MCDOWELL.S MUSINGS, METAPHORS, AND MESSAGES

The World to Come 

The story goes of a sociology professor who questioned his students about what changes they would make to the world in which they find themselves, assuming they had the power to do so. One immediate response was that the world should have no more wars, that nations would be at peace. Further responses called for an end to poverty, crime, violence, injustice. They would banish all evil. Everyone should be well clothed, fed, and housed, and able to enjoy worthwhile pursuits. If they had the power to do so, the students at last decided they would end all pain, sickness, and even death. 

The question is often asked if God is indeed benevolent and all-powerful why did he not create such a world they describe instead of what we have? While I will not address that question here, I will claim that such a world and one even more glorious than the one the students described is in the plan of God. Indeed, the students were describing, as limited as it was, the world to come. We can believe, as Alexander Pope put it, that such a hope springs eternal in every human breast. It is hope in God’s tomorrow. 

The Scriptures speak now and again of the world to come, which refers to far more than the heaven that awaits us at death. In fact, those now in heaven can anticipate the world to come as well as those of us yet on earth. It is a hope and a promise that goes back to Isaiah 65:17: “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth,” a promise repeated in Isaiah 66:22: “As the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before me,” says the Lord, “so shall your descendents and your name remain.” This promise is referenced in 2 Peter 3:13. After describing the dissolution of the present heaven and earth, the writer says: “Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwell.” 

It is appropriate to ask at this point if we, the 21st century church, look for the world to come as did the first century church? Are we as impressed by the promises God gave to the prophets as they were? If the apostle John had such faith when he was confined to Patmos, his faith soon became sight, for while on that island he wrote, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea’ (Revelation 21:1). He sees what Isaiah had envisioned long centuries before. But both are referring to the future. While Isaiah clearly writes of the world to come as future, John writes as if it were occurring at that moment. He writes of the future as if already occurring. 

The reference to there being no more sea provides a tiny clue to the nature of the new earth. Space will matter. With something like seven-eighths of the earth’s surface covered by sea, the new, actually, renewed, earth will have far more room for what John goes on to see: “And I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” He goes on to describe the size of the holy city as a 1500 mile cube, ample size for a capitol, and with the seas now terra firma, the huge city will not crowd the earth. 

Yes, I believe the renewed earth will be the permanent (eternal) heaven, and it will be the capital of all the new heavens, with the New Jerusalem as the capitol. The temporary heaven, where the redeemed family of God now resides (Ephesians 3:14-15) is the New Jerusalem that is now “above,” according to Galatians 4:26. So John saw this “heaven above,” the holy city, New Jerusalem, come down to earth, and he says this is where God will be with his people. “He will be their God, and they shall be his people.”  

We ourselves will be gloriously transformed into spiritual bodies, like unto Christ’s glorious body (Philippians 3:21), and thus prepared for cosmic assignments… “In the regeneration (the world to come), when the Son of Man shall sit on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). 

But when it says “They shall see the face of God” (Revelation 22:4), we should see this as one more anthropomorphism, attributing to God a human trait. Since “No one has seen God or can see him” (I Timothy 6:16), and since God is spirit and incorporeal, of course has no face, this is to be seen as one more precious symbol of the holy city “along with golden streets, jasper walls, pearly gates” – and as referring to the glorious presence of God in the world to come. We will “see” God when we witness that “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminates it. The Lamb is its light” (Revelation 21:23). 

As far back as Abraham God’s covenant people “waited” for this city, and they “saw it afar, a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10). The prophets looked for that time when nations would beat their swords into ploughs and study war no more (Micah 4:3), and when “the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). Jesus promised his disciples that he would go away and prepare a place for them that had many mansions (John 14:2). Then there is “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of the Lord and his Christ, and he shall reign forever” (Revelation 11:15). And the Bible closes with the promise: “Blessed are those who keep his commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14). 

Apart from whether I have all the details right, the world to come in all its glory is as certain as the promises of God. We do not know when that will be, but we are called to “the one hope of our calling” (Ephesians 4:4), and that hope will motivate us to help prepare this world for the great transformation that awaits it to become heaven itself. It may come incrementally, and hastened by our prayers and efforts. Thy kingdom come!