By Justin Rossow
In his famous allegorical narrative, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis has his most reliable character say: “Both good and evil, when they are fully grown, become retrospective.” In other words, from your eternal vantage point in the New Creation, even your life in the present, fallen world will be remembered through the lens of eternity. As one who is saved, redeemed, and resurrected, you will be able to say that your experience of everlasting joy in the presence of Jesus had already begun in your temporal joy in the presence of Jesus. “Heaven,” Lewis says, “works backwards” (that is, from your future eternity back into your present reality).
Although Lewis in intentionally using poetic language (this is allegory, after all), he is expressing an important truth you can back up with Scripture. Without thinking about it all too much, we typically divide the timeline of our own salvation into temporal and eternal; suffering and glory; earth and heaven. But that’s far too close to a Platonic physical vs spiritual, body vs soul dualism to be thoroughly biblical. Pushing Lewis just a little further, I think I would put it this way: your eternal life starts now.
That doesn’t jive with the way we usually think about the temporal (as opposed to the eternal). And if saying it that way grates on the ear a little, I take that as a good sign that something important is afoot. The Scriptures often talk in ways that seem odd at to us at first.
Take the Apostle Paul, for example. Instead of making time and eternity two opposite poles, Paul seems to deal with categories like now and then; or already and not yet; or faith as opposed to sight. In Paul’s thought, the baptized believer has already, in a sense, experienced both death and resurrection. You have already died to sin and been made alive to God in Christ Jesus. Your eternity starts now, even though your eternal life is still hidden.
But the key difference for Paul is between what is hidden and revealed, what is unseen and then seen, what is true by faith, and then, what will also one day be true by sight.
It’s not that you are living one kind of earthly life now, and then you will live a different kind of eternal life in heaven. No; you are living an eternal and heavenly life already now by faith; in the New Creation you will live that same eternal and heavenly life, with one important difference: you will live your eternal life by sight. But it’s not a completely different life: your eternal life starts already now.
Look at how Paul can talk about your death and resurrection that has already taken place (by faith) and has not yet taken place (by sight):
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Galatians 2:20 (NIV)
Your death has already, in a sense, taken place. But so has your resurrection. Your eternal life is already being lived out; but being lived out by faith.
In him [Jesus] you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self, ruled by the flesh, was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ.
Colossians 2:11-13 (NIV)
OK; we’re not used to the circumcision metaphor, but you get the point. You were in a state of being dead and buried, and now you are already raised to new, resurrection life; life you live “in Christ” and “through faith.” The fundamental change from death to life has already take place, you just can’t see it yet! Your eternal life starts now.
Paul continues this theme in the next chapter:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Colossians 3:1-3 (NIV)
You have already been raised with Christ! Your eternal life starts now! And yet, the eternal, New Creation life you are already living is still (for a time) concealed under your experience of life in this fallen world. Your eternal life is, for now, still hidden—but hidden with Christ, so that when Jesus returns and the New Creation begins (by sight, and not only by faith) then you will also appear as you really are. The eternal life you are living now by faith will be revealed then to sight.
You can’t exactly see it yet; certainly not like you will one day see it, but your eternal life starts now. One more quote from Paul (because I think we regularly misunderstand this one):
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.
Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Romans 3:3-11 (ESV)
We read these verses at funerals quite regularly. But I kind of think that misses the point. I mean, these verses do tell you something about the resurrection of the dead. But these verses are primarily about living out your (still hidden) resurrection life, by faith (ahead of time).
We are already (by faith) dead and buried, and already (by faith) walking in newness of life. We have already (in baptism) died with Christ, and we already now, ahead of time (by faith) live with him. We are already dead, and already alive; with Christ and in Christ.
(Ironically, the thing these verses we often read at funerals don’t actually refer to is what’s going on at a funeral: your loved one is at peace and with the Lord, but no longer “walking in newness of life” ahead of time, by faith, and not yet experiencing the full life of the world to come that only finds its consummation in the actual bodily resurrection of the dead. Read Romans 6 at baptisms, not funerals.)
Those are just a few verses from Paul, but they capture a broader New Testament theme. We aren’t just trudging along in a dreary temporal life waiting for eternity to start when we die and go to heaven. Already now, by faith, you have already died. And already now, by faith, you have already been raised from the dead. Your eternal life starts now.
The people you love who belong to Jesus will belong to Jesus forever: your eternal relationship with your faith family begins now.
The eternal praise of saints and angels around the throne is already being sung by the fallen but redeemed people of God: your eternal worship begins now.
The Jesus whom you will one day see with resurrection eyes and grasp with New Creation hands already comes to dwell with you in your present struggle, grief, or pain: your eternal comfort begins now.
Your life now is not yet what it is going to be. Your present joy is still tainted with temporal sorrow. And yet, the life you are already living by faith, the joy you hold onto even now through tears, is the first down payment of your inheritance; the foretaste of the feast to come.
When you open resurrection eyes and taste untainted, unending joy, something will seem familiar; you will recognize the aroma of heaven. When your New Creation voice joins in the eternal song of the redeemed, you will find you already know the tune, because you have been humming it for years.
Your future is already reaching back into your present.
In that sense, C. S. Lewis was right: heaven does work backwards. In Jesus, your eternal starts now.