Introductory Note:

“Shepherd me, O God, beyond my want, beyond my fear from death into life.” —Marty Haugen; The Faith We Sing, No. 2058

As a spiritual director, I have the sacred privilege of hosting others as they reflect upon their relationships with God. Two of my directees have experienced the death of loved ones this summer. This week another directee wept over the sudden death of a child. With each one I found myself listening with a heart still sore with grief over my own sister’s illness and death earlier this year.

Having been with my sister on that bridge between life and Life, and accompanying others who experience that veil as very thin, I am grateful for our teacher and mentor, Dallas Willard. I was sitting in the audience during his last public address when he blessed us, assuring us that we are “never ceasing spiritual beings with an eternal destiny in God’s good universe.”

Dallas’s life and words remain a source of consolation and hope to me. In Chapter 10 of his book, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas describes how the eternal life already begun in us here and now continues. In this excerpt he offers a glimpse of “what will our life be like.”

Jean Nevills

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.

Text First Published January 1998

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

View Selections & Learn More >