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Will Fiction Last Forever? Part 2

Christians have three main views about the afterlife, all within Gospel faith. But should we even bother with studying and anticipating Heaven? What do we and don’t we know about Heaven from the Bible? Should we speculate about that world?
| Nov 17, 2011 | No comments | Series:

One business and one ministry are rebuilding the Ark, but they expect only a “flood” of visitors.

(Snaps upright.) Whew! What a dream, the other night. But it seemed so real.

For its inspiration, I have to thank Brian Godawa, his novel Noah Primeval (which is still on our front page), parts of the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (which I recently quoted), an overnight thundershower, and this very series — about whether any of the stories we love reading or writing, for God’s glory, may make it to eternity.

Thus I saw in my dream that God had promised another great Flood, to wipe all of mankind from the face of the Earth. Apparently the Ark 2.0 had been commissioned to only my own family. Well, already this seemed unfair, because while this age is bad, it’s not nearly so bad as the world of Noah’s day. But even more unfair was the fact that at first the Ark looked suspiciously like my family’s diesel van, with hardly any room.

Later it turned out the real Ark was in the backyard, but it was still far too small. The solution? A smaller model Ark, enlarged via — why not? — a shrink/expand-o-ray. Of course, this technology might affect the wood, but not the model Ark’s painted-on large-screen television. Still, it wouldn’t be large enough for all our stuff. And what of the animals? Easy solution: shrink them! My brother had done this, and was carrying them all on a tray. Some of them were dropping off the edges. Poor things. Ugh, the visuals …

All this reminds me again of a core truth that underlies last week’s column, and the rest of this series about whether some of our stories could last forever. That truth is this: God loves the world. And in Genesis 6-9, He destroyed the sin that had been wrecking it, but also preserved His people, and animals — all without a shrink-ray.

Paradise preserved

Though that world was being ruined by evil men, perversions, and really big “Nephilim” (whatever they were), God chose to rescue righteous Noah and his family during the Earth-cleansing cataclysm He sent. But God did not preserve only them. As if asking Noah to construct a huge vessel wasn’t hard enough (though Noah’s family may have had hired help), He also commanded them to bring on board animals. And every kind.

Thus, more of God’s creation than humans continued on the other side of destruction, such as animals, seeds, and fertile fields. Even today, despite the continuing sickness of sin in our groaning world (Romans 8), we benefit from a planet salvaged from disaster.

That truth relates to the question of whether God will keep things besides humans in His promised everlasting world. It relates because 2 Peter draws an explicit connection between God’s past judgment of humans by water, and His future judgment by fire:

[…] By the same word [God used to deluge the world with water] the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

2 Peter 3:7

After that promised judgment, what will happen? I suggest that more of God’s promises must be fulfilled — to Israel, to Gentiles “grafted in,” (Rom. 11:17) and to creation itself.

Quick qualifiers

Last week, in part 1, some of my first thoughts about this topic brought controversy. Here I don’t want to duck that discussion, or else egg it on and deviate from the main topic of stories’ future. After all, as reader Bethany J said Tuesday, the discussion of whether our stories may last forever — assuming they do honor God! — applies whether one holds to old-Earth-fully-destroyed-and-recreated, or old-Earth-made-new.

Still, it seems important to review at least three crucial issues, before moving on.

My explorations of the stories-lasting-forever topic are based on these beliefs, founded in Scripture. I’ll also engage some passages that seem to say opposite.

Q. Is it right to study and anticipate, or even speculate about, Heaven?

A. Yes, God encourages His people to believe His promises, and anticipate what we do know about what He has promised. We don’t know everything, but He is a self-revealing God, Who told us more about the New Earth than we might think.

Old-Testament prophecies, especially, point to a world beyond symbols only, or for the pre-millennial end-times folks here, a literal kingdom on Earth that lasts for 1,000 years before the New Earth. Recently I re-read these passages, and I wish I had room to include whole chapters here — like Isaiah 60, 65 and 66, and Ezekiel 34 to 37.

Jesus constantly promised His disciples eternal joy in Himself, and urged them to reject temporary “pleasures” of this age, not in favor of duty, but delight in Him — delight that leads to wise yet reckless abandon of sin and Satan’s domain in this age, and pursuit of love, holiness, truth, and action. His words encourage us all the more to anticipate the After-world, eagerly awaiting the New Earth He promised (2 Peter 3:13).

By contrast, the Beast lies about God’s Name, Heaven, and Heaven’s citizens (Rev. 13:6). Satan, not God, benefits from anyone not longing for Him and His Home.

Q. What does the Bible promise Christians about the everlasting state?

A. Scripture promises rest in Heaven now, and a physical New Earth in the future.

Some seem to bypass the Bible’s “New Earth” parts and believe in a “spiritoid” sort of existence. In the last column, that concept barely came up. But many Christians believe this view by default. As for nonbelievers, it’s what they believe we believe.

Others define the “new earth” as an entirely new creation, physical, but vaguer. They may believe God isn’t glorified, or our mission aided, by thinking too much about that.

Others compare the creation’s resurrection with our own, pointing to passages like this:

The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God”

Romans 8: 19-21 (emphases added, and I wish I could include the whole passage!)

Perhaps the most beautiful image of resurrection in all of the Old Testament.

Many Old-Testament prophets, such as Isaiah and Ezekiel, had already promised that Israel will live not in an alternate world, but the same land God promised them, where “the cities shall be inhabited and the waste places rebuilt” (Ezekiel 36:10). This is similar to God’s promise to “remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26), and His resurrection of dead, dry bones (Ezekiel 37).

Finally, we can compare the “new [kainos] Earth” (Rev. 21:1) to the same new applying to God’s people, whom He makes “a new [kainos] creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). We are not annihilated and re-created, but transformed. Here, new means new version, same Thing.

Q. What limits does the Bible place on our imaginations about that world?

A. Scripture leaves room for mystery about the New Earth, and especially about the present Heaven. But though we don’t know everything about the New Earth, we’re not as limited as we might think — even by some commonly cited verses.

Some passages do seem to say that God hasn’t given us specifics about that New Earth. 1 Corinthians 2:9 (hover to read) is one of the most-cited ones. However, reading the rest shows that a) this isn’t about New-Earth details, but God’s previously secret salvation plan, b) God has actually “revealed to us through the Spirit” (v. 10) this kind of wisdom!

What of Paul’s mysterious journey to paradise in 2 Cor. 12:1-4? He heard “things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (v. 4). Clearly God is still holding back many surprises. But as discussed above, He didn’t hold back in Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation.

Questions remain, for sure. Will God make new beings? (That topic is still going, here.) How can Scripture promise seas, coastlines, and trading ships in Isaiah 60, but also say “the sea was no more” in Rev. 21? Will the Temple in Ezekiel 40-48 be real and located on the New Earth, or is it symbolic? If the New Jerusalem is a real city set upon our physical planet, wouldn’t its size as described in Rev. 21 distort Earth’s orbit?

That last, especially, is a mystery. (At present I’m leaning toward TARDIS-like physics.) And I’m very glad God didn’t tell us all about the New Earth’s nature.

Still, if Scripture doesn’t say that something (in addition to sin!) will have no presence in eternity, instead of asking “does the Bible clearly say it will return?” I’d ask “why would it not return, after God purges its untrue and sin-affected parts?” Consider also: What if Adam and Eve had never sinned? Would they have kept living in time, under God’s rule, on Earth with day and night, animals, plants, water, and bodies? Would they have gone on to have science, machines, art, music, and storytelling? If so, why would these not return, whether you hold to annihilation-and-recreation or complete resurrection?

Of all this, there’s one thing I can say for sure:

One Story will be with us forever. That Story would be God’s Word.

And knowing that, we can discern more about the New Earth.

That includes this: that we will remember the Old Earth, sin, and conflict, because these very elements compose the first and eternal Story. Thus, certainty about that Story’s eternal existence, before any speculation about our own stories, comes next week.

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor of a nonfiction book about parenting and popular culture (title TBA), to release spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Galadriel
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TARDIS-like physics. *nods* I like it. 
It’s amazing how much freedom we have in Christ–and that includes the freedom to speculate.

Bob
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Bob

But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.  Isaiah 64:6
 
How can anything we’ve done follow us into eternity?

Galadriel
Guest

While that may be hard to imagine, there is evidence that our actions will have some impact on eternity. There’s the story of the sheep and goats judgement in Matthew 25:31-46, which shows that our good deeds, as well as our sins, will be remembered on the day of judgement. At the risk of applying it out of context,  there seems to be a connection between earthly deeds and eternity.

Bethany J.
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Bethany J.

I believe that verse speaks of the state of our works without Christ, or the works of unbelievers.  Before we are saved, our “righteousnesses” are like filthy rags because they are not true righteousness – they are our hopeless attempts to be good, tainted by our sinful, lost state.  But after we are saved, our good works are done for Christ and by His strength, so they are are sanctified in Him.  For example, Ephesians 2:10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  I do think there is value in the work God prepares for us!  Christ redeems the whole man, and that includes our works.

So I don’t believe that all our earthly doings are necessarily soiled, unworthy of being remembered when we reach eternity.  What immediately comes to mind for me are the amazing theological works of great Christians like John Calvin and Martin Luther, or even the Apostle Paul.  Do those things not matter anymore?  Do we simply forget them and start our existence all over with a “clean slate”?  That just doesn’t make sense to me!  True, we will give all the glory to God for the righteous things we have done, as we ought, because they are all done through HIS strength, not our own!  But I don’t see why they wouldn’t “follow us”.

(Which begs the question, what exactly does that mean – that things will or won’t “follow us”?  It’s a fairly common phrase, but I’m getting a mental image of someone walking to Heaven with a string of meddlesome, annoying cans tied to their ankles, trailing and banging along behind them…) 😉

This whole train of thought makes me immensely thankful that, whether our righteous works “follow us” or not, our unrighteous works NEVER will!  Praise God!  🙂
 

Galadriel
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Just to say…I love the image of tin cans tied to our legs. I may have to borrow that for my writing someday…

Bethany J.
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Bethany J.

Haha, go right ahead!  I’m glad you like it.  🙂

Bethany J.
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Bethany J.

Hehe, TARDIS physics…methinks that would imply Old Earth fully-destroyed-and-recreated, if physics laws changed!  😀

 I’m glad my comment was helpful and added to the discussion!  I’m looking forward to reading the next installment.

Maria Tatham
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Stephen, 

Just wanted to say that this post is interesting and thoughtful.

How I feel about the issue of fiction and speculating about what is to come? The 1000 year reign of Christ here and, beyond that, the New Heavens and Earth, will be filled with unimagined goodness and wonder, only revealed in small part now. To speculate about those wonders, while in full view of Scripture, that is, with it before and above us, just doesn’t seem wrong, unless done the wrong way. By the way, while you’re right that 1 Cor. 2:9 must (like all of God’s Word) be taken in context, as mysteries already revealed to us, I feel that it hints at those wonders in broad terms, in a relational way as something He’s done for us out of love. 
 
Also, it’s far more safe to read or try our hand at fiction about this, then it is to credit accounts of those who say they’ve died, gone to Heaven (or Hell), and come back; yet these are favorites for Christian readers. I only know of one account that isn’t problematic. All of them seem futile though. After all, the Lord said that people won’t believe even if someone returns from the dead.
 
Maria

Bethany J.
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Bethany J.

“The only thing I can add is that, in some sense, it’s not “our works” that count for eternity. It’s His own works, done through our actions, that strange paradox of human meaningful choice (even more meaningful, in Him) and God’s freer, sovereign will.”

 Absolutely agreed!  Good point.

“Yeah, that’s disquieting.”

?  Sorry, but I’m confused…  What exactly is disquieting?  The mental picture of cans dragging, or the idea that you can/can’t take something with you?  (Running with what Bob said about things not “following us”, I was picturing the cans getting cut off by the Pearly Gates shutting on the string.  But of course I don’t believe our earthly doings are really like that.)

I’m having trouble with the blockquotes feature…..

Maria Tatham
Guest

Stephen, now I have to admit that…I’ve read only one (that I can remember). Oops! However, other Christians have told me about books like it. It strikes me that many Christians believe that these accounts are simply to be accepted; and that they are reassuring and wonderful.

The one I read is:

Heaven Is for Real…the true story of the four-year old son of a small town Nebraska pastor who during emergency surgery slips from consciousness and enters heaven.” 

How can Christians know that the child’s experience, reported by his Dad with help from a writer, is for real? One way is to check for contradictions of God’s Word. I can’t remember that it contains these, only that I felt uneasy reading it. Two mature Christians had recommended it to me. I read it please them and to be able to discuss it. I’m glad I did, because it shows me what is happening, what is out there, the threat to living by faith. I KNOW that the Lord can resurrect the dead. Did He do this here? Isn’t it impossible to say? That strikes me as awful because, in this way, fiction can enter our hearts as fact. That’s really bad, obviously.

 

 

Bob Menees
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Bob Menees

So I don’t believe that all our earthly doings are necessarily soiled, unworthy of being remembered when we reach eternity.


I think I disagree. There is error in all of the greatest theologian’s works, including Calvin’s and Luther‘s. How soiled? Probably not much, until held up against a white robe. (Which makes my ask – why do we wear clothes in heaven when there’s no sin?) Anyway, back to the point. Christian speculative fiction, by its nature, has to crawl with dirt. Unless edited (sanctified- then it’s Christ’s work in us- not ours), it can’t go through the gates.

Bob Menees
Guest
Bob Menees

Can’t wait for Thanksgiving. We’re having meatloaf this year.

Bob Menees
Guest
Bob Menees

Stephen,
I must admit – I’m a wretched (Todd Friel) Calvinist.

Bob
Guest
Bob

If I err, it’s on the total depravity side (worm theology, as you called it). Even after grace, our works are wretched relative to holy, holy, holy. I believe that attribute of God will be the biggest revelation/shock to us, when we realize what it means. After all, it meant that Jesus had to die.
 
I’ve heard Todd rail on Harry Potter too, warning about all the wizard’s schools that will be popping up.  We don’t have one around here yet. I do like his ministry though. No one stresses the gospel more, that I know.