What will eternity be like for believers? Recently, in a couple of separate conversations, I heard two believers express the idea that in our eternal state, we won’t care about any of the kinds of things that interest us here and now. We won’t be curious, won’t be seeking answers, won’t be striving to be productive or improve ourselves or our surroundings. One of the two indicated that “ignorance is bliss” and that not knowing or caring about answers to life’s questions will be a key feature of the joy of heaven.
I suggested that there are compelling reasons to believe our experience of life in eternity will not be that different from life as we know it now—that we were created to be curious, creative, intellectual, and productive, not just spiritual and relational, and that our final form must include all of what we were originally intended to be.
So will eternity reveal a glorious perfecting of our original design as humans, or a scrapping of that design for something fundamentally different?
Scripture does provide ample evidence that major changes await believers after this life. One of the most loved examples comes from the apostle John.
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (ESV, 1 John 3:2)
The key portion for our purposes is “we shall be like Him,” a phrase full of promise and mystery at the same time. In what ways will we be like Him? We know it isn’t our destiny to join the Trinity and become fully God, as Christ already is (and always was). So, “like Him” doesn’t mean “like Him in every way.” In what ways, then?
Over the centuries, theologians have referred to the transformative event in this passage (along with 1 Cor. 13:12) as the beatific vision. Some Roman Catholic perspective provides interesting context:
St. Thomas Aquinas reasoned that one is perfectly happy only when all of one’s desires are perfectly satisfied, and this cannot occur until we are fully united with God.
That complete union can happen not through human imagining nor even in the most deeply contemplative prayer, but only by the direct presence of God in heaven.
R.C. Sproul focuses here on how the beatific vision relates to sin.
Does the Bible teach us that we will be totally cleansed from sin, totally glorified? Is this an experience that will eliminate sin from us altogether? Will it be because we catch a direct glimpse of the majesty of God? For example, if I see him—if he becomes visible to me—is that going to be the cleansing thing that rids all sin from my life; or is my seeing him going to be a result of his first cleansing me? I suspect it’s the latter.
C.H. Spurgeon is poetic on the subject.
[I]f we had seen Christ as he was, we should have had great love for him; but that love would have been compounded with pity. We should stand over him, and say,
“Alas! and did my Saviour bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?”
We shall love him quite as much when we see him in heaven, and more too, but it will be love without pity; we shall not say “Alas!” but we shall shout—
“All-hail, the power of Jesus’ name;
Let angels prostrate fall:
Bring forth the royal diadem,
And crown him Lord of all.”
Much of what will happen to us the moment we see Christ is veiled in wondrous mystery, but the New Testament does clearly reveal several ways we’ll be changed.
- We will see and know Christ fully rather than “dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12).
- We will always be “with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17; also 2 Cor. 5:8, Rev. 21:3).
- We will be spiritually perfected, “without spot,” and “without blemish” (Eph. 5:27; see Rom. 8:30).
- We will not have marriage relationships (Matt. 22:30).
- We will have a body like Christ’s resurrected body, a “glorious” one (Phil. 3:21; see also Rom. 8:18ff, 2 Cor. 3:18).
- We may look a bit different (Jesus’ resurrected appearance seemed to confuse some: John 20:15-16; John 21:4-5; Luke 24:16, 30-32).
- We will not experience death, sorrow, or pain (Rev. 21:4).
- Everything will be made “new” (Rev. 21:5).
Along with all these changes, Scripture reveals that some features of life as we know it will not change.
- We will eat (Luke 24:21-22, Rev. 19:9).
- At some point, we will judge (1 Cor. 6:3)
- At some point, we will reign (2 Tim. 2:12. This may end after Christ reigns a thousand years: Rev. 20:6).
- There will be “nations” (Rev. 22:2).
- We will serve (Rev. 22:3).
These and other passages suggest an existence that is, at least in some ways, familiar. Though several scenes in Revelation depict direct praise of God in His presence (Rev. 5:11-14, Rev. 7:9-12), we’re not told this is the only activity of the saints in eternity.
A bit of reasoning from the creation-fall-redemption structure of Scripture should further shape our expectations.
- In Eden, before the Fall and the Curse, humans knew fellowship with God, but also enjoyment of creation, and satisfying work (Gen. 2:15-16, 19).
- The created order was cursed because of sin (Gen. 3:17-19, Rom. 8:20).
- The curse on creation was intended to be temporary (Rom. 8:20-22).
- The blessings of eternity are linked to the emphatic ending of the curse (Rev. 22:3).
When we pull all this revealed truth together, the picture that emerges is one in which the plan of God for the ages begins with Creation, proceeds to the Fall and the Curse, is blessedly punctuated by Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, and culminates in God’s restoring of everything to something like its original, pre-Fall and pre-Curse beauty and harmony. All things are “new,” relative to how we have known them, but not necessarily new, relative to Eden before sin.
A final bit of reasoning compels me to anticipate an eternal state full of thrilling and fascinating work: would God create us “in His image” only to transform us into eternally-ecstatic vegetables when we see Him? Maybe “vegetable” is unfair to the views I’m arguing against, and this would be closer: Would God design and create beings who can, like Him, design and create in a nearly endless variety of ways, only to transform us into eternally-ecstatic praise machines when we see Him face to face?
I, for one, can’t see that happening. We were made to glorify—not only by uttering praise, but by actively living out His image in us.
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is Information Coordinator for a law-enforcement digital library service.