We now consider, finally, The Eternal Self for the people of God. This glorious, culminating phase of existence for every redeemed man, woman, and child will begin just after the great judgment and will never end. It is as certain as – far more certain than – tomorrow’s sunrise and the wetness of rain, because it is based on the promises of God which are grounded in the character of God, the one who is perfect in wisdom, power, and love.
THE ETERNAL SELF: BELIEVERS
This realm of life – this seventh self for every believer – is, by its very nature, exceedingly beyond what we can possibly imagine. However, even though our minds are stretched far beyond their strongest capabilities to grasp the heavenly physics of space, time, and resurrection life, we are not without the most important truths God wants us to know, to fill us with hope and encouragement as we continue to travel this earthly path to heavenly glory, one mile at a time, one day at a time.
There is surely much symbolism and figurative language in the relevant biblical texts, but there is also, most assuredly, real (actual and factual) truth of which they speak. Here are two biblical passages that have thrilled the souls of God’s faithful people for nearly two thousand years.
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. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 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. ‘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.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” …. “To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children” (Rev. 21:1-7).
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. Their will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever (Rev. 22:1-5).
I have not quoted the remaining verses of chapter 21, but they, recorded as one unit with the above texts, fill out the single most important account in the Bible concerning heaven and The Eternal Self. The most exciting truths in these scriptures concern both what is not in the new heaven and new earth (death, mourning, crying, pain) and – even more – what (who) is there (God himself and his people from all the ages). The language is both astonishing and exceedingly tender. “God himself will be with them.” “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” “They will see his face.”
How Much May We Speculate?
As just mentioned, there is symbolic language in the biblical accounts of eternal blessedness. For example, because God does not have physical hands, he cannot literally “wipe every tear” from our eyes. (Unless the divine comforter is Jesus, who, in his resurrected body will attend to every crying person in heaven.)
Two questions can be asked to further this line of thought. (1) Will “the new Jerusalem” be an actual city, and, if so, will it be made of pure gold, with the great street also made of gold, and each gate made of a single pearl (Rev. 21: 18,21)? Or (2) Was this language of gold, pearls, and precious stones, and “the river of the water of life” used by the Spirit-led, first century writer to convey thoughts of the most valuable earthly things one could imagine at that time and in that culture and region – what is today western Turkey (Rev. 1:10-11; 22:16)?
This issue of literal versus symbolic language affects our interpretation not only of the description of our eternal home in Revelation 21 and 22, but also of the whole last book of the Bible and large sections of the Bible elsewhere (especially the prophets) that speak of future earthly judgments and earthly blessings, mostly in the final days of human history.
Adding to the difficulty of trying to understand our eternal home in glory is the question of “the millennium,” a remarkable “golden age” said to be a thousand years in Revelation 20: 1-10. Many Bible interpreters say that this period of Christ’s rule will occur just after the coming time of great tribulation described in Revelation 6 to 19, and before the final judgment and the eternal state. I believe that this understanding of the millennium (which may or may not be precisely 1,000 years) is the correct one, although some Bible expositors believe that the “millennium” is a way of speaking of Christ’s spiritual rulership now, from his position at the right hand of the Father. The latter interpreters obviously propose a much heavier use of figurative language in Revelation 20 than do the former.
The relevance of the millennial issue in this discussion of the eternal state has to do with substantial Old Testament prophecies of a glorious future time of righteousness and peace on earth (see, for example, Isa. 11-12; 60; Zech. 14). Do these predictions of the wolf living peacefully with the lamb, herds of camels covering the land, the ending of sunsets and moon cycles forever, and the Lord being king over the whole earth refer to a long “millennial” time for restored Israel and other people on a renewed earth before the eternal state, or to the eternal state itself, or to some of each?
The language of these prophecies is similar to the accounts of the new heaven and new earth in Isaiah 65:17-66:24 and Revelation 21-22. If these prophecies refer to eternity (perhaps, in places, to a prior millennium also), but use time-bound language understandable to the middle-easterners at the time of writing, then God’s people today have a wealth of additional information about our forever home – substantially more than that in the last book of the Bible!
Even if much of the language is time-bound (the infant playing safely near the cobra’s den), the kinds of blessings we will experience, such as peace, justice, and holiness on earth and flourishing for everyone in all areas of life imaginable, can be powerfully encouraging for all who love our Lord and serve him faithfully in this present world of horrendous violence, sin, and suffering! Our God will set everything right!
