The Next Life: What If It's True?

The Presence of God

Teaching t21090


Repeat series thesis: If you have an informed and persistent trust in God’s promises about eternal life, your heart and lifestyle will be transformed.  Jn.17 will be our base text.

So far, we have been emphasizing that the next life will material, bodily, etc.—to correct the widespread misconception that it will be ethereal, static, boring, etc.  But the center of God’s promises about the next life is not the above—it is being in God’s presence.  Just as having my home and all its furniture would be incomplete without my wife presence, so all the other features of heaven would be fundamentally incomplete without access to the full presence of God.  This is what the Psalmists longed for (Ps.16:10,11), this is the hope that sustained Job through his suffering (Job19:25-27).  This is the center of Rev.21,22’s vision of the new heavens and earth (Rev.22:4). 

This is what we need to try get our heads and hearts around this morning.  Nothing about the next life will transform you in this life more than this—as we will see.  Yet it is not easy... pray for the Spirit’s illumination.

What is God like?

If the heart of heaven is being in God’s presence, what does the Bible tell us about the essence of who this God is?

One way to get at this is by contrasting the God of the Bible (and therefore its view of heaven) with the God and heaven of other religions.  Their views of heaven are very different because they answer this question very differently.

In the pantheistic religions (e.g., HINDUISM; BUDDHISM), God is the infinite, impersonal oneness—the All.  Therefore, union with God is the annihilation of individual, personal existence.  That’s why moksha is illustrated by our souls being like drops of water that merge into the ocean, or described as “surrendering to the void.”  That’s why nirvana is described as “the roaring silence.”

In the monotheistic religions (e.g., ISLAM), God is a solitary Being—an absolutely holy, almighty Ruler and Judge.  Even in Paradise, people will not be fully in God’s presence; its primary positive aspect is its sensual delights.

In popular American spirituality (e.g., NEW AGE), our selves are the center and God is more like the ultimate therapist who helps us affirm ourselves.  That’s why its vision of the afterlife is usually focused on us rather than on God.  In the recent book, The 5 People You Meet in Heaven, the main character meets five people who tell him why he mattered.  In the 1998 movie “What Dreams May Come,” God is absent and the main character is unhappy in heaven because his wife isn’t there.

The biblical heaven is very different from these views of heaven because the God of the Bible is very different from all of these views of God.  The God of the Bible is actually a Community of Persons.  This is what Christians refer to as the Trinity—three Persons who not only share the same divine attributes (EXAMPLES), but who are united in a wonderful family of other-centered love relationships. 

This is why God referred to himself as “Us” and “Our” in Gen.1:26,28 (quote).  This is what Jesus was referring to in Jn.17:24 (read)—the Persons of the Trinity loved one another before the universe was created, and this love is the essence of their glory.  This is what the Bible means when it says: “God is love” (1Jn.4:8,16)—not that God is not also righteous, just, etc.—but that the very essence of God is this Community of love relationships that some theologians call the “Dance.”

 “The inner life of the Trinity is characterized not by self-centeredness but by mutually self-giving love.  When we delight in and serve someone else, we enter into a dynamic orbit around him or her, we center on the interests and desires of the other.  This creates a ‘dance,’ particularly if there are three persons, each of whom moves around the other two.  So it is (with God), the Bible tells us.  Each of the divine Persons centers upon the others.  None demands that the others revolve around him.  Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them.  Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others.  This creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love.”

God is not a void, not a solitary Ruler, not a therapist—but a fountain of love who is complete and joyous in Themselves and who created us to join them in this Dance.  Jesus left the Dance and went to the Cross so that we could behold their love for one another (Jn.17:24), and actually join in the Dance with them.  This is the essence of heaven.  I have a paradoxical response to this.  On the one hand, it blows my mind—I can’t get my head around it.  On the other hand, it resonates deep within my heart that this is the “home” I have always sought and never quite found in this life. 

It also resolves a problem that many people have about the biblical view of heaven: “How can it possibly be better by far than anything in this life if there is no sex?”  Sexual pleasure is a foretaste of the joy we will experience as the Bride of Christ.  When we are disappointed that heaven won’t include sex, we’re like a child being told about sex who asks with disappointment: “But can’t you eat chocolate while doing it?”   Just as the boy’s problem is that he can’t conceive of a greater pleasure than chocolate, so our problem is that we can’t conceive of a greater pleasure than sex.  But there is indeed a greater pleasure!

How should this transform our lives?

If you understand and believe what we just learned, then it will radically transform your life in many ways.  But the main way is this: Since community with God and others is the destiny for which we were created, we should prioritize community with God and others now.  This kind of community is not our duty; it is our destiny.  Since community is the “food” we will eat in the Kingdom, we should acquire a taste for it now.  Since community is the “music” that will be played in heaven, then we should start practicing our instruments now.  This involves two key steps:

First, to become a Christian involves entering into a relationship with all three Persons in this Community.

The whole Community is involved in making this possible.  God the Father initiated the plan of your reconciliation with him.  God the Son executed this reconciliation by leaving the Dance and dying on the Cross to pay for the sins that exclude you from it.  God the Spirit applies this reconciliation by enabling you to personally experience the God’s forgiveness and love.

So to become a Christian is to say: “Father, thank you for loving me even though I deserve your judgment.  Jesus, I trust in your death to be the full payment for all of my sins.  Holy Spirit, please live within me so that I can experience your forgiveness and love.”  This is not a formula you merely memorize and repeat, but it is important that you understand what the Trinity has done for you, and that you personally entrust yourself to Them.  Have you done this?

Second, to grow in your relationship with this Community requires personal involvement in Christian community.

Just as Jesus prayed that his followers would go to heaven to be included in the Dance, he also prayed that we would be one “even as we are one”—not just in heaven, but here on earth (17:21,23 – “that the world may know that you sent me”).  This is why God doesn’t “beam” us to heaven the moment we receive Christ.  He leaves us here to invite others to the Dance.  And one of the main ways we do this is by showing people an imperfect advance preview—us flourishing as we relate to God together in community.  This is the main way we grow, and it is also the mean way that other people are attracted to Jesus!

This is why Luke describes the first Christians in this way (Acts2:42-47).  Because they devoted themselves to this kind of community (2:42), they sensed God’s presence among them (2:43a).  Because they did their Christian lives together (2:44,45b,46), others realized that Jesus was the way, the truth and the life—and joined them in following Jesus (in community).

You might be thinking: “This sounds cultic.”  Cults are dangerous.  People can get so enmeshed in group-think under tyrannical leadership that they lose their individual choice and personality.  We should critique and resist all cultic activity.  But let me ask you a question: Is this really a temptation for you?  Isn’t the far greater danger that you will remain conformed to our autonomous, hyper-individualistic culture so that you relate to God as an isolated consumer rather than in the context of real involvement with other Christians?  Isn’t it time to quit using the danger you’re not tempted by as an excuse to keep submitting to the danger you are tempted by?  That is why I want to challenge those of you who are followers of Jesus: How much of your relationship with God do you do in community with other Christians?  Does it resemble the Christians in Acts 2?

Are you fellowshipping pretty much daily—discussing God’s Word with Christian friends, sharing what Jesus is teaching you and doing in your life, and sharing your sins and fears and struggles to other Christians (as often as needed)?  Or is this kind of interaction rare or non-existent?
Are you praying with other Christians (one-on-one & group; planned & spontaneous)—pretty much daily?  Or is this kind of interaction rare or non-existent?
Are you giving your money generously to provide hospitality and help meet one another’s material needs?  Or does this sound weird or offensive?
Are you deriving joy from this kind of interaction and looking forward to it (more than mere entertainment, etc.)?  Or is getting together with other Christians a duty you endure?
Are your non-Christian friends curious about this part of your life?  (Do they know about it?  Do they remark on how involved you are?  Do they ask you why you prioritize this?)

This is not exceptional involvement—it is normal involvement!  These are not duties that we fulfill in order to earn heaven; these are ways that we anticipate heaven, and grow in the meantime, and show the world that Jesus is real!

If you know Jesus, is this the direction in which you are heading?  You cannot grow in your relationship with God beyond a primitive level without this kind of involvement.  Don’t wait until it “feels natural”—if you do only what feels natural, your life will be a train-wreck!  Choose by faith to move in this direction, and God will impart a growing ability to enjoy and thrive off of this.  The best way to move in this direction is to commit yourself to a home group.  Ask the person who brought you here, or talk to people sitting near you, or talk to the people at the Welcome Booth. 
Have you drifted from real involvement by not being part of a home group, or by being relationally disengaged with the people in your home group?  Recommit and re-engage!

Hadith 6:402 says: “In Paradise... nothing will prevent the people in the Garden of Eden from seeing their Lord except a curtain of majesty over his face.”  Sura 56:11-23 speaks of the garden of sensual delights, including girls with “wide, lovely eyes.”  See other Quran and Hadith references in David Goldmann, Islam and the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 2004, pp.90-93. 

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), pp.214,215.

“Sex... gives us subjectively a foretaste of heaven, of the self-forgetting, self-transcending, self-giving that is what our deepest hearts are designed for, long for and will not be satisfied until they have, because we are made in God’s own image and this (kind of) self-giving constitutes the inner life of the Trinity.” Peter Kreeft, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), p.95.

C. S. Lewis, Miracles, Chapter 16.