For Christians, perhaps the deepest expression of what we’re waiting for is found in the phrase “eternal life.” But what is eternal life? Why do we want it? And how do we know if we have it?
In Eternity Is Now in Session, bestselling 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—and that being saved is merely about meeting the minimal entrance requirements for getting into heaven. Instead, John 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.
Jesus defined eternal life just once, in John 17:3: “. . . that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The kind of “knowing God” that is eternal life is an interactive relationship, not just an affirmation of certain facts about God. Once we begin the transformative journey of truly knowing God, we can start to experience His presence, favor, and resurrection power right here on this earth—in the details, tasks, and challenges of daily, ordinary life.
And as we begin to know God this way, we’ll realize each moment of our lives is a vehicle to the eternity we’ve been longing for all along.
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Read an Excerpt
[The Widow Douglas] told me all about the bad place, and I said I wished I was there. ... She said it was wicked to say what I said ... she was going to live so as to go to the good place. ... She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. ... Well, I couldn't see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn't try for it.
MARK TWAIN, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Most human beings believe in an afterlife. And in most cases, this belief involves a good place and a bad place.
If you're a good person, and you embrace the right beliefs, you go to the good place. If you're not, and you don't, you go to the bad place. Seems simple enough.
If you were to ask people what they believe heaven will be like, some would halfheartedly describe it like the Widow Douglas's harp community. Others think of it as an eternal pleasure factory, where you are always happy, you have amazing superpowers, and you can do whatever you want. In the movie Defending Your Life, heaven is depicted as a place where you can eat all the carbs and fat you want because they have no calories. The TV series The Good Place features a utopian afterlife where angel Ted Danson allows only "good people." In the initial plot twist, the central character is allowed in by accident and has to fake being good. In the season's final plot twist, it turns out that Ted Danson is not an angel (should have seen that one coming) and the Good Place is actually the Bad Place.
Most people think heaven is a place where anybody would love to spend eternity as long as they're allowed in. This view of heaven leads people to wonder, Why doesn't God let more people in?
The problem with these views of heaven is that they're not true. People are taking their picture of heaven from movies rather than thoughtful, sober, grownup reflection on what Jesus said. "Movie heaven" is pretty much a pleasure factory that anybody would enjoy as long as they were allowed in.
But the life after death that Jesus describes is very different from "movie heaven." Here's the main truth to know about heaven: heaven will be life with God.
In fact, in heaven, it will be impossible to avoid God.
It's not like heaven is an immense place and you have to track God down somewhere, like finding the Wizard of Oz. Heaven does not contain God; God contains heaven. So becoming the kind of person who wants heaven — uninterrupted life with God — is a problem because I often want freedom to do things I don't want God to see. Real heaven means life where my every thought, deed, and word lie ceaselessly open to God. For eternity.
Have you ever committed a sexual sin? I'll bet you didn't do it while your mother was watching you. That would have taken all the fun out of it. In order to commit sin and enjoy it, you have to be someplace your mother isn't. In heaven, there is no place where God is not. Once you're in heaven, there is nowhere to run to for a quick sin. If you want to gossip, hoard, judge, self-promote, overindulge, or be cynical, where will you go?
Dallas Willard writes of a time his two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter wanted to play in the forbidden mud, so she kept saying to her grandmother, "Don't look at me, Nana." Thus "the tender soul of a little child shows us how necessary it is to us that we be unobserved in our wrong." That's why the promise of hiddenness sells. "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." This is perhaps the real sinner's prayer, offered before every forbidden act, word, and thought: "Don't look at me, God." In heaven that prayer can be neither offered nor answered.
In other words, heaven is the kind of place where people who want to sin would be miserable. A nonsmoking restaurant is great if you're a nonsmoker but miserable to a nicotine addict. What brings joy to one creature may torture another. C. S. Lewis once wrote that "a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined."
Heaven is a certain kind of community where humility and honesty and servanthood and generosity of spirit are as predictable as gravity is here. As John Henry Newman wrote, "Heaven is not for everyone: it is an acquired taste."
People often criticize Christianity because they think it envisions heaven as an exclusive club that everyone desperately wants to get into and that God is trying to keep people out of. The reality that Jesus taught, however, is that no one really wants heaven.
The hymn "Rock of Ages" has a telling line:
Be of sin the double cure; Save from wrath and make me pure.
It's not hard to want the "save from wrath" part of the cure. God was so willing to save us from wrath that he sent Jesus to the cross so that he could experience ultimate spiritual death in our place. Anyone would want to be saved from wrath. We're often a little more ambivalent about "make me pure."