These matters of biblical interpretation regarding end-times events are beyond the scope of this brief look at our future home in glory. However, I can recommend two fine – though quite different – books on the relevant principles of interpretation as well as just about any other questions you may have about our eternal home. Heaven, by Randy Alcorn (published 2004, 533 pages), and Probing Heaven, by John Gilmore (published 1989, 466 pages), will surely stimulate your mind, soul, and perhaps even your body as you travel in a sort of time-machine to other realms of existence and imagination!
Alcorn leans to a more literal understanding of the prophetic language in Revelation and elsewhere in the Bible (while recognizing obvious symbolism), whereas Gilmore sees figurative language and symbolism as predominant. Most important, both acknowledge a divinely-inspired record of things to come, and both are valuable and fascinating studies – with much speculation – of the life awaiting the people of God.
What Will Life in Heaven Be Like?
The way I see things (admittedly “through a glass, darkly,” 1 Cor. 13:12, KJV), our lives in eternal glory will be, to a great extent, much like what God’s people now in the intermediate state (our saved loved ones and all believers of all time) experience, except that there will be more physicality in the eternal state. Two biblical emphases lead me to this tentative conclusion.
First, we will have resurrection bodies, described in 1 Corinthians 15, especially verses 35-54. While these are said to be spiritual bodies, this does not mean that they will be immaterial. We will not be ghost-like creatures, because we will be like Jesus in his resurrection body, and he was a material person who could be touched, and who could eat if he chose to. He is described as the “firstfruits” (the earliest vegetables, grains, or fruits of the season) of a great harvest of God’s people – the faithful of all the ages. We will be raised in bodies like the resurrection body of Jesus.
Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him” (1 Cor. 15: 20-23; see also vss. 40-49).
Second, our everlasting home is spoken of as “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). While the description of this new creation in the last two chapters of Revelation (and in the last two chapters of Isaiah) is undoubtedly thick in symbolism, in light of the culture and thought-patterns of the times, there surely is a material substratum upon which physical life, activities, and relationships will be enjoyed.
I see no reason why the new Jerusalem (which appears to be in existence even now ; see Rev. 3:12; 21:2-3,9-10; Heb. 12: 22-24) cannot be a physical entity or structure of some kind on the new earth – perhaps a massive cube with a very thick wall, yet with gates that are never closed (Rev. 21:15-17,25). This physical world-within-a-world, which would descend from its present location to its permanent home on the approximate site of the old Jerusalem, would then be the “capital” of the renewed or recreated planet earth and heavens, since “the throne of God and of the Lamb” will be there.
The Lamb is, of course, the resurrected and glorified Jesus – the God-man. Because he will be human (and divine) forever, his bodily self will be localized somewhere, seemingly the “throne” in the new Jerusalem, on the new earth. The wording of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, written in 1571, is quite specific: “Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.”
“Heaven” will thus be, for all eternity, on earth! It seems to me that we will be able to go in and out of its capital city freely, and possibly even explore and live in the new heavens, as God will explain in our instruction packet when we arrive in the eternal kingdom after the judgment. In our glorified, spiritual, touchable bodies like those of Jesus, we may be able to materialize and dematerialize at will, as Jesus did in the upper room after his resurrection, and with the disciples in the Emmaus Road kitchen (Lk. 24:28-43; Jn. 20:19-29; see also Mt. 17:1-8, re. Moses and Elijah on the mount with Jesus).
There will be degrees of reward for each person in glory, which should motivate us now to love God fully and our neighbors as ourselves, in preparation for life as eternal selves and to bring great joy to the heart of God in our daily activities at present (1 Cor. 3:12-15; 2 Cor. 5:10; Col 3:23-25; 2 Jn 8).
As the redeemed of the Lord we will exist as conscious, joyful, embodied selves – probably with all five of our present senses and maybe even more – living in a material universe of some kind throughout eternity: a new heaven and a new earth. I picture trees, rivers, mountains, flowers, and meadows, since God in the beginning created such a world (Eden) for our enjoyment and flourishing.
I truly hope, however, that there will be no awareness of time passing, but I know whatever God does in this realm of “time” – seemingly created by him for the old earth and heaven – will be perfect and delightful. I also hope, passionately, that there will be no mosquitos, but if there are, I believe they will be like harmless, tiny, beautiful butterflies!
For many years I have asked myself: “If I could have only one chapter of the Bible with me for the rest of my life, what chapter would that be?” I always reply: “Romans 8.” There are several powerful themes and sections in this chapter that lead me to this answer, and one of these sections is verses 18 to 25. Here we read of the new creation – sure to come and never to end!
Not only will God’s redeemed people be delivered from the sorrows and sufferings of this present world, but the material creation itself “will be liberated from its bondage to decay, and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (v. 21). If we love to gaze upon the beautiful natural wonders of the earth, oceans, and skies today – both in their most immense and tiniest details – how much more resplendent and glorious will be the colors, shapes, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangible experiences of the new creation: the new heavens and the new earth?
Will we do the things in heaven that we enjoy doing now on earth? We can only speculate, but it seems very likely to me to think that God – our endlessly creative designer and lavish giver of good and pleasurable things – will bring into being (or equip us to bring into being) all kinds of occupations and activities to delight us in ways unimaginable now.
If a believer really enjoyed quilting on earth, why not assume that God will give such a person that enjoyment in glory, but at an even greater level of satisfaction? The same can be surmised of such pursuits as soccer, hiking, mountain-climbing, gardening, woodworking, engineering, reading, learning, conversation (at all levels), dancing, guitar-playing, baking, chess, oratory, and napping. If these activities won’t be in heaven, then God will have even more enjoyable ones for us. We won’t even think of the former pursuits.
I do hope, however, that I can sit with some special ones – perhaps including James, Esther, and Adam – on the bank of a beautiful, shady stream, watching the ducks swim! If such speculation seems too unspiritual (or even silly) for some folks, we might want to ask them what they think we will do in heaven. If we dislike thinking of heaven in concrete ways, and remove such speculation as the above from our idea of heaven, we may be left with little or nothing to look forward to!
Our everlasting home will be far superior to the Garden of Eden, since there will be no serpent nor even the possibility of sin. There will be no memory of past sins, ours or those of others. We will talk directly with Jesus and his redeemed from all the ages, and quite likely with the angels, since they are personal beings also (Dan. 8:15-19; 9:20-23; Lk. 1:11-19; 26-38). I can’t wait to find out if we will talk directly with the Father and the Holy Spirit also, since they are personal selves just as the Son (as shown in the amazing chapters 14-17 of John’s gospel). I believe that we will!
A wonderful experience I recommend for every reader sometime soon is to read the beautiful words of Jesus at the end of his remarks to each of the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, concerning those who choose to be true to him! The language is highly symbolic, and follows some severe rebukes, but the glorious realities of which Jesus speaks are a very significant part of the scriptural material on what heaven will be like.
No End of Questions, No End of Blessings
There are a great many questions God’s children have asked for centuries concerning what heaven will be like. What will we do? How will we worship God? Will animals – including our earthly pets – be there? Alcorn and Gilmore address these questions and numerous others. Alcorn even asks, “Will we drink coffee in heaven?” and “Will our bodies shine?” Gilmore asks, “Will there be ownership in heaven?” and “Will there be humor in heaven?” Both ask (as all books on heaven do) about sex in heaven. And Alcorn will encourage many when he writes: “Our new bodies, I expect, will have a natural beauty that won’t need cosmetics or touch-ups. As for fat, because God created fat as part of our bodies, we’ll surely have some, but in healthy proportion.”
Concerning our eternal home, Alcorn discusses arts, entertainment, sports, crafts, technology, new modes of travel, and includes chapters titled: “What Will We Know and Learn?” “What Will Our Daily Lives Be Like?” “Will Heaven Ever Be Boring?” He relates, “An elderly gentleman I led to Christ asked a question of a Christian employee in his care center: ‘Will we have fun in Heaven?’ ‘Oh, no,’ the woman replied, appearing dismayed that he’d even asked. When he told me this story, I shook my head, because I’ve heard it so often. …[She] instinctively linked fun with sin, and boredom with holiness. But she couldn’t be more wrong. God promises that we’ll laugh, rejoice, and experience endless pleasures in Heaven.”
Martin Luther said, “If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.” John Wesley remarked, “The best is yet to be.” Simone Weil declared, “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” And David wrote, “In Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11, NKJV).
One more passage of the Bible concerning heaven, though seldom recognized as such, is found in the majestic and mysterious epistle to the Hebrews. The human writer was led by the divine author to present a contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion (compare Gal. 4: 21-31). “Mount Sinai” – a past, material, earthly reality and experience – represents the strictness and fiery presence of God toward those who attempt to approach him and know him through earthly means alone (12: 18-21). “Mount Zion” — a present, spiritual reality and experience – represents the graciousness of God toward those who come to him through his merciful plan of redemption in the Savior.
