Doing the recent piece on Hosea and the essential mystery of God (which I now see Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology entitles “God Incomprehensible but yet Knowable” in his 2nd chapter), I was put in mind of the slightly dysfunctional discussion we had on God’s torturing babies infants for pleasure in a previous column.
It struck me that just as we’re told in Scripture that God’s ways are higher than ours, we’re also told that it’s impossible to know what the life to come – and specifically we ourselves – will be like. Maybe it’s for similar reasons. For example, if we’re to rise in the general resurrection, never to age or die, I guess it’s the usual assumption that we will not meet the Lord with our arthritic hips, our blindness or the senile dementia with which we departed this life. Yet neither you nor I have any clear knowledge as to what biological age our resurrection bodies and minds will possess, even if that concept has any meaning in eternal life.
By the same token, whether newborn infants are innocent or guilty, or are in the presence of God, Satan or in Limbo, a little thought will suggest that the last thing they’re likely to remain is newborn infants. You and I were largely formed as people by our social upbringing, so where does that leave a newborn in a resurrection body? I don’t know, and I guess neither does anybody but God. Whatever they were, though, I guess they will be just people, the same as those who died in youthful battle or in senile decay.
In other areas Arminian thinking makes a lot of “what would have beens” – many people end up being saved on what they “would have done” had they heard the gospel, or heard it presented better, or whatever. God gives grace to those he knows will believe if they’re given grace, rather than to give them faith. On that basis I suppose babies could be resurrected as the psychopaths or saints they “would have been”… if the world had not been what it actually is. Personally I don’t like such conditionals, because they suggest the ultimate truth of the cosmos, on which God will judge it, is not what it is, but a whole system of virtual imponderables. It seems to me that this is the world God made, and it’s real – and he knows how to act justly in it. Otherwise, it’s like the immortal reply my college friend gave when I started to complain, “Ah, things would be different…” and he came back, “…if only they weren’t the same.”
But I still don’t know anything worthwhile about the probity of the judgement of infants, or even of adults, because I just don’t know what the world will be like then, nor what we will be like. And that’s the main burden of this post. We mostly think, if we surmise at all, that “eternal life” (or “eternal punishment”) means “forever”. Yet when I was considering God’s being in the previous post, the main dys-analogy with us is that, for most believers, he inhabits a timeless eternity, not an endless sequence of time (which is logically suspect as an ideal: if the past is infinite, “now” never arrives).
On that basis, it could be that the resurrection life is actually a participation in that timelessness of God, rather than “living forever”. Maybe you were taught, as I was, that the eternal life we have now in Christ is more a new “kind” of life than a statement on duration. Maybe this is one way in which that is so.
I can see difficulties with either idea. On the one hand, there is a materialistic earthiness about resurrection life as decribed in the Bible, but also even as seen in its first exemplar, the risen Lord. We will have bodies, and it seems we will be capable of eating and drinking. There is a new heavens, yes, but also a new earth which is the home of righteousness. But such bodily things seem difficult to imagine without the continuance of some comparable physical laws to those we have, of which the most basic is time – and time’s most basic property seems to be entropy. Eternal life that ends in heat death doesn’t seem quite what God has in mind.
On the other hand, not only is eternal timelessness hard to imagine, and harder to imagine in the context of the hope of the resurrection rather than in some kind of disembodied Platonic or Gnostic state, but it seems to have weird implications – if we become co-eternal with God, does that loop us back into being participants in our own creation? Is the eternal “now” compatible with change and development, or do we become perfect like God himself? Is that what “participation in the divine nature” means (2 Pet 1.4)?
Since we are deliberately not told (“eye has not seen,” etc), it’s pointless speculating. And yet what we have been told might make us less willing, if we consider it, to be too settled in our views. For example, on the word of Christ all three synoptic gospels tell us that “those considered worthy of the age to come” shall neither be married nor given in marriage, but will be like the angels. That seems to imply the violation of our Human Right to a Family Life, as no marriage means no children, no children means no fun with kites and train-sets, and Jesus is expecting us to sit on clouds singing boring hymns all day…
Well, given the state of Evangelicalism today, I’ve no doubt at all that some young-blood New Testament scholar is calling Jesus out on that depressing error on his blog even as I write. But again, what we really have in his word to us is a hint to remind us that God is in heaven, and we are on earth, and that his plans are unknowable until he reveals them.
Luke’s account, though, adds the interesting phrase, “They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.” Now, I ask myself why being God’s children (in some sense other than that applied to all believers even now) through the resurrection would make it any more appropriate that marriage is not part of the scene. And the only thing I can come up with is that, in some way and to some extent, we will participate in some of the nature of God that makes such things inappropriate to him. The difference between the resurrection body and the present one is, after all, that the latter is “flesh” and the former “spirit”. Yet it’s still a body, and recognisably so, for “a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see that I have.”
No conclusions to this piece – I just wanted to open up some intractable mysteries to ponder, not least so that we are hesitant to pin God down on what would or would not be good in the age he has not yet brought into being. Such mysteries are a lot better to ponder than those arising as logical conundrms from incoherent theology! It’s sufficiently (and necessarily) encouraging, though, for us to learn to acknowledge that our Father has a good track record on creation so far – even that’s far from universal in these heterodox times, as GD has pointed out here.