it were this, it would be hard to conceive that many would desire it. The Old Testament expresses an idea somewhat like this in what was called Sheol, which the King James Version incorrectly but suggestively translates "hell." Christian faith replaced it with a joy and a blessedness born of the revelation of the Father’s love in Christ.
Eternal life for the individual person means hope in Christ, now and forever. It means that with this hope comes the challenge to service, certainly here and probably hereafter. "So faith, hope, love abide," said Paul. And, from all that we know, we have the right to believe that these will abide throughout eternity. Eternal life means also the triumph of God in a redeemed society as his kingdom comes both here and in a final victory beyond all time and space. This earth must certainly be important to God, but it is not all important. Human sin and strife might cause all human life to be annihilated, but still God would not be defeated. It is our Christian hope that Christ, who rose triumphant over sin and death, will reign forever in God’s eternal kingdom and that we shall know the glory and blessedness of his presence.
The message of Easter, ringing through the centuries and around the world, is "Christ the Lord is risen!" As we respond in joyous faith and hope, let us entrust to him our loved ones and our lives and have no fear of death. He who said "Lo, I am with you always" will be our Companion and Guide, today and through eternity.