by Chris Ritter
1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”Revelation 21:1-5, 22-27, New International Version
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”……. 22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
During college I served churches along the Mississippi River in deep Southern Illinois. We lived in Grand Tower and our little Methodist parsonage was a stone’s throw from the river. Just down the street was another little store-front church called Pilgrim’s Chapel. The door was sometimes open when I walked by and I would notice the pastor, an older man, sitting inside. The sanctuary was little larger than the average living room and the side wall was completely dominated by a chart depicting the end times.
Many a day I found the pastor sitting and staring at the chart. He had made it himself over the course of many years of ministry and study. It was obviously his magnum opus. When I walked in, he would not move his eyes from the chart or even say hello. He would just begin talking about whatever he was thinking about that day. I became fascinated by how fascinated he was. Part of the chart was a map of how the tribes of Israel would encamp around their wilderness tabernacle. He found in this some bit of secret key to the Book of Revelation. One day he talked at length about one of Noah’s daughters-in-law. This guy was deep down the rabbit hole.
For all the reasons people are fascinated by the End Times (“eschatology,” in theological terms), just as many are repulsed for those same reasons. Complex imagery with multiple layers of meaning must be interpreted. There are many competing schools of thought. The people who talk the loudest and generally selling something.
I have noticed that our view of the End is sometimes affected by the age in which we live. In times of great revival, the church has often shifted to an optimistic, triumphant expectation of the future. In John Wesley’s day, thousands of new believers were coming to faith. It was not difficult to imagine things continuing and the Gospel transforming the entire world in a sweeping wave. Wesley said:
“Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on Earth.”
But we are living in the ebb of Christian faith in our nation. Recently it was announced that the Americans claiming church membership slipped below 50% of the population. The United States is now a majority unchurched nation. And there is no sign of the trend turning around. If anything, COVID has accelerated it. For us, of course, it means the fields are white unto harvest. We share Jesus in a “target rich environment.” The death of cultural Christianity is not always such a bad thing. It allow the true believers to distinguish themselves. We are ripe for revival.
If you have ever been confused by the Book of Revelation or perplexed by a TV preacher’s vision of the End Times. I have some good news for you. There is a way to cut through the clutter by getting back to basics. Stick to what is clear. And use what is clear to try to better understand what is not so clear or open to various interpretations. In fact, let’s do that right now. What is the most basic Christian teaching about what is to come?
The ecumenical creeds are summaries of biblical teaching that all Christians can support. The Apostle’s Creed:
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
[I believe in] the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed declares:
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.
Biblical teaching, at its most basic, is that Christ will return, the dead will be raised, and there will be a final judgement that takes us into the final state of things. This is Heaven’s Triumph. One day earth will be invaded by Heaven and all things will be set right. The End of the Book is not us in Heaven. It is Heaven on Earth. And isn’t that the very thing for which Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
But, in the meantime, we have questions. I asked members of our church family to submit any questions they might have about Heaven, eternal life, or the End Times. Let’s jump in.
Will there be the passage of time in Heaven?
Yes. The reason I say “yes” is because the Bible seems to indicate in Revelation that events in Heaven track with events on Earth. But it is certain that God has a different understanding of time than we do. 2 Peter 3:8 quotes Psalm 90 to say, “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day.” Even science teaches us that time is relative. You can leave the earth in a space ship at the speed of light and come back a week later to find that years have passed.
I heard about someone who was having an intimate time of prayer with God. They asked, “God, what is a billion years to you?”
God said, “It is like a second.”
Another question came to mind, “God, what is a billion dollars to you?”
God said, “It is like a penny.”
The person asked, “God, can I have a penny?”
The reply: “In a second.”
Some theologians, like Abraham Kuyper, taught that there would be no time in Heaven. He based this on Revelation 10:6. In the King James Version is said, “there shall be no more time.” This idea made it into the hymn “When the Roll is Called up Yonder” which we sing, “time shall be no more.” But that was a poor translation. Almost all modern translations interpret Revelation 10:6 to say, “there shall be no more delay.”
In Revelation 6, those who have been martyred for their faith in Jesus ask God, “How long is it going to be before you avenge our blood?” They are each given a white robe and told to wait a little longer until the proper time. This sounds like the passage of time to me.
