But it’s hard to be goal-oriented if you lack a clear idea of what you’re aiming for. How can we look forward unless we know what we’re looking forward to?
The Bible depicts the world to come using a number overlapping themes or images. For now I’m going to focus on the heavenly rather than hellish dimensions of the new world order. What lies in store for the redeemed rather than the damned.
1. Restoration motif
Scripture depicts the world to come in both bucolic (neo-Edenic) and urban (neo-Jerusalemite) terms. If it were just Eden, this might suggest that we go back to scratch. Colonize a virgin earth. But the additional theme of the new Jerusalem suggests that best of the past carries over to the new world, in purified form.
13"Behold, the days are coming," declares the LORD,
"when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
15 I will plant them on their land,
and they shall never again be uprooted
out of the land that I have given them" (Amos 9:13-15).
17"For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.
18But be glad and rejoice forever
in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy,
and her people to be a gladness.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping
and the cry of distress.
20No more shall there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not fill out his days,
for the young man shall die a hundred years old,
and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain
or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD,
and their descendants with them.
24 Before they call I will answer;
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall graze together;
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
and dust shall be the serpent’s food.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain" (Isa 65:17-25).
1Then he brought me back to the door of the temple, and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east). The water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. 2Then he brought me out by way of the north gate and led me around on the outside to the outer gate that faces toward the east; and behold, the water was trickling out on the south side.
3Going on eastward with a measuring line in his hand, the man measured a thousand cubits, and then led me through the water, and it was ankle-deep. 4Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water, and it was knee-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water, and it was waist-deep. 5Again he measured a thousand, and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen. It was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through. 6And he said to me, "Son of man, have you seen this?"
Then he led me back to the bank of the river. 7As I went back, I saw on the bank of the river very many trees on the one side and on the other. 8And he said to me, "This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, and enters the sea; when the water flows into the sea, the water will become fresh. 9And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. 10Fishermen will stand beside the sea. From Engedi to Eneglaim it will be a place for the spreading of nets. Its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. 11But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. 12And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing" (Ezk 47:1-12).
22But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:22-24).
1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
9Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, "Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb." 10And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11 having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— 13on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
15And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. 16The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. 17He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel’s measurement. 18The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. 19 The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. 21And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass.
22And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
1Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever (Rev 21:1-2,9-26; 22:1-5).
Of course, the depictions are figurative to some degree.
2. Healing motif
The Bible depicts the world to come as time and place for physical and emotional healing. And that dovetails with the restorative aspect. We are made whole again. Indeed, made whole in away we never were or could be in our broken, fallen condition.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
17For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:16-17).
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Rev 21:4).
13And I heard a voice from heaven saying, "Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on." "Blessed indeed," says the Spirit, "that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!" (Rev 14:13).
9So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. 11Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience (Heb 4:9-11).
3. Coming home motif
Scripture depicts the world to come as a long journey home. The background for the coming-home motive is the exilic motif. Paradigm-cases of the exilic motif are the expulsion from Eden, the banishment of Cain, Abraham’s nomadic existence, Joseph dying in Egypt, and the Babylonian Exile.
Christians are refugees in this fallen world. Our life and death chart a pilgrimage from exile to our ancestral homeland. A return to our Father’s house.
He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen 3:24).
11And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth."16Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden Gen (4:11-12,16).
1By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
2On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
3For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
4 How shall we sing the LORD’s song
in a foreign land?
5If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
6Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy! (Ps 137:1-6).
7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Tim 4:7-8).
8By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.
13These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
21By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. 22By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones (Heb 11:8-10,13-16,21-22).
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us (Heb 12:1).
2In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also (Jn 14:2-3).
4. Light/shade motif
Scripture depicts the world to come in terms of light, including light-reflective materials.
It also depicts a contrast between the “shadowy” nature of our fallen existence and our “sunny,” glorified existence.
The shadowy metaphor (e.g. Heb 8:5; 9:23; 10:1) is multifaceted:
i) Temporal sense: to foreshadow
This accentuates the fleeting, ephemeral condition of the present age in relation to the coming age.
My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass (Ps 102:11).
I am gone like a shadow at evening;
I am shaken off like a locust (Ps 109:23).
Man is like a breath;
his days are like a passing shadow (Ps 144:4).
For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow?(Eccl 6:12)
For we are but of yesterday and know nothing,
for our days on earth are a shadow (Job 8:9)
Christians have already begun to enter the age of fulfillment, but we have yet to arrive at our destination.
Although a shadow can suggest the end of something (i.e. evening shadows), it can also suggest the beginning of something (i.e. morning shadows).
Trees may foreshadow the dawn. As the sun rises above the horizon, trees cast shadows pointing to a new day.
ii) Spatial sense: to cast a shadow or overshadow
a) This, in turn, connotes a lesser/greater contrast.
A shadow resembles the object casting the shadow. Yet a shadow is insubstantial and monochromatic. Shadows are also distorted to some degree.
b) On a related note is the depiction of this life as a “copy” of the afterlife. Not so much a copy, in the sense of a facsimile or replica, but a pale imitation.
c) Likewise, a copy is a visible emblem of something presently invisible, which will be manifested in the future. Although the original is presently absent, the original is present in the copy.
d) Apropos (c), the copy is also a pledge, down-payment, or promissory note of things to come.
5. Reunion motif
Scripture depicts the world to come as a reunion. We are reunited with God. We are reunited with the saints of the ages. Sin separates us from God, while death separates us from our fellow man. And this, too, dovetails with the restorative motif.
I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Mt 8:11).
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God (Rev 21:3).
6. Resurrection motif
Scripture depicts the world to come as a physical, embodied state. Indeed, reembodied. This is restorative, but it goes above and beyond our mortal condition.
1 The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 3And he said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know." 4Then he said to me, "Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD."
7So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live." 10So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
11Then he said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.' 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD" (Ezk 27:1-14).
"Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (Jn 5:25-29).
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power (1 Cor 15:42-43).
7. Worship motif
Scripture depicts the world to come as a time and place of ceaseless rejoicing and thanksgiving.
1After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, "Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this." 2At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. 3And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. 4Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. 5From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, 6and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.
And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. 8And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
"Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!"
9And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
11 "Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created."