eternal life: now and next

September 6, 2005 | Leave a comment

A good friend of mine sent me the following question in an email. Because it continues some of the thinking from an earlier post called now before next, I got his permission to post his question and my response here.

I’ve been reading and thinking over some things and have been wondering. When Jesus talks about eternal life, he wasn’t just talking about the afterlife, he was talking about here and now and the mission of redemption we have to live and be the gospel today in our world. But was he talking about an afterlife at all? How much can we know about heaven? Am I crazy to look forward to a day after death? I know its heavy but I trust your opinion.

First things first, please don’t trust my opinion too much — I’m not even sure I trust it, and I’m convinced I am very capable of being wrong at times. See this post.

Second of all, I’m not convinced that you, or any of us, will get to see heaven. See this post.

But to the heart of your question…

For most of my life, I had the understanding that eternal life was something I earned or was granted in this life, and was rewarded with in the next. The problem was that this left a disconnect with how I lived the rest of my life once I made that decision.

I now savor the understanding that when I decide to follow Jesus, the fullness of eternal life that he offers is available now as we follow him. This has been a big thrust and a prominent teaching in the last few years, and I think it is a great blessing that we are recovering this concept.

However, I also think the danger is that we will swing that darn pendulum too far, and conclude that following Jesus and eternal life are just about this life. I just don’t see how we can go there. I think that 1 Corinthians 15 is very clear in describing to us that the effect of the work of Jesus extends beyond this life. Verse 20 describes how Christ was the firstfruits of those who would be resurrected. I would like to think that I am one of the fruits to follow. 🙂

As I understand it, the concept of eternal life as was described by first century Jews, and therefore by Jesus, had both a now and later essence to it. I’ve heard that this phrase could better be translated as “harmony with God” or more literally “the life of the age to come.” Jesus initiated that age to come, but it is still not yet fully here. We, and all creation, still long for it.

Sherri and I had great joy last December when we found out that she was pregnant. (Why do we always say we? Weren’t no baby inside of me!) We celebrated, and our friends and family joined with us. From the moment of conception, Ellie was very much a part of our family, long before we knew she was she, or that her name would be Ellie. But yet we longed to hold her in our arms and see what she would look like. She was with us, but not yet fully.

God’s work ever since the fall has been to redeem and restore creation and those made in the image of God who inhabit it. The work of Jesus was to bring the next age, the kingdom of God to earth. However, it is not yet here in all its fullness. We, and all of creation participate in it now, and yet we groan for it to fully come.

(As if I haven’t mentioned it enough, chapter 4 of Mere Discipleship explains this concept very well, and inspired the pregnancy/birth analogy.)