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Life Everlasting

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Life Everlasting

In closing this series of studies, we come to a consideration of the concept of life everlasting. The final sentence of the Apostles Creed, well-known to many, is, "I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting." Let us center our thinking on the last of these phrases, "the life everlasting," and do so in question-and-answer format.

Let us assume the presence of a non-Christian, who, having heard us say this Creed, now raises certain questions. We shall try to demonstrate the significance of our affirmation by answering the various questions he asks.

Question: I heard you say you believe in "the life everlasting." Just what do you mean by that? Do you believe that life goes on forever? Your life and my life?

Answer: Yes, we Christians do believe that life goes on forever, that physical death is not the end. We believe that those who assume that this life is all there isthe materialists, the humanists, the atheists, and so ondo not have a proper understanding of the nature of life. We believe that the yearningpresent everywhere at all timeswhich people have for immortality has an answer beyond the grave. Indeed, we Christians do believe that life goes on forever in spite of the seeming end at physical death.

Question: But wait a moment. How can that be? The person disintegrates at death. The body dies, surely. The bones of people of many thousands of years are scattered over the earth. What kind of life everlasting are you talking about?

Answer: You fail to recognize that there is not only body, but there is also spirit, which is an immortal and indestructible part of man. Indeed it is his very deepest nature. I have a body but also I am a spirit: a spirit that expresses itself through my body with its various mental and emotional aspects. The body is the vehicle for the spirit and at death there is a separation of the mortal from the immortal. Hence just because the body is fragile and fades (indeed it dies daily; every hour you are one hour nearer to the end) has nothing to do with the spirit. God created man different from the rest of the animal world: He created him in His own image and likeness. This means many things, but for one thing it means that God has given to man something immortal. God made man that way.

Question: Youmean then that you as a Christian believe life goes on forever, but only as a spirit? I am not sure I am very interested in that kind of life beyond the grave, because this would just be a part of me, although you say it is the essential part. Im not sure this kind of life beyond the grave is very appealing. The body decays, so I dont expect it to go on, but Im not sure I want to continue forever just as a disembodied spirit.

Answer: Waitone moment. I did agree with you that the body decays and then dies. Then I tried to show you that there is something else immortal and indestructible in manthe spirit. But this does not mean that the body is done away with for good. Did you not also hear us say in the creed that we believe in "the resurrection of the body"?

Question: Yes, I did hear you say that, but Im not at all clear just what you mean, since you agree with me that the body is frail; it fades away and dies. It is therefore quite unlike the spirit. So what is this resurrection all about?

Answer: It means simply that though our present bodies are mortal and die, the mortal will be raised immortal. The corruptible will put on incorruption; thus the resurrection body will, like the spirit, live forever. Now in this world where all things material fade away through growth and maturity and old age, the body does likewise. But there will be a resurrection in which the natural body, which we now have, shall become a spiritual one.

Question: I think I see what you are getting at. But I confess that the idea of a "spiritual body" confuses me. Spirit and body seem to be quite different from one another. What do you mean when you speak of a spiritual body?

Answer: It means basically that the limitations of the present world as we now know them with our physical bodiesthe limitations of space and timewill no longer apply to a spiritual body. It will be a body, yes, but no longer spatially or temporally confined. In the New Testament we read about Jesus, who was buried and then rose from the dead. After His resurrection we have some glimpse of what His spiritual body was like, as a kind of prefiguring of what we may look forward to. Though He was recognizable by the eyes of faith to His disciples, His body was different in that it was no longer confined. He was able to appear through closed doors. He could be present in different places almost immediately. Neither space nor time had the same significance to Him as before. We Christians believe that this is a kind of pre-vision of the spiritual body which shall be the lot of us all.

Question: But that brings up another point. You say Jesus rose from the deadthat His body didnt stay in the grave and that He thereafter had a spiritual body. It was resurrected. But, remember, that doesnt seem to be happening to other people. They are placed in the grave when they die, and their bodies stay put. When then does this resurrection of the body occur?

Answer: There is a difference, unquestionably, between Jesus Christ and those who are followers of His. The Christian faith does not hold to an immediate resurrection from the dead for other men. Rather do we believe in a final day when all will be resurrected togethera day when the present, natural world of time and space will become a spiritual world. "A new heaven and a new earth," we call it. Therefore being a spiritual world, the spiritual body will be adapted thereto. Jesus was the first fruits in His resurrection with His spiritual body a sign of the future. As He became, so we believe we shall be.

Question: Doesnt that mean in your view that you cease to be as an individual, and a new person someday takes your place? Isnt that like reincarnation, wherein you are supposedly born one person in this world and a different person with the same spirit in the next world?

Answer: No,we do not believe in reincarnation. The picture is more like that of a seed buried in the earth. The seed looks as if it is dead and gone forever. But later onsome time laterthe plant springs up from the seed. The plant looks different, yes, very different perhaps from the seed, but really it isnt. It was there all along, but until the seed was buried, even died, the new form which was already there in the seed could not come to life. So it is that our natural, physical body is raised a spiritual body. This is not a new person. It is the life that was there all along, fitted and adapted for the new heavens and earth in which we shall dwell.

Question: But some peoples bodies, at death, arent put in a grave. Some are mutilated and scattered. Some are never found. Some become a part of something else. How then is the body ever able to spring up like a seed into this spiritual body of which you speak?

Answer: Wait, good friend. The resurrection is Gods work, and He is not handicapped by what happens to the parts or elements of the physical body. God, who numbers every hair of our head, and knows every grain of sand by the sea, surely is able to take of our mortal remains, wherever or whatever they may be, and reshape them into the immortal.

Question: But if the resurrection of the body does not take place until the end of this physical world, as you say, then you must mean that the person does continue for a long time after death only as a spirit. If so, what is the spirit doing? Is it resting, or sleeping, or something else like that?

Answer: If it is the spirit of one who belongs to God, he goes immediately into the presence of God, that is into heaven. Jesus Christ on the day He died said to a penitent and believing thief, "Today you will be with me in Paradise." This must then be true of believers of all ages who have passed on. Their spirits are even now rejoicing in the presence of God, and, like all of us, look forward to the resurrection of the body. The resurrection will be an event which all of us will share together. God in His marvelous plan does not give an advantage to those earlier born, or a disadvantage to those later; all will know the resurrection together. Abraham and Moses, Peter and Paul, all others who are people of faith, will share with us the resurrection and the new heavens and the new earth. That is a great occasion to which all of us may look forward.

Question: Sothen you are saying that there is a kind of intermediate state after physical deaththe state of a disembodied spirit? Then later comes the resurrection when there is a spiritual body. Is that correct?

Answer: Yes, from the point of view of us here in time, not in eternity, there is an intermediate state. So we may properly say that Abraham, Moses, Peter, and Pauland all others of faithare now in this intermediate state, and look forward like us to a resurrection yet to come. But on the other hand, from the point of view of eternity, which overarches time, the resurrection may be just as much a present as a future reality. Thus in another sense, from the aspect of eternity, there may be no intermediate state or stage. It is possible that the person in eternity already knows the resurrection and so exists not partially as a spirit but as a complete person. But maybe this is getting a little too complex. What is the next question you have to ask?

Question: Does everybody live forever? Good and bad alike? Do all spirits continue? Does everyone after death share in the resurrection?

Answer: Yes. For remember the earlier point, that God made the spirit immortal; therefore death cannot destroy it. The spirit, like God, is everlasting. The same holds true of the body, for whether the person is good or bad the body is still, as it were, sown in the ground, and later is resurrected.

I would add, however, that there is one category of people who will not experience the resurrection, namely those who are believers in Christ and alive at His final coming. They will be "caught up" instead.

Question: What do you mean by their being "caught up" at Christs final coming? Knowing little about such a "coming," I confess I dont understand what you are getting at.

Answer : We Christians believe that not only did Christ come in the incarnation, but He will also return at the end of time. You will recall how we said in the creed, "He shall come to judge the quick and the dead." At His return the dead who belong to Christ will rise first, then all living believers will be caught up with them to meet Christ. However, this also means a transformation, for even as the dead will be raised with incorruptible bodies, so the living will find their natural bodies immediately changed into spiritual ones. So we shall ever be with Him in heaven.

