Eternity: This Changes Everything

In Eternity Is Now in Session (Tyndale, 2018), best-selling author John Ortberg dispels the myth that eternal life is something way out in outer space that we can only hope to experience after we die. He takes exception with the idea that being saved is merely about meeting the minimal entrance requirements for getting into heaven. Instead, Ortberg unpacks the reality that the moment we trust Christ, we are initiated into “eternal living” with God as a here-and-now reality, one that will continue beyond our life on this earth. The book’s subtitle promises A Radical Rediscovery of What Jesus Really Taught About Salvation, Eternity and Getting to the Good Place, and this changes everything, including our perspective on evangelism. Here he shares thoughts on this life-altering way of seeing “forever” and living in its light.

Writing this book was a personal rediscovery and re-encounter with the reality of the Word. Dallas Willard has had a huge impact on my life, and he poses this question: What is the gospel Jesus preached? As odd as it sounds, even though I had been to a Christian college and seminary, I had never thought about the gospel Jesus preached. Jesus had a gospel, and that gospel was life in the kingdom of God.

We think of heaven as a pleasure factory and hell as a torture chamber. Eternity is a place out there where you eventually go. When Jesus and early New Testament authors talk of eternity, they speak of life with God. The Bible is mostly about offering life with God in each and every moment. If I didn’t actually want to spend time with God in this life, why would I in the next one?

The title of the book includes the word eternity because it’s one of those words that captures the imagination. The mystery and power of the word haunts the mind. A lot of us with a church background think eternal life begins when you die and go to heaven. Jesus had a different definition: This is eternal life—that they know the one true God. So, eternal life is defined by Jesus as knowing—an interactive, ongoing participation in the life of God. Eternity resides in each moment. Eternity has gone out and you can step right into it.

A big chunk of this book came to me when I was in Israel going to some different sites where Jesus lived. Personally, it was extremely moving to go to places like the Garden Tomb and the Garden of Gethsemane. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus became a lot more vivid when I visited places he lived. Jesus was a real person, speaking real words, teaching in the real world.

We need to invite people to be followers of Jesus rather than consumers of the promise of heaven. I love the passage in Ecclesiastes: “It is God who has set eternity in the hearts of men.” I think of it as a true statement for the human condition. There is a longing for a reality beyond the fact of our own mortality. I think the longing of eternity is inside everybody. We were created for ongoing life with God. It’s a very difficult reality to live out. Cardiologist Meyer Friedman wrote that the culture’s “hurry sickness” often prevented people from understanding eternity. And American anthropologist Ernest Becker believed a mainspring of human activity revolved around the denial of death; his book on the subject won the Pulitzer Prize.

In the kingdom of God, love is available through Jesus. That love includes the forgiveness of sin, but it’s bigger than that. It’s more than fulfilling the minimum requirements needed to go to heaven when you die. The love of Jesus is available here and now and leads to an abundant life.

When I came to understand the gospel of Jesus, I immediately realized the connection with discipleship. The gospel of Jesus offers us life with God, a free gift of grace from one moment to the next by which we can become more loving, joy-filled and truthful people. The best response is to become a disciple. There is a natural connection between proclamation of the gospel and invitation to discipleship. They are inexplicably connected. [In this way, our eternity is inseparably linked to our today.]

No parents have bumper stickers on their car that say “My child is an obedient student at Oak Hill Elementary School.” Obedience is a word lost in our culture. It is often associated with things like Nazi soldiers stating the reason for abdicating personal responsibility. When Jesus calls us to love God with everything we’ve got and to love our neighbor as ourself, we are called to do so in ways that take full advantage of initiative, courage, creativity, inventiveness and innovation. Kingdom realities call us to obedience to Jesus and his invitation into abundant life. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, it is very clear that Jesus is calling people to obey him. Over and over in the Bible, the foolish person is the one who hears God’s words and doesn’t put them into practice. The wise person is the one who hears his words and does put them into practice.

God experiences love within Trinitarian relationships with one another. Throughout eternity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit live in a dance of mutual delight, mutual submission, mutual servanthood of one another. In the reality of the Trinity, they experience immensely rich and glorious well-being. In John 17, Jesus invites us into the fellowship of the Trinity: “Father, just as you are in me and I in you, may they be in us.” The idea of Jesus praying we should be included into divine fellowship is a staggering thought.

There is a great deal of current interest in the nature of achieving the best possible life. The whole field of positive psychology is considering what a flourishing life looks like. Nobody better addressed this than the prophets of Israel did. The word they used was shalom. They described it with images of mountains made low, valleys lifted up, running wine and justice rolling like water. These images of abundance, well-being, goodness and beauty were again given voice by Jesus as he spoke to us in kingdom language.

I find it helpful to understand the kingdom of God as the range of God’s effective will—the sphere in which everything is the way God wants it to be. Jesus prays, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s kingdom language. I always thought following Jesus was leaving here to go up there, but in the Lord’s Prayer he turned it upside down. In the life and death of Jesus, the kingdom of God came down to earth.

A lot of times in church we describe salvation in terms of what we have been saved from. We have been saved from our guilt, our sins and hell. We should be more focused on what we have been saved for. Genesis tells us God made human beings in his own image and then asks them to exercise dominion. We are to be free and creative in service of the good. We were all made to work in partnership with God to enhance the shalom of our world. That’s the work—and joy—of the kingdom.

Whatever my work is—writing sermons, fixing plumbing, designing software—we pray for God’s presence to do it together with him in kingdom reality. We give ourselves to our work so we extend life to others.

