According to authors Robert Peterson and Dan Barber, God describes heaven to affect our lives on earth, every day. The Bible paints this picture of our final salvation, the authors say, because God wants us to anticipate Christ’s future return; He wants us to eagerly await “our resurrection and joyous participation in the new heavens and the new earth.”
ByFaith editor Richard Doster interviewed both men about their new book, Life Everlasting: The Unfolding Story of Heaven, and about how the hope of heaven “transforms our earthly existence.”
In the beginning of the book, and again in the conclusion, you talk about how our study of heaven affects life now. How, by understanding heaven, will life today be more meaningful?
Barber: My wife, April, is always telling me that I need to audition for “Wheel of Fortune.” I usually respond, “Sure.” And then for about 30 seconds I catch a vision of what one day on the “Wheel” could do for our family. But then fear sets in, and I see another scenario: I somehow manage to get on and then win absolutely nothing, making a complete fool of myself in the process. Humiliated, I am left to face my friends and co-workers, all of whom watched the show the night before and, like me, had great expectations for “what could have been.”
Have you ever had an experience like that? Something that holds so much possibility, but at the same time generates almost paralyzing fear? Now imagine that Pat Sajak called me up and said, “Dan, congrats on qualifying for the show. We have a special episode, and I wanted to let you know that no matter how the wheel spins, no matter what letters you say, you will walk away with the million dollars from the bonus round.” How would that change my attitude and my actions as I look forward to and actually play the game?
The New Heaven and Earth Predicted in the Old Testament
Although the roots of the new heavens and new earth sink deep into Old Testament soil (to God’s land-promise to Abraham in Genesis 17:8), the terms first appear in Isaiah 65 and 66.
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. (Isaiah 65:17 ESV)
“For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain.
“From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.” (Isaiah 66:22-23 ESV)
The prophet Isaiah forsees a future life that is new (65:17), joyous (v. 19), secure (vv. 20-23), peaceful, (vv. 24-25), unending, universal, and worshipful (66:23). Many of these themes are picked up in Revelation 21 and 22.
Excerpted from Life Everlasting, and used with permission.
In His infinite grace, God gives us a glimpse of the
end to put away our fears as we look toward the future. The Apostle John writes, “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as He is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:16–18).
Peterson: Imagine a Bible without any reference to the new creation and its blessings. Leave out adoption into God’s family. Remove the promise of perfection. Delete the pages that speak of the end of evil and suffering. What would this produce? A culture of fear. Fear, because there would be no assurance that what is currently broken will one day be permanently mended. Fear because there would be no “guarantee” of our redemption (Ephesians 1:14).
But thank God that we do have his promises. And these promises break the crippling paralysis of fear (Hebrews 2:14–15) and enable us to live as God intends. Here is an easy summary: Future promises shape present practice. How does the promise of an eternity on a new earth — an earth in which there is work, rest, play, enjoyment, food, and the like — transform the idea that we have to scramble for everything we can get now? What does the promise of being transformed into glory, into resurrected persons so beautiful and glorious that words cannot describe, change the way we think about our self-worth, about how we treat our bodies and minds?
Life Everlasting seeks to connect the promises of God with the purpose for which these promises were given: to enable us more and more to live according to God’s purposes now.
As the story of heaven unfolds, you discuss how the character of mankind’s work is affected. You also dedicate a chapter to “perfect rest.” Talk a little about how, in eternity, work and rest are related.
Barber: It may surprise some to learn this, but pre-fall Adam and Eve never dreaded work. We, and most readers, we imagine, have had to face many workdays with a stiff upper lip. We have never known the joy of work without curse, labor without toil. Why? Because we are all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, and as such we share in their desperately broken estate.
Our Work is Only Just Beginning
Work is not a toilsome curse — toilsome labor is. Instead, the satisfaction of an honest, hard day’s work is a gift from God (Ecclesiastes 3:13). So it will be in the new creation. We will love our work.
Jesus’ parable of the talents conveys this idea. Three servants are stewards of various amounts of money while the master is away. This corresponds to the things that Jesus has given every human being while He is “away” in heaven. The return of the master corresponds to Jesus’ second coming when all things will be called into account. The servant who showed he was unsaved by his negligence was cast into hell. However, the servants who were faithful and multiplied their money received Jesus’ accolade: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:23). The reward for good stewardship on earth is greater service on the new earth and great joy.