Question: Iwant to ask something now that is bothering me a great deal. You speak of heaven, and that believers go there. Does this mean that, though all people live forever, some go to another place?

Answer: Place may not be quite the right word. For in eternity there is not the same spatial existence, the same geography, if you will, that we have nowit being not a material but a spiritual world. So I will try to answer you, but it is not easy from our finite, temporal, limited perspective. Heaven means the presence of Godthe realm where God is known and worshiped and loved. And it is true that not all people know that reality. Some go on into eternity not belonging to God, and therefore they live in eternal separation from Him. This is what we call, in Christian faith, hell.

Question: Now you disturb me with what you are saying. Could you tell me about the difference between heaven and hell?

Answer: Again I say we are dealing with things beyond our full comprehension, but a few words may be suggested by way of explanation. Heaven means the realm or sphere in which God is present not just by faith or momentarily, but by sight and completely. Here in the world we know God only in part. But heaven is the reality in which God is continuously known, in which the vision of God is present, in which we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and we love our neighbor as ourselves. Heaven is climactically the praise and adoration of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit throughout eternity.

Heaven also represents other things. It surely means rest from toil, from drudgery, from pain and sorrow; no more crying, no more tears. But also it means servicethe opportunity for service in a fuller way than we have ever known here on earth. Many a person on this earth has been frustrated and unfulfilled. But he will find in heaven, we believe, opportunity for unlimited service. Time here is too short; failures are too many; opportunities often are not what they might be; but heaven is opportunity unlimited, unbound. Yet, even after having said that, "What no eye has seen nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceivedGod has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthian 2:9).

If heaven is what we have said, then hell must be just the opposite of all this. It is a sphere of isolation from God, where even faith is no longer able to lay hold on Him as faith may in this world. It is also a sphere of isolation from other people. If in heaven we know people completely (only partly here on earth), then in hell one does not know other people at all. It is isolation, a separation both from God and from ones neighbor in such a way that the condition is one of darkness, of torment, of pain. It is eternal death in distinction from eternal life. That is what hell really is.

Question: But how do people end up in such a condition as hell? Does God want this to happen? Does He send them there?

Answer: No, it is not Gods desire at all. God sends no one to heaven, and surely He sends no one to hell. People go there by their own choice.

Question: Who in this world would chooses hellwith all its pain and misery as you describe itwhen he could choose heaven with its joy and blessedness?

Answer: Asstrange as it may seem, people do it all the timenot just for the future, but even in this life. They choose not to live for God but to live for themselves. And they are miserable inside. But somehow they would rather be miserable doing their own will than happy doing Gods. They are tormented within, but they wont surrender to God. They so much want to run their own lives, seek their own satisfaction, work for their own ends, that misery, pain, illnessnothing will make them change. And when they die, they merely become what they already arecitizens in a city of destruction, dwellers in eternal separation from God.

But, may I say again, they would rather be in hell than in heaven. Even as is true in this life, they are miserable away from God, but more miserable having Him around, since their self-centeredness makes Gods reality unbearable. Like some animal of the night they can not bear the light. Even so, such persons who cannot bear Gods presence do not want Him. So in a sense we might say that God, out of His love and mercy, permits hell. God let Adam and Eve go out of the Garden of Eden because they were miserable in His presence. Yes, they deserved to be excluded from the presence of God because of their sin. But beyond that, Gods mercy was manifest in their exclusion, because had they stayed in the Garden of Eden their lives would have been utterly into intolerablealways fleeing from the presence of Godalways in fear and shame. Therefore God let them goand their "hell" on earth (with drudgery and pain) was more bearable than the Paradise of God.

Question: You say then that a loving God permits hell? But to me it still seems impossible. Why doesnt God just annihilate everybody at death who is not going to heaven? Wouldnt that be far more loving? If I saw my child was going to be in torment forever, I would rather see him die than be in such a condition as that.