Sin operates from the perspective of pride. Take gossip, for instance. You receive all those little verbal signals that we are all sharing—and enjoying—a sense of superiority over another person. As I got know author Dallas Willard, I noticed no one would ever gossip when he was around. I learned from him that when we offer a gentle noncompliance in the work place, at school, at church, it possesses an amazing power to cause evil to implode.

Jesus was by far the harshest with religious people who ironically took the law seriously. It’s a really interesting dynamic and one the church needs to struggle with. Jesus, who would look very narrow to us in his truth claims—“I am the way, the truth and the life”—was unbelievably drawn to sinners and outcasts in his relationships: lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman centurions. What if Jesus’ narrow devotion to the truth caused him to offer love freely for every human being? Believing in a narrow truth does not mean we live narrowly in relationships by only hanging out with others who believe as we do.

In the Great Commandment, it is interesting that Jesus didn’t say to love everybody. He said, “Love your neighbor.” Neighbor is from an old word that means to be close to. For a lot of us, neighbor isn’t necessarily the person who lives next door; it’s people we work, shop or eat with. Outreach begins by noticing that person and then learning to will their good. In the church, we need to teach people to come alongside our neighbors and work for their well-being. That’s basically what Jesus did with his life. People needed healing or food and he would come alongside them with that. As they showed interest he would explain to them about God and how life works in relationship to him. The church often acts as if outreach is telling people how wrong they are and trying to convince them to believe the truth. That is not the way of Jesus.

We often come alongside people, but if they do not come quickly to belief, then they are no longer candidates for outreach. But love does not work that way. When I think about my children, I love them completely. Each part of their lives is of immense interest to me. People who love them matter to me. I think I grew up with a very narrow idea of what it means to love someone outside of the community of faith: I will love you if …

The kingdom of God is that sphere or range where God’s will reigns. It’s the same thing as shalom, the pearl of great price, what the prophets cried out for, the way life was meant to be, eternity in the here and now. Beginning with that tiny part of creation that’s my body, God’s desire for me is to live my life in alignment with his will. Are my thoughts and choices leading to love, peace and righteousness in the places joy resides? That’s why Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with words like “Blessed are those who mourn.” The people who the world believes to be terrible candidates for the good life are the ones closest to it. God doesn’t force his kingdom on anyone. It’s not something you receive because you are powerful, rich or educated. It’s available to the poorest person, who simply says, “God, I will surrender my life to you, and I want to follow you.” It will always be hidden, conspiratorial, surprising and subversive in the eyes of a world focused on power, intelligence or attractiveness.

It’s possible for people to kind of sleepwalk through life—to live in a robotic way or in a kind of blindness. The oldest framework in the church sees spiritual growth or movement toward God in stages. The first is an awakening. It’s a little bit like when someone realizes they are an alcoholic and understands sobriety is possible, but only through a power greater than self. Awakening is the notion that can restore a person’s sanity. It’s where you become aware of reality. Paul talks of the scales falling from his eyes. The necessity of purgation is a fact for all of us because we live in a sinful world, and sin is the primary barrier that keeps each of us from God. It’s important for people to see this. In our culture, we talk about wounds and scars. Those are often the result of sin—my will choosing to live in ways God does not want me to. Sin is what happens in the way I choose, what I do, the process of becoming the wrong person. Purgation has to do with becoming aware of the sin that’s in me and, through grace, growing increasingly free of it.

Illumination refers to a process of continually and increasingly becoming aware of the presence and care of God. It’s the idea of perfect love casting out fear. Apart from God, I am driven by fear. As God comes in, I am increasingly driven by love. When the love quotient in my life becomes greater than the fear quotient, purgation moves into illumination. It’s a taste of the union Jesus describes where he and his Father are one. It’s the place where my ego, my choices, my sin and my guilt no longer create distance between God and me. That journey from awakening to illumination is not linear. In our world we are constantly cycling and spiraling around. I might be really wrestling with one area of sin while at the same time my mind is thinking about God in ways creating union.

Home is a wonderful word. It’s the kind of word that people put on plaques and hang on the wall: Home is where your story begins. At the same time, the idea of home is a difficult thing. When you ask people what makes a place a home, it turns out to be trickier than what you might think. It’s not just a place you happen to sleep at night. It involves other dynamics like belonging and safety. When the Bible talks about abiding in God, it means to make a home in him. That means having him present in my mind more and more. Thinking about God and his presence is the place we dwell with God and also find rest. To abide means my will is surrendered to his.

So often we believe that evangelism is our job. Jesus teaches that apart from him, we can do nothing. He tells us the branch’s job is not to try really hard to produce fruit, but rather to abide in the vine. If the branch abides, the fruit will come. If I learn to abide in him, rest in him, think about him, surrender to him, then the fruit will come—good works, good words, good relationships will inevitably flow out of abiding.

If salvation simply means offering people a ticket to heaven, then we have a problem. It means people understand the concept of heaven when they probably don’t. It assumes that the love of Jesus is a transaction that is seriously irrelevant to people in our culture and day. The love of Jesus requires a lifelong response, not just a momentary transaction.

Some people begin evangelism by asking a question: “What would happen to you if you were to die tonight?” A better question is to ask, “What would happen to you if you don’t die tonight? What will you do with your life the next day?” It is in the here and now Jesus offers full and eternal life.

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Rob Wilkins, an Outreach magazine contributing writer, is the founder and creative lead for Fuse Media in Asheville, North Carolina.