I remember a couple of times throughout my secular public education where our study of literature would bring up the concept of a utopia. For one assignment in particular, I remember each student was told to write out what their own personal utopian society would be like if we could create one. As pre-teens there was mention of free pizza, no school, or a basketball court on every corner among other things. Then, with all of the students’ differing ideals before her, the teacher usurped the right to draw the conclusion that a paradise is impossible. Since what is enjoyable to one student would bore another to tears, she reasoned it to be simply a dream not to come true.
Back then I would have agreed; but now that I am saved I think differently. Believers are guaranteed “an inheritance incorruptible…reserved in heaven,” (1 Pet. 1:4). Paul prayed that the Ephesians would “know…the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints,” (Eph. 1:18). He prays for the Colossians that they would rejoice that God has qualified them “to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light,” (Col 1:12). Notice how the same inheritance is that of all the saints! They all are in the same utopia performing the same ideal activities. Through His perfect wisdom, God ordained to happen what my teacher had concluded impossible!
God in His wisdom chose one thing that is the utmost joyous activity possible that can apply across the board. This will be something far better than pizza or a coin-less arcade. What is it? It is seeing Christ!
Jesus prays in John 17:24 that His people would be with Him and see His glory. Paul teaches us in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10 that at the second coming of Christ He shall “be admired in all them that believe.” Jude says that because of Christ’s work we will be able to stand “faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy,” (1:24). The Scriptures say that the righteous will get to behold His face (Psalm 11:7; Rev 22:4).
How great is the wisdom of God! He knows (and chose) that seeing Christ’s glory is the most soul-satisfying, the most joyful, and the most trial-relieving task anyone can do. He wishes to give His saints that satisfaction and joy forever and ever!
Yet a question arises: Does not the Bible speak of other activities in which the saints shall participate when in heaven, such as serving in His temple? If so, then wouldn’t that cause us to turn our gaze from the radiance of God’s glory and thus heaven become a “less-than-perfect” utopia?
In particular there is one reality which is most baffling. The Bible teaches that believers will be conscious of the eternal suffering of those in hell. We find this in both the Old and the New Testaments. The last verse in the book of Isaiah (66:24) mentions that in the New Heavens and New Earth all flesh will bow down before Him, “and they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.”
The same is taught in Luke chapter 16, where we read of a conversation between Abraham in heaven and a rich man in hell (although I see this as only a parable and not an exact depiction of the afterlife; yet there is a strong possibility of resemblance). Revelation 19 even shows us an example where believers will praise God for His justice as He eternally punishes a lost sinner! This doctrine has even driven some believers, such as John Stott, toward the (false) doctrine of annihilationism; for they think it mad that we can be joyful and yet know people are eternally suffering. (And yes, this side of heaven I can understand the cognitive dissonance.)
So how can this be called paradise? Or at least, will the moments we gaze upon those in hell be less joyful? I believe we can both be knowledgeable of others’ eternal suffering and be in rapturous joy at the same time. To help us wrap our minds around this seeming dilemma, we must grasp what we are beholding when we look upon a lost sinner in hell. What are we beholding?
- We see God’s justice (i.e. that He is punishing sin).
- We see His grace toward us more fully (i.e. that His grace alone has saved us from His wrath).
- We also see His wisdom (i.e. in Romans 11, after speaking of the mystery of Israel’s hardening, etc. Paul praises God for His unsearchable understanding).
You see, although in those moments we will stand up from our kneeling position, and although we will turn our gaze away from Jesus’ face, yet we will be given the opportunity to adore God’s character more fully, having a deeper glimpse into His perfections! Rather than a less-than-perfect utopia, heaven in this way becomes all the more glorious! God chose a manner by which we can understand His glory in a deeper way than “merely” beholding Him (though it is certainly enough)!
God becomes all the more beautiful to us as we learn of His works and His character. Psalm 90:14-16 describes the attitude of a believer who is satisfied as he sees His works. Similarly, Ps 111:2-4 speaks of an attitude of delight in learning more and more about God’s works. Knowing that God is perfectly wise and that He works toward the glorification of His name as He displays His power, justice, etc., brings to the believer a unique joy and satisfaction. In heaven (and New Heaven) God will display His character fully. Even though now it seems incomprehensible and even cruel that we will enjoy seeing our loved ones enduring God’s wrath, yet at that time our minds will understand God’s justice in a holy way and it will rather be an occasion of praise.