Sometimes when I order an appetizer at a restaurant, I’ll look at the tiny little portion and think, “Is this all there is?” But that is the kind of reaction an appetizer should provoke. A good appetizer does not fill my belly, but rather it whets my appetite for the main course. John Calvin tells us in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that this is a good way to think about the difference between our earthly life and the future life (3.9.1–6).
As Christians, we find our ultimate hope in eternal life with Christ. But that doesn’t prevent us from constantly being tempted to cleave to this earthly life. Calvin warns that we will not really ponder or desire the life to come until we are filled with a contempt for the present life. There is no middle ground. The world must be worthless to us or we will be hamstrung with a disordered love of it. We need to see that this life is but smoke and shadow (Ps. 102:3, 11).
We realize most clearly the fleeting nature of this earthly life when we are confronted with the reality of death. We stand at a graveside service and watch as the body of a loved one is lowered into the ground. Our hearts ache, and we understand the vanity of life, yet we do so with a renewed hope for the life to come. But as often as it happens that we understand our hope alongside our mortality, that understanding evaporates as we again reengage with normal, everyday life. We again become enamored of the trinkets and baubles of this earthly life and experience a false assurance of earthly immortality.
Don’t misunderstand. This life is a blessing. Every moment is a gift. There is much in this life that is good, true, and beautiful. But to return to our previous analogy, this life is the appetizer. It is meant merely to whet our appetites for what is to come. We should not try to fill ourselves with this life. We were meant for so much more. All that is good in this life is a blessing from God, but that blessing is meant to point us toward the consummation of the ages. An appetite whetted for the main course is a life that longs for eternity. This is a life that does not fear the trials and struggles of this world. This is a life that does not fear death. In fact, the Christian who is ardently anticipating the future life joyously awaits the final resurrection.
If our appetites are turned toward the trials and disappointments and hardships of this present evil age, we will be despondent, frustrated, and disappointed. But when we enter the sanctuary of the Lord (Ps. 73:17), we see the end of these light and momentary afflictions (2 Cor. 4:17–18). If our eyes are turned to the resurrection, we will behold the power of the cross and its triumph over the devil, our flesh, sin, and wicked men. Do we then begrudge and reject this life? Not at all. But we value it for what it is: a foretaste of future delights.