Throughout time humans have wanted to understand more about their meaning and purpose in life. Such questions are extremely important and cannot be separated from questions regarding identity, origin, and destination. We must understand something about who we are before we can understand why we are here; it is very difficult to have any grounding in who we are if we do not understand from where we have come and to where we expect to go. Christians understand, based on God’s revelation in Scripture, that all people are made in God’s image to share in relationship with God and each other to God’s glory (Genesis 1:26-27, John 17:20-23, Romans 1:19-20). What do the Apostles envision as our ultimate destination? What do they have to say about life after the judgment day?
The New Testament does not reveal as much as might be expected about life after the judgment: most discussions of the afterlife focus on the Judgment and the day of resurrection. Nevertheless we are given a few glimpses into what that future life may involve.
In John 5:28-29 Jesus spoke of a day in which all will come out of the tombs: those who have done good will experience the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil will experience the resurrection of judgment (or condemnation). While Jesus focused on the day of judgment and resurrection we do well to note how He envisions life afterward in terms of resurrection: the redeemed experience a resurrection of life, while the condemned experience a resurrection of judgment. Thus we may know that eternal life is life in the resurrection, life after life after death. Paul explains the nature of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:20-48 and 2 Corinthians 5:1-10: the return of the soul to the body and the transformation of the “psychical” body into the incorruptible, immortal “pneumatical” body. In this way we gain the victory over death.
In both Romans 8:17-18 and 2 Corinthians 4:17 Paul looked forward to the glorification of Christians by God. God’s glory was manifest in His presence; in a former covenant Moses’ face shone because he was in the presence of the glory of God, and so how much more amazing and awesome will it be for us to receive the fullness of God’s glory (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:7-11)?
Paul continued to look forward to unfulfilled expectations in Romans 8:18-25. He spoke of the creation yearning to be set free from its bondage to corruption, just as the sons of God yearn for the adoption as sons, the “redemption of the body.” While Christians remain part of the creation, Paul makes a distinction between “the creation” and “we ourselves” in Romans 8:23; in Romans 8:24-25, Paul made evident that the hope of which he speaks is not yet present reality, and yet Paul assured Christians that they presently had eternal life spiritually and presently were adopted as sons of God in Christ in Romans 6:3-11, 8:9-17. This hope of redemption cannot be spiritual life eternally; the “redemption of the body” is therefore best understood as a reference to the resurrection to come (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20-58). Paul therefore extended hope that the creation itself in some way would obtain redemption when Christians receive the glory of God.
Peter’s future expectation in 2 Peter 3:7-13 is often held in tension with Paul’s in Romans 8:18-25. Peter envisioned a judgment of the present creation in fire leading to the dissolution of matter (2 Peter 3:7-10, 12). And yet Peter declared that Christians await a “new heavens” and a “new earth” in which righteousness dwells based on the promises of God (cf. Isaiah 65:17-25, 66:15-24, Revelation 21:1-22:6). The sum of God’s Word is truth (Psalm 119:160); while it may be that we do well to understand Romans 8:18-25 in terms of 2 Peter 3:7-13, we must at least remain open to the possibility that we are to understand 2 Peter 3:7-13, to some degree or another, in terms of Romans 8:18-25. Peter never suggested that the purification by fire means the end of the created order for eternity; on what basis should we believe that God will ultimately fully give up on and abandon His creation?
The most complete picture of life in the resurrection, even if given in a figure, can be found in Revelation 21:1-22:6. After Satan is cast into the lake of fire and the day of judgment has transpired (cf. Revelation 20:7-15), John saw a new heavens and a new earth, for the former had passed away (Revelation 21:1). In this picture of the new heavens and the new earth he saw the heavenly city, new Jerusalem prepared as a bride, coming down out of heaven (Revelation 21:2). John heard a voice declaring that the dwelling place (tabernacle) of God is with man; they will be His people, and He will be their God; there would be no more crying, pain, or distress (Revelation 21:3-4). John was then granted a more detailed vision of the bride, the wife of the Lamb, the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven (Revelation 21:9-10). John saw it given the glory of God, described in terms of bejeweled walls and foundations and golden streets (Revelation 21:11-21). He saw no temple in it, nor source of light, for God and the Lamb are in its midst, and His glory gives it light (Revelation 21:22-23). John was then shown the river of the water of life with the tree of life on either side of it (Revelation 22:1-2). In that place the servants of God worship Him and dwell with Him face to face (Revelation 22:3-6).
The visions granted to John are symbolic and metaphorical and yet cohere well with the picture seen in the rest of the New Testament. We are given no indication God is giving up on His creation: according to Paul, sin and death have led to the corruption and decay of the creation, and once those are fully defeated, the creation can be redeemed from its curse (Romans 5:12-21, 8:17-25). Even if the present creation is purified as through fire, refined and then made anew, the goal is never elimination and separation from the creation. The people of God, seen in glory in terms of a bejeweled city, come down from heaven; God dwells with man, not the other way around (Revelation 21:1-10, 22-23). The end is as the beginning: humans dwell in face-to-face communion with God, in the presence of the tree of life and the river of the water of life (Genesis 2:4-24, Revelation 22:1-5). Those who have done good and have obtained the resurrection of life will experience eternity in the resurrection body, transformed for imperishability, incorruption, and immortality, and will receive the full glory of God, to worship Him and bask in His presence forever in the new heavens and the new earth.
Humans are made in God’s image; God desires to maintain relationship with mankind. We see this manifest in the picture of the end: the redeemed are made perfect, given immortality and imperishability in the resurrection body, and are portrayed as remaining in the presence of God for eternity. We are looking for that new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. We look forward to maintaining face-to-face communion with God, to know as we are known. In the end we return to the beginning. We do well to live accordingly, seeking to glorify God in our lives, ever more conforming to the image of the Son, and thus obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry