For the first time in my life, people around me are tracking death rates daily. Global pandemics make us think about death and make eternity seem less distant. Former hallmarks of stability—a growing economy, predictable routines—have been undermined. New or previously deferred questions arise. Is there more than this present age? What is life about? And does the Bible’s teaching on eternity have any bearing on my life here and now?
Reality of Eternity
The common Western assumption that life ends with death faces at least two problems. First, skepticism about eternity can’t snuff out the stubborn sense in our souls that life outlasts death. “Belief in the immortality of the soul occurs among all peoples . . . wherever it has not as yet been undermined by philosophical doubts or thrust into the background by other causes. . . . It is death, not immortality, that requires explanation” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics). We all sense the unnaturalness of mortality. “We groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed”—we aren’t simply groaning to die—“but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:4; see Rom. 8:22–23). Solomon sums up the spark of permanence in us all: God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Eccl. 3:11).
Assuming that death cancels life also contradicts God’s promise of eternal life (1 John 2:25). The phrase eternal life occurs almost fifty times in the New Testament, inviting us to see this present, temporary life as a preparation for a future, unending life. To understand eternity, let us reflect on the benefits believers receive at death and at the resurrection.
Believers’ benefits at death. At death, the souls of believers immediately pass into glory (Luke 23:43). A believer’s death is “only a dying to sins and entering into eternal life” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 42). Truly, for the believer, it is far better to depart this life and be with Christ (Phil. 1:23). Believers’ bodies, being still united to Christ, rest in their graves until the resurrection, waiting (Dan. 12:2; Acts 24:15; 1 Thess. 4:14). But Jesus taught that one day “all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out” (John 5:28–29).
Believers’ benefits at the resurrection. When we sing, “Thank You, Lord, for saving my soul,” we might forget that a new soul doesn’t actually make us whole. God made humans to fellowship with Him in soul and body. Salvation must save both. After Christ returns, He will “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). Let John’s reaction to the transformed Christ energize Paul’s simile: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17). “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:42–43; NKJV).
Despite Western culture’s bias against eternity, at just the right time Jesus will return to start the age to come. He will forever dismiss His enemies and receive His redeemed friends. Death does not undo existence. Eternal life is contrasted not with annihilation at death but with a sort of never-ending perishing (John 3:16; see Mark 9:42–48; Luke 16:19–31). Eternity makes unbelief truly tragic. But eternity is “very pleasant and a great comfort to the righteous and elect, since their total redemption will then be accomplished” (Belgic Confession Art. 37). For the elect in the age to come, “time is charged with the eternity of God. Space is full of his presence. Eternal becoming is wedded to immutable being” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics). God’s intention is that we “encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).
The Comfort of Eternity
Without eternity, Christianity is a miserable worldview offering little comfort (1 Cor. 15:19). From experience, Paul knew that faith can contribute to affliction, perplexity, and persecution (2 Cor. 4:8–9; 2 Tim. 3:12). “Many are the afflictions of the righteous” (Ps. 34:19). Don’t be surprised if you feel let down by the way of Christ in this present age. Our hardships are real; many will not be fixed in this age. But, as Thomas Moore put it, “Earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal.” “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Eternity promises acquittal of guilt. The gospel declares God’s promise of forgiveness. But we so easily forget. We are plagued by doubts. Am I too sinful to be forgiven?
Believers—along with unbelievers—will stand before the judgment seat of God. All our thoughts, words, and deeds will be publicized. None of us will have been nearly as holy as God is holy. Still, the whole world will hear God tell His beloved: “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23). At the start of eternity, Christ will openly acknowledge and acquit His children, forever silencing every accusation against them (see Westminster Shorter Catechism 38).
Eternity promises deliverance from sin. We pray for rescue from evil (Matt. 6:13) and God answers. Still, we repeat our folly “like a dog that returns to his vomit” (Prov. 26:11). How often have you genuinely resolved to do better, truly trusting in Jesus’ righteousness, thankful for His deliverance, only to fall short? Sin is so frustrating.
In eternity, redeemed souls are made perfectly holy. Around God’s throne, right now, are “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb. 12:23; NKJV). In eternity our familiarity with sin will end. We will no longer wilt at the shame of past sin. We will no longer commit new sin. We will not even be tempted to sin. Heaven is a place of righteousness (2 Peter 3:13); its climate is totally inhospitable to sin.
Eternity promises restored bodies. As we age we better grasp Paul’s assertion: “Our outer self is wasting away” (2 Cor. 4:16). But even children go blind, break bones, get cancer, and cry. Children die. Our bodies are problematic. We put a lot of work into them—grooming, training, and covering—just to make them presentable. But our bodies fail to cooperate. They embarrass us. They wear out. They hurt. They turn on us.