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Eternity Changes Everything: An Interview with Stephen Witmer

In Eternity Changes Everything, you claim that, for Christians, a passion for our future in the new creation will affect our lives in the present. Why?

Because we’re human, and humans inevitably live toward the future. The philosopher Peter Kreeft says we “live by hope. Our hearts are a beat ahead of our feet. Half of us is already in the future; we meet ourselves coming at us from up ahead.” I think he’s right. Just ask any school teacher whether an approaching summer vacation stays in the future. Of course not! Kids get restless and rowdy in the weeks before, because their future is impinging on their present. The future often gets to us (in our thoughts and feelings) before we get to it (in our actual experience).

Check out how all the practical exhortations of Romans 12-13 are framed by the call to not be conformed to “this age” and the call to “know the time,” that “the day is at hand.” When we’re living, and what we’re living toward, shapes how we’re living.

I was blown away when I read something George Marsden wrote in his biography of Jonathan Edwards: “If the central principal of Edwards’ thought was the sovereignty of God, the central practical motive in his life and work was his conviction that nothing was more momentous personally than one’s eternal relationship to God…He built his life around disciplines designed constantly to renew that eternal perspective.” Marsden then goes on to give some remarkable advice to those who want to better understand Edwards’ writings. He says if we think something Edwards has written seems harsh, difficult, or overstated, we should ask the question: “How would this issue look if it really were the case that bliss or punishment for a literal eternity was at stake?” My first response to reading Marsden’s advice was to wonder whether the life to come is so foundational to my thinking that it could serve as a key for people who want to understand who I am and what I say. I hope my life doesn’t make sense apart from the reality of the new creation. There’s a big problem if it does.

So, where do you see a need for improvement in how Christians think about the new creation?

Too many of us have bought into the wrong-headed notions of our culture. The other day in the children’s section of our local library, I saw a book on Heaven by Maria Shriver (yes, the Maria Shriver). The Heaven in this book is a place of fluffy clouds and disembodied existence. And that’s normal: Heaven is often thought of as solitary, static, and boring. In 2007, Starbucks printed on their paper cups some wickedly funny and surprisingly insightful lines from Joel Stein, a columnist at the Los Angeles Times: “Heaven is totally overrated. It seems boring. Clouds, listening to people play the harp. It should be somewhere you can’t wait to go, like a luxury hotel. Maybe blue skies and soft music were enough to keep people in line in the 17th century, but heaven has to step it up a bit. They basically are getting by because they only have to be better than hell.”

Of course, the Heaven Stein describes isn’t the biblical portrait of Heaven at all–it’s our modern, misconceived notion of Heaven. Some recent books–such as Randy Alcorn’s Heaven and N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope–have been really helpful in explaining the biblical teaching on Heaven, as well as distinguishing the present Heaven (where we go when we die) from the future new creation, which is a renewed creation in which we’ll live an embodied existence forever. The new creation will be an incredibly exciting place to live, and it will be great above all because God is there. We get God…forever. Yet, sadly, I’ve spoken with people who have been Christians for many years who don’t understand this biblical teaching about our ultimate future.

If we understand the greatness of our ultimate future in the new creation, and begin to long for it, how will this affect our living in the present?

It’s going to create two impulses: we’ll become more patient in waiting for the new creation, and simultaneously, we’ll become more restless in longing for it. That sounds like a contradiction. It’s not.

Why not?

Well, we often have this experience in life. When we’re convinced that something really, really good is coming to us, that certainty simultaneously lengthens our patience and heightens our restlessness. If you know Thanksgiving dinner is going to be absolutely fabulous, you’ll start anticipating it well before it’s on the table and on your plate. The smells emanating from the kitchen will make your mouth water. But–at the same time–because you know dinner will be phenomenally good, you won’t snack on Doritos. Who wants to fill up on junk food when turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce are on the way?! You’ll be patient.

Christians lived in a permanent and productive tension. We are a restlessly patient people, and that’s biblical. In Romans 8.23-25, Paul says the certain, glorious hope of the new creation makes us groan restlessly and wait patiently.

Why, and in what ways, do Christians fail to wait patiently for the new creation?

