Christianity presents itself as more than an ideal of human life in this world, a vision of a harmonious and just human community. It offers more than inspired knowledge of the secrets of the divine world. And it is more than a way of dealing with guilt. These benefits may enhance wellbeing and happiness in this life, but they do not address ultimate human longings. We long for a quality of life, being, community, knowledge, joy, freedom, and love that we cannot attain in this world. Our longings reach further than our minds can conceptualize or our imaginations can picture.
What is the Christian hope, the final form of the salvation Christianity offers? What should we seek and expect? And what is the ground and assurance of this hope? In this and the upcoming essays I want to address these questions.
In my view, many discussions of the Christian hope are obscured by an unhealthy fascination with the apocalyptic imagery and eschatological timetables associated with the transition from the present order to the new order. People lose sight of the hope of eternal life in intimate closeness to the eternal God. Instead, they become engrossed in current events, looking for signs of the approaching end. They stockpile food and construct safe houses for the coming collapse of society. They treat the Book of Revelation like some people treat the works of Nostradamus, as obscure texts on which to impose their own fancies, good for entertainment but not for edification. Or, they make their views of eschatology into an orthodoxy that becomes a test of one’s Christian faith. The nature of the millennium becomes as important as the fact of Christ’s resurrection!
A sober treatment of the Christian hope must remain focused on its ultimate fulfillment and not let itself be distracted by the imagery of transitions. What then is that hope? As I indicated above, it is eternal life in intimate union with the eternal God. But what does this mean? Popular religion speaks vaguely of an “afterlife” or of survival beyond death. Some people want another life like they want another house or another car. But why think another life would make you any happier than this life does? Does eternal life mean simply living forever? But why would living unendingly be a good thing? One can imagine conditions under which immortality would be a curse that would make us long for death.
Paul sometimes uses apocalyptic imagery when speaking of the transition from this life to eternal life. But when he speaks of the ultimate state of salvation he speaks of eternal life and immortality. His favorite expression seems to be “being with the Lord.”
I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Phil 1:23-24)
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10-11).
We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Cor 5:8)
After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thess 4:17)
John speaks with cautious confidence when he says this
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure (1 John 3:1-3).
John keeps the focus on the hope of being like Christ and seeing him “as he is.” This hope does not encourage us to look for signs of the end or bury our end-time bunkers deep. Instead it motivates us to “purify” ourselves and live as Christ lived in the world. Nor does Paul connect apocalyptic imagery of transitions to speculation about times or seasons but to becoming like Christ in his sufferings and death.
The end of the story is being “with the Lord” and “like Christ.” And so is the beginning and middle of the story! At each stage our task is the same. Let God handle the times, seasons, and transitions.