58. What comfort do we have from the article of “life everlasting”?
That, inasmuch as I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, I shall after this life possess complete bliss, such as eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man, therein to praise God forever.—Heidelberg Catechism 58
Last time we considered three reasons one might be worried about being bored by heaven. When we consider Scripture, however, there is no indication that believers regard heaven to be anything but completely fascinating. Another reason why our perception of heaven may have changed is the move in modernity to bring heaven to earth through a variety of ways. The Communists and the Fascists, who were more closely related than you might have been taught in school,1 sought to create an earthly utopia though a totalitarian state. Consumerism offers a this-worldly utopia through material, creature comforts. The welfare state offers us cradle-to-grave publicly-funded social programs and “education.”2 In such a context heaven may seem almost irrelevant. One might be tempted to think this way for a time but health is more fragile than the young imagine, wealth more elusive than the rich might think, and should the electricity go out (as happened in Southern California a few years ago), our comfort and convenience may disappear with the flick of a switch. One moment we were a late modern, high-tech society. The next moment we were on the verge of rubbing sticks together for heat. We are not as clever as we like to think we are. In God’s ordinary providence, until our Lord returns, we shall all die. In those last moments our toys, our wealth, our social status—all those things that seem so terribly important now—will do us no good at all. In those moments, heaven shall be great and earth shall be small.
When the catechism was written most people did not expect to live into their 80s, as most westerners expect today. The plague swept through Heidelberg in the 1560s most fled the town because they remembered that about 300 years prior as many as 200 million people had died. There were no flu shots or tuberculosis vaccine. Women frequently died in childbirth and infant mortality was much higher than we experience in the West today. Most of us today live and eat far better than Charles V lived in the 16th century. Death was a constant and visible fact of life in the 16th century. People did not die in antiseptic hospital rooms. They died at home. Their bodies were not whisked away and cremated. We had to deal with them. Because they were perhaps more in touch with the biblical conception of life and death and because those realities were more present to them than to us, for the reasons suggested thus far, the catechism expresses no reservation about “boredom” or ennui, that experience of “listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.”3
There is another factor that gave them a different outlook on heaven: a relative lack of mirrors, which, as we know them did not come into existence until the 19th century. There have been crude mirrors for thousands of years but the glass mirrors of the 16th century were expensive and relatively rare. Today no home is without a mirror. We have them in our cars and offices. Today even the president of the United States has a “selfie stick” and takes photos of himself. In the 16th century only the wealthy had mirrors or had portraits or drawings made of themselves. There was less of this world with which to be fascinated.
Scripture gives every indication that believers not only desire heaven but see it as their true home, their ultimate destination. Isaiah was not bored by his glimpse into heaven. He was electrified. He was terrified:
I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa 6:1–5; ESV)
True holiness has a way of doing that to sinners. This is why theologians speak of “eschatology,” or the “eschaton,” i.e., the study of ultimate things or the ultimate state. It is not simply “last” in a chronological sense. It means something like this is where everything is headed. This life, as important and good as it be, is not final. It is not ultimate. There is more.
The Old Testament tabernacle and temple were rough illustrations of heaven. They represented communion with God. Psalm 42 captures this well:
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival (ESV).
The Apostle Paul says:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor 4:16–5:10; ESV).
Like David, Paul longed to commune with God. He hoped first to be bodily before the Lord but, if the Lord willed (and he did) he was content to wait for the bodily resurrection. In all events, his desire was to with the Lord. Paul’s hierarchy of values was opposite what ours tends to be. He said that our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20), thus we await his return and the glorification of our bodies so that we may be with him.
As we noted last time, the Revelation pictures believers as gathered around Christ’s throne, in worship and adoration. Biblically, the desire to be in heaven is really a desire to be with Christ. Heaven is where he is and it cannot be boring because Christ is not boring, not one who knows the greatness of his sin and misery, who knows Christ the Savior, and who feels his infirmity, his ongoing struggle with sin and corruption in this life.
For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Rom 7:22–25; ESV).
Believers are united to Christ by the Spirit, through faith. As he sanctifies us he enables us to delight in that which is truly righteous and holy but we remain at war. We remain wretched. The triumphalists and the perfectionists are wrong. Though, by God’s free favor, earned for us by Christ, he has achieved a decisive victory over sin for us it will not be fully realized in us in this life. We shall continue to say, with Paul, “who shall deliver me from this body of death?” It’s a rhetorical question, of course, to which he supplies the answer anyway: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord because he shall do it and “so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17).
The source of eternal bliss is not a new iPhone or the next flat screen TV or another romance. Sinners justified by God’s free favor, through faith alone, know that Christ is all. When strength finally leaves us, when the last breath escapes, when consciousness of this world fades from view it is not an ill-defined bright light we shall see but a sharply defined light, that light by which the heavens are illuminated, that light which came into the world, God the Son incarnate, the radiant. The first sound we shall hear is the sound of joy and praise by those who are in communion with their Creator and their Redeemer.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.
1. Jonah Goldberg does a good job of summarizing the modern literature on the history of Fascism in Liberal Fascism
2. The so-called scare quotes to highlight the disjunction between what passes for education today and true education.
3. s.v. ennui, Oxford American Dictionary.
Have you read the recent comments by neo-Calvinist Amyraldian Mike Wittmer?
If heaven by itself were superior, then Jesus would not have raised Lazarus from the dead. Earth is the best place for humans, because this is where God made us to live. The problem of “better place” will not be resolved until Jesus returns and unites heaven and earth. Until then, we should be careful not to unequivocally call heaven “a better place,” as it isn’t better in every way and saying so promotes the Platonic idea that heaven is our final home. Who would want to leave the better place to come back here?
When we say “to die is gain” is a promise, we risk confusing good and evil. David Platt makes this mistake in Radical, when he says that we must “see death as reward.” He explains that a missionary’s death was a reward rather than a tragedy because she immediately went to heaven (p. 179-81).
Paul’s desire was to be with Jesus not by dying but by Jesus’ coming. Paul’s cry of “Maranatha!” (1 Cor. 16:22) echoes the closing prayer of Scripture, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20). “Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:40)
I mention in my book about going to visit my friend in hospice. She was suffering… But even there, we did not pray for Jesus to take her but for Jesus to come. Jesus didn’t,…. My concern is that when we connect these benefits to the place rather than to the person we breed Platonists who think going to heaven is the goal, rather than heaven coming here. As my wife says, directions matter!