The subject of eternity is one that most of us, I have no doubt, have given much thought to. One of my earliest childhood memories was a sense of fear when I contemplated eternity – realising it has no beginning and no end. Along with this was the notion that God is eternal and, as for me, I was a mere infinitesimal speck in the timeline between no beginning and no end. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer captures some of these sentiments: “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay“. It was some years later that I gained the assurance this insignificant nobody could and would spend eternity with an infinite God, not on the basis of any intrinsic merit etc. but because I had been saved by grace. These days I attend (at least before Covid lockdown) funerals on a regular basis. They tend to fall into two categories, depending on the deceased’s beliefs and those of his/her family, firstly: those that reflect on the delights that the one who is mourned is now experiencing or soon to experience in God’s presence, often irrespective of the deceased religious beliefs or practices, and secondly: those that ignores such considerations, but with perhaps the rather whimsical hope something of that persons life’s energy and qualities will continue with future generations. Whichever our position is, if we are to take the Bible seriously, the question of where one spends eternity remains an important one.
In my studies of the Hebrew prophets, it appeared that eternity was not a major pre-occupation. Rather, their major concern was the future of Israel, with only a passing interest in the destiny of other nations and that the people of YHWH be obedient to Him and leave a worthy legacy for their families and Israel. But a careful examination of the Law, e.g. Deuteronomy 31:16, the Writings, e.g. Psalm 16 10, Psalm 17:15, Psalm 49:14-15, Psalms 71:18, Proverbs 14:32, Daniel 7:18, Daniel 12:1, 13 and Job 12-13-14, as well as the prophets, e.g. Isaiah 25:8-9, 26:19, Ezekiel 37:12-14, Hosea 13:14, will dismiss the notion that the Old Testament was not concerned with eternity. Even what appears to be a euphemism that is often used when talking about someone’s death “he slept with his fathers” implied that death is not the end and there is something after death. Perhaps one of the more sobering utterances from the mouth of the prophets, because it alludes to what we might equate to notions of heaven and hell, comes at the end of Isaiah: “For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the Lord, so shall your seed and your name remain. And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord. And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh” Isaiah 66:22-24.
What heaven and hell are like, who goes there and on what basis, the actual timelines between Old and New Covenants, the significance of the Day of Judgement, the New Heaven and New Earth, our ultimate destinies and where the royal we fits into all this are yet further huge questions that this chapter has been raising, because they are important and while hardly scratching the surface it opens up these subjects, encouraging further study, mindful that considerable false teaching abounds. As far as the New Testament is concerned, toward the outset we are presented with two major and influential camps within Judaism: the liberal, rationalists, the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the sanctimonious, hypocrites, the Pharisees, who did. Jesus own theological position was clear when he declared “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” John 11:25. One of the best known and best loved texts in the whole Bible makes it clear: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” John 3:16.
In Paul’s teaching to the Romans, the pre-requisite for eternal life is clear: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith” Romans 3:23-27. Paul develops this theme: “What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness” Romans 4:1-9. Even Gentiles who know nothing of the Law or the Gospel are not excluded: “For there is no respect of persons with God. For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;) In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel” Romans 2:11-16. While the above provides great hope and reassurance to the Christian believer, it is well to be reminded that “faith without works is dead” James 2:20 and it is “he who endures to the end shall be saved” Matthew 24:13.
The matter of Hell is a problematic one and I doubt few if any find the notion of eternal punishment for unbelievers a palatable one humanly speaking and most could name those close to them who we cannot, hand on heart say, died as believers and therefore they stand condemned. If we avoid the sentimentality that often surrounds loved ones who die, we cannot say with assurance we will be reunited with those who died as unbelievers. Harking back to the previous section on suffering, for some the idea of Hell is the most difficult example of suffering to stomach. But it was Jesus who called Hell (however we wish to describe it) a place “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” Mark 9:48 and “where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” Luke 13:28. One of the most sombre verses in the Bible is what happens following the Day of Judgement: “whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” Revelation 20:15.
The point of saying this is our eternal destiny is something that should be a cause of grave reflection, including however hard it is to fathom what our eternal destiny is, yet God will always do what is right and we leave it with Him. For our part, we are responsible both for making the right decision and not resting there but living a holy life, and for telling others how they stand before God and what they must do. Like the apostles, we must proclaim: “neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” Acts 4:12. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” Hebrews 9:27. The question of where “after this” is of paramount importance. The idea of spending eternity with one’s Saviour, is one that should bring great comfort. Since this book is about the prophets of the Bible, it is appropriate to give one of them the last word: “For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him” Isaiah 64:4, which Paul quotes, while explaining something of the wisdom of God and the gospel message (1Corinthians 2:1-9).