IT GETS BETTER (AND WORSE)
Written by Doug Ponder on April 4, 2015
How to Start a Riot
In the last chapter of his hilarious and helpful book, Ten Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe, pastor Larry Osborne gives us a foolproof way of starting a riot. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, he writes:
“Would you like to see a mini riot up close? Here’s what you do. The next time you’re at a funeral, stand up and tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the dearly departed. Then step back to see what happens… [And if you really want to start a riot], try questioning the eternal destiny of [wicked Uncle Ernie] who recently passed away. See how many looks of disgust you get. See if you can avoid a fistfight.”
That scenario is so difficult to imagine ourselves in that we may be in danger of missing the point. And, to say it again for the sake of clarity, neither the original author nor I are recommending that anyone do that. Rather, the point of the illustration is this: our cultural assumptions about the future are so deeply embedded that many people would react violently if those assumptions were challenged.
Specifically, I’m referring to the assumption that “things get better” for us in the end. Our culture believes this about life after death, and we believe this about the future state of our world. This is why we talk confidently of “progress” and sing blithely with the Beatles, “You have to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time.”
It Gets Better And Worse
The truth, according to Jesus, is that it gets better—and worse. And it’s Jesus himself who is the source of things getting better and things getting worse. This is true of both the fate of individuals and the fate of the whole world.
For all those who have trusted in the forgiving grace of Jesus, all those who have given him their allegiance, all those who await his glorious appearing to set right the world forever, it gets better. And that’s an understatement!
After being whipped, shipwrecked, stoned, left for dead, abandoned by close friends, and imprisoned on several occasions, the apostle Paul said, “Our present sufferings are not even worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:19). That glorious truth is what led Teresa of Avila to say, after many sufferings of her own, “The most miserable earthly life, seen from the perspective of heaven, looks like one night in an inconvenient hotel.”
What did they mean? It gets better! For the Christian, the return of Jesus will heal every wound, right every wrong, restore the wasted years, and make every sad thing come untrue.
Yet Jesus and the Bible are quite clear: things do not get better for everyone; not everyone who dies “goes to a better place.” There’s a real hell, and it’s no joke. It’s not an endless party. It’s the most horrific place imaginable. Hell is where God finally gives people exactly what they have always wanted: a life forever without him. For who would ever be comfortable for eternity in the presence of One whose company they found utterly undesirable for the few brief moments of their earthly lives?
But a life forever without God is not a small thing. It means a life forever without a single drop of comfort or joy. It’s a life forever without anything good, since God himself is the source of all goodness and every good thing comes from him (Jas. 1:17). That is why Paul describes hell as “suffer[ing] the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9).
And as Larry Osborne points out, “It’s not just wicked Uncle Ernie who misses out. The same goes for the sweet lady next door who would never hurt a fly but would also never bow the knee to Jesus.” That is why the apostle Paul wrote, “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10-11).
Today Is the Day of Salvation
One day, when Christ returns, everyone will see Jesus for exactly who he is. Those who have longed for his appearing will inherit the kingdom of eternal life that Jesus has purchased for them with his blood. Those who have despised and rejected him, however, will be “cast into outer darkness,” Jesus says. “In that place will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
This dual reality of things getting better for some and worse for others is perfectly summed up by the old adage that says: For those who have been saved by Jesus, their time on earth will be the closest thing to hell they will ever experience. But for those who reject Jesus and his grace, their time on earth will be the closest thing to heaven that they will ever experience.
That is why ‘it gets better’ and worse, and both because of Jesus. He will return to earth as a conquering king rides back victoriously from the battle, and things will get better for his subjects and much worse for his enemies. Life is too short, heaven is too great, and hell is too horrible that we should putter around on the porch of eternity. Jesus says to us now, “Come, follow me.” Today is the day of salvation.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.