It just so happens that I am writing this paragraph on the first day of summer vacation. When you were a kid you probably didn’t realize this, but teachers are actually more excited about school holidays than the students. For me, the countdown to summer usually begins immediately following spring break (Actually, who am I kidding? It starts the second week in September). I add up the remaining school days, write the number up on the board in my classroom, and then begin the countdown with mounting excitement.
The problem is, these days summer doesn’t quite live up to the hype and expectations I place on it. First of all, I have a three-year-old son and a new daughter coming in a couple weeks. And as all parents know, summer is not actually a vacation. Second, in addition to being a teacher I’m now also a pastor, so “summer vacation” no longer means sleeping in and lounging around the pool; it means more time spent at the church office. And third, the older I get, the faster time seems to fly. When I was a kid, summer seemed like a glorious eternity. Now it feels like about five minutes. I blink, and it’s September again.
But remember back to when you were a child, waking up on the first day of summer vacation. You rub your eyes, confused for a moment, wondering whether you’re late for school. And then it hits you: school is over! Ecstasy wells up in your heart, and—depending on how old you were—you either jump out of bed eager to start your adventures, or contentedly roll over and go back to sleep. Try to recall the anticipation of endless golden possibilities stretching out ahead of you with no end in sight. That feeling of undiluted joy must be one of the best emotions in the entire world. Most of us grownups are, deep down, still chasing that feeling. Whether it’s planning family vacations or simply working for the weekend, we’re in an endless quest to track down those memories of joy and recapture that sense of freedom.
CHASING A MIRAGE
The problem is, those feelings are a mirage. Chase them all you want, and you’ll only ever end up grasping at smoke. Even if you try to recapture that childhood wonder by planning the perfect family vacation, I guarantee that your trip will be marred by bickering and frustration. And even if it’s wonderful, it will end and you’ll find yourself back at work the next Monday. Try to chase peace and contentment by working for the weekend, and you’ll quickly find yourself back at work on Monday too. You can’t put the lightning back in the bottle.
And when you look more closely, you’ll find that even your childhood memories have betrayed you. Those summers that you wax nostalgic about were not all rose-tinted and wonderful. They were filled with disappointments and scraped knees and hurt feelings and math worksheets. Even back then, the summer didn’t live up to the hype that it offered on the first day of vacation.
Everything in this broken world turns out similarly. The things we hang our hopes on never quite deliver, the reality never quite lives up to the hype, the anticipation is never quite matched by the outcome. We can’t get back to Neverland. And it turns out that Neverland itself was a mis-remembering. This is what Romans 8 calls “creation subjected to futility.” Nothing is able to provide lasting fulfillment, and every joy has a hollow and unstable center.
So where do these longings come from, if they don’t come from our memories? Why are we haunted by a desire for something we’ve never actually experienced, a home we’ve never actually known? All our lives we’re chasing something, an unnamed itch we can’t scratch, a happy ending that never truly arrives. This is a peculiar predicament we find ourselves in. We are homesick in our own homes, unsatisfied and yet unable to even articulate what satisfaction would look like.
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis lays out the problem and solution succinctly. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” The reason we have these longings for joy is not because we are trying to return to some earlier time in childhood, but because our hearts yearn for the world we were truly made for. The innate and inextinguishable desires in our hearts are clues, arrows pointing back to our original home and forward to the destiny into which God invites us.
The whole storyline of reality that we have been tracing resonates on the same frequency as these deepest longings, proving that the story written in Scripture is also etched in our souls. The epic narrative of king and country—a lost crown, exile from fellowship with our Creator, and his quest to rebuild our shattered realm—is the story for which we were made. It gives meaning to life, purpose to pain, and answers to our deepest questions. This story plugs into our aching, unsatisfied hearts and fits like a missing puzzle piece into the mystery of human existence. Through the lens of this story, we discover how our unmet desires, broken world, and God-given purpose all align.
And in every story, the ending is what makes or breaks the narrative. And in the conclusion of the story of king and country we have the greatest possible finale, a culmination which ties together every thread of the human experience. Every “happily ever after” in books or movies that ever stirred our souls is a faint echo of this great and glorious consummation. This is the ending we were made for, the happily ever after that we’ve been chasing our entire lives.
CLOUDS AND HARPS?
But before we can appreciate the ending for what it is, we first have to understand what it isn’t. For something has gone drastically wrong in our modern, Western understanding of our place in this story and where’s it all headed. For most of church history, believers have understood the true ending of the story, the full-bodied hope of resurrected bodies, resurrection life, and a resurrected world. But more recently, this flesh-and-blood hope has been replaced with the much simpler, much less satisfying ending of “going to heaven.” When you die, this new story says, your soul goes to be with Jesus, and you’re reunited with loved ones who died in Christ, and it’s peaceful and spiritual and vaguely ethereal. And maybe there are clouds and harps involved. Or at least that’s what all the cartoons about heaven seem to suggest.
The derailment of the biblical narrative probably traces its origins back to the fundamentalist-modernist controversies at the beginning of the twentieth century. The core of the controversy at the time was a debate over the “supernatural” elements of the gospel story—virgin births, empty tombs, etc. Modernists complained that sophisticated contemporary people could never accept such fantastical fairy tales, and so proposed a more flesh-and-blood, here-and-now understanding of Christianity rooted not in miracles but moralism. Fundamentalists countered with a doubling-down on the reality of the spiritual and eternal and miraculous.
This was a good and necessary defense that preserved the truth of the gospel for future generations. But in doing so, the defenders of biblical truth accidently overcorrected. The wedge driven between spiritual truths and physical reality subtly tore asunder what God had always intended to be joined together. Over time, the “modernist” churches increasingly emphasized physical and temporal realities and called Christians to engage with those issues, and downplayed or jettisoned the spiritual aspects of the gospel. Fundamentalists, and later evangelicals, responded by increasingly emphasizing the importance of conversion and faith, and often downplayed or jettisoned the physical and temporal causes that “liberals” advocated. And so, over time, a subtle shift in evangelical thinking was introduced, in which spiritual realities became more and more important until the point where the gospel was primarily a message about an otherworldly afterlife and how to participate in it. Thus, the message of the gospel became, “Believe in Jesus and you will go to heaven when you die.” The Bible’s actual emphasis on the redemption of all things, the restoration of every corner of reality, and the physical resurrection and reign of God’s people was somehow lost in translation. Our ancient creeds’ confidence in “the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting” over time shrank down to a half-hearted hope that “heaven is for real.”
This was actually a major stumbling block for me as a kid raised in a Christian home. I learned all the Bible stories and the “go-to-heaven-when-you-die” gospel. But the idea of the afterlife did not comfort me, it terrified me. On one hand, hell sounded like it hurt a lot and of course I didn’t want to go there. But heaven, to be honest, didn’t sound much better. The way that grownups described it either made it sound like a church service that never ended, or floating around on clouds strumming harps. To a ten-year-old boy, the idea of a never-ending church service is much more akin to hell than to any sort of sublime reward. And since harps are unquestionably the most boring of all musical instruments, the thought of playing one for all eternity filled my young heart with existential dread.
Even later developments in my Christian life, like discovering the incomparable joy of knowing Jesus, did not fully solve this conundrum. Pastors like John Piper radically transformed my life with their talk of “desiring God” and “enjoying God.” Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards rocked my world when he wrote, “To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here.” Heaven, now, became much more desirable, because it was about union and fellowship with Christ, the sweetness of which had ravished me. And yet even going to heaven to enjoy God—while much closer to the Bible’s true happy ending—was still a vague and blurry concept. Popular songs like MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine” reinforce this sentiment. “I can only imagine what my eyes will see / When your face is before me / I can only imagine.” I knew now that heaven was going to be good, because there truly is nothing better than seeing Jesus’ face. But the story still seemed to have an imaginary quality to it, and lacked something solid I could really grasp and hang my hopes on.
In the years since, I have found that I am not alone in my unenthusiastic embrace of this version of the story. Nearly every Christian I have ever interacted with around the subject of heaven, even if they—like me—eagerly anticipate the beatific vision of being with Christ, are quick to say, “But I don’t really know what it’s going to be like.” I’ve even had well-meaning and wise believers lecture me on how the details of heavenly life are unknowable and therefore can’t function as motivation in the Christian life. And most Christians I’ve talked to, while somewhat grateful for their “get-out-of-hell-free” card, aren’t living a life motivated by eternity, because eternity for them is too vague to be a source of motivation. Once at a church picnic, I even overheard two godly young men at the condiment table lamenting how they wouldn’t be able to eat in heaven, and so resolved to enjoy the barbecue while they still had a chance.
To this muddled situation, I bring good news of great joy: it’s not true. The “go-to-heaven-when-you-die” gospel is a half-gospel at best, and doesn’t encompass even a fraction of what the story of the Bible is all about. Our contemporary gospel of escape from the world and freedom from our physical bodies has more in common with the early heresy of Gnosticism than it does with biblical Christianity.