Our issue with heaven is not so much about getting in; it's about becoming the kind of person for whom heaven would be an appropriate and welcome setting. If I don't want the unceasing presence of God in my life now, how could I truly want an eternity in the ceaseless presence of God, where the possibility of any sinful action or thought — no matter how desirable — is forever cut off?
If that's the case, who will get in?
If you ever find yourself anxious about "getting in," the best thought I know is not about what arrangement can take away your anxiety but about God. And the thought is this: God will do the absolute best he can by every human being for all eternity. Including you. In light of his Father's goodness, Jesus advised, "Do not worry about tomorrow" (Matthew 6:34). And if God can take care of one tomorrow, he can take care of an eternity of them.
Surely the message that God gave his Son to die on a cross for our sins is the ultimate statement of his limitless desire to forgive and restore human beings. Dallas Willard put it like this: "I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it."
That statement often provokes surprise or a chuckle. But if you stop to think about it, it must be true. Why else would God send his Son to die on our behalf?
The problem is that "standing it" may be more difficult than we imagine — especially for those of us hoping for the eternal pleasure factory. That is why, in The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis writes that "the doors of hell are locked on the inside." Hell is the absence of God, and more people want that than you think. I suspect that's why we sometimes speak of only a stairway to heaven but a highway to hell.
There is some good news, though. Eternal life is far more than getting into heaven. Remember, eternal life is qualitative — it makes a difference in the kind of life we live — more than it is quantitative. And Jesus taught about that life. More than getting us into heaven, he taught how to get heaven into us.
THE GOOD NEWS
You can tell a lot about people by where they get their news. If people are on one side of the political spectrum, they might get their news from one source; if they're on the other side, they might get it from another source.
Where do you get your news?
Jesus was, among other things, in the news-announcing business. That may sound odd; we often think of news as a modern invention. Yet we read that "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria" (Matthew 4:23-24, emphasis added).
There's a key distinction here that we can miss. Jesus teaches — he gives instruction or advice on how to live. But he also preaches, or proclaims. Today we associate preaching with churches and telling people what to do. But preaching wasn't used that way in Jesus' time. It wasn't even a religious word. It was a "news" word.
Jesus went around announcing that something had happened. And it wasn't just news; it was good news. That's what the word gospel means.
Most people have heard of the word gospel. But most people — even most church people — do not know the gospel that Jesus himself announced.
So what is the Good News that Jesus himself proclaimed?
When that question was first posed to me, I had been a pastor for many years. I had been through seminary and then some. I was a "licensed minister of the gospel," and if you are licensed in something, you should understand it. Yet I had never thought about Jesus preaching a gospel. I had thought of the gospel as something that got invented after he died.
But Jesus did have a gospel. The New Testament writers are very clear about it. And if Jesus thought something was the biggest news in history, it is unthinkable that people who follow him don't know it.
Mark summarizes Jesus' gospel carefully at the beginning of Jesus' ministry: "After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news [gospel] of God. 'The time has come,' he said. 'The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!'" (Mark 1:14-15).
After choosing his disciples, Jesus "called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:1-2).
After Jesus rose from the dead, "he appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3).
And in the last glimpse we have of the early church in the book of Acts, Paul "boldly and without hindrance ... preached the kingdom of God" (Acts 28:31).
Jesus' good news — his gospel — is simply this: the Kingdom of God has now, through Jesus, become available for ordinary human beings to live in.
It's here. Now. You can live in it if you want to.
This good news was ultimately vindicated by his death and resurrection and has since gone viral, but it is still Jesus' gospel.
New Testament scholar Matthew Bates notes that from the earliest days of the church, the accounts of Jesus' life were not titled "The Gospel of Mark," "The Gospel of Matthew," and so on. Instead they were titled "The gospel according to Mark" and "The gospel according to Matthew." The idea here is that there is only one gospel, and it belongs to Jesus. It was first expressed by him. It is the gospel of Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (and Peter and Paul, too, for that matter) were simply writing about the gospel that Jesus articulated and made possible.
Which raises a question: What is the gospel according to you? We all — religious or not — build our lives on some gospel, some "good news" that we believe can redeem our existence. Maybe it's money or success or reputation or health or marriage. Everybody has a gospel.
This is Jesus' gospel: God is present here and now. God is acting. You can revise your plans for living around this cosmic opportunity to daily experience God's favor and power.
Some people teach that the only real reason Jesus came to earth was to die on the cross. But death on the cross was only one part of his mission. His overall mission was to be the Kingdom bringer.
His one gospel was the gospel of the availability of the Kingdom.
