A startling thing has happened among modern Christians in the western world. Many of us habitually think and act as if there is no eternity—or, as if what we do in this present life has no bearing on eternity. How many sermons about heaven or hell have most of us heard lately? How many books or articles have you read on the subject? How many long discussions with Christian friends, pondering the wonders of eternity? How many gospel booklets even mention the words “heaven” or “hell”? (Look carefully—you may be surprised.)
The trend today is to focus not on our eternal future (who cares about the “sweet bye and bye”?) but our present circumstances, as if this world were our home. Yet Scripture states the reality of our eternal future should dominate and determine the character of our present life, right down to the words we speak and the actions we take (James 2:12; 2 Peter 3:11-12).
This world is not our home. It’s a motel room we occupy on the way to our true home, which the Carpenter from Nazareth promised he would prepare for our arrival (John 14:1-3). On the day we die true Christians don’t leave home, we finally arrive home! While we’re here, Scripture calls us “aliens” and “strangers” and “ambassadors” and says our citizenship is not in this world but in heaven.
In those rare times American Christians seriously consider the afterlife, it seems strange, dreamlike, so other-worldly as to be unreal. So we come back to “reality”—our present lives and plans and possessions that we can see and hear and touch and feel and taste. Things are real. Now is real. So we return quickly to the pressing business of the day, that which is immediately relevant, those all-important matters of the present. These might include what’s happening in Hollywood or on Wall Street or in Washington or London, or what new self-help technique can make us beautiful or happy, or how we can decorate our house, or what kind of car we want to buy or where we can get a low-interest loan.
Our devotion to the newspaper and neglect of the Bible is the ultimate testimony to our interest in the short-range over the long-range. (The Bible gives us the eternal focus we need to put current events in perspective; the newspaper tells us how people are living, the Bible how we were meant to live.) We fail to ask how expensive clothes, cruises, facelifts, breast implants and liposuctions will serve eternal purposes. Such questions are fit for dusty theologians and pious old ladies, we think, not us. (Which would be true enough if only dusty theologians and pious old ladies died, met their Maker, and spent eternity somewhere!)
Our obliviousness to eternity leaves us experts in the trivial, and novices in the significant. We can name that tune, name that starting lineup, name that actor’s movie debut, name that country’s leading export, and detail the differences between computer models or types of four wheel drives. None of this is wrong, of course, but it is certainly revealing when we consider that most Christians, let alone the general public, do not even have an accurate picture of what the Bible says will happen to us after we die. We major in the momentary and minor in the momentous!
What does God have to say about our lives here? He says this life is so brief that we are like grass that grows up in the morning and wilts in the afternoon (Isaiah 40:6-8). Our life here is but “mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
When a good friend discovered she had only a short time to live, she told me of her radical changes in perspective. “The most striking thing that’s happened,” she said, “is that I find myself totally uninterested in all the conversations about material things. Things used to matter to me, but now I find my thoughts are never on possessions, but always on Christ and people. I consider it a privilege that I can live each day knowing I will die soon. What a difference it makes!”
David likewise sought to gain God’s perspective in light of the brevity of life: Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath. Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro; He bustles about, but only in vain: he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it. But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you. (Psalm 39:4-7)
Because this life is so brief we might easily conclude it is also inconsequential. Indeed, from a human perspective it is inconsequential—all but a few lives are like a pebble dropped in a pond. They create ripples but for a moment, tiny ripples that smooth out then are gone forever. A look at abandoned tombstones with names no one remembers is a stark reminder of our eventual anonymity in this world. What do you know about your great grandfather? What will your great grandchildren know about you?
Our brief stay here may seem unimportant, but nothing could be further from the truth! The Bible tells us that while many men will not know or care what our lives here have been, God knows and cares very much. So much that the door of eternity swings on the hinges of our present lives on earth.
The Bible tells us it is this life that lays the foundation upon which eternal life is built. Eternity will hold for us what this life has invested in it.
No wonder Scripture makes clear that the one central business of this life is to prepare for the next.