Answer: But did you not earlier hear it said that God has created us with immortal spiritsthat we cannot die? God will not annihilate His own act of creation. Therefore the question is not whether we shall live on or not; the only question is the sphere in which we shall continue to exist. And when you speak of the torment into which God seems to let people go, may I remind you again that hell, with all its pain, is less torment than for a self-centered person to have to live eternally in the presence of God and of other people that are always praising Him and are loving and kind to one another.

Question: Why did God ever create man in the first place if such a possibility as hell lay open to him?

Answer: God wanted creatures who freely choose Him. Without freedom of choice they would have been puppets and not people. This freedom ofchoice meant that they might also choose themselves, and in choosing themselves they would choose hell.

Question: But was creation worth it if hell was even a bare possibility? Did not God know what would happen to much of His creation? Did He not foresee what was going to occur? Why then should God have created the world?

Answer: Yes, God created the world foreseeing what was to take place. The only reason God was willing to go through with it was because He was ready to pay the price Himself. He could create because He was willing to suffer even more than any of His creatures that He might win them back. One day on a cross almost two thousand years ago, God in human flesh suffered and died. You also heard us say in our creed that "he descended into hell," and we mean it, because this was the great act of the love of God whereby He entered into all the misery and the pain and the torment, even to the very depths, in order that He might win man from his isolation and separation. God, who permitted hell, has plumbed its horrible abyss that man might freelythrough penitence and faithcome back to Him. You may be sure that God has suffered far more because of hell than have any of His creatures.

Question: I have but one final question to ask then, I suppose, and that is: What did God do in dying in human form on a cross? What did He do that could win man out of his self-centeredness and isolationhis hell on earth and hell to come? What did He do to bring man back to Himself, without forcing him and without making him uncomfortable in His presence? What did God do on the cross?

Answer: The answer to this is the most important thing of all. God in Christ on the cross did, and does, that which makes all the difference in this world and the world to come. For one thing God makes us aware of His tremendous lovehow far He goes for us in suffering our pain, our agony, by even descending into hell. And He also makes us aware of how evil we really are, that all the sin we commit is a sin against Hima crucifying of His very Son. So at the cross we may become aware of what our evil does to the very love of God. Butand here is the final answerat the cross, in spite of all our evil, we hear the word of forgiveness pronounced, "Forgive them." It is this word of forgiveness that can cleanse away the sin and bring new life so that one may thereafter live joyously in the eternal presence of God. This, my good friend, is what God in Christ has done countless times in bringing people from death to lifefrom self-centeredness to God-centerednessfrom hell to heaven. The cross is therefore the power of God for salvation, but for those who will not receive it, God can do no more. They choose against all Gods love, and they carve out their own destiny here and in the world to come.

Are your questions done? If so, then let me say as vigorously as I can that to believe in the life everlasting (as we Christians have said we do) without believing also in Jesus Christ would be a dark and fearful belief. For without Him, life everlasting would be for all of us not eternal life but eternal deatheternal separation from the presence of God and one another. But when we truly believe in Jesus Christ, when we commit ourselves to Him, when we seek the divine forgiveness at the cross, then we do not go on perishing as we have been perishing since the days of Adam and Eve. Rather do we find eternal lifelife in the presence of God both now and forever.

So, finally, may I ask you who have raised these questions, whom we have tried our best to answer, just one thing: will you not also believe in Him? Will you not also receive Him whom God sent to die on a cross? Are you now willing to accept Him as your Savior also from sin and from hell? God has done all He can. All the resources of the Almighty have been poured out and emptied on the cross. It is up to you to believe in Him and so to receive His forgiveness and the life everlasting which is eternal life both now and always. To God be the praise and the glory!

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About The Author


J. Rodman Williams (1918–2008), was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Davidson College in North Carolina (A.B. degree), of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia (B.D. and Th. M. degrees), and Columbia University in New York (Ph.D. degree in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics). He served as a chaplain in the U.S. Marine Corps, taught philosophy and religion at Beloit College in Wisconsin, pastored the First Presbyterian Church of Rockford, Illinois, taught theology and philosophy of religion at Austin Presbyterian Seminary in Texas, and served as president and professor of theology at Melodyland