One of the most precious verses in the Bible to me is from the famous passage in the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 13) where he talks about love: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
He concludes that, in this life, prophecies and knowledge are always in part; only love never fails. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
It’s that last sentence that I find particularly inspirational. I am insatiably curious, a trait that helped lead me to journalism, but the human brain and understanding is finite. All those questions that science has yet to answer and may never, such as what produced the Big Bang, or how did consciousness come into existence, all the secrets of human history, the mysteries of God’s purposes: all will be laid bare in eternity, the Bible promises.
But of course eternity is about much more than curiosity. Above all it is a quality of life. The Greek of the New Testament we translate as eternal life is more literally “the life of the age (to come)” – in other words, eternal life is a quality of life, rather than duration (though it is that too).
What will it be like? The scriptures hint more than inform. We know nothing of duration, of location – clearly it can’t be reached by rocket ship – or what people will do there. I think this reticence is wise, for the Bible’s call is to love God and neighbour here and now – as Jesus puts it, on building the Kingdom of God.
There will be no more tears, there will be work, we will truly be home – and we will know as we are known.
But it does mean that what many people think about heaven is largely a caricature – that we sit around playing harps, that it will be boring. It couldn’t be, because the promise of Jesus is that he brings life to the full.
What we are told – but mostly in the biblical books that are deliberately mysterious, like Daniel and Revelation – is that people will have perfect resurrection bodies; there will be no more tears, there will be work, we will truly be home – and we will know as we are known.
The Apostle John tells us the most important thing about eternal life: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” So, if the Bible is right, it does indeed come back to knowledge, though not merely intellectual knowledge. It is the perfect joy of a perfect relationship with God.
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Age.