People who know me and hear my schtick on a regular basis probably tire of hearing them, but there are several rabbinic sayings about the World to Come that I repeat often because I find them foundational:
This world is like a vestibule to the World to Come; prepare yourself in the vestibule to enter the hall. (Pirkei Avot).
Better is one hour of blissfulness in the World to Come than the whole life of this world. (Pirkei Avot).
Not like this world will be the World to Come. I this world one has trouble to harvest grapes and to press them; but in the World to Come a person will bring a single grape in a wagon or a ship, store it in the corner of their house, and draw from it enough wine to fill a large flagon . . . there will not be a grape which will not yield thirty measures of wine. (Babylonian Talmud).
The following is a reflection on this inspiring, transforming topic . . .
The World to Come has been on my mind for some time now. I spent several months working on my book. Now I am speaking about the World to Come in a variety of venues, in different ways and to audiences with different outlooks on the topic. Not long ago I was in a church in Arkansas where most of the people are senior citizens. I made the mistake of going for the sensational and being less than clear. I said, “If you think that following Jesus means you will go to heaven forever, you did not get that idea from the Bible.”
I went on to explain that heaven is our dwelling only in between death and the time of resurrection. But this crowd of dear people, nearly all of whom had lost loved ones, was too startled to hear my explanation. They only heard that our departed are not in heaven. I think they thought I meant the dead sleep until the time of resurrection. When the pastor explained this to me over lunch the next day, I was embarrassed and had to make a clarifying statement on that second night (good thing I was speaking for four nights in a row!).
I’ve taught about the World to Come in my small Messianic synagogue, among friends who know me well and hear me repeat myself sometimes. I’m preaching about the World to Come at a larger church where a pastor friend has just resigned.
In these different audiences with different issues and concerns and backgrounds, I am getting feedback and seeing just how the topic of life after death affects people.
I would say that I could distill the important lessons about the World to Come into a short list. The following is my attempt to do so.
First, I have learned that Bible readers have a variety of different blinders on. The most common blinder, and it especially affects this topic, is an inability to integrate the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. The Christians I meet and talk with tend to know New Testament verse about the afterlife, but know little or nothing about the words of the prophets about the coming age of natural, agricultural paradise. There are a number of stunning surprises in store for these good people, not least of which is the prominence of wine in the World to Come. I confess to a depraved sense of joy in using the word wine as much as I can without seeming obvious when I teach in Baptist churches. And I think these good people are also unaware of the Jewish quality of the Bible’s descriptions of the life to come: Temple, statutes, ordinances, Torah, sacrifices, appointed festivals, and so on.
Second, I have learned that people fall into the trap of separating the physical and the spiritual. Even those who know in their head that the Biblical hope is resurrected bodies on a New Earth gravitate toward non-material images of the coming world. The color white dominates rather than the greens and browns of God’s good earth. It is as if we do not believe the God who said this was all good. That false dichotomy of spiritual and physical figures into much of Christian worship, as well (except in churches that have preserved a rich liturgical tradition). I can’t tell you how many times I have heard John 4 interpreted as a call to worship without physical observances (yikes). Few people really grasp, to alter the poetic phrase of William Blake, the marriage of heaven and earth.
Third, I have seen people’s light turn on when they realize that much that is in this world will also be in the World to Come. The World to Come is not some other planet or other dimension. It is this world transformed in a manner analogous to the transformation our bodies will undergo. The big realization we should get from this is that what we do here on this earth matters. In more ways than we can know or count, good done in this age will make a difference in the World to Come. God does not call for us to sit back and wait for him to redeem and perfect this world. Over and over again he calls us to repair the world with him, starting now. God’s kind of religion is described in several places:
Isaiah 58:6, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
James 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
Matthew 25:34-35, “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.”
Finally, I see that people need to know the endless source of inspiration we have available to us when we realize that this world will become the World to Come. That is why we are drawn to nature. That is why we hear the whisper of music in our soul. That is why the relative perfection of a young child awakens in us a kind of love we are helpless to resist. Heaven is calling to us from every perfect tree we admire to every stirring chord progression we surrender to. If we want to experience a foretaste of the World to Come, we only need to take a walk in a beautiful place or read about Middle Earth or Narnia or hold a young child in our arms.
It is as Paul said, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair,” (2 Cor. 4:8) and yet, “we do not lose heart.” Why? Because: “Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).