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.