Today, I conclude my series of Thankful Thursday articles by reflecting upon the final words of the Apostles’ Creed: “the life everlasting”. This is the last thing we confess when we recite the words of the creed, and it seems to receive less attention than those that come at the beginning. Nevertheless, when we confess that we believe in everlasting life, we are declaring something that is infinitely important.
I previously wrote about the resurrection of the body. We sometimes view eternal life in such a limited sense that those two final lines of the creed hardly differ. Yet, the supernatural raising of our bodies from the dead is not the same as receiving eternal life. Men have longed for immortality since the Fall, but they would have done better to pursue a higher form of life rather than a longer one. That is what God offers us when He offers eternal life: not a continual existence in the same form, but an entirely higher form of existence.
Dr. Richard Barcellos has recently written a book called Getting the Garden Right in which he examines the opening chapters of Genesis and their implications for the rest of history. Among his assertions is one that is essential to Reformed covenant theology: Adam was created sinless and immortal, but he did not yet possess eternal life. Rather, God made a covenant with Adam in which he would be granted eternal life in exchange for living a perfectly righteous life. It was this covenant that Adam broke, condemning us all.
The important principle here is that, as wonderful as the Garden of Eden may have been, it was nowhere near as great as what awaits those who are in Christ. There was something that Adam lacked pre-Fall, even as he seemed to have everything. His body was not yet subject to decay, and he did have better communion with God than we enjoy, but he did not possess eternal life. Consider these verses, which come just after God pronounces curses on the serpent, Eve, and Adam.
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.
Adam had not previously eaten from the tree of life. The explanation usually given for God’s edict is that, 1) As Adam had become subject to the curse of death, he was forbidden eat something that would make him immortal, and 2) Once Adam existed in a sinful state, he was prevented from continuing forever in that state. Those are correct explanations for God’s words, but we must not miss the fact that in breaking that initial covenant with God, Adam had failed to keep the covenant demands. Therefore, he not only received the covenant curses, but he was also denied the covenant blessing: eternal life.
We next see the tree of life at the end of time, when God’s people are brought into the new heavens and the new earth. This helps us to understand the significance of the tree.
Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him; they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever.
Here we see that in the new heavens and new earth, the tree of life is made available “for the healing of the nations”. Not only does it provide life, but we also read about the removal of the curse. You could almost say that humanity is being returned to Eden, but that would not do it justice. This tree is not on our present earth, but the new earth. To eat the fruit of the tree of life is to exist in that higher way.
How will eternal life be better than the Garden of Eden? Scripture does not reveal much about the glory we will enjoy in heaven. There may be any number of reasons for this, but I suspect it is partially because God knew if He told us everything, we would be in no mood to stay here and fight the good fight. I would compare it to a single person, carrying on year after year. They may not be entirely happy with their situation, but what if I told them that somewhere on planet earth there exists an absolutely perfect mate? What if I told them how wonderful this person was in detailed terms and how amazing their life together would be, but then said, “Sorry, you can’t meet this person right now. You can meet them a few decades from now.” Well, the single person would do their best to keep plugging along, but their singleness would become much harder. They knew they were missing something before, but they didn’t realize just how incredible it was. “You shouldn’t have told them!” you might say. “That’s just cruel!”
This may be a silly example, but I believe it is similar to what we experience in this present life. We live day by day with a sense that there is something better out there, but for the most part we are blissfully ignorant of how truly impoverished our current existence is. The Apostle Paul apparently had a vision in which he was caught up to heaven and witnessed some of the glory that is to come. (2 Corinthians 12:2-4) Perhaps this is what allowed him to say the following to the church in Philippi.
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.
Consider that the most basic fear human beings possess is the fear of death. If someone said to you, “I think I would prefer to die rather than live,” you would assume that they were terribly depressed. Yet, Paul was not at all depressed—he was thinking entirely rationally. He had received a small taste of the life to come, and he was hungry for more. He knew that this was the thing his soul had always been craving. Paul did not detest this life, nor did he detest himself. He knew the importance of the work God had given him to do. Nevertheless, remaining here and doing that work was a kind of sacrifice for Paul, as he knew that even the best things of this life cannot compare to what awaits us in that higher level of existence.
In the Garden of Eden, the Lord evidently walked with Adam and talked to him. (Genesis 3:8) This was likely an appearance of the pre-Incarnate Christ. It must have been a wonderful existence, but it still did not compare with eternal life. Although sin and death had not yet entered the garden, there was the potential for that to happen. It was not secure from the forces of evil. Moreover, Adam did not experience the Lord’s presence there in the same way that we will in the new heavens and new earth. He still needed the light of the sun, but on the new earth, there will be no sun. We will be so fully in God’s presence that He Himself will illumine us. (Revelation 22:5)
Pre-Fall Adam did not have the blessing of seeing God’s glory displayed in all of salvation history. He looked upon the Lamb, but not the Lamb who was slain. He did not relate to God through grace, but on the basis of his own sinlessness. His relationship with His Creator was therefore somewhat different from ours, and it surely affected the nature of His worship.
Dr. Michael Horton recently published an article in which he stated that hell is not separation from God, as is often supposed. I agree with his assessment, but it requires some explanation. The Lord’s presence is everywhere. Because He is omnipresent, not even the wicked can flee from Him. The real difference between heaven and hell is how the inhabitants relate to God. Those who are in heaven know Him as their Redeemer who has given them grace upon grace. Those who are in hell no longer experience the grace of God. They are only subject to His wrath. It is that burning wrath against sin and the removal of the common grace under which all humanity resides that makes the final place of judgment such a torturous form of existence.
You should not base your theology on Dante’s Inferno. Nevertheless, this epic poem captures the meaning of hell quite appropriately in some of its lines. Charon, the one who ferries souls across the River Styx, torments the damned with his words: “Woe unto you, ye souls depraved! / Hope nevermore to look upon the heavens; / I come to lead you to the other shore, / To the eternal shades in heat and frost.” Dr. Carl Trueman has noted that an equally good translation of that second line would be, “Hope nevermore to look upon the sky.” Sometimes we forget that even the simple glories of God’s creation are a form of common grace enjoyed by all men, and this is what will be lost by those who enter hell.
You see, all of us will exist eternally in one sense or another, but simply going on forever does not mean that you have eternal life. That is only the product of God’s grace and the finished work of Jesus Christ. The souls in hell may never see the sun, but we will bask forever in the light of God’s glory.
Imagine that you no longer needed to confess sin, because its power over you was broken. Imagine that your worship was entirely pure and honoring to your Creator. Imagine that you stood with the elect of all nations, the enmity between them forever removed. Imagine that you never needed to fear, for you had seen fully and thus had your fears removed. This is what awaits us in the life everlasting, and far more than that. I simply don’t know what else to add, because it has not been revealed.
If you think heaven is about living in a fancy mansion and getting to be neighbors with Martin Luther, then you don’t understand heaven. If you think it’s about getting all your theological questions answered, then your impoverished existence has made your dreams impoverished as well. The greatest good that awaits us in heaven is the unceasing and unhindered presence of our holy God. You have never experienced Him in that way, for you like me are under the curse. When that curse is removed, you will worship Him purely. Sometimes people complain that an eternity of singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” sounds boring. If that is what you think, then you have no conception of what worship means. To worship in the purest sense is to glory eternally in the glorious One. It is not just a worship service with better pyrotechnics. It is a higher form of existence, which cannot be replicated in this fallen world. We will do our best until that time, but it’s no wonder that Paul longed for that day.
Friends, when I look at this world, I grieve. Is there any speck of our existence that is not somehow touched by sorrow or does not bear the painful mark of iniquity? It is not only our bodies, but also our hearts that need to be cleansed and redeemed. The sinful nature is not yet fully put to death. The curse is not yet removed. We live in discord with our fellow man. We are engaged in a daily struggle. Whenever you see these things happening, you must remember that this world is not our home. Our citizenship is in the heavenly Jerusalem. We are seeking the life eternal, which is the certain inheritance of those who are in Christ.
I have been through many difficulties this year, and in each one I have longed for the new heavens and the new earth. I know that God has promised me something better, and yet I am so thoroughly immersed in this fallen world that I sometimes forget the glory that is in store for the children of God. The life everlasting is the place where words fail. The Apostle John was forced to resort to symbols and similes. The limitations of our language are just one example of how we live in an impoverished state. Something better awaits: a place beyond words. This year, I am truly thankful for the life everlasting.
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.