C.S. Lewis on Heaven and the New Earth: God’s Eternal Remedy to the Problem of Evil and Suffering
Plenary 5 — 2013 National Conference
The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis
This message appears as a chapter in The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis.
I grew up in a home without Christ. My dad was a tavern owner who despised Christians in general and pastors in particular. My parents had both been divorced, and their fights left me worried that another was on its way.
Though I seemed okay on the outside, inside I felt a gnawing emptiness. Comic books and science fiction were my escape. I yearned for something bigger than myself. I’d study the stars and planets and every clear night gaze at them for hours through my telescope. One night I discovered the great galaxy of Andromeda, with its trillion stars, 2.5 million light-years away. I was filled with awe. I longed to go there and explore its wonders and lose myself in something greater than myself.
My wonder was trumped by an unbearable sense of loneliness and separation. I wanted to worship, but I didn’t know whom. I wept because I felt so incredibly small. Unknown to me, God was using the wonders of the universe to draw me to himself. As Romans 1 says, I was seeing in what he had made “his invisible attributes . . . his eternal power and divine nature” (v. 20).
One night several years later, I opened a Bible and saw these words for the first time: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). And then I read verse 16, the greatest understatement ever: “He made the stars also” (NASB). A universe one hundred billion light-years across, containing countless trillions of stars, and the Bible makes them sound like a casual add-on!
I quickly realized this book is about a Person who made the celestial heavens — including that great galaxy of Andromeda, and the earth — and me.
Because I had no reference points when I read the Bible, it wasn’t just Leviticus that confused me. But when I reached the Gospels, everything changed. I was fascinated by Jesus.
At first, I thought Jesus was fiction — a superhero like in the comics. But everything about Jesus had the ring of truth. Then I realized something incredible. While reading the Bible, I had come to believe Jesus is real. By a miracle of grace, he transformed my life.
I was hungry for truth, so I regularly visited a Christian bookstore, which featured thousands of spine-out books in the remodeled garage of a private home. One day I came across a book called The Problem of Pain. It was my first encounter with C.S. Lewis.
I was stunned by his insight and clarity. He remembered what it was like not to know God, just like I did. He spoke of longing, like mine. I went back to the store and found Lewis’s space trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet; Perelandra; and That Hideous Strength.
My church left me with the impression that using my imagination might be a sin, so I’d assumed science fiction was a thing of the past. Yet this same author with the great insights had also exercised his imagination by creating engaging science fiction. Perelandra contained deep theology, with Maleldil and the oyarsa, the Green Lady, and Ransom, the Christ type, fighting Weston, the Unman and Devil figure. I was transported to another world while taken deep into the gospel itself, and I ate it up.
My telescope had sat unused for years. After reading Lewis’s space trilogy, I went outside and once more gazed at the galaxy of Andromeda. Again I wept. But this time for a very different reason: gratitude. Now I knew personally the God who had spun into being the trillion stars and countless planets of the Andromeda galaxy and the Milky Way.
Sure, I was still small, but I’d met the one who is infinitely big. Finally, I knew whom to worship. I was on the inside, not the outside. I was no longer the star of a pitiful little drama about me; I was a role player, a character actor in a story of infinite greatness.
Then I read the Chronicles of Narnia. Truth leapt at me from every page. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe I read, “[Aslan is] not like a tame lion (emphasis original) . . . [Aslan] isn’t safe. But he’s GOOD!” (Ibid., emphasis added)
In The Silver Chair I read about Jill Pole. Desperate to quench her thirst, she wanted the lion to promise he wouldn’t eat her if she came to drink. When he refused, she determined to find another stream. Even though I’d been a Christian only a short while, when Aslan said, “There is no other stream,” I knew exactly what he meant. And when I see God at work, I still sometimes repeat words from Narnia: “Aslan is on the move.”
In Prince Caspian I read a hundred pages of theology poured into two sentences: “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth” (Prince Caspian).
Time and time again, Lewis’s theology stunned me. Lucy tells Aslan that he looks bigger than before, and Aslan says, “Every year you grow, you will find me bigger” (Ibid.). I did then and I do now still find the never-changing God to be ever-bigger in my eyes.
