Good Questions: What is Eternal Life Like?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

What serendipity, for our emails about eternal life to be wrapped around All Saints Sunday, which we marked yesterday. You may recall that on Thursday, we hinted that eternal life (a) isn’t automatic, (b) it’s not a reward for a life well-lived or for believing earnestly, (c) it’s entirely a gift from God, and (d) it’s not actually about us. It’s about God. Today we turn to ask about the quality and nature of eternal life.

I think I grew up believing I have, or I am an immortal soul, encased in this life in my body, an inextinguishable soul that will be liberated once I die to exist forever. Greek philosophers taught this… But it’s not in the Bible, which suggests that when you die, on your own, you’re just dead. Yet, God’s love for you is so intense that your death isn’t a surrender in God’s heart. The relationship goes on, because God can’t bear living without you; whatever life is after death is sheer gift from God, and for God’s pleasure.

And the Bible frankly doesn’t believe in the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the body. We will not be disembodied souls (with harps?) in heaven! We will exist bodily – not, though, with these creaky, wrinkly bodies that break down and hurt. Jesus’ body was pierced and broken on the cross; at Easter he was raised, bodily, recognizable, but with some glorious presence and capacity he’d not had before.

Paul (1 Corinthians 15) explains we will be raised with “spiritual bodies.” Not spirits, but not just this old body. A body transformed into something spectacular, maybe shining a little. The Bible doesn’t promise you, as you are now, will stick around forever. The Bible daringly promises you will not just be with God; you will be like God. You’ll be divine, fabulous, God’s glory emanating from your metamorphosized spiritual body.

You will be holy – finally. You will see as God sees. You will love all God loves. You will be full of mercy. I know some believe you’ll have all knowledge, and you’ll be perfectly spiritual. But I tend to think we’ll spend eternity learning ever new things, and growing ever closer to God, increasing in our love for and knowledge of God – just to keep it all interesting. Learning and growth are lovely delights, so why should they cease in eternity?

All will be well. Those who’ve suffered dementia? Their minds will be fully restored, memory and processing perfected, enhanced, and downright brilliant. Any life prematurely broken off? Or those who sense the story of their life was broken off? Life’s story will be completed, with an ending happier than can be imagined, more joyful than the most exhilarating moment you’ve ever known. The climactic scene in The Lord of the Rings provides a hint: after all their harrowing battles, a giddy reunion, laughter, hugs, bouncing on Frodo’s bed (beautifully captured in Peter Jackson’s film). Tolkien, when writing this scene, shed tears that smudged the ink on the page.

Will we know one another? In our spiritual bodies, we will – and we’ll know one another better, more clearly, more lovingly than we do now. And we’ll know the others too, those we’ve disliked or misunderstood or never met. The Beloved Community we’ve never experienced down here will be fully realized. No sections in heaven! No sides of town or language barriers either.

I love the simple complexity of Frederick Buechner’s notion of eternal life: “To be with God as Christ is with him, and with each other as Christ is with us.” The intimacy Christ enjoyed with God the Father will be fully ours. And then our relationships with others will match the way Jesus embraced any and everybody.

Eternal life really isn’t about us. It’s about God. We will not be so interested in golf or baubles or even the other people so much as we will be fixated on, overwhelmed and delighted by the wonder that will be the direct presence of God. “Then we will see face to face.” We will be “lost in wonder, love and praise,” never distracted or bored. Dante envisioned arriving at the throne of grace. He sees his beloved Beatrice, who sees him, takes his hand, and then both of them turn toward the marvel of God, and love and adore God side by side.

And if the Bible is correct, this eternal existence will not just be people in haven, but a fully redeemed heaven and earth, “all creatures of our God and King,” rocks, trees, salamanders, lions, comets, galaxies, barnacles, dogs, maybe cats, all surrounding God their maker and redeemer, singing, shouting, dancing together in joyful delight.