Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Birth of a New Age

I watched a clip recently of a debate between a Christian philosopher and a well-known atheist thinker. They were asked a question about the purpose of life. Does this life have any meaning? Do our lives in any way matter?

The two gentlemen answered in predictable fashion. The Christian argued that we were made to, as the Westminster Catechism claims, "Glorify God and enjoy him forever." That knowing God and being joined to him in eternal friendship is the reason we exist. The atheist responded that, since this life is the only one we are ever going to have, one had to come up with one's own personal reason for living, and that his was to be free and to help others become increasingly more free.

And then he went down a path that surprised me. He argued that if there is an eternal afterlife, why should this world matter? In essence, he claimed that if life after death lasts forever and this one is temporary, then this life becomes meaningless in light of what is to come.

I think his point reveals how the New Testament vision of eternity is broadly misunderstood and misrepresented. For many, believers and nonbelievers, the idea is that we struggle through this temporary physical existence only to leave our bodies and world behind and go to some sort of ethereal timeless existence. That the point of the story is heaven, and that heaven is some cloudy reality that has little to do with this one.

This view is the predominant western view of the afterlife, held by both many committed Christians and nominal ones whose ideas are nonetheless shaped passively by the surrounding culture. It is, however, not the view that the Bible teaches, or that the early apostles proclaimed.

Think of what is fundamental to our current lives. We eat and we drink, we celebrate and we connect. We work and we dream and we create. These essentially good things, things that are pillars of life as we know them in this world, are things we should expect to be a part of the eternal life God has planned for his people. If he created us to love those things now, why do we expect he then wants us to discard them upon death?

On the contrary, the apostolic proclamation is clear that Christ rose in the body, firstborn of many brothers and sisters who would one day rise and join him. Revelation tells us the story is heading not to a heavenly life in the clouds, but to a renewed earth. The picture scripture paints is not the end of a physical life ushering us into a spiritual one, but rather a renewed and perfected human life beginning not when we die, but when we believe. In other words, when a person is baptized into Jesus and goes under the water and back up to symbolize death and resurrection, it is because in Christ our old life is over and the new everlasting one has begun.

Jesus conveys this perspective when he talks to the woman at the well in John 4. "If you knew the gift of God who is standing before you, you would have asked, and he would give you living water...that water becomes a spring inside you, welling up to eternal life." In other words, the moment God's spirit fills a person, they begin the very life that will only grow and increase in them for all eternity.

In this light, we understand what Paul meant when he says Christ saves us from this present evil age. We have, with the resurrection of the crucified Christ, the breaking forth of the eternal, restored age in the middle of the old one that is passing away. Everyone who steps into Jesus steps into the new, eternal age, and begins living out the story they will continue to write with God forever and ever!

If that is how we understand eternity, then we can return to the original challenge raised by the atheist with new eyes. Does belief in eternity make our current lives inconsequential? Quite the contrary! Rather we consider ourselves rescued from the current age that is doomed to death and decay and held in chains by the banality of evil. We are like new-born children, sons and daughters of a new creation, now free from fear because we are born of God's Spirit. We surrender our lives to Jesus as King, and we follow his sacrificial leadership, because we now belong to him and not to this world. We love our neighbors and our enemies, even lay down our lives for them, because they too are invited to this forever Kingdom that is breaking forth in the earth, and because it is the example our Christ has given us.

Christ, then, invites us into a life bursting with meaning, a great deal more so, in fact, than we are able to imagine. When we respond to his call and enter his Kingdom we begin a new life, one redefined by the love of God and increasing in glory for countless ages to come. If one is looking for a meaningful cause to give one's life to, I say look no further. 


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