What Are We Waiting For?: My Observations on the Christian Afterlife

Naturalism or escapism? There’s a better choice.

Imagine you are stranded on a desert island in the middle of the ocean. No other populated landmasses for several thousand miles around you. After pulling yourself to shore with gasping breathes, you start to collect yourself. You realize there’s a waterproof satellite phone in one of the few surviving crates that has come ashore with you.

You turn on the device and with joy, you find out it works! You finally hear a voice on the other end of the satellite device and you tell the operator at the other end your situation. The operator then tells you that with the latest in GPS tracking technology, they are able to pin your location down. The only downside is this: a rescue plane will not be able to come and get you until some time between 2 days and 30 years! (I know that’s an outrageous span of time, but bear with me.) You are frustrated at first, but at least you know the plane will be coming. Days and weeks go by without the plane in sight. You’re starting to wonder if the plane will ever come, but you do know that every time you contact the operator, you hear the echoes of “the plane will be coming soon”.

It is here in our parable where we will explore the three options available to you as a survivor:

1. You’ll most likely get busy surviving in any scenario and you’ll start scrounging for fish and what little vegetation is available on the island. But as you possibly start to lose hope that the plane will ever come, you begin to create a life on the island. You expect that your children (supposing your family is with you) will only know the island as home, so you do as much as you can to make it your home. Before long, the memories of your home fade away, like a dissipating fog, to the point that even when ships pass in the distance, their presence is ignored. The island is your home and ever shall be.

2. You do as little as you can to survive or to even care for the island. You start to take the trees and burn them all down. You take what little food you have and devour it in excess. Pretty soon, all of your resources are gone and all that’s left is “the plane”. The words repetitiously devour the memories of your previous life. You stand on the beach day and night waiting for the plane, believing that today will be the day it will come. Before long, your entire residence is on fire and you slowly die a tragic death.

3. You do all you can to survive and thrive in your island home, but you do as much as you can to stretch your resources and steward what little you have. You keep the memories of home alive by telling stories to your children. You know that the plane will come someday, but you use wisdom and keep the island’s ecosystem in check, knowing this is the place which sustains you until you are able to return.

I outlined these scenarios because I want to talk about how our views of the afterlife will shape our behavior here on earth. I’ve heard of two particular views which are almost diametrically opposed to one another and I wonder if there’s any real middle-ground between the two.

The first view is the naturalistic view that this world and the reality we live in is all there really is. Jesus is our cheerleader and heaven is possibly there, like a promise of pizza after the big game, but we’re not too concerned. We concern ourselves more with being good people and improving the earth by following Jesus’ example. Our existence in Christ necessitates social action because we really see no value in the spiritual actions. God is a buddy, He’s our therapist, but when we get ready to die we will shrug our shoulders and says “who knows and who cares”. There are a few good things to note in this view (specifically, social action), but it hampers the power of the Gospel.

The second view is the escapist view. It’s “I’ll Fly Away” eschatology. Borrowing somewhat unwittingly from Platonic and Gnostic dualism, the natural world is seen as evil and unredeemable. We are called to live here until the big plane comes to sweep us up and take us to a cloud-world where we can shoot pool with Johnny Cash and totally care less about the world we’ve left behind. Our life here on earth is seen as a means to an end. There are some good things about this view, but also some very dangerous things. For instance, there’s no reason to not pollute the earth, provide systems which alleviate the plight of our neighbor or be concerned about our own health when the entire goal of our existence is to live it up before “the Rapture” happens and we can say “Sayonara suckers”!

The third view (which I happen to hold) is that the natural world is God’s creation and although it is not our final destination, in God’s design, He brought us here to steward it and magnify His presence within it as He fills it. (Eph. 4:10) When He made it, He said “it is good” and He seems to still think it’s worth something or He wouldn’t have bothered to keep it around.

And when we do die, we know that Christ has already conquered death. Our peace and joy flows from knowing that the final enemy has been defeated. (1 Cor. 15:26)

So, our view on death can be put succinctly as this: we are constantly prepared to die. To live is Christ and to die is gain. (Phil. 1:21) While we’re here, we can also rejoice, because God has given us time to seek Him fervently and has given us opportunities to lead others into His presence. When He returns, all things will be made new and the uncreated light will shed it’s light on the former things, transforming our lives and our world to shine back to Him.

Heaven is our home and earth is our home too…just in need of some drastic renovations. The great carpenter will come back and make sure that the place where we are becomes His dwelling place too, in a mystical union.

I’ll leave you all with this word from C.S. Lewis on eternity:

A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.  – Mere Christianity, chapter 10, paragraph 1

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One thought on “What Are We Waiting For?: My Observations on the Christian Afterlife

  1. You called something to mind:

    Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,
    That quail in its shadow and yet shut the gate
    That seek no parley and in guarded room
    though small and bare upon clumsy loom
    weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
    hoped and believed in under shadow’s sway

    Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
    their little arks though frail and poorly filled
    and steer through winds contrary toward a wraith
    the rumor of a harbor guessed by faith

    I would with the beleaguered fools be told
    who keep an inner fastness where their gold
    impure and scanty yet they loyally bring
    to mint in image blurred of distant king
    and in fantastic banners weave the sheen
    heraldic emblems of a Lord unseen

    From Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”, from memory, so forgive any errors.

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