In Revelation 22 it describes the Heavenly Jerusalem, a 1000 mile cube-shaped city that comes out of Heaven to sit on the earth. In that city is the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb. There is no more need for the sun because the light of God illuminates the City. There is also the Tree of Life (last seen in Genesis 2), and it says it bears it fruit every month and its leaves are for the healing of the nations. “Every month” is a demarkation of time.
Do Christians go directly to Heaven when they die?
Sincere Christians teach different things on this topic. My Grandma Virginia attended a Bible-believing church that taught “soul sleep.” That is, when a Christian dies they sleep until the Resurrection, a doctrine they took very seriously. Sleeping until the Resurrection, if true, would not be a terrible fate. But I don’t think that is the case. Paul told the Philippians:
21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.Philippians 1:21-24
Paul was a tent-maker by trade. In 2 Corinthians 5 he speaks of this earthly body we each have as a tent. Tents are beaten by the wind, damaged by the sun, and are subject to wear and tear. He says that if our earthly tent is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in Heaven. Meanwhile, we groan… longing to be clothed in our future glory. The mortal will be swallowed up by life. But, he says, we are always confident. As long as we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord. But to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. That sounds like Heaven to me.
Some Christians teach a delay before we go to Heaven because we are all in need of transformation. If God let me in Heaven just like I am, I would surely pollute its perfection. I am sinful. My work of sanctification is not yet complete. So one theory is that we first go to a place to be purified, or purged. That is where Catholics get the word “purgatory.” Some people thing the idea of purgatory is the same thing as Hell. It is not.
You won’t find Purgatory in your Bible, but there are some gentle nods to it in the Apocrypha included in Catholic Bibles. We Protestants are allergic to the idea of Purgatory because it was one of the issues that sparked the Reformation. Luther objected to the selling of indulgences that would get someone out of purgatory sooner. The Roman Catholic Church rejects that practice now, too. But some Protestants, like C.S. Lewis (see The Great Divorce), embraced the logic of purgatory as a place where the word of our sanctification would be completed to get us ready for Heaven. The purpose of salvation is to save us from sin. So purgatory would be the place where the process of salvation is made complete. If you live a holy life, your time in purgatory would be shorter. If you lived a carnal life, your clean-up period would take longer.
But God is able to do sudden transformations! In 1 Corinthians 15:52 says our bodies will be suddenly transformed at the return of Christ: “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”
Consider 1 John 3:2:
“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
There is something about seeing Jesus himself in his Heavenly Glory that will have a transforming effect on us. I don’t believe that necessarily takes an extended period of time. Just the Glorious sight of Jesus in Heaven will be enough.
What happens at the Return of Christ?
1 Thessalonians might be the oldest book in the New Testament. Paul founded the church from converts from paganism. He taught them the Christian life for a short season and then travelled on to start other churches. But he sent a helped back to check on the church’s progress. First Thessalonians is Paul’s letter in reply to the report that was brought back to him.
One of the questions the church had was about death. Evidently, one of their number had died. They wondered if this departed member would miss out on the triumphant return of Christ that Paul taught them about. Paul writes these words to clarify that those who have died will actually have a unique view to the Second Coming:
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, New International Version
As Paul teaches about the return of Christ to earth, several things here are of note. First, Paul says that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in death. The souls of the departed will return to Earth with Christ to be rejoined with their bodies in the Resurrection. They will be the first to rise.
Second, this event is loud, grand, and obvious. Christ comes with a loud cry of command, the voice of the Archangel, and the Trumpet Call of God. Some have tried to interpret this passage as a secret stealing away of the saints. That is not what is being taught.
Third, after the dead are raised, those who are alive at that time will rise to meet the Lord in the air. Everyone in the ancient Roman world would have understood his meaning here. When a victorious kind returns to his people, they go out to meet him and bring him in. We sing about this sort of thing in “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.” We’ll all rise up to meet him when he comes. We rise to bring him in, not for him to take us out. There has been a lot of confusion about this point brought on by books and movies.
When Christ returns, we will forever be with the Lord. Paul says that we should comfort and encourage one another with these words.
Why do we need a body in eternity?
Some Christians have questioned the need for the Resurrection. Why would I want a body? Some people don’t like their bodies. They creak, smell, and ache. They get sick, overweight, and die. Many people today are content to take Heaven and leave out the Resurrection. But it is basic Christian teaching that what happened to Jesus on Easter will one day happen to all those who belong to Jesus. This is the topic of 1 Corinthians 15:
50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”1 Corinthians 15:50-55, New International Version
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The Good News is more than we survive our death by going to Heaven. One day death itself will be undone. As we said last week, Christ is going to take death by the neck and shake it until it gives back everything it ever stole from us. Death is an enemy. We all know people who greeted it like a friend, but that it only because it already took so much from them that they were grateful for it to end.
The body we are given at our Resurrection is supernaturally re-created by God. There is no need to artificially preserve our remains. God does not need our help. The body he will give us is like the body Jesus assumed on Easter. He could eat fish but appear behind locked doors. He could appear in different ways at different times. Our resurrection bodies are not subject to pain, disease, and decay. No need to wear a face mask. These bodies don’t get sick and they don’t grow old.
You will want a body in the Resurrection because there is a New Earth. There will be necks to hug and food to eat. Isaiah 65 describes the renewal of the natural world. The wolf will lay down with the lamb. The lion will eat straw like and ox. Snakes won’t bite. God has a glorious future for his entire creation.
Do Christians Face the Last Judgement?
The Last Judgment is bedrock Christian teaching: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” In Matthew 25, the nations of the earth are sorted like a Shepherd might sort the sheep and the goats. Spoiler alert: (You don’t want to be a goat).
Here is a image of the Last Judgement in Revelation 20:
10 And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.Revelation 20:10-15, New International Version
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
Revelation 20 is God’s triumph over Satan, sin, and suffering. Note that hell itself is thrown into the Lake of Fire. This is called the Second Death. The first death is physical. The second death is spiritual. Although Satan seems to be subjected to eternal, conscience suffering, that does not seem to be fate of all the condemned. Jesus said not to fear man who could only kill the body. He said to fear God who could destroy both the body and soul. God is infinitely loving and wise. We can trust him to judge according to his righteousness.
Everyone is included in the Last Judgement. But I notice that there are two sets of books. One set contained everything that everyone had done. Another is the Book of Life. Those not written in the book of Life are thrown into the Lake of Fire. Jesus told his disciples to rejoice that their names were written in Heaven. The main issue is whether you have been forgiven by the grace of Jesus.
Christians will be judged, but we will not be judged for our sins. Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Christians are judged for our good deeds in order to determine our eternal rewards.
We read about this in 1 Corinthians 3:
11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.1 Corinthians 3:11-15
The thing of first importance is a foundation upon the finished work of Christ. Once we have that foundation, we each build for the rest of our lives. Paul says we can build out of wood, hay, and straw or gold, silver, and precious stones. When Christ returns our work will be tested with fire.
Sometimes we do good things for the wrong reasons. An example would be an act of generosity to be noticed by others instead of being done for the glory of God. This is wood, hay and straw. I had a perfect attendance pen in Sunday School. But that wasn’t my good deed. That was my mother’s. She is the one who got me up and made me go every week. Wood, hay, and straw.
But some things are done for all the right reasons. And God will make sure we are rewarded for each one. Jesus said that even a person giving a cup of cold water to a disciple of his would not lose their reward. The fire of Christ’s coming will test our work. The gold, silver, and precious stones will remain.
Someone said that dreamed that all their good deeds were fashioned into a crown. They appeared on the Street of Gold with the saints as Jesus marched in triumphant procession. All the saints began to cast their crowns down at the feel of Jesus saying, “This is how much I loved you. This is how much I served you.” But the person telling the story said he only had a little crown the size of a thimble.
The one question every Christian needs to be ready to answer at the Last Judgement is, “What did you do with what I gave you?” Let’s build something glorious on the foundation of Christ Jesus. We have been given a faith. Let’s share it. We have been given a church. Let’s build it. We have been given neighbors. Let’s love them extravagantly.
What the Bible teaches about Heaven and Eternity serves as a great filter with which to make decisions. If it doesn’t matter in Eternity, it doesn’t matter. Let’s not be distracted by materialism, popularity, or worldly pleasure. Let’s labor for the master so we can hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”