Friday, March 10, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: Eternity In Their Hearts

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon makes the argument that God has put a longing for the eternal into the human heart, yet seems to have provided less revelation about eternity than some of us might wish. And notwithstanding the fact that we’ve had plenty more prophetic revelation since the book of Ecclesiastes was written, we still have a tendency to speculate about what lies in store for us at the end of history as we move into eternity.

Tom: We’re discussing a recent Todd Billings post at Christianity Today entitled “The New View of Heaven Is Too Small”. What was your last point, IC?

Immanuel Can: Serious Christians need some kind of counter to the common misconception that the eternal state involves a lot of unrelenting, undifferentiated, disembodied, white-clad, purposeless hanging about on clouds …

Dull and Undifferentiated

Tom: Oh, I absolutely agree. That’s a pretty bleak way to spend eternity.

When we speak of the “Christian hope”, the only honest way we can present that is by using the language of scripture. The problem for many Christians, I think, is not that we don’t have adequate information from God to fill us with hope, but that we tend to ignore, distort or make false assumptions about the information we do have. That’s why I wrote a post two weeks ago or so laying out the things that Peter and Paul tell us we may “hope” for. Speculating about what else may happen in the absence of further information from God is a fruitless and counterproductive exercise.

IC: Worse than that, I think. It’s actually very discouraging to anyone who might otherwise be attracted to the true hope God has given us.

Tom: Yes, I was too polite. In any case, if we are to avoid dull, undifferentiated concepts of eternity, we’re best to pay greater attention to the details we HAVE been given. And there seems to be a lot of confusion even there. I’m not speaking of whether we understand any particular image found in Revelation allegorically or literally. But sometimes our popular ideas about eternity are completely disconnected from the text or pulled right out of the air.

Eternity in Heaven?

One example: the idea that we will spend eternity in “heaven”. That’s just inattentive to the language of scripture. If we use words biblically, it is simply untrue. Revelation 21 says the city which is to be our home comes “down out of heaven from God”. That’s stated twice, and it means something. We are not being taken up to live in God’s home, God is coming to live with us in ours, and he’s bringing us a new, perfect dwelling to inhabit. This is explicitly stated: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them.”

That’s a powerful idea. I find it very exciting, and it’s stated very plainly indeed. We’re not pulling it out of the subtext. So how is it that so many of us get the basics wrong?

Useful Untruths and Unexplored Territory

IC: Well, I’m not too much of a conspiracy theorist. But I would say this: the popular depiction of eternity certainly serves an agenda.

It serves the agendas of those who reject God, starting with hardened human cynics and going all the way down to the program of the Enemy of Souls himself. Meanwhile, to those ordinary folks who may be struggling under conviction of their sin it offers a welcome relief in the form of ridicule, or just of the balm to their anxieties: the intuition that they are, after all, not going to miss so much if they miss out completely on eternal life — that the believers “won’t be having much fun anyway”, as some have derisively put it. But the picture one finds in scripture, incomplete as it may be, promises much, much more — and a far greater tragedy if anyone misses out on God’s plan.

Tom: One of these days we’ll have to take a post and dedicate it to exploring what the prophets say about the millennial reign of Jesus Christ. There’s enough detail in the Old Testament to vividly flesh out the bare bones given us in Revelation, and some fascinating details that make it come alive for the reader. That in itself is a very exciting study.

IC: Yes, please, soon. Another subject worth chasing would be why some Christians believe in the ‘rapture’, a return of Christ that is not the same as his second coming. I’ll bet a lot of people don’t know about that these days … but it’s really the greatest Christian source of hope.

The Father’s House

As for the millennium, that’s a much understudied topic.

Tom: Well, 1,000 years is a relatively short period when compared to eternity, and there’s more detail to be had in Revelation about the eternal state. The vast majority of the details about the millennium are stashed away in the Old Testament prophets, which nobody reads.

Anyway, we were observing the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. That’s an interesting closing to scripture, because it doesn’t transport redeemed humanity into those terrifying, mysterious, almost alien surroundings glimpsed by Isaiah or Ezekiel, but into a place “prepared for you”.

It’s the Father’s house, sure, but one designed specifically with us in mind by the member of the Godhead who has assumed humanity into his own being, if we can put it that way. It isn’t “heaven”, but something even better and more suited to our constitutions; crafted in love to accommodate humanity with God himself at its center. And since it has been designed for us by a Creator who knows us intimately, I do not expect to find myself bored there.

A little trust is in order, is it not?

This Is Going to be Amazing!

IC: Yes, and that’s an important point. The Bible doesn’t tell us a lot about the eternal future because, as it plainly says, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered the heart of man …” That makes such things awfully difficult to describe, since no term of comparison or metaphor even exists on earth whereby they might be explained adequately at present. On the converse side, to explain them inadequately would be to reduce them, trivialize them, impoverish them, and to sell the joys of the future badly short.

That’s not the type of thing to which the Lord is likely to resort, is he? He’s not going to give us an unjust, off-point, confused or insufficient version of these things in lieu of the real joys they involve, just because we really can’t “get” this stuff yet.

But if that’s how great the real distance is between what we experience now and how things are eventually going to be, then what can the Lord in fairness say to us for the moment, except, “Trust me; this is going to be amazing”?

I’ll take him at his word. Wouldn’t you?

Tom: I would.

Israel vs. the Church

Maybe since we’re talking about the eternal state, we should take a moment or two to discuss one other issue, and that’s this: Are you familiar with the debate as to whether the New Jerusalem is either: (i) the Church, or (ii) Israel?

IC: The writer of that article seems to believe in both the ‘rapture’ and the millennium. But he sees the Bride and the New Jerusalem as exactly the same, and both as identical with the universal Church, if I’m reading him correctly. He also seems to think Israel remains permanently in unbelief, so cannot be considered there (the mention of the tribes’ names on the foundations notwithstanding). And he does not have a “remnant” view of Israel, it would seem; Israel, to him, means only the entire unbelieving nation. Have I got that right?

Tom: That sounds close, yes. But I’m speaking particularly to the idea that the city and the Church are identical. Matthew Henry would be the point man for that notion (“This new Jerusalem is the church of God in its new and perfect state, the church triumphant”), but it’s managed to hang around for centuries. And of course when you make the entire city a picture of the Church, your explanation of the details of the city is necessarily a bit nebulous. You end up with nothing solid at all.

The Emptiness of Overallegorizing

As he puts it:

“These foundations are set forth by twelve sorts of precious stones, denoting the variety and excellence of the doctrines of the gospel, or of the graces of the Holy Spirit, or the personal excellences of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

So which is it, Matthew? Do the precious stones represent the gospel, the graces or the excellences of Christ? Who knows? To Henry (and to most other allegorists), it doesn’t much matter. It’s all just a giant ball of figurative mush.

IC: Wow. Talk about working too hard to allegorize. He needs at least a little warrant for any such jumps in semantics and logic.

Tom: I think there’s a better way to look at this, and that is that New Jerusalem is the place the Lord Jesus has prepared for his Bride to dwell. When the angel says to John, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb,” the figure of speech involved is metonymy. The city stands for all who are to make their eternal home within it, united in Christ. There is a real place prepared for us, and the Church is to dwell in it (perhaps among others), enjoying eternally the presence of God.

I Will Show You the Bride

IC: Ah. I see what fools him. The angel says, “I will show you the Bride,” and the next thing mentioned is the New Jerusalem. So Henry thinks that New Jerusalem is not a city at all, but some kind of spiritualization or symbolic representation of the Church. But, of course, that makes it really hard to see why it has descriptions of streets and gates, why people go in and out of it, and what the city’s particular features (no temple, foundations, materials, measurements, walls, visitors ...) might “mean” in Matthew Henry’s view.

Worse still for his case, just a few verses later the residents of the city are named: “those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” Those are more natural candidates for us to understand as “the Bride”. So we might ask him, “Is the city itself the Bride, or does the angel mean that the residents of the city are the Bride?” Your understanding — that the angel is using metonymy — makes more sense, both in terms of literality and in terms of plain logic.

Tom: Right. In Henry’s view we’ve got a “marriage” metaphor for the Church, and a “city” metaphor for the Church, and “foundation” metaphors about stuff related to the Church … we’re stacking metaphors on top of metaphors. Look, literalists and allegorists all agree there are word-pictures in Revelation, but figurative language always has to point us to something tangible and substantial, even if it leaves us with the occasional loose end to mull over. If everything is a loose end … if it fails to leave us with any kind of clear picture at all, well then, ‘spiritualizing’ everything you come across is simply not very useful as a mode of interpretation.

A Giant Walled Garden

IC: Well, if it really results in no greater clarity, then it’s hard even to say in what sense it’s an “interpretation” at all.

Tom: Precisely. The literalist says, “Aha, the Lord Jesus has built me a city; an actual dwelling place like he promised; a giant walled garden like the Garden of Eden, only better. It’s bursting with life, and it’s big enough and complex enough to keep my interest for eternity. Then he’s stacked that city full of people from every possible background who all know him in different ways, and who show off different facets of his glory, and who are equipped to love one another and relate to one another without politics or friction. In that city we will worship and serve him and increase daily in understanding and joy as we do, because our great Creator and Redeemer is present with us forever to anticipate every possible physical, spiritual, intellectual and emotional need, and meet them all with his personal abundance; with all sin and impediments to understanding and love forever removed.”

IC: All that’s there. It’s in the text. It requires no wild, mystical speculations; and to say the least, it sounds really, really good.

Tom: Exactly. It’s good enough for me, and then some. It’s enough information to motivate me and give me hope.

Play Me Something Familiar

But with all its stacked metaphors and intangibilities, I believe it’s the allegorical view of prophecy — this exceedingly popular view among denominations with a Reformed influence, which form a significant percentage of evangelicals — that has created such a felt need to concretize our view of eternity, even if solidifies into something a little more trivial and earthly than Todd Billings might like. At least it makes it SOMETHING. Those of us who take prophecy more literally don’t have that same crying need to find something — anything! — to look forward to, even if it’s deer hunting. We already have solid ideas about eternity.

IC: So in their urgency to have something familiar they can analogize to “heaven”, these “deer hunter” types end up trivializing our conception of God’s plan for our future. They mean to give themselves something to look forward to, but it ends up being something absurd, unrealistic, unscriptural and ultimately unmotivating. Ironically, this is the precise counterpart to what the hell-trivializers do: they say, “I want to go to hell, ’cuz all my friends will be there, and we’ll have a party.” Both are seizing upon inapt human metaphors and thereby downgrading everything God has really intended. The result is that the Christians lose their longing for what God is preparing for us, and the wicked lose all fear of hell.

Wouldn’t we be better just to stick with what God has revealed to us, and avoid speculating beyond that?

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