Tackling Tough Questions
Lewis was the first one to help me grapple with the big questions. In The Problem of Pain, he described how he used to argue against the Christian faith:
Not many years ago when I was an atheist, if anyone had asked me, “Why do you not believe in God?” my reply would have [been]: “Look at the universe we live in.” . . . History is largely a record of crime, war, disease, and terror. . . . The universe . . . is running down. . . . All stories will come to nothing: all life will turn out in the end to have been a transitory and senseless contortion upon the idiotic face of infinite matter. If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit. (The Problem of Pain, 13–15)
I loved that Lewis clearly articulated the problem of evil and suffering better than most atheists, including Richard Dawkins. Yet he embraced a biblical worldview that had a far greater explanatory power than his atheism. And he passed it on to me and countless others.
Young people go to college unprepared intellectually for what they’ll face. Let’s feed them C.S. Lewis on evil and suffering before they hear the rants of atheist and agnostic college professors, most of them intellectual pygmies compared to Lewis. Let’s not leave it to the world to ask the hard questions — the Bible raises these very questions and answers them better than any other worldview. It was Lewis who first showed me that.
No Stranger to Suffering
A few years ago, I reread The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, one right after the other. The Problem of Pain is more reasoned and logical, while A Grief Observed contains raw suffering as Lewis expresses overwhelming grief after the death of his wife, Joy. The books are supplementary but, given their contexts, not contradictory.
There are two movies about C.S. Lewis named Shadowlands. They’re both good productions, but the BBC version is generally more accurate. In the Hollywood version, Lewis is played by Anthony Hopkins. The movie portrays Lewis as an ivory-tower professor who knew little of suffering. Then when his wife, Joy, dies of cancer, it portrays him as doubting the supposedly superficial things he’d written in The Problem of Pain. At the movie’s end, Lewis sits down in the attic next to his young stepson, Douglas Gresham. The real-life Doug Gresham is my friend, and we’ve discussed this false portrayal of Lewis.
In Surprised by Joy Lewis tells of his mother’s death when he was nine: “With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be . . . no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent, like Atlantis, had slid under the waves” (Surprised by Joy, 21).
He was alienated from his disapproving father and abused by bullies in his boarding schools, one with a headmaster declared insane. On the battlefields of World War I, Lewis was hit by shrapnel in three places, one piece so close to his heart that it was never removed. By age nineteen he’d seen countless friends slaughtered in battle. For years, Doug Gresham says, Lewis suffered terrible nightmares about being back in the trenches (Douglas H. Gresham, Jack’s Life: The Life Story of C. S. Lewis [Broadman, 2005], 158).
Though Lewis was phenomenally popular with students, it troubled him that his Oxford College, Magdalen, snubbed him by never granting him a full professorship or an academic chair. It was Oxford’s rival, Cambridge University, that offered him in 1954 the chair of medieval and Renaissance literature. His peers at Oxford resented his faith and were embarrassed by or jealous of his popularity among the masses (those ordinary people).
Lewis spent many years caring for Mrs. Moore, the demanding and critical mother of a friend who had died in the war. The daily burdens of letter writing, various ailments, and his brother Warnie’s alcoholism took a heavy toll on him.
Many Christians see God from a prosperity-theology perspective. When suffering comes, they believe God has failed them. But God’s love and goodness do not mean life will go as we want! Have you noticed that? Lewis did. The Problem of Pain is certainly not naïve. Lewis said,
God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call “our own life” remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make “our own life” less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible sources of false happiness? (The Problem of Pain, 96–97)
Lewis asked, “What do people mean when they say ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?”(A Grief Observed , 36)
Suffering can be the road to transforming grace. Lewis walked that road. When Joy’s cancer was taking its toll, Lewis wrote to a friend, “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us. We are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be” (Letters of C. S. Lewis [Harcourt, 1966], 477).
Heaven: God’s Answer to Suffering
Paul captured the eternal remedy to evil and suffering in Romans 8:18: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” After citing Romans 8:18 in The Problem of Pain, Lewis says that “a book on suffering which says nothing of heaven, is leaving out almost the whole of one side of the account. Scripture and tradition habitually put the joys of heaven into the scale against the sufferings of earth, and no solution of the problem of pain which does not do so can be called a Christian one” (The Problem of Pain, 144).
“Suffering can be the road to transforming grace.”
