THIS WORLD AND THE WORLD TO COME
Written by Doug Ponder on February 2, 2013
Calendars and Cultural Values
Throughout history cultures have developed their own unique ways of numbering days, months, and years. If you look closely enough, you’ll see that each calendar reveals what its culture valued. For example, the Hebrews used a calendar based off the genealogies of the Old Testament, the Romans developed a calendar which used the founding of Rome as its starting point, and the people of Imperial Japan measured years in accordance with their emperor’s reign.
As you know, the calendar of the Western world, the Gregorian calendar, counts years in relation to the birth of Jesus. (Remember B.C. and A.D. from history class?) So, clearly the maker of our calendar thought the birth of Jesus was significant. And considering the impact of life upon world history, who can argue with the way he divides the calendar? Well, Jesus himself might.
A Two-Stage View of History
Jesus didn’t divide history into the time before his birth and the time after his birth. He talked about history in terms of “this age” and “the age to come” (Matt. 12:32, 28:20; Luke 18:30). Other biblical authors describe history in the same way (cf. Eph. 1:21), interchangeably talking about “this world” and “the world to come” (John 12:25; 1 Cor. 7:31; Heb. 2:5). We know from the teachings of the Scriptures and from everyday experience that this age/world is characterized by slavery to sin and bondage to corruption and death. These facets of life in “this age” are here to stay, no matter how much we may hate them.
Thankfully, this age/world are not all there is to life. That’s why Jesus (and the biblical authors after him) also talked about an “age to come,” or a “world to come,” where sin, sickness, sorrow, corruption and death have no place whatsoever. Those things will be done away with for good, and we can have confidence about this because it is Jesus himself who is “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). So while this world is corrupted by sin, the world to come is blessed by grace and truth. Though this world is full of death, the world to come is full of life. And despite this world’s continued rebellion against God, the world to come will experience total flourishing with God.
The Anatomy of the World to Come
The world to come, God’s renewed creation, is the hope of every Christian (Rom. 8:18-24). But the transition between this world and the world to come is very different than many modern Christians have thought. Contrary to the very popular (but not very accurate) Left Behind series, this world is not destroyed at the return of Jesus. Quite the opposite, actually. The fire that Jesus brings is a cleansing fire, not a destroying one, since Jesus is not in the business of giving up on his creation. The famous Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck puts it like this: “Just as the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, as carbon is converted into diamond, as the grain of wheat upon the dying ground produces other grains of wheat, as all of nature revives in the spring and dresses up in celebrative clothing, as the believing community [the church] is formed out of Adam’s fallen race, as the resurrection body is raised from the body that is dead and buried in the earth, so, too, by the re-creating power of Christ, the new heaven and the new earth will one day emerge from the fire-purged elements of this world, radiant in enduring glory and forever set free from the bondage of decay” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, Vol. 4, 720).
This means Jesus isn’t interested in destroying his creation; rather, he intends to redeem it. In other words, all of creation will be cleansed or purged from everything characteristic of this age at the time of Jesus’ return (Rom. 8:21-22). All will be ‘made new’ (Rev. 21:5) and “death will be swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54). This cosmic cleansing is part of the redeeming work of Jesus.
Where do we fit in? Do we have a part to play in any of this? The Scriptures tell us that our work for the Lord in not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). That means that your life—what you do and say and think—is not meaningless. Your life is not a chess match in which God comes to the end and says, “Well, that was fun. Let’s reset the pieces,” as if nothing ever happened. No, your work for the Lord, Paul says, is not in vain. It has purpose. It matters to God. He made you to fill his creation with all sorts of things that point to his beauty and power (cf. Gen. 1:26-28). And since that was our purpose by design, it makes sense that God intends to renew us and restore us to the purpose for which he created us. In other words, your work for God will not be “left behind.” God doesn’t reset the pieces as if the game—your life—never took place. Instead, the Scriptures give us every reason to believe that whatever we have done in the name of God will, somehow, become part of the world to come.
Redemption and Reappropriation
How will this happen? What will it be like? No one can say for sure until we get there, but perhaps it will be something like this. Imagine that your life is like a giant book filled with countless pages. Let’s say that each page in the book of your life represents a single word, action, or thought. When Jesus returns, every page representing a word, action, or thought that was infused with sin and evil will be ripped out and thrown into the fire (1 Cor. 3:12). But every page representing a word, action, or thought that was infused with grace and truth and life from above will be preserved, cleansed, enhanced, and ennobled. In other words, everything you’ve ever built, made, crafted, created, written, spoken, or dreamed of doing because of love for God or love for neighbor will become part of God’s new world.
Maybe every hospital built in the name of Jesus will remain—not as a hospital for the sick, since there will be no sickness anymore—but as some kind of new structure that commemorates the “healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2). Maybe every well dug to bring clean water to destitute villages will be transformed into a gushing spring of the purest water you’ve ever tasted. Maybe every painting or sculpture that glorifies God by illuminating the beauty of what he has made will fill a museum the size of Texas. Maybe every profitable word you’ve ever spoken or idea you’ve ever thought will be incorporated with the words and ideas of all God’s people as the preface to an ever-expanding book titled something like, “Amazing Grace: Billions of Lives, One Story of Redemption.” Not to mention every man, woman, and child who has followed Jesus thanks to the faithfulness of God’s people to proclaim the good news of the gospel—they will all be there to share in God’s new world, too. What a glorious world it will be!
We’ve Got Work to Do
As amazing and far-fetched as it might seem, the biblical story insists that God uses our work for him in the present as part of his world with us in the future. “Therefore,” Paul says, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). We don’t know exactly what that will be like, but we know that it will be drenched in worshipful wonder and awe at the greatness of God.
So… get to work, brothers and sisters. Build hospitals. Dig wells. Adopt orphans. Raise children. Care for widows and the poor. Give generously. Serve your neighbor. Tell others about Jesus. And do all this in his name through the world-renewing power of his resurrection, full of faith and hope and longing for the day when this world and the world to come are one and the same.
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 Twitter @dougponder.