Remember the part in Lewis’ The Great Divorce when the narrator walks about heaven for the first time?
“It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison. Moved by a sudden thought, I bent down and tried to pluck a daisy which was growing at my feet. The stalk wouldn't break. I tried to twist it, but it wouldn't twist. I tugged till the sweat stood out on my forehead and I had lost most of the skin off my hands. The little flower was hard, not like wood or even like iron, but like diamond.”
He discovers that even the grass is diamond-hard, sharp and harmful to his as-of-yet untransformed body.
Whatever else may be said about Lewis’ allegorical depiction of heaven, it helpfully reminds us that the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21:1) are real and, in important respects, a continuation of the believer’s present life. Besides the sheer delight that comes from contemplating our future state, knowing that the coming age is real also reveals the weightiness of our present interests—including the interest we should have in our moral development. In the tug and pull of life, we sometimes lose sight of the importance of cultivating patience, gentleness, and self-control, to name just a few moral qualities. But our moral selves are of enduring importance and demand our deep attention in the here and now. Cultivating friendships grounded in kindness, forgiveness, and truth-telling; becoming more merciful, compassionate, and courageous toward our neighbors; increasing in humility, joy, thankfulness, and delight in the presence of the Lord; these areas, and others beside, are ripe for action now because they are among the kinds of traits we will bear in the age to come. While we do not know exactly what we will be like in the new heavens and new earth, it seems natural to think we and our concerns will be in some deep respect shaped by love—love we will receive and love we will give. Might the New Testament's multiple injunctions to develop our character in the present life (for example, Rom 12:9-13 and Col 3:12-14) point to the kinds of people we will be in the life to come (Rev 19:8, Rev 21:4; cf Eph 5:27)?
Christ himself is our model, with the notable difference that he was in all ways morally perfect. From Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ . . . in humility count others more significant than yourselves. . . . Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant . . . . And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name . . . .”
As these verses show, Christ’s “moral vision” (if we may call it that) was informed by the cross that he knew he had to bear for the sake of those whom he loved (John 17:24; John 13:1, 34). Elsewhere we learn that the reason he endured the cross was “to bring many sons to glory” (Heb 2:10). In sum, we learn that our Lord humbled himself (a moral act) to die for his people (the penultimate goal) in order to secure their place in the coming ages (the ultimate end). Ensuring a heavenly homecoming for his people, we might say, was a prominent horizon line for our Savior. For present purposes, one lesson we may derive from Christ’s example is that we, too, are to live our lives with the horizon line of the coming age in plain view.
And, at the time of judgment, which precedes our entrance into glory, we will have to give an account of the life we lived (Rom 14:12, Matt 12:36, II Corinth 5:10). The prospect of such an accounting ought to motivate us to live as unto the Lord now, for we should want to be able to give an account that is pleasing to the Lord. It is difficult to say what emotions we will – and should – experience at the time of accounting; surely, however, joy should top the list, as we will be those who will be accepted, despite the reality of our many persistent, personal moral shortcomings in this life, fully in Christ by our Father.
To the uninformed, heaven may be thought to be boring, tedious, and impoverished of the rich experiences – friendships based in giving and receiving love, shared interests, play, aesthetic delights, satisfying labor – that contribute to happiness in this life. But to the informed, heaven is a place of unimaginable delight in part because whatever experiences we enjoy in the present life are but dim anticipations of the shared experiences and compounding joys that will be ours in the life to come (Rev 19:6-8). The fellowship we enjoy with one another and with the Lord now will be heightened in ways we can scarcely imagine (Eph 2:7, Col 1:5). Weak and burdened we sometimes are now; renewed and relieved we will one day be (II Corinth 4:17; I Corinth 15:49). That moment you shared with your closest friend watching the sun fall behind glorious Mount Shasta where time itself seemed to come to a complete stop—grand, nostalgic, emotional, filling you with Sehnsucht, deep yearning? That, and other similar experiences, was just a preview of what’s to come.
But sometimes the bright prospect of what is to come has a hard time coming home to us in the here and now. We know all too well the wrongs we have committed and will continue to commit until the day we die. The psalmist’s words ring true to us – “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Ps 51:3). We are pained by the wrongs we do to others and also against the Lord. And yet, it is just during those times when we feel the pangs of our sinfulness that we need to be reminded that we are presently being transformed: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (II Corinth 3:18).
The transformation we will experience in the coming age will no doubt be decisive and of an order of magnitude greater than its present manifestation. But it starts now and, mysteriously, it involves us, not as passive instruments, but as active participants (Phil 2:12,13; cf I Corinth 15:58). Our ongoing transformation now is as real as the diamond-hard flowers in Lewis’ novel because it is guaranteed by the ever-present action of the Holy Spirit. And this process of transformation points to its seismic fulfillment in heaven: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:20,21; cf I Corinth 15:49).
Paul’s words of the coming age ought to stir us—to delight in what’s to come and to action now.
Mr. Geoff Sackett
Dean of Students
Guest Lecturer in Theology and Philosophy
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.