Marilynne Robinson has written a novel titled Gilead, a beautiful novel of hers that you readily commend, Pastor John. At one place, this is what she writes: “In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.” What do you think? Will this life be a ballad of eternity? Obviously there will be no tears (no regrets) in heaven, but are there any biblical clues on the place of history in eternity?
I would love to know what she means by “piety forbids me to try.” I know what I mean when I say yes to your question, because I agree with her. At least in as far as I understand her, I agree with her.
She mentions Troy, and not everybody might get that. Troy was the city that the Greek states were attacking to try to capture, and it was a ten-year conquest. Homer wrote The Iliad about it. The Iliad, I think, focuses pretty much on the last several weeks of that conquest. Troy is captured and so the bravery is heralded for generations to come.
Then the Odyssey is about the coming home of Odysseus. Troy, then, is a great historical exploit that is told and written in poems for generations to come. Marilynne Robinson is saying in the age to come — after Christ returns and the kingdom is established and the new heavens and the new earth are in place — the last thousands of years of Church history that we are living in right now are going to be that balladry, they are going to be that. I think that is right.
Here is my reason. What is history for? Psalm 145:10–12 says, “All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your saints shall bless you! They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom and tell of your power, to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.”
And I want to ask, “Are they just going to stop?” Is all of that magnificently worth heralding now, and it won’t be magnificently worth heralding then? I don’t think so. What does Christ’s work mean when I read in Revelation 5:9 that they are singing in heaven, crying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation”? They are singing that in heaven ages after the event. They are singing about the cross.
“God will see to it that all the mighty works of grace will not be forgotten.”
Now what meaning could the cross possibly have in heaven if the history of redemption is forgotten? Nothing. It will be meaningless. But we know this isn’t the case. If someone asks you what will be celebrated about Jesus Christ, you could say, “Surely, he will be celebrated for having fulfilled all of the promises of the Old Testament. Surely, he will be celebrated in ways we have never seen by fulfilling everything the history of redemption was all about. Surely, he will be celebrated by being the ground and cause of every good thing that happened after him in the world.”
If Christ really is the center — the apex of redemptive history — for that apex to have its meaning, then the rest of history (of which it is the apex) has to be known and understood and celebrated as well.
Trophy of Grace
Here is another point. Revelation 15:3 says they sing the song of Moses in heaven. They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God and of the Lamb. Now the song of Moses is in Exodus 15 where they are singing about the triumphs of the people of God over Pharaoh.
If we are singing about the Lamb, and we are singing the song of Moses, surely that is symptomatic of singing the songs of the triumphs of God in world history right down to the salvation of Tony Reinke. Right? Why would your story not be told and not be remembered to the praise and the glory of God? You are a trophy of grace.
I think those trophies are going to be walking around in the kingdom. If you see a trophy on somebody’s shelf, you say, “What is that?” And they tell you about the game. The season when the trophy was won.
Remembering the Good
Here is another clue. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” says Paul, “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). If you are going to receive something for what was good, then the good is going to be remembered. Something is going to happen to you that will constantly call to mind the good.
Also, think of the parable of the ten talents. You know, you are going to be serving over ten cities. I will be serving over five cities. There will be some explanation for that. And the explanation has roots back in this age.
Tears in Heaven
You also asked, “Wait a minute, there is a lot of sad stuff in this age, and he is going to wipe away every tear. How does that work?” Here is my take. And you can say this is speculative, but I don’t think Jesus is going to wipe away tears of joy. When he says every tear will be wiped away, he means painful tears — tear that were destructive, hurtful, and paralyzing. It makes my life miserable to have these tears and these memories.
I am sure most of our listeners will agree that the deepest joys have sometimes brought tears rather than laughter — tears of stunned amazement that we have been treated so well. And those tears aren’t going to be wiped away. They are beautiful. You can see the sparkle of grace in those tears.
“If Christ is the apex of redemptive history, then history must be known, understood, and celebrated for his glory.”
If you were to ask me, well, will there be regrets? Hmm. You know for years I have tried to put together two texts that I think give an answer to this. One is Philippians 3:13, where it says, “straining forward to what lies ahead.” You are supposed to forget what lies behind.
The other is Ephesians 2:12, which says, “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ.” You have a command to forget and a command to remember. How do you put those together? I put them together like this. Every regret and every memory will be done away with that cannot serve your greater joy, cannot serve your greater love for Jesus, and your greater valuing of grace.
He will wipe away every way of remembering and every way of regretting that ruins your joy in heaven and minimizes his mercy and his glory. I think that Marilynne Robinson is right that we have a great Troy in redemptive history. God will see to it that all the mighty works of grace done in the thousands of years leading up to the second coming will not be forgotten. And yes, she is probably right that piety should prevent us from wanting it to be forgotten.