Thanks to the controversy-mongering of a certain fellow up in Michigan, heaven and hell are in the news of late. I don’t intend to spend much time on that here; suffice it to say I take a C. S. Lewis-esque view, myself. Hell is real, eternal, and utterly horrifying, and nobody is going to enjoy being there. But I believe they will find it infinitely preferable to being in the presence of the God whom they have hated and avoided their whole lives, in whose presence their cherished illusions must die.
What I’m interested in, in this post, are similar implications of judgment for believers. 1 John presents a picture in which this life is an opportunity to learn to walk in the light. If we avail ourselves of the opportunity to face God and have our sins exposed by Him now, then when He appears, we will not be ashamed before Him at His coming. This will not be because we will have arrived at some sort of sinless state — “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” — but because we will have parts of our lives for which there is no reason for shame, and even more important, because we will have acquired the habit of standing in the light and being exposed for who we are. When Christ is finally revealed and the last illusion is dispelled, the last self-deception uncovered, we will not be ashamed, but relieved. It is a process we will embrace, because we have been embracing it all along.
By contrast, a believer who spends this life skulking in the shadows is doomed. The darkness is passing away, and the true light is already dawning; the time will come when it is full day and there are no shadows left to hide in. When day fully comes, the believer who has spent all his time in the shadows will be caught unprepared, and will shrink away in shame before Christ at His coming. The Sun of Righteousness will be risen with healing in His wings — but this man cherishes his sickness and will have to be healed against his will.
Now consider how this will matter when it comes to eternal rewards. The doctrine of rewards is often presented as motivation, as a heavenly profit-sharing program. Good boys get a city; bad boys get a push broom.
Roughly speaking, that would appear to be true as far as it goes, but it’s a long way from the whole story. If you have kids, or you’ve ever worked with kids, then you’ve seen them do astonishingly stupid things with the best of intentions. In the resurrection, we will all be morally perfect, which is to say that our intentions will be good. But it takes more than good intentions — even perfect intentions — to govern a city. Results matter, and to achieve good results, you need wisdom. To whom can Jesus hand the administration of a city? To whom can He say, “Here, run this city the way I would,” and be confident that it will get done?
To someone who has spent this life growing in the wisdom of the Kingdom. To a person who has walked in the light, and grown mature through a lifetime of dwelling in Christ, and Christ in him. This is the ethical dimension of the doctrine of rewards. If the prize is to rule by Christ’s side, then the task today is to make the choices that will cause you to become someone who rules as Christ would rule.
Here, by the way, is how we dodge the classic dispensational foolishness vis-a-vis the Sermon on the Mount. Now the old folly about how the Sermon is ‘Kingdom law’ and therefore not for today ought not even be considered seriously; the Great Commission is sufficient to refute it completely. But just to be talking about it, let’s suppose that the Sermon is Kingdom Law, and can’t be applied fully in this present sin-filled age. Nonetheless, this age is our training ground for the next, which means that we can’t afford to defer all application of the Sermon to later. If we would be ready to apply Kingdom Law in the Kingdom, we have to begin by doing the best we can to apply it now.
Happily, it turns out that when we do that skillfully, the result is compelling evidence in this world for the reality of the world to come, along the lines of the witness chronicled in Hebrews 11, or the witness Jesus prayed for in John 17. We are already the citizens of a Kingdom that has not yet come. But all authority is committed to Jesus, sitting at the right hand of the Father, and we are already His subjects. By living as His subjects in a world at war with Him, we walk in the light and carry that light out into the dark places of the world, that the kings of the earth may be rebuked and kiss the Son before it is too late.
By words and water, bread and wine, by the sacrifices of praise, by remembering to do good and to share — by New Covenant sacraments and sacrifices — we make war on the powers of this world. The weapons of our warfare, although not carnal, are weapons, and they are weapons for which God’s enemies have no defense. Let’s use them, that we might be priests in this life, and joint heirs with Christ as priest-kings in the life to come.