He’s absolutely right. Strangely, there are Christian books on evil and suffering which say almost nothing about heaven. But present sufferings must be seen in light of the promise of eternal happiness in God. The scales can’t be balanced in this life alone.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Read 2 Corinthians 11:24–28 for a record of Paul’s “light” and “momentary” affliction:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.
For Paul to call these “light” and “momentary” says a great deal about the glory he was comparing them to. Indeed, some suffering weighs so heavily — holocausts, rape, human trafficking, torture, children dying of leukemia and starvation — that what fills the other side of the scales must be weighty beyond all comprehension. And it is: eternal happiness and worshiping and serving the King of kings as resurrected people on a resurrected earth.
No wonder Satan, the liar, seeks to deceive us about heaven and the resurrection. If he convinces us that eternity will be boring, spent floating on clouds, then we’ll waste this life, thinking it is our only chance to experience happiness.
Ironically, in a day when people edit theology to fit their desires, we ignore biblical truths about eternity that are far more desirable than what we falsely believe. Shouldn’t we embrace the true biblical teaching of the resurrection and the new earth and let ourselves and our children be excited about them?
Look at Romans 8.
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (v. 19). Everywhere you look, you can sense something has gone terribly wrong. Yet we know something good is coming.
“For the creation was subjected to futility . . . in hope” (v. 20). As the human stewards of earth fell, all creation fell with them. This is the curse. As Adam’s descendants, we’re left with a nostalgia for the Eden we’ve never known yet that somehow circulates in our blood.
“. . . that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v. 21). Not just any hope but a blood-bought certainty. The same creation that fell on humanity’s coattails shall rise on its coattails. “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (v. 22). This is the birth pangs of new life. Notice that Paul says “whole creation.” What else besides mankind is groaning? Figuratively, forests and meadows and mountains. Literally, suffering animals.
“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (v. 23).
Resurrection is the hinge on which the problem of suffering turns. This is a groaning creation, we are groaning people and the Holy Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings (v. 26). God does not minimize or deny suffering. He tackles it head-on in perhaps the most triumphant chapter in the Bible.
Think again of 2 Corinthians 4:17. It says that eternal glory far outweighs our worst suffering. It’s not that temporary suffering is so small; it’s that eternal glory is so huge. Your suffering may be a boulder the size of the Rock of Gibraltar. But suppose you put that rock on one side of the scales, then on the other side you put the planet Jupiter. In and of themselves our sufferings may be weighty, but compare them to eternal glory, everlasting happiness, endless beauty, and unbroken relationships. The relative weights change our perspective, don’t they?
Our Resurrection: Key to Creation’s Redemption
God never gave up his plans for us and for the earth. Not only will our bodies rise, but earth itself will be reborn and become all God intended it to be.
How far will redemption reach? Isaac Watts, a great hymn writer and an accomplished theologian, nailed it in Joy to the World: “Far as the curse is found.” God’s redemptive plan includes all the groaning creation — people and animals. God will not abandon his creation; he will redeem it. He doesn’t give up on the earth any more than he gives up on us. Righteous humanity will indeed rule the earth to the glory of God — forever.
Second Peter 3:13 says, “According to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” Even if we weren’t told about the new earth, we would have to deduce it, because physically resurrected bodies need somewhere physical to live. A new car is still a car. A new body is still a body. A new earth is still an earth. “New” is the adjective, “earth” the noun. The noun is the thing. God wouldn’t call it the new earth if it were not a real earth.
One of the greatest gifts we can give our children and grandchildren is to teach them the doctrines of the resurrection and the new earth. They need to know they are made for a person and a place. Jesus is the person. Heaven is the place — not a ghostly place but God’s central dwelling place, which he promises to relocate to the new earth.
A man I met years ago told me, “I love God. But the truth is, I want to live with Jesus forever on this earth, without all the sin and suffering.” What he longed for is exactly what God has promised. Don’t try to get children excited about becoming ghosts. They’re no more capable of wanting that than of developing an appetite for gravel. God has made us to be physical beings living in a physical world — eating, drinking, playing, working, loving, and laughing to God’s glory. That’s the promise of resurrection.
Lewis wrote, “There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.”12 This is true, and yet it is heaven on earth we long for, isn’t it?
The problem with earth is not its physicality. Earth’s problem is sin and the curse. We long for a repaired earth, where God’s glorious creation shines without the dark clouds of sin, death, and gloom. God made Adam from the earth and for the earth. He made humanity to rule it for his glory.
God made no mistake when he wired us for a physical existence. That’s why the doctrine of the present heaven alone is an insufficient remedy for the problem of evil and suffering. A Platonic disembodied state could never counterbalance or compensate for present sufferings. Paul says, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). Physical suffering on earth can’t be rectified by a disembodied existence in a netherworld. Those are apples and oranges. Romans 8 is about apples and apples, a suffering life on earth remedied by a glorious new life with new bodies on a new earth.
“There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.” –C.S. Lewis
Redemption is not escape from earthly life. It is reclamation of earthly life. When Jesus died, God wasn’t done with his old body. His resurrection body was his old body made new. God is not done with these bodies or this earth. Our old bodies will be made new, and this old earth will be made new.
Turning Bad into Best
In Romans 8:28, Paul wrote, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” This verse tells us what we will one day see in retrospect.
Lewis, in The Great Divorce, wrote that “both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. . . . Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory” (The Great Divorce [HarperSanFrancisco, 1946], 69).
The curse will be reversed. Lewis has Aslan explain the deeper magic the witch didn’t know about when he died for a sinner: “The Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward” (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).
Retrospect enables us to see everything differently. It’s why we can call the worst day in all of history “Good Friday.”
Faith is like a forward memory, allowing us to believe as if what is promised has already happened. One day we will see how Romans 8:28 was true all along, even in those moments we most doubted it. Joseph saw this in Genesis 50:20, the Romans 8:28 of the Old Testament: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” (Notice Joseph didn’t merely say, “God made the best of bad circumstances.”)
Here’s a question: How long will it take living with God on the new earth before you say, “At last, all that suffering was worth it”? Five seconds? Five minutes? Five years? Maybe you’re a pessimist, and you think, “It would take five hundred years before it would be worth it.” Well, fine, Eeyore, or perhaps I should say Puddleglum; after five hundred years you’ll have an eternity of unending, God- centered happiness in front of you, paid for by the shed blood of God. Can you think of anything better?
There is only one answer bigger than the question of evil and suffering: Jesus. Do you ever think, I would never do to my child what God has done to me! He must not care? Picture Jesus stretching his nail-scarred hands toward you and asking, “Do these look like the hands of a God who does not care?” God’s Son, by taking upon himself our sins, suffered far more than any person in history.
If God decided all the suffering of history is worth the price paid, who are we to say otherwise? He knows everything and took upon himself the lion’s share of human suffering. Hasn’t he earned the right to be trusted?
“There is only one answer bigger than the question of evil and suffering: Jesus.”
Take some time to list the worst things that have ever happened to you, then list the best things. You’ll be astonished by how many of those best things came out of the worst things. Trust God to do the same with things that don’t yet make sense. In the hands of a God of sovereign grace, our sufferings will give birth to future happiness beyond our wildest dreams. Jesus said our sorrows will turn into joy — not just be followed by joy but transformed into joy (John 16:20). Think of it: for God’s children, what is now pain will ultimately be transfigured into both glory and joy.
A Closer Look at Lewis and the New Earth
There is much to look forward to about being with Christ in the present heaven. As Paul put it, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).
Lewis wrote to a believing American woman who thought she was dying:
Can you not see death as a friend and deliverer? . . . What is there to be afraid of? . . .Your sins are confessed. . . . Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind. . . . Our Lord says to you, “Peace, child, peace. Relax. Let go. I will catch you.” (Letters to an American Lady [Eerdmans, 1967], 117)
Lewis added, “Of course, this may not be the end. Then make it a good rehearsal.” He signed the letter, “Yours (and like you, a tired traveler, near the journey’s end).” Five months later, he died.
Colossians 3 commands us to think about the present heaven, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand. But Scripture is also clear that the heaven that should most dominate our thinking is the eternal kingdom of God, the climactic culmination of God’s unfolding drama of redemption.
“But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13 NIV). But how can we look forward to it if we don’t think about it? And how can we think about it unless we are taught about it from God’s Word? Suppose a trip awaits you, and you will be flying from Miami to Santa Barbara, with a layover in Dallas. Dallas is not your final destination. You say, “I’m headed to Santa Barbara.” Or at most you say, “I’m headed to Santa Barbara by way of Dallas.” According to Scripture, the new earth is our final destination. The present heaven will be a stop along the way toward resurrection. (It’ll be a wonderful layover. In Philippians 1:23 Paul calls it “far better” than our present existence; infinitely better than the Dallas airport.)
Revelation 21:1–4 beautifully portrays what awaits God’s children:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. . . . And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Multiple times in that passage God says he will come down from the present heaven to live with his people on the new earth. The city comes down out of heaven, God’s dwelling place is “with man,” God will “dwell with them,” and “God himself will be with them.” Despite the repetition, most Christians still don’t appear to believe that God’s plan is to bring heaven to earth and dwell here with us forever. Not just for a thousand years in a millennial kingdom on the old earth, but forever on the new earth. Christ is Emmanuel, “God with us,” forever. The incarnation of Jesus was not temporary.
We normally think of our going up to heaven to live with God in his place. That is indeed what happens when we die. But the ultimate promise is that God will come down to live with us in our place, on the new earth. The ultimate heaven will not be “us with God” but God with us (Revelation 21:3).
I love Lewis’s valiant mouse, Reepicheep, who single-mindedly sought Aslan’s country: “While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).
Reepicheep doesn’t long for Aslan’s “Ghostly Realm of Cloudy Nothingness.” He longs to be with his king forever in that solid country with land, mountains, rivers, metals, plains, trees, animals, and people with physical bodies. The ground quakes under Aslan as he prowls. Aslan is real and tangible, and his flowing mane can be touched if you dare. Reepicheep loves Aslan not as a disembodied spirit but as a tangible mighty lion; king of kings; ruler of Narnia, earth, and all worlds. Reepicheep longs to be in Aslan’s country, for he longs for Aslan himself.
We want Jesus, so naturally we should want to live where he lives. Hebrews 11:16 says, “They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” The patriarchs longed for a better country because they longed for God. The reason heaven matters is that God lives there.
In Mere Christianity Lewis lamented that we haven’t been trained to want heaven:
Our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world. . . . When the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognize it. Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. . . . If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world (Mere Christianity [Macmillan, 1960], 119).
Heaven’s Physical Side
People have told me that a physical earth and resurrection bodies and eating and drinking sounds “unspiritual.” Lewis says in Mere Christianity:
There is no use trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. . . . He likes matter. He invented it (Mere Christianity [HarperCollins, 1952], 65).
Christianity is almost the only one of the great religions which thoroughly approves of the body — which believes that matter is good, that God Himself once took on a human body, and that some kind of body is going to be given to us even in Heaven and is going to be an essential part of our happiness, our beauty, and our energy (Ibid., 99).
In The Four Loves Lewis refers to redeemed relationships and culture: “We may hope that the resurrection of the body means also the resurrection of what may be called our ‘greater body’; the general fabric of our earthly life with its affections and relationships” (The Four Loves [Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960], 187).
Isaiah 60 and 65 along with Revelation 21 and 22 say about the new earth that the kings of the earth will bring their glory into the New Jerusalem, and its gates will never be shut. They will bring into it the splendors and the honor of the nations (see Isaiah 60:3; Revelation 21:21–25). What splendors? Tributes to the King of kings.
There is nothing more solid, more earthly, and less ghostly than city walls made of rocks and precious stones. If there will be redeemed architecture, music, and art, why not science, technology, play, writing, reading, and exploration — all done to the glory of God? We’re told, “His servants will worship him” (Revelation 22:3). We’ll have meaningful work serving our King. And we will enjoy rest and relaxation (Hebrews 4:1–11; Revelation 14:13).
Will we eat and drink in the resurrection? Scripture couldn’t be more emphatic (Matthew 8:11; Revelation 2:7; 19:9). Jesus said, “People will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). Isaiah 25:6 says, “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine.” How good a meal will that be? My compliments to the chef — the Lord God.
The bucket-list mentality reveals an impoverished view of redemption. Even Christians end up thinking, If I can’t live my dreams now, I never will. Or, You only go around once. But if you know Jesus, you go around twice — and the second time lasts forever. It’s called “eternal life,” and it will be lived in a redeemed universe with King Jesus.
We do not pass our peaks in this life. The best is yet to come. Missed opportunities will be replaced by billions of new and better opportunities — some graciously granted us by God as rewards for our faithfulness now. Don’t wait until you die to believe that. Believing it now will change how you think, how you view the people around you, and what you do with your time and money, which are really God’s.
I am convinced that the typical view of heaven — eternity in a disembodied state — is not only completely contrary to the Bible but obscures the far richer truth: that God promises us eternal life as totally healthy, embodied people more capable of worship, friendship, love, discovery, work, and play than we have ever been.
Sadly, there are Christians who would die rather than deny the doctrine of the resurrection yet who don’t believe what resurrection actually means — that we’ll live forever as physical beings in a redeemed physical world. This is amazingly good news — the very thing we long for.
The risen Christ said, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39). The scars testified that his new body was the same old body made new. Likewise, we will be ourselves when we are raised. Without continuity between the old and the new, resurrection would not be resurrection.
“God promises us eternal life as totally healthy, embodied people more capable of worship, friendship, love, discovery, work, and play than we have ever been.”
Philippians 3:20–21 says, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” Christ declared his resurrection body to be flesh and bones. Ours will be too.
The 1646 Westminster Confession says, “All the dead shall be raised up, with the self-same bodies, and none other.” This is continuity. So was what Job said in his suffering: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. [Not heaven, but earth.] And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25–27).
It will really be Job. It was really Jesus. And it will really be us. Help your children not to be afraid of heaven. Teach them what resurrection and continuity mean. Of course they will remain themselves in heaven. Of course they will remember who they are and who their family and friends are. When we stand before God and give an account of our whole lives (2 Corinthians 5:10), our memories will have to be far better, not worse.
When I came to Christ, I became a new person (2 Corinthians 5:17), but my dog didn’t bark at me, and my mother didn’t call the police and say, “My son has been taken over by aliens.” I was the same me made new. Transformation and continuity are not contradictions. New people are old people made new. New bodies are old bodies made new, and the new earth will be the old earth made new.
Why the Silence?
I went to a fine Bible college and seminary, but in my classes we never talked about the new earth. In eschatology class, we devoted weeks to different views of the rapture. We talked about the return of Christ and the millennium, but our discussions of Revelation involved so much talk about the Antichrist that we never reached Revelation 21 and 22, which are all about the new heavens and new earth, where we will live forever with God and our spiritual family, worshiping and serving him in eternal happiness, for his everlasting glory. (That’s a pretty conspicuous omission, if you think about it.) By the time I became a pastor, I had thought through nearly every major doctrine of Scripture but had given no thought whatsoever to where I will spend eternity, in the new heavens and new earth.
William Shedd’s three-volume Dogmatic Theology contains eighty- seven pages on eternal punishment, but only two on heaven (W.G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3 vols. [Zondervan]). In his nine-hundred-page theology, Great Doctrines of the Bible, Martyn Lloyd-Jones devotes less than two pages to the eternal state and the new earth (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Great Doctrines of the Bible, vol. 3, The Church and the Last Things [Crossway, 2003], 246–48).
Louis Berkhof’s classic Systematic Theology devotes thirty-eight pages to creation, forty pages to baptism and Communion, and fifteen pages to what theologians call “the intermediate state” (where people live between death and resurrection). Yet it contains only two pages on hell and just one page on the new heavens and new earth. When all that’s said about the eternal heaven is limited to page 737 of a 737-page systematic theology like Berkhof’s (and an excellent one at that), it raises a question: Does Scripture really have so little to say about the resurrected world where we will live forever? (If Shedd, Lloyd-Jones, and Berkhof had done no more than quote the biblical texts from Isaiah 60; 65; 66; Ezekiel 48; Daniel 7; 2 Peter 3; and Revelation 21–22, without a single comment, the space used to treat this subject would have quadrupled.)
The doctrine of the new heavens and new earth is not some late-developing afterthought but a central component of redemptive history and intention. If you’ve never studied these biblical doctrines, I encourage you to. It will revolutionize your thinking. Small views of God’s redemptive work produce small views of God. The redemptive story of God’s work on earth is powerful, so let’s not shrink it.
“Small views of God's redemptive work produce small views of God.”
As theologian Greg Beale puts it, “New creation is the New Testament’s hermeneutical and eschatological center of gravity” (Greg K. Beale, Eschatology in Bible and Theology, [InterVarsity, 1997], 50). He says this is “the dominating notion of biblical theology because new creation is the goal or purpose of God’s redemptive-historical plan; new creation is the logical main point of Scripture” (Ibid., 21–22).
Making All Things New
Jesus said, “At the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes” (Matt. 19:28 NIV). Renewal is one of many re-words in the Bible: redemption, regeneration, restoration, reconciliation, resurrection — words that speak of reclaiming what was lost.
In Creation Regained Albert Wolters wrote,
God hangs on to his fallen original creation and salvages it. He refuses to abandon the work of his hands — in fact, he sacrifices his own Son to save his original project. Humankind, which has botched its original mandate . . . is given another chance in Christ; we are reinstated as God’s managers on earth. (Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained [Eerdmans, 1985], 58)
What do we find in the last two chapters of the Bible? A return to the fi two chapters, only far more and far better. The river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God, and the tree of life, now a forest of life, growing on both sides of the river (Revelation 21:1–2). That’s a picture of the New Eden, located in the heart of the New Jerusalem.
In Genesis, the Redeemer is promised; in Revelation, the Redeemer returns. Genesis tells the story of Paradise lost; Revelation tells the story of Paradise regained. In Genesis, man and woman fail as earth’s rulers; in Revelation righteous humanity rules the new earth, under King Jesus. Satan and sin will not thwart God’s plan!
In Acts 3:21 Peter said that Christ must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. What does it mean that one day God will restore everything? Read the prophets: you’ll see how God promises to restore earth itself to Eden-like conditions (Isaiah 35:1; 51:3; 55:13; Ezekiel 36:35).
In Letters to Malcolm Lewis wrote, “I can now communicate to you the fields of my boyhood — they are building-estates today — only imperfectly, by words. Perhaps the day is coming when I can take you for a walk through them” (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer [Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963], 121–22).
Home, but Far Better
When I came to Christ, we sang a song in my church: “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.” Well, this world as it is now, under the curse, isn’t my home. But this world, in its redeemed form, will be my home forever.
Though Lewis makes new-earth allusions here and there in his nonfiction, he gives the most remarkable portrayal of the new earth in The Last Battle, the final Narnia book. We identify with Jewel the unicorn’s lament over Narnia: “The only world I’ve ever known.” This is the only world we’ve ever known. Lucy also grieves that Narnia has ended. Then she realizes what she’s seeing:
“Those hills,” said Lucy, “the nice woody ones and the blue ones behind — aren’t they very like the southern border of Narnia?” “Like!?” cried Edmund after a moment’s silence. “Why they’re exactly like. Look, there’s Mount Pire with his forked head, and there’s the pass into Archenland and everything!” “And yet . . . ,” said Lucy. “They’re different. They have more colours on them and they look further away than I remembered and they’re more . . .” “More like the real thing,” said the Lord Digory softly. Suddenly Farsight the Eagle spread his wings, soared thirty or forty feet up into the air, circled round and then alighted on the ground. “Kings and Queens,” he cried, “we have all been blind. We are only beginning to see where we are. From up there I have seen it all — Ettinsmuir, Beaversdam, the Great River, and Cair Paravel still shining on the edge of the Eastern Sea. Narnia is not dead. This is Narnia.” (The Last Battle [Collier, 1956], 168–71, emphases added)
Lewis reflects beautifully the biblical truth of the new earth:
“The Eagle is right,” said the Lord Digory. “The Narnia you’re thinking of . . . was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” . . . The new [Narnia] was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if you ever get there, you will know what I mean. It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He . . . cried: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.” (Ibid., emphases added)
Will the new earth be different? Of course — just as we will be different. Still us, but far better. On the new earth we will say, “The reason we loved the old earth is that sometimes it looked a little like this.” And we will say, like the unicorn, “Come further up, come further in!” (Ibid., 161–62)
Our children and grandchildren love adventures. Let’s tell them eternity will be the great adventure that never ends. And if they don’t see and do everything they want in this life, no worries; they’ll live forever on the new earth that’s way better, without sin, suffering, war, sorrow, and death.
Eustace is puzzled because “we saw it all destroyed and the sun put out” (Ibid., 169). Yes, the old Narnia was destroyed, but this is the resurrected Narnia. Likewise people say, “But 2 Peter 3:10–12 says the earth will be destroyed.” Of course. Death always precedes resurrection. “The new earth” doesn’t mean earth doesn’t die but rather that after dying it is raised. It may seem impossible to us, but it’s simple to God.
“On the new earth we will say, ‘The reason we loved the old earth is that sometimes it looked a little like this.’”
When the children see Professor Kirk’s home where they first entered the wardrobe, Edmund says, “I thought that house had been destroyed.” The faun, Tumnus, answers that it was, “but you are now looking at the England within England, the real England just as this is the real Narnia. And in that inner England no good thing is destroyed” (Ibid., 168–71).
Taste and See
God is not done with this earth. He promises a new earth with a new Jerusalem. Why not other cities made new (as in Jesus saying, “You are to be over five cities,” in Luke 19:19)? Why not a new Ireland, where Lewis might take us for a walk through his boyhood fields? Or maybe we’ll go back in time for that. Why not a new Niagara Falls, a new Lake Victoria, a new Grand Canyon, a redeemed Nairobi, a glorified Seattle?
It was no accident that Jesus was a carpenter. Carpenters make things and fix things. The carpenter from Nazareth made the universe, and he’s going to fix it. God is the ultimate salvage artist. And what he restores will be far better than the original. He delights in that, and we should delight in him.
In The Weight of Glory Lewis said,
The faint, far-off results of those energies which God’s creative rapture implanted in matter when He made the worlds are what we now call physical pleasures; and even thus filtered, they are too much for our present management. What would it be to taste at the fountainhead that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating? Yet that, I believe, is what lies before us. The whole man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy. (The Weight of Glory [Macmillan, 1980], 17–18)
The best we enjoy here — great food, relationships, worship, and culture — is a mere foretaste of what awaits us on the new earth, where we’ll be without sin and death and curse. In that world we will always see that God himself is the fountainhead of joy.
No More Death Means No More Sin
Believers who think heaven will be boring show that they think God is boring. Hell will be boring. Heaven will be the ultimate adventure, because God is the ultimate adventure. We’ll never exhaust him. Paul says in Ephesians 2:7, “In the coming ages [God will] show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
Revelation 22:3–4 says, “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face. . . . And they will reign forever and ever.”
Seeing God is what the ancients called the “beatific vision.” That literally means, “The happy-making sight.” To see God will be to experience undiminished happiness. When we feel like saying, “It doesn’t get any better than this,” it will.
Psalm 16:11 says: “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Who needs a bucket list? The blood-bought promise of the gospel is this: we will live happily ever after — with God, the source of all happiness.
“What would it be to taste at the fountainhead that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating? Yet that, I believe, is what lies before us.” –C.S. Lewis
Will there be a second fall in the eternal state? Absolutely not. We will have the righteousness of Christ. Sin? Been there. Done that. The illusion of its appeal will be gone.
Lewis portrays it like this in The Last Battle:
Everyone raised his hand to pick the fruit he best liked the look of, and then everyone paused for a second. This fruit was so beautiful that each felt, “It can’t be meant for me . . . surely we’re not allowed to pluck it.” “It’s all right,” said Peter. “. . . I’ve a feeling we’ve got to the country where everything is allowed.” (The Last Battle)
Happily Ever After
In the fifth chapter of The Last Battle, called “Farewell to Shadowlands,” Aslan gives the children shocking news: “‘There was a real railway accident,’ said Aslan softly. ‘Your father and mother and all of you are — as you used to call it in the Shadowlands — dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning’” (Ibid.).
And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever;in which every chapter is better than the one before. (Ibid., emphasis added)
Such is the vast and far-reaching redemptive plan of King Jesus.
“The blood-bought promise of the gospel is this: we will live happily ever after — with God, the source of all happiness.”
Many nights I still look up at the Andromeda galaxy and still long to go there. Did God put that in my heart? When God creates the new heavens, might there be a new Andromeda galaxy? Or other new galaxies, nebulae, planets, moons, comets? Why not? Might we someday travel there to behold God’s creative magnificence? If I do, my heart will be overwhelmed with praise to the God who redeemed not only that boy gazing through that telescope but also the great universe that first drew me to Christ with all its wonders.
More Messages from Desiring God 2013 National Conference
In Bright Shadow: C.S. Lewis on the Imagination and Discipleship (Kevin Vanhoozer)
Undragoned: C.S. Lewis on the Gift of Salvation (Douglas Wilson)