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire, …. But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, …. Therefore, … let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (12: 18-29).
These words speak of our “heavenly” experience on two levels: (1) What believers on earth experience now (spiritually) through Jesus our heavenly high priest, having access to God’s presence through prayer and communion with other believers (Heb. 4:14-16; 10:19-25); and (2) What believers in glory experience now (materially) in the heavenly Jerusalem, presently existing in heaven (Heb. 11:10,16; 13:14), awaiting its relocation on the new earth (Isa 65:17-18; Rev. 21:1-2, 10).
Can We Be Too Heavenly Minded?
It has been said often that if one becomes too heavenly minded they will be of no earthly good. I and millions of others affirm, however, that the more heavenly minded a person becomes, the more earthly good they will accomplish. This has been demonstrated over the centuries by devout people of God in every region on earth, in every culture and racial group, and in every occupation and sphere of service for God and humanity.
I have read many (but not nearly all I want) powerful biographies and autobiographies of men and women who were truly heavenly minded and, because of that, were significant agents for earthly good as well as spiritual, eternal benefit for large numbers. The Christian missionary movements of recent centuries, for example, have resulted in a great many highly effective hospitals, institutions of learning, linguistic/translation societies, agencies for major agricultural and water-related development, and relief organizations funded and staffed by an abundance of heavenly minded givers, volunteers, and career workers who love what they do!
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Mt. 25:34-36).
My favorite poem (quoted here as prose), from the servant of God who influenced me toward godly living more than any other person during the first twenty years of my Christian life, Robert Murray McCheyne of Scotland (1813-1843), is titled “When This Passing World Is Done,” written in 1837. I include three of the stanzas to close this discussion on “The Eternal Self: Believers.” I can think of no more overwhelming words on the topic of heaven, or on any other topic!
“When this passing world is done, When has sunk yon glaring sun; When we stand with Christ in glory, Looking o’er life’s finished story; Then, Lord, shall I fully know, Not till then, how much I owe.
“When I stand before the throne, Dressed in beauty not my own; When I see thee as thou art, Love thee with unsinning heart; Then, Lord, shall I fully know, Not till then, how much I owe.
“Chosen not for good in me, Wakened up from wrath to flee; Hidden in the Savior’s side, By the Spirit sanctified; Teach me, Lord, on earth to show, By my love, how much I owe.”
SEQUEL: FROM CONCEPTION TO ETERNITY, HOW MANY SELVES WILL YOU BE?
Who are you? Who am I? Who are you becoming? Who am I becoming? I have written this brief, introductory excursion through the six or seven selves of every person’s existence to serve as a biblically-based guide to thinking about life: past, present, and future. Unless we responsible selves enter and experience the In-Christ Self, by responding personally and affirmatively to God’s gracious invitation and command to receive his forgiveness and lordship during our earthly lives, we will experience only six selves: The Initial Self, The Independent Self, The Intermediate Self, The Resurrected Self, The Judged Self, and The Eternal Self.
Allow me to make a fervent plea, from my deepest inner self, to every reader. Some of you I know. Others I may never have met, and maybe never will in this life. If you are not certain, with the full assurance God longs to give you (Rom. 8:16; 2Tim. 1:12), concerning your being a born-again child of God now, and concerning your everlasting destiny, receive him now, without one more day of hesitation. He will not, ever, turn you away! C.S. Lewis, in the final words of his classic work, Mere Christianity, expresses my plea far more powerfully than anyone I am familiar with, with the exception of Jesus:
Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.
To you who have yielded decisively to God, by God’s saving grace through trust in Christ, with no reliance on your good works to influence God in your favor, I exhort you (as I daily exhort myself) to live fully as The In-Christ Self God has made you to be, to love him wholly and your neighbors as yourself. My deepest desire, which I offer to you as well, is to live the rest of my days here on earth increasing in spiritual maturity, godliness, wisdom, helpfulness to others, and intimacy with Jesus. This will not happen without our regularly spending serious (not always lengthy) time in the scriptures (every day unless health or other crises prevent), frequent interactions with like-minded people of God, continually speaking with our dear Lord about everything throughout the day, and living with a grateful heart.
We have a truly amazing future, full of God’s infinite grace and glory! “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
This article (and the previous four in this series on our different selves) is available on the website: www.gracequestministries.org. There you may also read additional articles – some short and some longer – that I have written over the years to build up those who long for greater peace, joy, hope, and love in their lives now, and for eternity.