Don’t get me wrong: the Bible is clear that when a believer dies, their soul does go to be with Jesus. To the thief on the cross, Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Paul calls this being “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). But that is not the end of the story. Being in heaven with Jesus after death is more like the intermission than the finale. It’s not where the whole biblical narrative has been carrying us, and it’s not the hope of the gospel. And there is certainly no indication in Scripture that harps play any central role in eternity (praise God!).
Randy Alcorn, in his life-changing book Heaven, writes,
“We do not desire to eat gravel. Why? Because God did not design us to eat gravel. Trying to develop an appetite for a disembodied existence in a non-physical Heaven is like trying to develop an appetite for gravel. No matter how sincere we are, and no matter how hard we try, it’s not going to work. Nor should it. What God made us to desire, and therefore what we do desire if we admit it, is exactly what he promises to those who follow Jesus Christ: a resurrected life in a resurrected body, with the resurrected Christ on a resurrected Earth.”
What God promises to those who follow Christ is exactly the culmination of the story we have been tracing so far. Heaven and the afterlife aren’t an unrelated epilogue tacked onto the end of history; they are precisely where history has been moving this whole time. The end of the story is God’s king and God’s country brought together at last, Eden remade and our dominion restored, and a “happily ever after” of living out our calling as image-bearers in resurrected bodies in a resurrected world, with our resurrected King as our companion and friend.
This is what the book of Revelation is all about. Revelation functions as a sort of behind-the-scenes “teaser” of the final chapter in the saga of history. It’s like one of those carefully curated photos from the set of a movie you’re eagerly anticipating which the studio’s PR department releases in order to ramp up the hype surrounding the film. You get a glimpse behind the curtain and see the actors in costume, perhaps standing with the director as he gives them notes on their performance, and behind them the cameras. I’m a bit of a nerd (which you probably picked up on with all my Lord of the Rings and Narnia quotes), so when the first images from the set of the upcoming Star Wars movie were released, it sent me (and all of geekdom) into a frenzy of speculation and anticipation. Seeing the actors in costume on location made every Star Wars fan long for the day in December when the movie would finally be released. One might think that the behind-the-scenes glimpse of “how the sausage is made” would ruin some of the magic of the cinema, but it doesn’t. Rather, the message that the photo communicates is, “We’re hard at work turning this movie into reality, we’re excited about it, and we’re showing you just enough to get you excited about it too.”
That’s how the book of Revelation works. The apostle John is given a “behind-the-scenes” tour of the studio set, so to speak, and sees all the work that is going into bringing history’s narrative to completion. He gets an exclusive look at the script that is currently being acted out in heaven and on earth, and at the very end of his vision is given a pre-release screening of the teaser trailer. He gets a glimpse of the final product, and reports back to us that it exceeds all of our wildest expectations, and that the wait is going to be worth it.
Revelation is a particularly challenging book to understand, mostly because of its swirling prophetic and apocalyptic imagery. But another reason Revelation is often misunderstood is because we don’t see it in the context of the Bible’s larger story of king and country. Revelation doesn’t just skip straight to the “happily ever after” at the end. Rather, its purpose is to bring to completion the primary theme that we have been tracing through the entire Bible: human dominion restored.
The central, overriding image in the book of Revelation is that of a throne. The word “throne” appears an astounding 44 times in Revelation’s 22 chapters (out of 54 times in the entire New Testament). Everything in Revelation revolves around the throne of heaven, who occupies it, and the decrees that issue forth from it. The message of Revelation to the embattled outposts of the kingdom is that even though times are dark and it may look like evil is still ascendant, the human King of the universe has taken his place on the throne of heaven, and is guiding history towards its consummation.
The book of Revelation begins, before John’s heavenly “behind-the-scenes” tour, with Jesus’ words of encouragement and critique to seven churches. To each kingdom outpost, under siege by the powers of the darkness, the King promises that “the one who conquers” will possess great reward. Two of the seven promises are particularly breathtaking. To these tiny bands of faithful kingdom citizens, Jesus makes a promise to exalt them to the throne of the universe:
The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself received authority from my Father. (Revelation 2:26-27)
This promise is so surprising because the imagery of a king ruling with a rod of iron is an explicitly messianic reference. God’s anointed king in Psalm 2 is given the nations as his inheritance and “breaks them with a rod of iron and dashes them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Psalm 2:9) Later in Revelation, this picture is applied to the messianic king, Jesus himself: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron” (Revelation 19:15). And yet here, Jesus promises to hand that iron rod over to the people of his kingdom. It’s just as we saw in Daniel and in the gospels: the Son of Man delivers his kingdom over to “the saints of the Most High” and exalts them to reign alongside himself. And here, at the end of the story, is the assurance that—despite how circumstances look—Jesus has not forgotten that promise. His reign over the world will become our reign over the world.
