Will Fiction Last Forever? Part 2
(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.
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.
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!)
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.
TARDIS-like physics. *nods* I like it.
It’s amazing how much freedom we have in Christ–and that includes the freedom to speculate.
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?
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.
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! 🙂
Just to say…I love the image of tin cans tied to our legs. I may have to borrow that for my writing someday…
Haha, go right ahead! I’m glad you like it. 🙂
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.
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.
I loved Bethany‘s answer that summarizes how Christ’s righteousness — imputed to us, as theologians say — transforms our motives and, increasingly, our works.
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.
Paul refers to Christ’s obedience, and bases on that his perfectly balanced argument that God’s work is our work:
Yeah, that’s disquieting. And it flies in the face of all the jokes, which have some basis in truth, that it’s useless to be buried in your favorite extended-cap pickup truck ’cause “you can’t take it with you.” I still agree with this statement. The same with “There are no U-Hauls behind hearses.” But God can bring something back to life — only after the refining fire. Then, only He could get the credit and the glory.
I haven’t read a whole lot of those, I guess! Can you think of examples?
The only one that comes to my mind is Randy Alcorn’s Safely Home. His character’s “near-death experience,” though, was actually a full-death experience. And, well, let’s just say I actually enjoy reading his nonfiction much better. It’s likely just me!
So far, I haven’t met a Biblically convincing near-death experience. When not even details about Lazarus’ temporary afterlife — before Jesus brought him back — are given in Scripture, I doubt God would have much purpose in doing that nowadays. Not that I’m suggesting this can’t happen, or God would never do it; I just haven’t heard of a really good near-death-experience that gives the self-revealing God 100 percent credit.
Even if that would happen now, though, we’d only hear details about Christians’ temporary digs in the present-day Heaven! If there is to be travel from here to the New Earth, it would have to be time travel as well … !
But I doubt that could happen in real life. For fiction, though … 🙂
Moreover, non-Christians report such experiences all the time. They scare me. Just like “alien abductions” scare me — knowing the evils to which people open themselves.
Recently, witnesses said that Steve Jobs seemed to become giddy in his last moment.
“Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow,” they say he said, just before he died.
Not only is that oddly just like (Star Trek spoiler) Captain Kirk’s last words, from the 1994 film Star Trek: Generations, it’s … worrisome. I got chills hearing about that.
While only God can know the state of Jobs’ heart, or anyone’s, just before death, He’s also told us what sort of reaction toward Him personally is necessary to go to Heaven, and the New Earth, to spend everlasting life with Him.
“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…..
Oh, the tin cans part! 😀 I said it was disquieting because it’s almost impossible not to talk about this without dragging along the stigma of “prosperity” “gospel” nonsense. Everyone (with the likely exception of those still alive when Christ returns) arrives in Heaven without anything else, not even a body; that re-clothing comes later (2 Cor. 5).
If you use the < blockquote > (without spaces) code in the compose-comment box, it won’t “take.” Use the quote-mark button (fifth from left) to indent text and see it live, or click the HTML button to edit the pending comment’s code directly. Does that help?
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.
Maria, the most recent hit does seem to be Heaven is for Real, with similar books to come. But only Heaven is for Real, is, so far, likely be a major motion picture.
(Nope, not kidding.)
I still haven’t read it yet, so I’ve been reluctant about offering firm comments or critiques. Reviewers I trust, though, have panned the book like crazy, and as a rule I’m suspicious of Evangelical Trends. (But I’m also a bit of a hypocrite in this regard, as I still have a soft place in my heart for the Left Behind series. 😉 )
At the same time, some very orthodox reviewers overdo it on the whole does-God-still-speak-or-do-miracles thing. I’m from a default “cessationst” background (that is, certain spiritual gifts aren’t among us). But I’ve moved away from that — even while being wary of thinking that we must “train” to get more information from God in the form of nudges or whispers before making an extra-Biblical decision. So I see some of the cessationist hammers come out against Heaven is for Real, along with fear of God actually breaking into normalcy and doing something like this.
Yet as you said, there’s also naïveté among (sincere, well-meaning) Christians. The best proof for the boy’s experience would seem to be him knowing things that he could not know, such as what occurred on Earth while he was unconscious. But, my wife, who’s worked with kids for years, was very skeptical. How did they know for absolutely certain that the little guy hadn’t overhead his parents’ later descriptions of the incident? That’s quite the absolute negative to prove. …
And then there, it happens, people lambaste the critics, not always unfairly, for picking apart the words of little kids. But they aren’t immune to exaggerations …
I recall now that my wife and I did start to read the book. We got one chapter in, and found the initial setup most unbelievable. Dad immediately accepted, from the little guy’s first matter-of-fact recollection of his experience — while eating fast food in the car — that his son was telling the truth. Instead of ha-ha,-Colton!, at least at first, they wrote that they were shocked and stunned, and the little guy hadn’t even got to the stunning parts yet. Flawed “experience”? Or just lack of accurate recollection of that particular incident? I don’t know. I need to finish the book.
Regardless, the best reason would be exactly what you said: compare the book’s descriptions with God’s Word — which doesn’t describe the intermediate state of rest, God’s dwelling in Heaven, nearly as much as it describes the New Earth.
But that leads to another issue (which will be even more annoying if they’re trying to show it with special effects in a movie version). That issue is this: the book seems to support the perennially wrong belief, usually just an impression, that people “leave Earth forever to go away to be with God in Heaven.” That’s all true, but I suggest we need to clean up our language. Drop the “forever,” in favor of a quick qualifier that we’ll be with God forever, first in the current Heaven, and then some time in the future, when He makes a New Heavens and New Earth.
