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I buried Hope recently. She was a mature Christian woman, eighty-six years young, who constantly exemplified her name throughout the two decades that I was her pastor. When we first met, she was in rehab for near-fatal injuries from a car crash. Hope lived with daily pain; she walked using two canes for balance. Unfazed by multiple health issues, she always radiated deep joy and trust in her Lord and Savior.

At the end, Hope was hospitalized for heart surgery that was planned to include four bypasses but turned into six. Another pastor and I visited her before surgery and anointed her in a James 5 prayer for healing. She exuded confidence in God’s providential care, whether by life or death. Hope survived her massive heart surgery for forty-eight hours, but then the Lord quietly took her home. James 5:15 ultimately was fulfilled: “The prayer of faith [did] save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise [her] up” at the last day.

We who preach God’s Word need to speak more frequently about the ultimate issues of eschatology: the return of Christ, judgment for all souls at the day of the Lord, hell as the default destination for unbelief, and heaven’s secure bliss awaiting the redeemed in Christ. Mile-wide, inch-deep evangelicalism these days tends to say much about Christian life in this present world without proportionate time given to the contours of eternal hope. Folks in earlier centuries lived in a reality that was far more likely to involve sudden death, high infant mortality, and rampant disease. With shorter lifespans, they were not so deeply rooted in the present material world as we tend to be. Christ-centered hope in the face of ever-present death sounded forth from their pulpits. Where, today, are those with this conviction: “I preached as never sure I would ever preach again, as a dying man to dying men” (Richard Baxter)?

Some count it odd that God’s Word as a whole says less about the thrilling experience of heaven than we might want to hear. Old Testament promises about a believer’s security beyond earthly life are rare lightning flashes, set against a gloomy backdrop of suffering. Job 19:25–26 is outstanding in this regard: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.” Psalm 16:11 offers similarly bright consolation: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

Even those who do have positive hope of heaven are liable to forget that the New Testament predicts a two-stage expectation for Christian life after death. There is first the instantaneous experience of each physically dying believer whose soul departs to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23). In Hebrews 12:23, the author describes a kingdom assembly of departed saints present with the Lord right now, before the great day of resurrection. They are called “spirits of the righteous made perfect.” By God’s grace, our souls/spirits are given the gift of immortality from God, who alone is immortal. Scripture asserts that upon physical death, God’s elect—believers—continue to exist as conscious souls, uniquely alive in the presence of God.

Christians do not view evil and suffering as ever having the last word.

It is presently impossible for us to conceive of what it is like to be a soul without a fleshly body. We think of our material body as the hard reality while our souls are wispy, ghostlike forms. (Who has ever weighed or measured or taken a “selfie” of a soul?) However, in 2 Corinthians 5:1, Paul insists that our soul is “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Our souls are substantial; they are spiritual in nature, but they nevertheless enjoy a substantial existence. Paul continues in 2 Corinthians 5:7–8 that “we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” At death, we leave our physical bodies behind in the grave as our souls are received into God’s wondrous presence.

Theologians typically label this moment-of-death transition into immortal soul-life as the “intermediate state.” That term implies in-betweenness, incompleteness. It is not a wrong term, but I prefer to call our entry stage of eternity by a more positive title: “the immediate heaven.” Emphasis should be upon the “immediacy” of this initiatory experience. Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Biblical hope supports a confident assertion that all those who are converted by grace through faith to name Jesus as Lord come alive in Him in a new dimension immediately upon their physical death. Today we are “in” Christ; at death we shall be “with” Christ.

Yet, there is a second phase to Christian hope. The stunning second coming of the Lord Jesus will be the dawn of ultimate heaven. In a rapidly unfolding sequence, Christ will visibly, gloriously appear before the whole world, bringing with Him departed souls of believers (1 Thess. 4:13–18). All believers will be invested with resurrection bodies (1 Cor. 15:51–57). All who greet the King with joyous faith on that amazing day shall be under the sure protection of their Redeemer. Further cosmic events include Christ’s great judgment throne, where unbelief is condemned beyond appeal and those who never trusted in Christ alone are shut out from God’s presence forever (Matt. 25:31–46). Creation itself is renewed into a new heaven and new earth (Rom. 8:20–21; 2 Peter 3:10–13).

The pinnacle of the believer’s future experience is set forth fittingly in the Bible’s last two chapters. Revelation 21:3 prophesies that in the new heaven and re-created earth: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people.” This is the ultimate, perfected existence wherein all traces of evil, sin, death, and crying are banished. Revelation 22:4–5 states a final capstone when it says of the Lord Himself: “They will see his face. . . . They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”

The sweeping panorama of all this final heaven is so breathtaking that it is no wonder millions of skeptics find the Bible’s concluding reality fantastic or mythological. In one sense, I don’t wonder why cynics call our hope “pie in the sky, bye and bye.” Yet Christians are not fools; we are not weak-minded as we assess worldly conditions today. Our observations of brutal suffering and death all around us are as objective and realistic as the next person’s. We just do not view evil and suffering as having the last word.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote:

Hope means a continual looking forward to the future world. . . . It does not require us to leave the world as it is. And if you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for this present world were those who thought the most of the next.

Hope is Christ-centered faith extending into the future. We believe whatever God reveals in Scripture to be His sure promises. Because of who is speaking, whatever the Lord reveals must come true. Compare the faith and hope of Abraham. Romans 4 says Abraham had a solid understanding of the impotence of his ninetysomething body and the barrenness of his wife, Sarah. But he looked right past these circumstances, because it was God who promised him a son. Therefore, “in hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations” (Rom. 4:18). Paul declared, Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (v. 21). That is the living core of Christian hope.

Surely, being with Christ as a perfected soul upon my death, imagining His historic return, beholding His judgment throne without fear, receiving a splendid renewed body, and touring a re-created planet—all these future scenes of hope seem incredible right now. The rush of data overloads our spiritual circuits. Yet we must hope in all that Scripture presents, because of who revealed these promises.

Puritan writer Thomas Adam concluded the matter this way:

Hope is a fair lady of clear countenance; her proper seat is upon the earth; her proper object is in heaven . . . faith is her attorney general, prayer her solicitor, patience her physician . . . thankfulness her treasurer, confidence her vice-admiral, the promises of God her anchor . . . and eternal glory her crown.

Although my wife and I are not quite seventy, last year we bought a stone marker for our cemetery burial plot and had it inscribed with nine words as our carved-in-granite testimony of hope in defiance of mortal death. The chosen words from Philippians 1:21 read: “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

In the final analysis, can you say that your confidence as a child of God in Christ stands secure upon that resurrection creed?

A Time to Mourn

Rivers of Living Water

Keep Reading Hope amid Disappointment

From the May 2018 Issue
May 2018 Issue