The other promise that Jesus makes is even more amazing than the first. To the struggling, lukewarm church in Laodicea, he says,
The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Revelation 3:21)
The King who won mankind’s dominion back from the serpent has sat down with the Father on the throne of the universe, beginning an unending human rule over the cosmos. But he didn’t stop there; his promise is now, “The one who conquers will join me on that throne.” The throne from which the Almighty God reigns is the throne on which the Son of Man reigns. And that is the same throne which he invites you to sit down on, to join the Father and the Son in their reign over all creation.
After this promise, the book of Revelation immediately moves “behind-the-scenes” to see how that promise comes true. John is ushered into the “more real” reality behind our present reality, where he sees all of history moving towards its culmination. He sees the throne—the seat which Jesus promises to his conquering people—occupied by the Almighty God:
Behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. (Revelation 4:3)
The description of the One on the throne echoes back to Ezekiel’s visions of the Almighty, and make it clear that God himself reigns from his heavenly seat of power. The angelic host surrounding the throne sing the song that Isaiah heard 700 years before. In the intervening years, the song has not ceased: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!” (Revelation 4:8) and all of heaven praises the High King for his power as the Creator:
Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created. (Revelation 4:11)
But then a new character is introduced into the vision. John’s angelic tour guide announces, “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered!” (Revelation 5:5) Here we have the culmination of all the Old Testament hopes, Judah’s Lion and David’s Branch who can command obedience and wield dominion. But then John looks, and instead of beholding a lion, he sees a much stranger sight: “And I saw a lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6). The kingly Lion of Judah turns out to be a slaughtered lamb; the Davidic King is revealed to be the suffering servant. And all of heaven erupts in new worship which mirrors their first song of praise to God:
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth… Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! (Revelation 5:9-10, 12)
The Lamb receives the same praise that God does—not only because he himself is God, but, as we have seen, because he humbled himself to the point of death. He was slain, and therefore is worshipped by heaven’s hosts. And the goal of his ransom, the angels sing, was to purchase people from every nation and restore the image of God in them. They become a kingdom and priests, and they reign on the earth. Thus we learn why Jesus’ astounding promise to struggling sinners could ever be fulfilled: his people will reign because he paid their ransom.
The vision of Revelation then continues to unfold with seven repetitious cycles each with seven images, culminating in the final New Jerusalem. That pattern of seven “sevens” is yet another echo back to the Year of Jubilee foretold in the Old Testament and ushered in by Jesus. The structure of Revelation itself points towards the eschatological climax of Jubilee when everything is set right. The cycles of Revelation—in particular, the seven seals and trumpets and bowls—describe the war between heaven and earth and the escalating judgment on mankind through the church age. Behind the bloody flow of history a war rages between the Lamb and the Dragon for supremacy over creation. The dragon is thrown down with the cross’s cry of victory, “It is finished!” (Revelation 16:17). But even in his death throes, the dragon continues pursuing the church. At the very beginning he rebelled because humanity was placed in dominion over him, and to his dying breath he will resist their rule. But demonic resistance, in the end, will prove futile. The messianic foot that first drove Satan’s face into the dust will be joined by the feet of all his people.
Throughout Revelation, the future cry of victory reverberates back into the present. “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of the Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever!” (Revelation 11:15) Jesus has confiscated the kingdoms of earth back from the decapitated serpent, and even though the powers of darkness rage they cannot successfully stand against the relentless march of his new humanity. “The gates of hell shall not prevail against my church,” Jesus promised in Matthew 16:18. The vivid cycles of imagery in Revelation picture the waves of hell’s fury repeatedly breaking on God’s people, yet unable to ultimately prevail against them. The secret to sabotaging the serpent’s kingdom is given in chapter 12. “[God’s people] have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11). Only the seemingly upside-down way of the Lamb—trusting in his atoning blood and testifying to his grace with courageous meekness—can dethrone and defang the dragon.
At the climax of the battle in chapter 20, the march of the kingdom at last sweeps Satan’s empire away. “The devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). All unrepentant rebels and all causes of sin are cast into the lake of fire with him—a terrible and just ending of the story for all who have resisted his kingdom.