Excepted from Life Everlasting, and used with permission.
What was work like before the curse? Genesis 2 tells of Adam working in the garden, and God brings the animals to him — get this — to “see what he would call them” (v. 19). What! The all-knowing, all-powerful Creator-King brings His genetic designs to lowly Adam to see what he would call them. And, even more, “And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (v. 19). Scripture presents this project as solely within Adam’s creative authority. That is, there was no right answer. A big, broad animal saunters toward Adam, mouth moving side to side while it chews its cud, and Adam decides, “I will call this ‘cow.’” And from that moment onward, God spoke of “cows” when referring to this same animal.
This is work free from the curse: the fullest exercise of our creative powers within the dominion afforded us by the Creator, for the forming and filling of the earth with His glory. And this is the kind of work that awaits us in the new creation. No more, “I wonder if God would want me to do it this way” or “Am I doing the right thing?” No, cloaked in the righteousness of Christ, our redeemed minds will direct all work and worship in perfect accord with God’s will. In this way, all toil and laborious elements are gone, and we engage in our earthly vocation as pure and free worship to our great God.
Peterson: Moreover, we will do that for eternity, a fact that has important applications for the present. First, work is to be enjoyed as it is done for the Lord (Colossians 3:23). Broken though it may be now, there are still glimpses given by the Spirit as we bring the redemption of Christ with us into our vocations. Second, the idea that work will continue in heaven teaches me that this life is not all there is. No one on his deathbed says, “I wish I had worked more.” To the workaholic, the promise of work in heaven serves to slow the feverish pace. Then we will serve God in freedom; work will no longer be toilsome because the curse will be lifted (Revelation 14:13; 22:3). For the lazy, the promise of work in the new creation provides motivation to find satisfaction that is only found in doing what we were created to do (Revelation 7:15). And for those of us who wonder about our vocation, who long to do many things we enjoy and yet seem to find no time: Eternity awaits. In the meantime, as Paul commands, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
In your discussion of Christ’s kingdom — at war and at peace — you describe His victories over seduction and deception and the accuser. Then you talk about His victory over “the Christian’s identity crisis.” What does that mean?
Barber: The Christian’s “identity crisis” is another way of speaking about the conflict between the old self and the new self. 2 Corinthians 5:17 reads, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” But Paul also says in Romans 7 that he struggles with sin and sometimes loses the battle (vv. 14-24). In that regard the old is not yet entirely done away.
By faith in Jesus Christ, a man, woman, or child is made new, as Anthony Hoekema says, “genuinely new, but not totally new.” That is, we live in an in-between state, which theologians term “the already and the not yet.” We are already declared righteous in God’s sight, but our lives are not yet totally righteous. We are already adopted by God, but we have yet to move into His heavenly household. We are already heirs of the whole world, but we do not yet have possession of it. It is this tension between the already and the not yet that creates our identity crisis. We know who we are and what we one day will be, and yet we do not always act like it.
Peterson: And so we struggle. We struggle within ourselves. We agonize over career paths. We wrestle with rationalizing our sins. We battle temptation daily. We know that sin is fleeting fancy and empty joy, but we still find ourselves drawn to it, when infinite, true joy beckons from the Scriptures and the Spirit within us.
The final end of the struggle within us due to the corruption of sin is one of most significant and least pondered aspects of the victory Christ obtained in His death and resurrection. But it has profound power for the Christian life. It teaches us that there is power to endure, hope for the future, and a way out of temptation. It shows us a glimpse of a life free of sin and creates a desire for such a life in a world that constantly paints the opposite picture. And by doing so, we put on Christ and so stand in His victory as we battle against sin until at last it will be put away from us forever. Hallelujah!
The Goal of Glory
The personal restoration of glory has a common purpose for all believers: to unite us under one Father in one Spirit by one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:4-5). Jesus prays to the Father for all believers:
The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:22-23 ESV)
One purpose of Christ’s redemption of our creational glory is for unity, not as an end in itself but for the sake of God’s glory in the world. All God’s people are recipients of His special grace, not that we may spend it on ourselves (James 4:3), but that we might be a blessing to others (Genesis 12:2-3; Matthew 5:13-16). God intends for His work in His people to have evangelistic import. God manifests His glory in them so that the world might look upon them and praise Him.
Excerpted from Life Everlasting, and used with permission.
The unfolding story of heaven is, in part, the story of God’s presence with (and absence from) His people. It seems as though we need to understand more about Eden, the tabernacle, and the temple if we’re to fully understand the New Jerusalem. Would you tell us why we need to see the connection?
Barber: As human beings, we process information through our own lenses. We have a whole set of life experiences, a knowledge base, and a cultural background, all of which influence the way we process data.
Let’s say, for example, you dropped a coin and it started rolling toward a storm drain. You catch up to it and are about to stop it with your foot when I yell, “Don’t stomp on it — let it go down the drain!” Would that make any sense to you? Certainly not in America. But if you lived in Thailand, it would make perfect sense. There, every coin bears the image of their beloved king. His likeness is commemorated with innumerable statues around the country, and his song and picture are played before every movie screening. So in Thailand, it makes perfect sense to let a coin go down the drain rather than stomping all over it with your dirty feet (the most unclean part of the body).
The same goes for Scripture. It is not an abstract work that can be understood apart from context. It is a collection of histories, letters, poems, and such, all which were written at points in time for specific purposes. We come to the discussion of the presence of God and the New Jerusalem at the end of the story. And the end of the story only makes sense if you understand the beginning, as the first readers did. We found it particularly helpful to see the depictions of things like the temple, the tabernacle, and the priestly garments in the ESV Study Bible.
Peterson: Life began in the garden, God’s temple, where His presence permeated every square inch. He and His people, Adam and Eve, lived together in perfect harmony. When Adam and Eve were banished from the garden, they were banished from His presence, which the original readers would have understood to mean being banished from His temple. What were the tabernacle and temple, after all, if not the dwelling place of the Lord God among His people (Exodus 25:8)? This is why they were considered holy and never to be defiled.
The New Jerusalem depicts a combination of images which are an expansion of Eden and the temple in a way that magnifies God’s gracious presence with His people. This time, though, perfection is not in an undeveloped world but in a redeemed metropolis, full of the glory of the nations and the redemption of everything good that people and culture have produced since Eden (Revelation 21:24). It shall be a truly glorious place fit for the dwelling of a perfect God with His perfected people for all eternity.
The book closes with a discussion of our glory. Many believers, I suspect, think of themselves as undeserving sinners. To long for our glory feels a bit awkward, maybe even prideful. Help us think properly about the glory that awaits us.
Barber: Human beings are glorious and are created for glory. Do you believe that? Are you able to look at yourself, the gifts you have from God, and say, “I am a glorious creature in God’s creation.” Can you? Does it feel awkward?
We suggest that it feels awkward not because a longing for glory is somehow unbiblical, but because we have been taught to shun it. Like much of the teaching about other “forbidden fruits” — sex, money, etc. — the abuse of these good things has led to a denial of their proper use. That is to say, sex and money are gifts from God. And so is glory. Because we live in a world where many are glory gluttons, we learn to shun glory in a way that is unbiblical.
The Scriptures are abundantly clear when it comes to our glory. Paul teaches that one way of viewing the Christian life is as a renewal after the glory of our Creator, “into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18), which is to say, we are being transformed as we become more like God. Our Reformed emphasis on our sinfulness and God’s gracious acceptance of us must be combined with an equally biblical emphasis that we are made in God’s image for glory, a glory whose restoration has already begun.
Peterson: Our contemplation of future glory transforms our attitude toward present sufferings: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). In fact, our glorification is so certain that Paul puts it in the same simple past tense as our having been predestined, called, and justified (Romans 8:29-30).
C.S. Lewis has greatly affected us on this subject. In his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory,” he describes this idea of glory and why we should not be afraid it. He describes it as “the rightful pleasing of the One whom we were created to please.”
When we see the Father in heaven and realize our complete union with Christ in that moment, and that we have pleased the Father through the work of Christ, there is no room for vanity. There is no pretense, no selfishness. There is nothing impure about the joy of God and glory of Jesus saying to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:21). We were created to please God, and it is His pleasure to lavish His glory upon us, to make us, as He Himself planned, “vessels of mercy, which He has prepared beforehand for glory” (Romans 9:23).
Robert A. Peterson is professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Mo. He graduated with his B.S. from Philadelphia Biblical University (now Cairn University), received his M.Div. from Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pa., and obtained his Ph.D. from Drew University in Madison, N.J.
Dan C. Barber is a member of The Kirk of the Hills in St. Louis, Mo. He graduated with his B.S. from Georgia College & State University and received his M.Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary.