What do you think of when you hear the words eternal life? Many people’s thoughts turn to heaven, which they visualise as a place with fluffy clouds, elegant harps and angelic figures in dazzling white robes. In the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck “didn’t think much of [heaven]” after being told that “all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever.” Now my harp playing skills are, well, non-existent. Although I do love to sing (rather loudly I’m told). But will people only do that in the new creation, all day long, forever and ever? Like Huckleberry Finn, I don’t think too much of that idea.
Well it’s important to have our thoughts about eternity shaped by scripture rather than fiction, so here are three biblical truths about eternal life:
- It’s a free gift of God
“… now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:22-23)
This first point may seem like basic Christianity. And in one sense it is. But it’s something we need to be reminded of, as it’s surprising how easily we forget that we cannot earn and do not merit eternal life. Many of us have this inner conviction (usually unspoken) that somehow we’re just a little bit better than the next man or woman and that really we deserve (even if it’s only ever so slightly) to go to heaven. Most of us, if we’re honest, have a little bit of the Pharisee in us; “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers…” (Luke 18:11).
Personally, I blame the parents! Or at least parents who teach their youngsters that only good children get presents at Christmas. As we grow up, this reinforces the unbiblical belief that good (i.e. moral) people get rewarded and bad people get punished. So if I pull my spiritual socks up, try my best to be good and avoid ‘really bad’ sins like adultery, murder and so on, well surely God will reward me by letting me into heaven. In reality, of course, most children – whether good or not – do get Christmas presents. So many will grow up believing that because God is loving and merciful, well he’ll let everyone into heaven after all, even if we’ve not been good.
By contrast, the Bible teaches us that “none is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12, referencing Psalms 14 and 53). The stark truth is that the only way any of us can be good enough for heaven is if we receive, as a completely free and undeserved gift, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:22).
- It’s a life of worship and service
The new heavens and new earth will certainly be marked out by unceasing praise, adoration and worship. In his vision, John sees “a door standing open in heaven” (Revelation 4:1) and his eyes are drawn to a throne that has one seated on it “with the appearance of jasper and carnelian” (v 3). Encircling the throne are twenty-four elders and four living creatures, all caught up in the worship of “him who lives forever and ever” (v 10). Later, John recounts hearing every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever!” (Chapter 5 v 13). So, yes, the life to come will definitely be a life of vibrant worship.
But there are plenty of pointers in the Bible to suggest that eternal life will also be a life of active service. If you have a stressful job that you don’t particularly enjoy, it can be easy to forget that work is intrinsically a good thing. Adam was put in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it before the Fall (Genesis 2:15), not as part of God’s divine punishment. Yes, of course, work is now impacted by the Fall; so as part of God’s curse, Adam is promised that he’ll only eat of the land “through painful toil” (Genesis 3:17). But in essence work is a good thing and we should expect joyful service of God to be a feature of life in the new creation.
Jesus certainly seems to hint at future responsibility for his faithful servants in the Parable of the Talents, recorded for us in Chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel. The two servants who had traded with five and two talents respectively and had each doubled their master’s money, are both commended with the exact same words: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master’ (Matthew 25 verses 21 and 23).
And in Revelation 22, we read that the servants of God and of the Lamb will not only “worship him” (v 3) but in addition “they will reign forever and ever” (v 5). The Apostle Paul makes a similar point in one of his ‘trustworthy sayings’ in 2 Timothy 2:12: “… if we endure, we will also reign with him.” To reign with Christ; that sounds to me like an active rather than a passive life. It certainly doesn’t paint a picture in my mind of Christians lounging around on fluffy clouds playing harps all day long!
- It’s ultimately about who you know
It may surprise you to know that the essence of eternal life is not really about being in a place at all. No, it’s about being with a person. At least, that’s how the Lord Jesus himself summarises it in his “High Priestly” prayer to the Father:
“Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)
Isn’t that a staggering truth? You and I can actually know God and Jesus Christ, who is the perfect image of God. Eternal life is ultimately all about a relationship. To have eternal life is to have personal, intimate knowledge of the only true God and of his Son Jesus Christ.
I wasted much of the early years of my life craving a perfect relationship. From childhood, I experienced unwanted same-sex attractions and aged 17 got involved in a same-sex relationship, which lasted until I came to faith in Christ aged 24. To a large degree, my desire for a same-sex partner was driven by a quest for intimacy, an unquenchable desire to know and be known by someone. When I came to faith and left my same-sex partner, I recognised that there is no-one better to know and to be known by than “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End”? The one who promises that “To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life” (Revelation 21:6). Jesus Christ is the only one able to fully quench the deep-seated desire that so many of us have to know and to be known.
So the gift of eternal life comes to us in Christ Jesus. And the gift of eternal life is Christ Jesus. In other words, Christ is everything. The very essence of eternal life is knowing him and being with him. John puts it like this in his first letter:
“God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:11-12)
So what does this mean for us practically? Well first, that everything we need to live life to the full is going to be found in and through our relationship with Christ. Because life is found only “in his Son.” Secondly, that there is nothing truly enjoyable or satisfying that can be found outside of our relationship with the one who declares himself to be “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
I’m convinced that eternal life does not consist of fluffy clouds, harps and singing endless hymns and choruses. Surely the promise is of an eternity spent knowing and serving God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit – and enjoying their presence forever. And if that’s so, wouldn’t we do well to focus much time and energy in this life in getting to know and learning how to serve our awesome three-in-one God?
 The adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, Chapter 1.
This is the third in a series of articles exploring spiritual blessings that are ours in Christ