Nitpicky? Maybe. And I wouldn’t suggest making some huge deal out of it. Funeral sermons would be an especially bad time. 😀 But it’s a risk of nitpicking versus a risk of ignoring/downplaying what we do read in Scripture about God’s promises.
So yes, I’d prefer fictitious near-death experiences, to give the good — vicarious thrill, anticipation of Heaven — with qualifiers — it’s fiction.
However, so far I have not even enjoyed in-fiction portrayals of Heaven. For example, the Left Behind book The Rapture (book 3 of the prequel series) accompanies characters all the way up to Heaven. And maybe it’s the functional writing of the author(s), but their version of Heaven isn’t that thrill-arousing. By contrast, other stories’ portrayals of fantastic environments — whether it’s the planet Oa from Green Lantern (2011), Hogwart’s of Harry Potter, or anywhere in The Lord of the Rings — bring that sense of longing for Heaven/New Earth, even more, and even without explicit mention of Christianity or Heaven.
Stephen, thoughtful response! About your closing comments: I don’t enjoy fictional portrayals of Heaven either. How can they succeed? When we try to depict such wonders, we end up making them out to be so much less, making them sound banal. For example, depictions of the catching away of the saints that use the convention of the saints’ personal belongings left behind. THAT DRIVES ME CRAZY! I too feel affection for that bestselling series (as far as I got), and films made from it, but that’s because the writers’ hearts are so obviously with the Lord. Wisdom seems to be on the side of subcreation, writing about fantasy realms or futuristic worlds. But if you work carefully and hint, instead of showing EVERYTHING, it may work and please the Lord and others.
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, I’m confused. That’s not a negative reaction, but a curious one! Mind sharing more? I would agree that apart from Christ’s work in us, all of our work is absolutely corrupt, borne of selfish, glory-stealing motives. Yet there’s a converse risk in what I’ve heard called “worm theology,” applied total-depravity-style verses such as “the heart is … desperately wicked” to Christians, when Christ has saved us.
There’s a Biblical path right between “you’re perfectly holy now, relax!” and “everything you do even after faith in Christ is still scum.” Still working on it! (I think we always will be, until Heaven.)
By the way, both Calvin and Luther can’t be questioned.
… Or not. After all, Luther had his book-of-James issue, thinking it shouldn’t be part of the canon because of its true-faith-brings-good-works emphasis. (I have heard that Luther corrected this wrong view later in life.) Recently too, I read a quote from Calvin in which the Reformer said that in Heaven, we’d be too busy worshiping God (that is, worshiping in only one way) to pay attention to anyone else. That sounds very spiritual, but we do worship God through fellowship too! …
Now that’s something I haven’t thought about in a while. What comes immediately to mind is a literal-symbol reason, that is, a clothing that is both symbolic and literal — to represent being clothed in the righteousness of Christ. (Ponders …)
Can you just imagine what a director’s cut, post-sanctification-completion-and-editing, extended-edition, new-look-some-great-taste version of The Chronicles of Narnia would be like? … At the same time, what would make such an offering even better would be its improvement over the original, meaning that we would remember the original, which seems to render needless an update …
That’s because, after all, we will read Scripture for the rest of eternity, and God will not be revising it, say, to remove the untruths it mentions — in perspective.
I’m getting ahead of next week’s column (yes, even on Thanksgiving!). But that direct, certain Biblical truth alone would seem to prove that even on the New Earth, Christians will be aware of, even as we reject, wrong views from the Before-world.
I’ve always thought that we wouldn’t need the Bible anymore in eternity, that the faith being made sight would remove all need for it. After all, isn’t Christ Himself the final Word of God, and not Scripture?
But the idea of reading the Scripture in eternity is intriguing in a way… the use of the text would have changed. It would be a record, a testament, to the salvation of God in the past. I have trouble thinking how the Bible would still be relevant after it is completely fulfilled, but it could be possible that it would seem all the more epic in hindsight.
Hey Paul, thanks for your thought! Here’s another of mine: When Scripture says God’s Word will last forever — and because it’s also clear that other things will be resurrected/restored — I take that to mean the Bible has no expiration date.
I hope to back this up more solidly, from Scripture itself, next week.
Just as the Old Testament does to New-Covenant Christians today. 😀
Can’t wait for Thanksgiving. We’re having meatloaf this year.
I must admit – I’m a wretched (Todd Friel) Calvinist.
Bob, I’ve still never figured out exactly what kind of “Calvinist” that is. But if folks (including myself) were nervous about professing a system of belief based on a man’s name, Calvin, they’ll be even more nervous about the name of The Friel … 😀
But I think I know what you mean (something like: my beliefs align closely with his)! Now I wonder how you came to make that comment, though …
I’ve appreciated much about Wretched as well. In the comments following the last column, did you see my link to the Way of the Master Radio episode in which Friel brought up “Christoplatonism” and our beliefs about the New Earth? Even better, he played a sermon excerpt from R.C. Sproul on the topic. It’s at OnePlace.com, for free download (with sign-up), from Jan. 16, 2006.
(However, as Kaci pointed out, they have a tendency to overshoot on the whole anti-culture thing, such as opposing a Point of Grace song for not being what, apparently, the song wasn’t trying to be. Also there’s that whole “Harry Potter goes around killing people” on-air remark, which as far as I know remains uncorrected.)
“Until tomorrow [actually, a-hem, even beyond that], go serve your King.”
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.