Re-imagining the Future Today
“If not heaven then what do we look to?” This is a question a friend asked me after drumming incessantly that heaven is not the ultimate goal for Christians. In every single conversation where he brought up heaven as the reward, I would not fail to correct him. It was only inevitable that he would ask what he asked. That question demands more than a quick attempt to provide a replacement hope. I have pondered, over the last couple of months what a future new heaven and earth instead of a disembodied heaven means for life in the present. I realised we have invested so much of our imagination, our theology, our hope, in the heavenly afterlife that we have do not have a vision of what happens after that. We have an eschatology that misses the point with our preoccupation with what happens when you die. This is not to say what happens after death is not important but that is not the whole story. What then is?
It is a daunting task to rehabilitate our vision of the ultimate tomorrow. As I learnt years ago, if you want to learn biblical truth you have to lay all your prejudices aside and be open to whatever scripture has to say, no matter how surprising, uncomfortable or uninteresting it might be. First of all we need to look at the language of scripture. I have selected three key phrases that help summarise the rich language they used to describe life after the grave. They are end time, new creation and resurrection.
When someone mentions the end time, people often think of strange and terrible cataclysmic events of impending doom for many and salvation for some select few who will narrowly escape such happenings. By fixating on the spectacular symbolism of prophetic texts in scripture we forget what these signs are actually pointing to. A picture of the end time as a cosmic great escape for those with the lucky heavenly tickets is totally wrong. It is also not going to happen because God has not condemned the world he has made and he is not throwing it away to be incinerated.
The biblical authors didn’t imagine an end just because they could not imagine the world going on indefinitely. For them an end suggested a beginning, a beginning which implied something that had started with a definitive end goal in mind. This beginning we find in Genesis where God creates a good world with a specific telos, that is, purpose. That good telos was thwarted through human disobedience. He however did not abandon his creation but remained committed to it, because he is truly good, and enacted a plan to restore to it his original good intent. Therefore, the end time is actually about the resolution of this great story of creation.
Since it is about God’s plans in God’s world, eschatology is really about God’s future. This presupposes that he not only transcends history as its creator but he is present within it, intimately involved in cosmic and human affairs. Therefore when scripture uses apocalyptic symbolism it is grounded in real world affairs. Since they aren’t our plans but things that exist in the incomparable mind of God, it is impossible for us to fully comprehend what this ultimate future has in store. It therefore has to be portrayed symbolically. Symbols are like sign posts, they point to something real ahead but they are not the thing you will encounter, yet without them you do not have any idea where you are heading. It’s the same with apocalyptic imagery, it has real world referents but points to a greater reality yet to be experienced. The ‘last days’, the ‘world/age to come’, ‘the things to come,’ ‘eternal life’ and even ‘hope’ are all terms that have to do with this ultimate future. Since it is not about discarding the present reality what God ultimately wants to do is preserve it but not in the same fallen condition it presently is in. He therefore intends to transform the world, not get rid of it. This glorious agenda is summed up in two words: new creation.
New creation is the ultimate future reality. It means the transformative restoration of this world according to God’s original plan. Now there are primarily two Greeks word translated as ‘new’ in the New Testament, neos and kainos. As you can see neos is where we derive the English prefix neo-. It often suggests something that has not existed before, something fresh and different, like a new born child. Kainos on the other hand even though it is a synonym of neos is used exclusively for new creation language in the New Testament. In its various forms it connotes something that is not totally new but has been reconstituted in such a way to be considered as good as new, like a remake of an old film. So the new creation is actually a renewed creation. Newness, restoration, reformation all point to the same thing. The concept of a new creation in scripture is often juxtaposed with the old, to compare and contrast them. That is to convey it is going to be new and improved. This introduces an important concept that helps us visualize what the new creation will be like: continuity and discontinuity.
The old creation came ex nihilo, that is from nothing, but the one to come is creatio de novo, that is, it emerges anew from the old. God remedies the problems of the old but does it in such way that it will never surface again to achieve the end it never reached. Therefore, there is both strong continuity and radical discontinuity between the present world and the world to come. It will be very familiar yet drastically different. With this in mind we can better re-envision the eternal tomorrow. Instead of a future reality that is disconnected from the present we can imagine what the future will be like because it is associated with the present. This does not mean we have photorealistic impressions of the future but we do have good indications in the present of where things are ultimately heading. As I have already mentioned, this is how the apocalyptic works. It takes the familiar and using it in different, even strange ways, to help make sense of what is to come. The fact that scripture paints fantastic images using vivid word pictures tells us that God wants us to engage our imaginations eschatologically. That we should live today in the light of tomorrow because what we do in the now ultimately matters. What is from God and what we do for him will last. He will somehow preserve the good and perfect it in the age to come.
This continuity between the present age and the one to come means there is an overlap. The old world does not come to a complete end by utter annihilation. If that happened there would be no continuity with the new age. God does not want to throw away his own handiwork. The end times are like a relay race. When you see a runner slowing down it is not because the race is coming to an end. Rather he is about to hand over the baton to a new runner who has already begun his lap. The events of the end time signal that the new creation has already begun. God is executing his plan, which had been setup from the beginning through the ages, for his intended future. Even though there is continuity it is not as if the old world is gradually being phased out like how fashions go in and out of vogue. The Bible does have language that suggests a sudden radical overhaul of the old and the establishment of the new which God will accomplish in the future. As much as the old creation came without precedence because it was a sovereign cosmic act of God, the scriptures clearly anticipate the new creation bursting whole out of the old. One of the powerful images it uses is child birth. You know it is coming but you do not know exactly when.
The type of existence that was in the old world was marred by death and decay, something that God did not intend. A new creation would be a new type of existence, one in which death does not have absolute power. In a new world death would be defeated. As such resurrection life is the condition of the new world, the age to come. Since it is a fundamental departure from the old, it is actually a new, reconstituted type of existence, one that can only be brought about by the creator of all things. In resurrection the nature of reality has been fundamentally altered. This distinguishes it from resuscitation or reincarnation, where there is only a momentary change and things are still subject to the same ways of being. They eventually die again. Being resurrected, in second Temple Jewish thought, meant you were participating in the future age, what they called eternal life. That hope was realised and unexpectedly, ahead of time in Jesus. It is a post-death reality, totally uncharted territory. There are indications, metaphors we have in the present, of what it will be like but none of us have actually experienced it so we cannot now fully comprehend it. That is why the scriptures give us the strong impression that things will be even better than we could ever possibly imagine because this future has been decided by a sovereign majestic creator.
Resurrection is not an individualised event but constitutes a new future state of being that is final. It is the age to come, one of a renewed creation. It will be distinguished by the end of death’s reign. As an autonomous act of the creator there is no accounting of how exactly it will emerge. The scriptures give us clear indication it will be at the end of this world and it does not get more specific than that. God has given us a guarantee that this future will happen by raising Jesus from the dead. The unique resurrection of Jesus means the timetable of God’s future has unexpectedly been brought forward. Theologians describe Jesus as possessing a new eschatological body meaning he physically embodied this future reality in the present. This means our various conceptions of what the future world will be like are anchored in his special resurrection experience. Our eschatology flows from this unique event.
The continuity and discontinuity I spoke of is witnessed in Jesus’ own resurrection. The post-resurrection encounters testify of a Jesus who is both familiar and unrecognizable, very much the same yet very different. The diversity of the resurrection accounts suggest to us these were people witnessing something truly unparalleled. He behaves very normally but does very strange things as if it were ordinary. This indicates a new way of thinking about the world because somehow reality is being reorganized around his unique experience. He has become the focal point of existence, the future of being. He is described as the first fruit of the harvest which means more of the new is on its way.
Also, the resurrection as an advance of a future yet to be fully realised means we live in an “already but not yet” state. The old world trudges along, death still kills but the good news is its absolute hold has been broken. The grave is no longer the end. Our lives are shaped by the fear death, so to no longer live under its tyrannical shadow would be a new way of being in the world. In fact the church is precisely meant to be that, an eschatological community. That means we are to be a people living today in the light of a post-death tomorrow because we have a solid assurance of participating in the world to come. Christian hope is not based on wishful thinking but concrete evidence. The people of God in Christ are called to model in the present this future reality. They are today’s future society.
As I have already mentioned not only us but the things done in service of this ultimate divine agenda will last. God will continue the good and discontinue the evil in a new, infinitely better way than we could ever imagine. He will fully perfect what is right. That is why Paul reasons the present implication of the resurrection is that we should be “steadfast and immovable, always abounding in the Lord’s work because our labour in the Lord is not in vain.” Or in Galatians he says “we should not be weary in doing good because in due time we will reap the benefits.” So in Christian thinking the end of the world does not mean whatever we have done does not matter. Rather it makes it of eternal consequence.