But for those who have longed for the King and his Country, the verdict of that great Judgment Day is already past and settled, and the story for them will be just beginning. Their “internship for the eschaton” will be completed, and God’s people will be promoted into the positions they were destined for. “The kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High” (Daniel 7:27). They will sit down on the throne that Jesus shares with his Father, now expanded to make room for all God’s redeemed regents. The “glory of the freedom of the children of God” will light up the universe as mankind, fully alive at last, begins filling all creation with the refracted glory of God. They “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43), and the brightness of their glory will cause every tongue to praise God all the more. As “fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17), the entire remade universe will be theirs to enjoy and explore and cultivate. The world will be bent to blessing, just as it was intended in the beginning. God’s royal image bearers will be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, extending paradise across the globe and, eventually, across the stars.
The end of the story in Revelation paints a stunning picture of King and Country restored forever. Since the beginning, God’s purpose was always to restore his King and his Country—human dominion and divine presence. And here in New Jerusalem we see the final manifestation of God’s perfect country. In each stage of history, God’s presence with his people was manifested in a specific place. The tabernacle and the temple centered the dwelling of God among his people, and yet maintained the distance that his holiness required. The gold and jewels and symbolism of the temple echoed back to Eden when God walked with his people, but just like the flaming swords blocked the way to the garden, the flaming presence of God prevented anyone from coming too close. God was near, but not intimate.
But now as the old world melts away, a new reality takes its place. The temple, and any need for it, is gone:
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations. (Revelation 21:22-26)
There is no temple to be seen, and when you start examining the various features of the city, you’ll discover why: the entire city is the temple. The dimensions of the city are a perfect cube, which would be puzzling architecturally except for the fact that the only perfect cube in the Old Testament was the Most Holy Place, overlaid in gold, where God’s presence was. Now the entire city, made of pure gold, is the new Most Holy Place. The twelve jewels that form her foundation (Revelation 21:19-21) are the same jewels from Exodus 39 that the high priest would carry on his heart into the Most Holy Place, symbolically carrying God’s people with him. Now in New Jerusalem, all these pictures find their fulfillment, as God’s people live in God’s presence forever.
The presence of God with his people is the highest joy of heaven, the happiness we’ve been hungering for our entire lives. “The dwelling place of God is with man He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). God will be Immanuel again, and the beauty of his presence will dry all our tears. “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore,” Psalm 16:11 says. The Christian life is sprinkled with fleeting tastes of those pleasures, and those tastes sustain the soul in the darkness of exile. What, then, will the experience of that forever fullness be like? “The surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” Paul writes in Philippians 3:9, paints every earthly joy “as rubbish” in comparison. What, then, will it be to see “face to face,” to “know fully, even as I am fully known?” (1 Corinthians 12) Psalm 84:10 says that “One day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” What, then, will eternity in his presence be? The unclouded presence of God is nothing less than the fulfillment of everything we’ve ever longed for. Paradise is wherever the presence of God is. This, apart from every other blessing we’ve seen, is what makes the new creation paradise. Pastor and poet John Newton, writing to a friend about this heavenly hope, wrote,
“Oh! what will heaven be, where there be all who love the Lord Jesus, and they only; where all imperfection, and whatever now abates or interrupts their joy in the Lord and in each other, shall cease forever? There at last I hope to meet you, and spend an eternity with you, in admiring the riches and glory of redeeming love.”
“Admiring the riches and glory of redeeming love;” this is far from unending church service that I dreaded as a boy. This is, at the end of the day, the fullest expression of what it means to be human. All of our dominion and image-bearing ultimately serves the great purpose of seeing and savoring and celebrating God as our highest treasure. Every joy in this fallen world—and indeed, every joy in the new creation to come—is designed to point to the presence of God as our highest possible happiness. Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan preacher of the First Great Awakening, looked forward to the restoration of God’s Country as the highest gain that a creature could attain:
“The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Better than fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of any, or all earthly friends. These are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops, but God is the ocean.”
To drink deeply from the fountain after which you’ve been panting, to swim in the ocean you’ve longed to experience, to know as you are fully known… this is God’s Country, the greatest of all hopes. This is what makes heaven, heaven.
Along with the restoration of God’s Country—his divine presence with his people forever—we also see the enthronement of God’s King. In Revelation 22, God’s human King—Jesus, and along with him, his bride the church—enters into his triumphant glory. Human dominion is at last restored and the curse is reversed. The same river that Ezekiel foresaw flowing out of the temple, watering the world with life-giving wholeness, here is fulfilled as the river of divine blessing flows out from the God-Man’s throne:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:1-5)
The restoration of everything doesn’t mean that history resets to the original Eden. Satan’s seeming success in Genesis 3 does not result in God scrapping his old creation and starting over. This is not a return to the beginning; this is the end we’ve been aiming at ever since Genesis 1. Randy Alcorn writes,
“If God were to end history and reign forever in a distant Heaven, Earth would be remembered as a graveyard of sin and failure. Instead, Earth will be redeemed and resurrected. In the end it will be a far greater world, even for having gone through the birth pains of suffering and sin—yes, even sin. The New Earth will justify the old Earth’s disaster, make good out of it, putting it in perspective. It will preserve and perpetuate Earth’s original design and heritage.”
The New Jerusalem is not merely a return to Eden. It is an upgrade, a more perfect paradise which restores and perpetuates humanity’s heritage. What was a garden in Genesis is now a city in Revelation, a sign that human civilization itself has been imported and beautified. The prophet Haggai spoke of “the treasure of the nations” being brought into God’s house and filling it with glory (Haggai 2:6-7). Now every nation brings their splendor into heaven’s capital city, filling it with diverse, God-honoring beauty. Everything good and true that humanity has ever accomplished is redeemed, restored, upgraded, and becomes part of the tapestry of glory that God is weaving for himself in eternity. The nations—the origins of which trace back to the rebellion at Babel—are not erased or blended into an eschatological melting pot. Instead, they are preserved and healed, with every language singing songs of worship and bringing its distinct cultural contributions into heaven’s capital. Babel’s cacophony is redeemed into a symphony of praise. And everything will be more beautiful for having once been so broken.
The story which God has been writing since the beginning will find its ending as Jesus the King, the Son of Man and Son of God, enjoys uncontested reign over his creation. He has been sitting on the throne ever since his ascension and directing the growth of his kingdom through his church, but now at last his kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. The messianic Psalm 72, describing the Davidic king’s reign over the earth, will come to pass in fullness.
He shall endure while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations…In his days may the righteous flourish, and peace abound, till moon be no more! May he have dominion from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth… May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him, for he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper… May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun! May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed! (Psalm 72:5, 7-8, 11-12, 17)
From this psalm, Isaac Watts adapted his famous hymn, “Jesus Shall Reign:”
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does its successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore
Till moon shall wax and wane no more.
Blessings abound wherever He reigns;
The prisoner leaps to lose his chains;
The weary find eternal rest,
And all the sons of want are blessed.
Where He displays His healing power,
Death and the curse are known no more;
In Him the tribes of Adam boast
More blessings than their father lost.
An eternal golden age of peace and blessing will be inaugurated with the arrival of New Jerusalem and its God-Man King. His reign will stretch from shore to shore, blessings will abound, his weary saints will find rest, and death and the curse will be known no more. And into this glory the church will rise victorious, clothed in splendor, to reign alongside her Savior and King.
HEAVEN COMING HERE
The triumphant climax of the story comes in Revelation 21 and 22:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:1-5)
The New Jerusalem, which is slowly being constructed today in the kingdom colonies of the church, will at last be built, and will come out of the clouds, intersecting with and overwhelming all brokenness. The dwelling place of God will be with man; the divine presence seen in Eden and promised to Abraham and glimpsed in the tabernacle and temple and Jesus himself will finally be present again. The global blessing that God promised to Abraham will come to pass as “the city with foundations” which he anticipated descends to earth. God’s country, for which our souls have pined ever since the garden, will be restored and the long night of exile will at last truly and finally end. Heaven is coming here.
This “new heaven and new earth” will see the curse of Genesis 3 rolled back permanently. Revelation 22:3 says that “no longer will there be anything accursed.” We have glimpsed restoration and jubilee as the future came early in Jesus’ ministry, but now the future finally comes in fullness. The shattered dominion and twisted cultural mandate that brought death and blood and pain and tears will be remade and set right, and the hand of God himself will wipe away every tear from his children’s eyes. With the dragon dethroned and God’s people restored to their image-bearing regency, creation’s rebellion will cease and the world will submit to us once more. No more will sins and sorrows grow, no more will thorns infest the ground, for blessing will finally spread as far as the curse is found, until all futility is paved over by paradise. The natural world which “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” will find its fulfillment as “creation itself is set free from its bondage to corruption and obtains the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21). The longing of every rock and tree and galaxy will be satisfied.
What will this new reality mean for the people of God, who have labored so long in this dark exile? It will mean nothing less than life as it was always meant to be lived, a life free from bondage to death, from the futility of unmet desires, and from the ravaging of entropy. The prophet Isaiah described this return from exile and restoration of God’s country with the language that John borrowed for his vision:
Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people. No more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress… They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat, for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD. The wolf and the lamb shall graze together… they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain. (Isaiah 65:17-25)
That bright morning of gladness and rejoicing will replace the long night of weeping and distress, for futility will melt away like the dew when the sun shines on it. “They shall not labor in vain” is a picture of the original cultural mandate restored. No more will productivity and creativity and industry be cut short by old age, illness, and death. The heartache of working for something only to see it fall apart will never be felt again. At last humanity will be able to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” according to the original design.
Stop for a moment and let the glory of this hope sink in. The restoration of the cultural mandate means that, for the first time since Eden, we will be fully human again. The brokenness that was injected into the beating heart of the human experience in Genesis 3 will be excised and healed permanently. Life will work the way it was always meant to. The tasks we put our hands to will succeed.
That doesn’t mean that everything will suddenly be easy; even in a perfect world, the best things will still probably be hard. Isaiah 65 speaks of “building houses” and “planting vineyards;” those are long-term, difficult projects. But much of what we hate about difficulty today is the product of the curse, not something inherent in the activity of work itself. In this fallen world, the difficulty of labor is compounded by splinters and headaches and setbacks and failures.
But even in this frustrated world, you’ve tasted the joy of working long and hard on a project or skill and seeing your labor pay off. The more effort you put into something, the greater the satisfaction when it succeeds. The reason that fruitful labor provides satisfaction is because we were made for a world in which our work works. In such a world, everything we do would bring joy. Now multiply that joy across every activity in eternity, and you’ll start to imagine what a world without futility would mean. Work will be a well of joy. Everything external that impedes our flourishing—long nights, hot days, illness, injury, conflict, and division—will disappear. Everything internal that stands in the way of being fully human—sin, shame, ignorance, bitterness, depression, weakness—will be healed. No more will there be sleepless nights, frustrated longings, angry outbursts, or melancholy loneliness. All the relational friction and frustration of community will be replaced by unity and intimacy. Our gladness will be in the community of God’s people, God’s gladness will be in us, we will sing for joy at the work of our hands, and we will finally be satisfied.
Keep lingering on this hope, and consider a world in which death and pain have passed away. What will this mean for our bodies? Remember, our destiny is not a spiritual existence, floating on a cloud somewhere. Our hope is physical resurrection, just as real and tangible as Jesus’ victory over death. The prophet Isaiah saw this final day and proclaimed, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” (Isaiah 26:19) When Jesus returns, bringing final restoration with him, all who have died will rise with remade bodies, billions and billions of Easters all across the globe. For some, this will be the day we’ve been waiting for. For others, it will be disaster. Daniel sees the diverging destinies of the resurrected, saying, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above.” (Daniel 12:2). For those who have rejected the King and lived for their counterfeit kingdoms, resurrection day will mean final and devastating ruin. But for those who have joined the kingdom of the redeemed, their resurrection will mean glory and participation in the restoration of all things. 1 Corinthians speaks of the glory upgrade that the physical bodies of the saints will receive then:
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power… Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (1 Corinthians 15:42-43, 51-53)
The glory of our resurrection bodies compared to our current ones will be like the glory of a tree to a seed, of a supernova to a candle. Jesus, echoing Daniel, promises that “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). C.S. Lewis wrote that the glory of redeemed humanity means that, “the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.” The transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17, when “his face shone like the sun,” was more than just a revelation of his divinity. It was a preview of our coming transfiguration. For we, too, will shine like the sun.
And yet, while we strain to picture what that will look like, don’t lose fact of the reality that we will still be human, physical creatures. We will have bodies—fingers, toes, blood vessels. We will eat and drink (see Matthew 26:29 and Revelation 19:9). Imagine what food will taste like in a resurrected world! Imagine our physical bodies freed from the ailments and thorns of the curse. Today, every time you look in a mirror and are disappointed with what you see, it’s not only because of sinful pride and vanity (although that is certainly a factor). No, it’s also because you were not made to age and decay and fall apart. Our hearts instinctively know this, and rage against our imperfections. But one day, all those imperfections will be gone. No longer will our appearances malfunction with wrinkles and gray hair and double chins. No longer will our bodies rebel against us with cancer and dementia and arthritis. No longer will we be dragged down to the dust by disease and injury and depression and the slow-motion ravages of old age. “Raised in glory and power” means boundless vitality, increased intelligence, perfect beauty, and endless life. We will finally have the bodies that our souls were made for.
Now expand your imagination’s field of vision and try to picture what this resurrection means for human culture and community and civilization. In our world today, humanity has accomplished truly incredible things, even shackled by division, infighting, folly, and death. The pyramids, the Parthenon, the Great Wall, Mona Lisa, Handel’s Messiah, the moon landing, and more, all stand as testaments of the undying image of God stamped on our souls. Revelation 22 speaks of “the glory and honor of the nations” being brought into the New Jerusalem, a picture of everything good and beautiful we’ve ever accomplished as image-bearers incorporated into the new creation. Now imagine the shackles removed. Imagine what humanity will be capable of then. Imagine what technology could be when nothing breaks or is ever twisted into sinful purposes. Imagine the heights to which art and music will reach when they are fully liberated from bondage to sin and brokenness.
Imagine what our cities would be like with no crime or trash or ghettos or poverty. Imagine what economies and industries will be when they are no longer fueled by need but gladness, not greed but generosity. Imagine communities where diversity is not feared but celebrated, where love and kindness directs every interaction. Imagine every source of injustice that plagues our courts and culture banished forever from the human heart and replaced by mercy, justice, and humility. Imagine friendships where the command of Romans 12:10—“Outdo one another in showing honor”—is finally fulfilled in a beautifully virtuous cycle of escalating honor forever. This is the society our souls long for.
Zoom the lens of your imagination out further and envision an entirely resurrected world. The prophets viewed the goal of history as not just the end of exile for God’s people, but for the entire creation as well. Isaiah writes:
You shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of thorns shall come up cypress trees; instead of briers shall come up myrtle flowers; and it shall make a name for the LORD. (Isaiah 55:12-13)
The end goal of history is all creation released from bondage to futility, coming alive and rising to meet the joy of God’s redeemed people. The whole universe, now groaning under the chains of the curse, will one day pulsate with such gladness that it will be as if the trees themselves are singing songs of praise. Instead of bucking against humanity with thorns and death, the earth will yield to its image-bearing masters and bring forth beauty that will redound to the praise of the One who made it. Today, the most beautiful scenery on earth—mountains, waterfalls, tropical islands—are like a blurred and faded photograph that cannot begin to compare with the glory that will one day be revealed. The ruination across the globe wrought by human selfishness—scarred landscapes, polluted waters, toxic waste, pillaged wilderness, expanded deserts—will be reversed, and everything will be made beautiful again. God will avenge the rape of his world; “the time has come for destroying the destroyers of the earth,” Revelation 11:18 says. Ezekiel writes, “This land that was desolate will become like the garden of Eden” (Ezekiel 36:35)—and Eden will fill the whole planet.
The new creation will usher in the permanent end of sadness. We were not made to grieve, which is why our souls protest so strongly against pain. One day, all the hurt will end. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” Revelation 21 assures us. “Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Psalm 30:5 says that, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” This, at long last, is the morning of joy that scatters weeping’s night forever. “Reality,” writes Scott Sauls, “will be rescued once and for all from the nightmares.” This broken, wailing world will be restored, and everything sad will come untrue.
This resurrected, beautified, restored creation is the world we were made to inhabit, the home we long for, the happy ending we have been searching for our entire lives. Randy Alcorn writes, “To be in resurrected bodies on a resurrected Earth in resurrected friendships, enjoying a resurrected culture with the resurrected Jesus—now that will be the ultimate party! Everybody will be who God made them to be—and none of us will ever suffer or die again.”
The final sentence of the story brings the narrative of King and Country to its consummation: “His servants… will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). Humanity gets its throne back in the end. The suicidal misadventure of human dominion apart from submission to God is at last overthrown. And when the great reversal flowers into its final fulfillment, the servants will reign. This is what has been hinted at and glimpsed ever since Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2, and now at last it comes true. For in the end, only the servants win. Those who prided themselves on their power and influence and success are cast into utter darkness, and the meek inherit the earth. Servanthood once and for all becomes synonymous with significance. Here, at last, is the restoration of reality, the setting right of all that sin set wrong. At long last, we are restored to the position we were made for: servant kings. Servants of God, kings and queens of creation. The nightmares will end, and all shall be well.
In the last book of the Narnia series, C.S. Lewis envisions the end of history when Jesus—or, in Narnia, Aslan the Great Lion—returns and sets everything right. But the end of the story turns out to not be the end, but only the beginning. For now that God’s King and Country are restored, the story can begin in earnest.
“And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
On and on, better and better, forever and ever. All creation is longing for this “happily ever after.” Are you?