As I opened the large wooden door leading to the hallway, I waited for the middle-aged man to shake my hand and say goodbye now that our spiritual care session was over. Gathering his things, he made for the door but stopped right in front of me, hesitating to confess one more thing.
Grabbing my hand, he said, "Thanks for today, pastor; I really needed that. But I have one other problem that maybe we can talk about next time." "Oh, what's that?" I said. "Well, it's just that I know you always point me to the promises of God and tell me that in the end, God will make all things right…but the thing is, I'm terrified of eternal life. I mean, it's eternal. Forever and ever, you know? I don't think I want to live forever and ever, no matter how good it is. Things should have their end." "I think you have enough to think about this week, so why don't we come back to that anxiety next time?" I replied. "Haha, sure thing, pastor, I've got lots of things to say!"
I think the problem with the idea of eternity is that we do not have any direct experience of it, but we encounter enough of its possibility to be unsettling.
Closing the door behind him, I returned to my desk with a slight smile. "Him too!" I thought. I remember having the same anxiety as a child one night, saying my prayers. There was a bad summer thunderstorm on that particular night, and being young and fearful, I prayed for it to end. After the storm had passed, I was saying thank you to God and wondering if there would be storms in heaven. But that got me thinking that heaven would be forever, and that unnerved me. Of course, like my friend, I knew heaven would be perfect and blessed, a place of joy. But I also knew that eternity is a place without end. And that promise of everlastingness is foreign to human experience. That foreignness, like all things unknown, can cause fear or worry. My young self swept the thoughts under a mental rug, but now, in my late 30s, this man had revived them. And as I sat down to think, I realized that the idea—irrational as it was in light of Christian truth—was still distressing.
I think the problem with the idea of eternity is that we do not have any direct experience of it, but we encounter enough of its possibility to be unsettling. We experience the eternal in part. It is like when a person imagines what a dish might smell like while watching a cooking show on TV. We have enough experience to surmise but not enough direct experience to know fully. When it comes to understanding the eternal, we know what it is to live and what it is to have a history. We know the power and force of memory, which offers us the strange capability of drawing the past into the present, even if in that conjuring, the past remains gone. And in our premonitions, we can desire and forecast a future, trawling the "not yet" into the present moment as if it were almost real. Our minds can play with time, and so grasp a sense of what the eternal might be.
When Christ says that he comes to give life and life to the fullest (John 10:10), the life he offers is eternal. The scandalous claim of Christianity is that bodies—not simply souls separated from them—will live forever. These fleshly frames, these bag of bones, will live (Ex. 37:1-10). Central to our salvation is the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come (Phil. 3:20-21). But that coming has no end because Jesus has already defeated death (2 Tim 1:10). Think about that: there is no death. No end, no point at which what will then become the present state of existence will stop. That is what is promised in eternal life, that the Kingdom of God, when fully arrived, will never cease to be—that you and I will not cease to be (Ps. 135:14). Time—the measurement of movement—will become a word less meaningful than it is now. Who will care for time when those measured movements don't threaten or when change and decay, loss and forgetfulness, are extinct? What role will our memories play, then? No theologian knows though much speculation has ensued.
Because we can experience the theoretical side of eternity in memory and desire, and because this life is filled with sufferings and sadness, even knowing that a perfect and good world will be here does not negate the human fear of boredom or being trapped or simply finding that even heaven cannot content us.
The anxiety of eternal life seems to stem from our imperfect understanding of eternity now in relation to our more tangible experience of life. Because we can experience the theoretical side of eternity in memory and desire, and because this life is filled with sufferings and sadness, even knowing that a perfect and good world will be here does not negate the human fear of boredom or being trapped or simply finding that even heaven cannot content us. Theologically, these are silly worries, but practically, they harass many.
Part of the reason I suspect this seems true is that we are Western people who are rich and full of opportunity. By historical standards, we live in a world that the ancients could hardly even imagine for their celestial heavens. Good medicine, cars, planes, access to food, and telecommunications. The internet alone allows us instant answers and commentary to any question. At no time in human history has so much knowledge been so easily acceptable and so freely given. But that is part of the challenge. All these things are part of our lived experience. They factor into our thoughts about what it means to live and, by extension, live eternal life. We have things just good enough to be bored, sad, worried, or dissatisfied. For every desire that we meet, we find ourselves just a little bit more dissatisfied. But that doesn't mean we want to go back to the dark ages or become impoverished again. So, we linger in the limbo of privileged experience, neither hot nor cold; alive, but spread so thin we have lost our depths. Finding them often is an existential crisis and requires rewriting our stories and our appraisal of truth.
In the past, the Good News of eternal life was fantastic indeed. When life was, as the political philosopher Thomas Hobbs surmised, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" (he wasn't much of an optimist), the news of a life that offered paradisal bliss was not only one worth having but gave meaning to the horrible experience of suffering and poverty (and short lives) that made up much of human history. But now, engorged with endless pleasures and opportunities to have them, we have become weary of eternity and suspicious of even the promise of everlasting joy.
Countering this requires a steady trust in the words of God and, perhaps, a practical reassessment of the idols that make a home in our hearts. Christ says that he makes all things new. This newness means the human experience as much as the renewal of creation itself. We are bored and scared now because we live in a world of sin and in bodies of sin. We cannot fathom a place where there is no conflict, competition, and, to some extent, no desire. At least, not desire for needs, since all needs will be met. Human experience now is always sin-experience. Not that all experience is sin, but that all human experience is situated in sinful bondage and brokenness and thus does not operate from a neutral place of purpose or perspective. Therefore, heaven is truly a foreign country, so illusively veiled by everyday experience that we can hardly decipher a perfect vision of its reality. Thus, the traditional image of heaven as clouds, while clearly not literally accurate, symbolizes the ethereal, wispy, and unstructured vision of our imagination. It is an attempt to grasp from human experience a reality that is "not yet" and, therefore, in some sense, not ours to see.
But we can do this: we can trust the One who died for us and defeated death. In so doing, Christ condemned sinful human experience (in his death) and exalted redeemed human experience (in his resurrection).  We can trust his way is better. We can trust that the newness he brings is not simply a removal of all that is bad in creation today (thus making eternal life into the leftovers that remain after sin's curse is lifted) but is also a remaking into something new. Jesus' incarnation, death, and resurrection have not simply restored humanity to a past state of perfection. No, Jesus is the new Adam; he makes things new. That means the work of Christ does not only remove past sin but creates new life. And that life is one suited for the presence of God, indwelling life with God and man. That new life is dynamic, not static, more robust, more fulfilling, and more intimately connected with the Triune God of love.
Paradoxes are often logic's surrender to a Divine reality that can only be construed now as wonder.
If you have ever had the experience of being so joyfully present in a moment that you lost track of time, that you were so joyous that you didn't even have an awareness that you were joyous because the present experience was so enrapturing that it prohibited the distraction of self-reflection, then you know what it is to be in the moment, taking in what is present and given in such a way that time does not control the experience. That—I think—is the closest we can come to understand what the new life in Christ, in eternity, might be like—as a human experience. It is not that it will just be perfect; it will be wholly different in its perfection; we will be so at rest that the tribulations of our current dissatisfaction and fears will have no place to enter and no spring from which to gurgle forth. Augustine, at the end of his City of God, comments on how God is always at rest (since he finished his creative work on the seventh day) but, paradoxically, always at work since he cares for us and creation. He speculated our lives in heaven would reflect this paradox in God; we would be at perfect peace and rest but also engaged in active worship and neither bored, bloated, or bereaved. Paradoxes are often logic's surrender to a Divine reality that can only be construed now as wonder. And wonder dazzles the imagination even as it confounds it.
Thus, we say to those agitated by things unknown: hold fast to the promises of Christ. In them, we find the reality of eternal life as a reality set in God and not a present experience. And that reality offers us life as life should be. Time as time should be. Love and love should be. And peace and peace should be. Even rest as rest should be. All this—because Christ lived, died, and rose again. Such an understanding brings new depths to John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life." Amen?
 Of course, I am not saying this is the work of justification itself guised in some symbolic form. Rather, I am saying that in Christ’s atoning and justifying work, human experience was included and subsumed in its operation. Because Christ makes all things new, and does so through his own bodily sacrifice, it necessarily is true that fleshy human experience is caught up fully in the renewing work of God in Christ.