Is the Future Bleak or Glorious?
Thinking about the future can be daunting for many people. This is true when thinking of oneself. Will I marry? Will I have children? Will I have good health? Will I find satisfying work? Is the best ahead of me or have I passed it already? Is there life after death? If so, what does it look like?
Not long ago, I received a late-night phone call from a man who had recently turned forty. A friend of his a little older than him had just died suddenly from a heart attack. The caller was in tears. This was his first friend of around his age who had died. Now he was not only grieving but also confronting his own mortality.
Thoughts about one’s future can be influenced by the society in which one lives. I have lived in three countries: Australia, the United States, and England. I found optimism about the future in both Australia and the United States, but pessimism in England. The English people I lived among seemed to have a sense of a great empire now lost and never to be recovered. In other words, a glorious past was gone forever.
Those interested in scientific scenarios about the future of the universe can also find the latest theories demoralizing. Is a coming generation going to face the heat death of the universe or the big crunch or the big chill? In any of these contemporary scientific scenarios, humankind won’t survive. Over a century ago, when the heat death of the universe was commonly held as the best science, philosopher Bertrand Russell argued that in that light, “Only within the scaffolding of these truths [as claimed by the science of his day], only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”1
However, for the Christian, the best is yet to be. To rework the Russell quote: “Only within the scaffolding of these truths [as revealed in Scripture about the future], only on the firm foundation of unyielding hope, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” C. S. Lewis saw the implications of the hope of glory when he wrote:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.2
Living in Light of Our Glorification
“The best is yet to be,” indeed, as the Christian poet Robert Browning wrote.3 God has a project. He is restoring his defaced images to the likeness of Christ. The kingly vocation which Adam lost is restored by Christ, the new Adam. Those who have been saved by Christ will become glorified beings of exalted status as coheirs and corulers with him. Our coming glorification has ontological, epistemological, and vocational aspects.
But do we live like this is so? Or do we live with a spiritually debilitating, shrunken eschatological horizon? The heavenly state is penultimate, not ultimate. The new heavens and new earth are the ultimate.
Years ago, I was conversing with an Old Testament scholar, Francis Anderson. By then, in retirement, he was teaching as an adjunct. I knew that he had been ill, so I asked him, “Frank, how are you?” He replied, “Nothing that a good resurrection would not fix.” Resurrection is part of what Frank had to look forward to. Glorification is the summit. Anthony Thiselton explains why that prospect is the summit: “The ‘glory’ which awaits every Christian is precisely and primarily the presence of God.’”4
Glorification won’t be the destiny of every child of Adam. Glorification is for those who are redeemed in union with Christ by his Spirit. The glorification process begins in this age. That is to say, it is for those who are in Christ. In the age to come, the believer’s glorified body will be like that of the risen Christ. So much about this prospect is unimaginable. In this life it is a matter of faith, not sight. Indeed, in this life the outer nature wastes away while the inner nature is being renewed daily, as the apostle Paul has taught us. For those who remain in Adam, there is no glory to come. Hell is real. Embodiment continues in some form for believer and unbeliever alike. But what that continued embodiment looks like exactly is a matter of some speculation.
Most importantly, our hoped-for glorification rests on the promise of a good and almighty God who wants us in his glorious presence, and only a glorified creature is fit for such divine company.
- Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” The Independent Review 1 (Dec. 1903): 416, Bertrand Russell Society (website), https://users.drew.edu/~jlenz/brs.html, accessed June 6, 2019.
- C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces (London and Glasgow: Fontana, 1969), 109, original emphasis.
- Robert Browning, “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetry foundation.org/, accessed May 8, 2020.
- Anthony C. Thiselton, Life after Death: A New Approach to the Last Things (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 185.