Excerpt from The Divine Conspiracy

What, Then, Changes?

When we pass through the stage nor­mal­ly called death,” we will not lose any­thing but the lim­i­ta­tions and pow­ers that specif­i­cal­ly cor­re­spond to our present mas­tery over our body, and to our avail­abil­i­ty and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to and through it. We will no longer be able to act and be act­ed upon by means of it. Of course this is a heart-rend­ing change to those left behind. But, on the oth­er hand, loss of those abil­i­ties begins to occur, in most cas­es, long before death. It is a nor­mal part of aging and sick­ness. The body as inter­me­di­ary between the per­son and the phys­i­cal world is los­ing its func­tion as the soul pre­pares for a new arrangement. 

But along this pas­sage we do not lose our per­son­al sense of who we are, and all our knowl­edge of and rela­tion­ships to oth­er per­sons will remain intact — except, once again, inso­far as they are medi­at­ed through the body and its phys­i­cal environment. 

Indeed, we will then be in pos­ses­sion of our­selves as nev­er before, and the lim­it­ed uni­verse that we now see will remain — though that uni­verse will not be as inter­est­ing as what we shall then see for the first time. We will not dis­ap­pear into an eter­nal fog bank or dead stor­age, or exist in a state of iso­la­tion or sus­pend­ed ani­ma­tion, as many seem to sup­pose. God has a much bet­ter use for us than that. 

Stat­ed in oth­er words, our expe­ri­ence will not be fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent in char­ac­ter from what it is now, though it will change in sig­nif­i­cant details. The life we now have as the per­sons we now are will con­tin­ue, and con­tin­ue in the uni­verse in which we now exist. Our expe­ri­ence will be much clear­er, rich­er, and deep­er, of course, because it will be unre­strained by the lim­i­ta­tions now imposed upon us by our depen­dence upon our body. It will, instead, be root­ed in the broad­er and more fun­da­men­tal real­i­ty of Gods king­dom and will accord­ing­ly have far greater scope and power. 

His Glo­ri­ous Body 

The key to under­stand­ing all of this for the ear­ly fol­low­ers of Jesus was not just their knowl­edge of God him­self, which we have so heav­i­ly empha­sized, or their knowl­edge of the mul­ti­tudes of non­phys­i­cal beings or angels that serve him. The absolute bedrock of their con­fi­dence con­cern­ing their future was, rather, in their expe­ri­ence of the postres­ur­rec­tion Jesus. 

He had a body: a focus of his per­son­al­i­ty in space and time that was pub­licly observ­able and inter­act­ed with phys­i­cal real­i­ties. But it was radi­ant, and there­fore it was called the body of his glo­ry” (Phil. 3:21). And it was not restrained by space, time, and phys­i­cal causal­i­ty in the man­ner of phys­i­cal bodies. 

Accord­ing­ly, Paul says, there is a phys­i­cal body and there is also one that is spir­i­tu­al” (1 Cor. 15:44). Now it is true that the thought world of the first cen­tu­ry allowed for this impor­tant dis­tinc­tion, but accep­tance of the real­i­ty of the spir­i­tu­al body is main­ly based upon the spe­cif­ic expe­ri­ence of the ear­li­est Chris­tians with the risen Jesus. 

In God’s uni­verse mat­ter is ulti­mate­ly sub­ject to mind or spir­it. That is a giv­en in the tra­di­tion of Jesus and his peo­ple. Already our nat­ur­al home, our cit­i­zen­ship” (poli­teu­ma), our sociopo­lit­i­cal order,” is in the heav­ens, out of which we eager­ly antic­i­pate the com­ing of Lord Jesus Christ. He will meta­mor­phose our humil­i­at­ing body, trans­form­ing it into a glo­ry body like his, uti­liz­ing the pow­er he has to make all things do what he wants” (Phil. 3:20 – 21). 

When we pass through death” into God’s full world — or our earthy tent is torn down,” as Paul else­where says — we are not there­by deprived of a body, any more than Jesus him­self was. Rather, we are then clothed with a dwelling place of the heav­en­ly sort” and not left naked” (2 Cor. 5:1 – 8). The mor­tal part of us is swal­lowed up by life.” God has pre­pared us for this by deposit­ing in us a down pay­ment” in the form of the Spir­it (v. 5). We know even now, and by expe­ri­ence, the real­i­ty of a life that is not of the phys­i­cal body. 

Run­ning Stead­fast­ly the Race Set Before Us” 

What, then, should we expect to hap­pen as we move onward in the eter­ni­ty where we live even now? Let us break it down into three stages: the time of grow­ing steadi­ly, the time of pas­sage, and the time of reign­ing with Jesus. 

THE TIME OF GROW­ING STEADI­LY. We should, first of all, find our­selves con­stant­ly grow­ing in our readi­ness and abil­i­ty to draw our direc­tion, strength, and over­all tone of life from the ever­last­ing king­dom, from our per­son­al inter­ac­tions with the Trini­tar­i­an per­son­al­i­ty who is God. This will mean, most impor­tant­ly, the trans­for­ma­tion of our heart and char­ac­ter into the fam­i­ly like­ness, increas­ing­ly becom­ing like chil­dren of our Father, the one in the heav­ens” (Matt. 5:45).

The agape love of 1 Corinthi­ans 13 will increas­ing­ly become sim­ply a mat­ter of who we are. But the effects of our prayers, words, and deeds — and some­times of our mere pres­ence — will also increas­ing­ly be of a nature and extent that can­not be explained in human terms. Increas­ing­ly what we do and say is in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” and every part of our life becomes increas­ing­ly eter­nal, in the sense explained in ear­li­er chap­ters. We are now co-labor­ers with God. 

Aging, accord­ing­ly, will become a process not of los­ing, but of gain­ing. As our phys­i­cal body fades out, our glo­ry body approach­es and our spir­i­tu­al sub­stance grows rich­er and deep­er. As we age we should become obvi­ous­ly more glo­ri­ous. The love­ly words of George Mac­Don­ald, once again, help us to imag­ine this cru­cial transition: 

Our old age is the scorch­ing of the bush
By life’s indwelling, incor­rupt­ible blaze.
O life, burn at this fee­ble shell of me;
Till I the sore singed gar­ment off shall push,
Flap out my Psy­che wings, and to thee rush.

THE TIME OF PAS­SAGE. Com­mon human expe­ri­ence, in all ages and cul­tures, teach­es much more about tran­si­tion and pas­sage than West­ern cul­ture for the last cen­tu­ry or so has been will­ing to deal with. Some of it has been reaf­firmed, and per­haps overem­bell­ished, by the recent inter­est in near-death expe­ri­ences.” But what com­mon human expe­ri­ence thus teach­es is in basic accord with indi­ca­tions to be derived from bib­li­cal sources. 

Most notably, the per­son in the tran­si­tion begins to see the invis­i­ble.” Oth­ers whom they know come to meet them, often while they are still inter­act­ing with those left behind. If death is sud­den, those near­by will have no oppor­tu­ni­ty to real­ize that this is hap­pen­ing. But we can be sure that even in such cas­es the per­son is not hurled into iso­la­tion. You would not do that, if you could help it, to any­one you loved. And nei­ther will God. 

Here we see the com­fort­ing mer­cy of God toward those who love him or seek him. Poor Lazarus died, we are told by Jesus, and he was borne away by the angels to where God’s peo­ple are gath­ered” (Luke 16:22). From the great cloud of wit­ness­es” come those who have been watch­ing for us. They greet us and enfold us. And while those first few moments or hours will sure­ly present us with one aston­ish­ing view after anoth­er, we will be joy­ous and peace­ful because of the com­pa­ny we are in. 

The old spir­i­tu­al song says, I looked over Jor­dan and what did I see, comin’ for to car­ry me home? A band of angels comin’ after me, comin’ for to car­ry me home.” And this seem­ing­ly sim­plis­tic pic­ture, derived from scrip­tur­al sto­ries and teach­ings, presents exact­ly what we should expect. We should expect it on the basis of our knowl­edge of God and the human soul, com­mon human expe­ri­ence, and the teach­ings of scripture. 

Of course all of this falls among those things that God hides” from the sup­pos­ed­ly informed and self-right­eous­ly smart, while mak­ing it per­fect­ly clear to babies (Matt. 11:25). But that will hard­ly dis­tract any­one who, liv­ing in the king­dom, has already expe­ri­enced the pow­ers of the aeon to come.” 

Now this under­stand­ing of the pas­sage into God’s full world spells out pre­cise­ly the sense in which death has been abol­ished, in the New Tes­ta­ment vision, and in which we who live in the Logos will not die or expe­ri­ence death (John 8:51). Our per­son­al exis­tence will con­tin­ue with­out inter­rup­tion. Per­haps, by con­trast, we must say that those who do not now enter the eter­nal life of God through con­fi­dence in Jesus will expe­ri­ence sep­a­ra­tion, iso­la­tion, and the end of their hopes. Per­haps this will be per­mit­ted in their case because they have cho­sen to be God them­selves, to be their own ulti­mate point of ref­er­ence. God per­mits it, but that pos­ture obvi­ous­ly can only be sus­tained at a dis­tance from God. The fires of heav­en, we might sus­pect, are hot­ter than the fires of hell. Still, there is room in the uni­verse for them. 

THE TIME OF REIGN­ING WITH JESUS. We need not wor­ry about there being a place for every­one in our new cos­mic set­ting. We now know that there are about ten thou­sand mil­lion galax­ies in our” phys­i­cal sys­tem, with one hun­dred bil­lion bil­lion plan­ets. That is, 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 plan­ets. And it may be that the phys­i­cal sys­tem we know of is but one of many that we have not yet dis­cov­ered. A few decades ago we thought our galaxy was the entire phys­i­cal universe. 

In due time — I can only imag­ine it will be some while after our pas­sage into God’s full world — we will begin to assume new respon­si­bil­i­ties. Well done, good and faith­ful ser­vant,” our mag­nif­i­cent Mas­ter will say, you have been faith­ful in the small­est things, take charge of ten cities,” five cities,” many things,” or what­ev­er is appro­pri­ate (Luke 19:17; Matt. 25:21).

I sus­pect there will be many sur­pris­es when the new cre­ative respon­si­bil­i­ties are assigned. Per­haps it would be a good exer­cise for each of us to ask our­selves: Real­ly, how many cities could I now gov­ern under God? If, for exam­ple, Bal­ti­more or Liv­er­pool were turned over to me, with pow­er to do what I want with it, how would things turn out? An hon­est answer to this ques­tion might do much to pre­pare us for our eter­nal future in this universe. 

Are we, for exam­ple, pre­pared to have every­thing about us known to every­one? There is noth­ing hid­den that will not be revealed, Jesus tells us. What you have whis­pered in the inner rooms shall be announced over loud­speak­ers” (Luke 12:3). Are we ready to live with that kind of total trans­paren­cy? And are we total­ly con­vinced that God’s way is the only smart way and that his pow­er will always guide and enable us in every­thing we do? Is our char­ac­ter such that we auto­mat­i­cal­ly act as if all this were so? 

When I think about this, I am impressed with how few who want to rule cities” could actu­al­ly be trust­ed to do it. If I had to assign rulers, I sus­pect I would try to find a few hum­ble believ­ers who don’t look like much from the human point of view but who have learned to have no con­fi­dence in them­selves and put their every hope in God. Thank­ful­ly, I will nev­er have to make that assign­ment. I am sure God will know how to do it. But we can be sure that many who are first [in human eyes] shall be last [in God’s judg­ment], and the last first.’’ 

In any case, we should expect that in due time we will be moved into our eter­nal des­tiny of cre­ative activ­i­ty with Jesus and his friends and asso­ciates in the many man­sions” of his Father’s house.”

Thus, we should not think of our­selves as des­tined to be celes­tial bureau­crats, involved eter­nal­ly in celes­tial admin­istriv­ia.” That would be only slight­ly bet­ter than being caught in an ever­last­ing church ser­vice. No, we should think of our des­tiny as being absorbed in a tremen­dous­ly cre­ative team effort, with unimag­in­ably splen­did lead­er­ship, on an incon­ceiv­ably vast plane of activ­i­ty, with ever more com­pre­hen­sive cycles of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and enjoy­ment. This is the eye hath not seen, nei­ther ear heard” that lies before us in the prophet­ic vision (Isa. 64:4).

This Is Shalom 

When Saint Augus­tine comes to the very end of his book The City of God, he attempts to address the ques­tion of how the saints shall be employed when they are clothed in immor­tal and spir­i­tu­al bod­ies.” At first he con­fess­es that he is at a loss to under­stand the nature of that employ­ment.” But then he set­tles upon the word peace to describe it, and devel­ops the idea of peace by ref­er­ence to the vision of God — uti­liz­ing, as we too have done, the rich pas­sage from 1 Corinthi­ans 13

Thus he speaks of our employ­ment” then as being the beatif­ic vision.” The eter­nal blessed­ness of the city of God is pre­sent­ed as a per­pet­u­al Sab­bath.” In words so beau­ti­ful that every­one should know them by heart, he says, There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise. This is what shall be in the end with­out end. For what oth­er end do we pro­pose to our­selves than to attain to the king­dom of which there is no end?” 

And yet, for all their beau­ty and good­ness, these words do not seem to me to cap­ture the blessed con­di­tion of the restora­tion of all things — of the king­dom come in its utter full­ness. Repose, yes. But not as qui­es­cence, pas­siv­i­ty, eter­nal fix­i­ty. It is, instead, peace as whole­ness, as full­ness of func­tion, as the rest­ful but unend­ing cre­ativ­i­ty involved in a cos­moswide, coop­er­a­tive pur­suit of a cre­at­ed order that con­tin­u­ous­ly approach­es but nev­er reach­es the lim­it­less good­ness and great­ness of the tri­une per­son­al­i­ty of God, its source. 

This, sure­ly, is the word of Jesus when he says, Those who over­come will be wel­comed to sit with me on my throne, as I too over­came and sat down with my Father on his throne. Those capa­ble of hear­ing should lis­ten to what the Spir­it is say­ing to my peo­ple” (Rev. 3:21 – 22). 

Excerpt­ed from The Divine Con­spir­a­cy by Dal­las Willard (Harper­One, 1997) and used with permission.

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