I don’t generally spend a lot of time thinking about what comes after this life. Despite my Rich Mullins addiction, and his ever-present theme of the “somewhere” that will follow the world as it is now, I tend to feel more connected to the present, to struggle with the concept of time outside of how we currently understand it, and to view life as a finite thing that will give me approximately 80 years (if I’m lucky) to accomplish all I want to do.
Yet as I get closer to turning 30 and become more reflective about what I’m doing with my life and my career, I find myself thinking about the Christian promise of the new heavens and the new earth much more than before, and I have been considering it through the very personal lens of my own art.
I had the chance to listen to not one, but two sermons over the past two weeks, one in Pittsburgh and one in Boston, that focused on the idea of the restoration and renewal that God promises his creation at the end of time as we know it. I think it’s useful to Christians to spend the bulk of their time focused on the tasks we’ve been given in the here and now, but in listening to these beautiful, impassioned sermons--one with an emphasis on how we should be active caretakers of our current, injured earth, and one with an emphasis on the hope we hold onto--I realized that I need to spend more time considering what comes after the end of what we know. The way I live my life now, down to the choices I make and the way I see myself and others, is actually impacted far more by my understanding of the end than I thought.
The first verses of Revelation 21 are familiar:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
There are many other passages in the Bible that speak of God’s care for creation, and his restoration of the earth when he comes again. Theologians throughout time have expounded on it. C.S. Lewis wrote about it in many of his writings, famously comparing the new earth in his Chronicles of Narnia series to the same earth we have experienced, but better and more real than we could have imagined. “The dream is ended: this is the morning,” he wrote.
As I’ve begun to really consider this idea, it’s taken on a new tone. Because it’s so hard to conceptualize something I don’t understand, or because culture says ridiculous things (like that we’ll be floating on clouds) it’s hard to truly get excited about what’s to come. But scripture does give us some solid truths to hold onto. We know that there will be no more sickness or death, and that we will have new bodies that do not grow weary (2 Corinthians 5). We know that we will be without sin (Romans 8:29-30), and will be with God himself (1 Corinthians 13:12).
As I dwell on these promises, the ramifications of them overwhelm me. All of the perfection in this earth that we have crushed under our corporate human heel will be restored. The earth (and the heavens...which is beyond my comprehension) will be exactly as God intended them--every part in harmony. The limits of my ability to explore and engage with creation will be gone. My body will be able to do the things I long to do, without the boundaries of time as we know them. We will live in agelessness.
And more than this, the restoration of relationship will be overwhelming. I think of those I love most, who move through life burdened and heavy with their own and other’s sins. One day I will be with my husband, my mother, my friends, and each will be the best of themselves, no longer touched by suffering, physical or otherwise. All the things I admire most about them will be prominent, and all the ways they fail will be gone. Each will be as they were meant to be: strong, joyful, and free. I will be with those who lived and died long ago, not just the famous Christians that I know of, but the faithful of a thousand generations. And I myself will be unhampered by shame--I will finally be able to rest, and to give freely of myself without fearing the darkness of my soul.
All of these things are just side effects, though, of the true reality--that we will be face to face with God, welcomed into his presence. Privileged to worship him without ceasing. And this is where his plan strikes me as so very beautiful--because he has created us so that worshipping him means not just adoration with our lips and bodies, but also with our own created selves. He has made each of us uniquely, with skills and desires, and the new heavens and new earth will be filled with people who are doing exactly what God created them to do, and doing it right and well.
This is what has been so pivotal for me right now, in this time before the fulfillment of these promises. The understanding that I do not have--as it’s so tempting to think--a single life here on earth to quickly do everything I want to accomplish, but rather that life extends into the next world. I am not limited to the amount of places I can visit in 80 years, or the achievements I can crank out before I die.
As an artist, this is especially poignant. It’s so easy to feel frustration when I can sense inside myself the wealth of stories that are as of yet untold, the seemingly endless number of ideas and projects I long to have the time and resources to do. But as I consider the new heavens and the new earth, it strikes me that the stories will not end. They will only expand and continue to become richer and better, because God has put them into me, and it brings him pleasure when I create. I will carry them into the restoration of all things.
I don’t know what each individual role will look like when the skies open up, but I know that the imagery of a city is God’s intentional way of indicating community and the continuation of work. In a world where there is complete restoration, I look forward to the chance to explore my art and my stories to their fullest, and to present them as worship. For now, dwelling on this has given me a sense of deep peace about the finite amount of time I have here on earth--and, oddly, a greater thirst for adventure.
With these beautiful things to look forward to, I don’t need to waste time worrying if I’ve reached my potential or achieved everything I wanted, but I also don’t want to waste time trying to achieve whatever the status quo is. What could be better than caring for and enjoying the earth we have now, while letting anxiety about the passing of time slip through my fingers? We have the life we are given now, but if we are in Christ, we also have the endless bounds of the life to come, where we will be strong and free--where the stories will not end, and where even our worship will be made whole.
~ Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, ND Wilson
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
~ On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria