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.
Another great post, thank you. I have a question, as I read this I wondered (as I often do with these thought provoking posts) between what you coin as reward “Good boys get a city; bad boys get a push broom.”
As believers in this age, is there any case where one would be excluded from the Kingdom? I ask this because of what we read in the Gospels. In them if we read what the Lord says about the Kingdom, its requirements to enter, and its law, and compare that to what both Christ Jesus and John the Baptist said about “entering” the Kingdom – then it would seem that there is a case to be made for a third category, i.e. exclusion. No city, no push broom, etc.
Thanks again for a wonderful post.
I am surprised and pleased that you take a C.S. Lewis-esque view. I’m not fully sure what that means for you, but having read “The Great Divorce” I assume you fall in that direction?
Something like it, perhaps. I still sign off on ‘eternal conscious torment’ — the Scripture seems pretty clear on the point. But while I’m sure that the inhabitants of the lake of fire will prefer to be elsewhere — a beach resort in Tahiti, say — I’m pretty sure none of them will want the other option that’s available to them at that point in the story. In the eschaton, we come down to two choices and no illusions: fully with God, or fully apart from Him. I believe those who hated and avoided God in life will continue to do so, and will find the withdrawal of common grace to be preferable to His company.
Yeah, that’s a point of some present controversy, but I agree with you.
I believe that Gehenna is a literal place — the valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem — where the trash is burned, where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. Faithless believers may find themselves there, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, for a time. I believe that judgment is time-bound, because at the re-creation of the heavens and earth, God wipes away every tear.
Coupling the passages that discuss the matter with 1 John 2:28, it seems again to be a C. S. Lewis-esque thing. God will judge righteously, but those who shrink away in shame before Him at His coming will, perhaps, be relieved to be far away from the banquet table. Having grasped the reality of their wasted lives, they will likely be in no condition to partake of a celebratory feast in any case.
I’m not at all sure Matthew is making a standard soteriological distinction when he speaks of “entry” into the kingdom. As Tim points out, it is a matter of current controversy, and people like Jody Dillow are trying to work this out. He, for instance, speaks of a “rich” entry into the Kingdom, one with full inheritance. Rene Lopez in his recent PhD thesis shows that the children of Israel looked forward only to a kingdom characterized by full inheritance or not at all, and this was also true of the intertestamental period. It could well be that Matthew was equating entry with full inheritance, so the weepers and gnashers of teeth, as Tim insinuates, may well comprise believers who forsook their full inheritance.