His one purpose was to model the reality of that Kingdom in his life, death, and resurrection.
His one command was to pursue the Kingdom.
His one plan was for his people to extend the Kingdom.
He invites you, as a gracious gift, to become an agent of the Kingdom — to experience God's reign in your own life, body, and will and then to become a conduit of God's power, joy, and love to bruised and bleeding humanity all around you.
Jesus himself had a gospel to proclaim, and unless we begin with that gospel and take it as our central framework, clarified and deepened by the Crucifixion and Resurrection, we are apt to distort the gospel into a backstage, all-access pass to heaven. If we do not start with the gospel Jesus taught, we will end up with a gospel he did not teach. The gospel of Jesus' Kingdom offers the salvation of despairing individuals and the healing of systemic injustice. It is the hope of the world.
Yet millions of people who claim his name could not tell you what the Kingdom is.
We don't use the word Kingdom often anymore. So let's start there.
WELCOME TO THE KINGDOM
Everyone has a kingdom — in the biblical sense.
Your kingdom is that little sphere in which what you say goes. Your kingdom is the "range of [y]our effective will."
People learn they were made to have kingdoms early on. It's why we don't like to be told what to do. One of my wife's favorite expressions is "You're not the boss of me." It's one of my favorites too.
What is a two-year-old's favorite word? No. Their second favorite? Mine. They're learning they have a kingdom. That's kingdom language.
On car trips, little kids asked to "share" the backseat will usually draw an invisible line. In doing so, they're saying, "You'd better not cross over. This is my kingdom." They begin to defend their kingdoms. But Dad thinks the car is his kingdom. He warns the kids to settle down and sends his hand into the backseat. The kids shrink into the corner. Comedian Ken Davis advises that when this happens, "a touch on the brakes brings them right into play." Thy kingdom come.
My kingdom is the range of my effective will. It's the sphere where things go the way I want them to go.
Having a kingdom is a good thing. It's part of what God made you for: "Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion'" (Genesis 1:26, NRSV). "Dominion" is kingdom language.
My family was taking a walk on a path through some hills. A man whose house was on the path came out of his house and asked us what our dog's name was. I thought he was being friendly.
Suddenly he screamed at us that we were on private property. He unleashed a barrage of profanity-laced hostility that caught us all off guard in its meanness.
Whose kingdom was he living in?
That man was living in what might be called the "kingdom of self." This is my kingdom. I'll guard it. I won't share it. If you violate my kingdom, I'll kill you. We had trespassed on his kingdom.
On earth, all our little kingdoms intersect and merge and form larger kingdoms — families, corporations, nations, and economic, political, and cultural systems. We could call that whole conglomeration the "kingdom of the earth." And that kingdom is junked up by sin.
Let's do a contrast study for a moment.
Jesus says there is a domain called the "Kingdom of God." It is the range of God's effective will. It is wherever God's will is done. It is the sphere in which everything that happens meets with God's approval and delight. Everything is precisely as God wants it to be — where the greatest humble themselves like little children. There are no big shots. No arrogant egos. No one ever has an anxious thought. Every encounter between people causes them to walk away with more joy than they had before they met. As the apostle Paul says, "The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). Watching over this whole realm as its greatest servant and most joyful caretaker is the magnificent God — the Father of Jesus — who is endlessly celebrated for his infinite, self-giving love.
This, Jesus said, is the Kingdom of God. It exists. Right now. People you know and love who trusted God and have died and gone before us are immersed in this reality right now.
Then there is the "kingdom of the earth." How's that going?
Violence. Betrayal. Thousands of babies dying daily due to malnutrition. Women being sexually assaulted or marginalized or objectified by men. People killing others in the name of religion. God's creation getting polluted. Vows of fidelity being broken. Racial injustice constantly smoldering and often exploding. Culture wars. The politicization of almost everything. Cynicism and fear and depression and isolation. Who does it look like is running the show here?
Things in the kingdom of the earth are not going well. There is not much good news for the poor or weak or old or plain or uneducated or vulnerable.
But Jesus has a plan. He describes it in the world's most famous prayer:
Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Eternity is Now in Session"
Copyright © 2018 John Ortberg.
Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Are We There Yet? 1
Part 1 Rethinking Salvation
1 Breaking News 11
2 The Minimum Entrance Requirements 29
3 Follow Me 47
Part 2 Walking with Jesus
Interlude The Great Journey 67
4 Awakening: Seeing God Everywhere 75
5 Purgation: Leaving Baggage Behind 99
6 Illumination: A New Mental Map 125
7 Union: Never Alone 147
About the Author 185