Two words: prosperity gospel.

We’re children of our culture, and most of us realize that our culture has a massive problem with waiting. The Dunkin Donuts in my town actually times their employees to the second on their drive-thru service so that customers get their donuts and coffee as fast as humanly possible. None of us are immune from this impatience. Have you ever exclaimed in dismay that your internet search took longer than two seconds? I have.

The radical impatience of our culture affects Christian theology and practice. I look around the Christian scene today and grieve at the huge influence of the prosperity gospel. There was a report in The Atlantic a few years ago that said 50 of America’s 260 largest churches preach a prosperity gospel. Apparently, 66 percent of Pentecostals and 43 percent of ‘other Christians’ think that God will bless the faithful with material wealth. Have they read Hebrews 10.34?! What the health and wealth teachers are telling you is that the new creation is available now. Their teaching is deeply flawed eschatology. The Scriptures reveal to us a God who often makes his people wait. There’s a whole biblical theology of waiting that the prosperity teachers completely miss.

Of course, we can’t just point the finger at the health and wealth teachers. In the course of writing this book, I was convicted of the personal, mini-prosperity gospels I create for myself by daily expecting good health, plentiful finances, friendly neighbors, and obedient children. I recently replaced the catalytic converter in our car (expensive!). Now the “check engine” light is on in our other car, indicating the same problem. How will I respond to that? Will I expect the new creation now, and grumble that I still live in an age where things fall apart and cars need repaired? Or will I be thankful to own two cars, and cheerfully patient for the coming age, when they’ll run forever (or be unnecessary).

Why, and in what ways, do Christians fail to yearn restlessly for the new creation?

We’re not restless enough for the new creation because–as I’ve said–we think it’s going to be boring. One long worship service. Or a millennia-long harp solo. Moreover, we’re not restless for the future because we’re absorbed with the lesser pleasures of our present. God has given us a future the size of the new creation. We shrink it down to the size of a long weekend or a Facebook page or a promotion at work. We settle for far less than God plans to give. Because we invest all our emotional energy and passion in our immediate future, we have none left for our ultimate future.

Christians of our generation do not spend nearly as much time thinking about our eternal future as did Christians in previous times. The Puritan Richard Baxter said that as he grew older, he meditated more frequently upon the “heavenly blessedness,” and that he preferred to “read, hear or meditate on God and heaven” more than any other subject. Stephen Nichols says that Jonathan Edwards was “consumed by heaven.” Are we? How much time in the last month have we devoted to reading about, praying about, longing for, the new creation? I wonder if, for most of us, we’d have to say it was less than five minutes.

What fruit does a restless longing for the new creation bear?

For one thing, it allows us to die well. I’ve been at enough deathbeds to know that if you’re not confident and excited about what’s coming next for you as a Christian when you die, you’re going to die clinging to this life rather than embracing the life to come. It’s really sad to watch people go that way, with their backs to God’s future. Christians with a passion for the new creation will die facing forward.

Restlessly longing for Heaven also allows us to live well. Richard Baxter said that the mind will be like what it most frequently feeds on. That’s so insightful. If you become absorbed in some mindless reality TV show, you’ll tend to become as flat and shallow as it is. But if you feed your mind on heaven, your soul will begin to look heavenly. For Baxter, heaven was more than a comfort when things in this life were tough–it was also a reality that produced present obedience and strengthened him against sin and temptation. I can testify to the latter in my own life. I remember vividly a time several years ago when my longing to see God in the future (Matt. 5:8) saved me from serious temptation. God’s promised future trumped inferior, sinful promises.

Final question: will too much focus on the new creation make Christians less engaged with this present world? Is there some truth in the old saying about being so heavenly-minded we’re no earthly good?

No, it’s exactly the opposite. C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.” Amen! A paradoxical Christian life of restless patience produces yet another beautiful paradox: we need this world less and love it more. And that love moves us into the world with fearless, fruitful productivity. But you’ll have to read the book to get the full story on this!

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Stephen Witmer is the author of Eternity Changes Everything: How to live now in the light of your future (Good Book Company). He is the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, MA and teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter: @stephenwitmer1.