Teaching on the eternal state of the world to come may sound from the outset to be speculative and useless for practical living in the present. How can heavenly contemplation help me raise my children or motivate me at work Monday morning or mend my broken relationship with my brother? Yet, Geerhardus Vos was convinced of the very opposite. In fact, he believed that “it becomes the profoundest and most practical of all thought complexes…” (The Pauline Eschatology, 294). He goes on to give a reason for this statement—which may seem at the moment to be an overstatement, but in reality is actually an understatement—but I think before getting there we need to think over a few things he gleaned from the apostle Paul on the eternal state.
Formal Aspects of the Eternal State: Unending and Imperishable
In the final chapter of The Pauline Eschatology, Vos begins his discussion on the eternal state by discussing its two formal aspects: unendingness and imperishableness (pp. 287-92).
First, Paul characterizes the eternal state, on the one hand, as precluding any time limitation so that it does not consist of a relative duration as is true of the present age. On the other hand, the inhabitants of the coming eternal age are not deified so that they cease to exist in a mode of duration and time ceases to be divided for them into units of past, present, and future. There continues in the supernal sphere the movement of time and duration. We might then speak of the formal aspect of the eternal state as absolute duration. This stands opposed to the relative duration of the present age, which consummates in what Paul terms the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4). Vos understands this phrase not to signify “ripeness,” but “the completion of what was ‘time’ and the succession of it by what is different from time through the mission of the Messiah into the world” (289n3). The eternal state will never arrive at a “fullness of time” as it is perpetual and unending duration. Eternity is not pregnant with other eternities.
The second formal aspect pertains to the imperishable nature of the things belonging to the eternal state. “The things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17). While the things of the present age are transitory and corruptible, the things of the eternal state are permanent and incorruptible. Hellenistic thought understood imperishability to be inherent to whatever was invisible. But Paul essentially distinguished himself from this teaching by way of his two-age scheme. For him, imperishability does not pertain to the invisible as such, but to the world to come that is unseen at the present. In Vos’ words, “[H]e has learned to recognize in the things unseen to the present [age] the enduring things of the world to come, a world already in principle present, the contemplation of which can consequently render solace and support in the affliction of the moment” (292). The world to come will not remain unseen forever. Its present invisibility is a matter of the present redemptive-historical situation of God’s people, for today “we pilgrimage through a land of faith, not of sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). So while today the things of the world to come are both invisible and imperishable, when in Christ we enter the eternal state the same things of the world to come will cease to be invisible, but will continue to be imperishable. Paul does not see imperishability and invisibility as requiring each other as was true in Hellenestic thought; the one can cease (invisibility), while the other remains (imperishability).
Substantial Content of the Eternal State: God Himself
We would be deeply mistaken if we thought that it was merely these formal aspects of the eternal state that excited Paul. If this was the case, Paul’s eschatology would be useless, abstract speculation and provide no vital power for the present life. But what stirred Paul’s eschatological longings at their very core and what gave meaning and value to the unendingness and imperishability of the eternal state was nothing less than its central object and substantial content: the Eternal One, God himself (pp. 292-94). The formal aspects of the eternal state were not ultimate in Paul’s thinking; God was. Unendingness and imperishability serve to express the absoluteness of the acme of religion, communion with him.
The present redemptive-historical state does not furnish the believer with a sense of fullness or satisfaction, but with intense longing for God. Our souls long, yes, faint for the courts of the Lord (Ps. 84:2). Because God is eternal
there can be no thorough, no adequate reception of Him into our finite consciousness, unless there by some assurance of the unceasingness of our communion with Him. He is not a God of the dead but of the living. All temporal, partial experience of God inevitably leaves a sense of dissatisfaction behind (293).
The Spirit of Christ bearing witness in our hearts moves us to say, Amen.
But God has been and will forever remain the Eternal One, while we remain finite creatures of temporal duration. We long for the One, and only one, who is eternal, while ourselves existing as the very opposite. How can this problem be met? According to Vos, it is met by
God’s imparting a reflection of his unique eternal existence to our life as creatures, through admitting us into the realm of the aionion [eternal]. In this He not merely confers a boon [something beneficial] upon man, but at the same time provides a true satisfaction for Himself. Although in the abstract being self-sufficient as God, He has freely chosen to carry his concern with us to the extreme of eternal mutually appurtenance of which the creature is capable (293).
Although Vos does not use the term here, he has in mind the covenant relationship that God has freely and voluntarily entered into with his people (see WCF 7.1). At the heart of this covenant is the promise of shared life: I will be your God and you will be my people. So not only are we supremely satisfied in having God as our God, but (and this is an amazing thought!) God is truly satisfied in having us as his people. This mutual satisfaction is realized in a heightened, eschatological sense in the eternal state.
Paul affirms both of these ideas. On the one hand, God is the only immortal Being (1 Tim. 6:16) and, on the other hand, “He has appointed as the eschatological goal of religious fellowship with Himself, among other things, the prize of an incorruption [Rom 2:7], such as is equivalent to eternal life” (293).
Vos, however, does not blur the Creator-creature distinction here as if just as God is eternal, so we become eternal in the exact same way. Note in the above quote that it is an “eternal mutually appurtenance of which the creature is capable.” He goes on to utilize the common theological distinction of an archetype and ectype. He affirms that this attribute of eternality exists in God alone in its archetypical form, but exists in the creature “in an ectypical form.”
For both God and for man more than mere endless existence is meant. It also includes a content commensurable with its eternity. Again, the formal aspects of eternity, unendingness and imperishableness, are not abstractly considered as empty concepts, but serve the concrete objects indwelling eternity. For this reason Paul does not use the empty term “immortality,” but “chooses as a larger, deeper receptacle the term ‘life’” (293). (While Paul says mortality puts on immortality in 1 Cor. 15:53-54, Vos notes “the very form in which this is expressed is such that it could never have been applied to God, who is the Only One who has immortality [1 Tim. 6:16].”)
“Life” is a concrete term that encapsulates the dynamic relationship between the formal aspects (unendingness and imperishableness) and substantial content (God himself) of the eternal state.
The Practicality of the Eternal State
We began with Vos’ statement that teaching on the eternal state is “the profoundest and most practical of all thought complexes.” We can now appreciate the whole sentence:
We find that the [eternity-concept], thus understood, belongs to the acme of religion, serving to express its absoluteness. Eschatology ceases for those who have learned, and in principle experienced this, to be an abstract speculation: it becomes the profoundest and most practical of all thought-complexes because they, like Paul, live and move and have their redemptively-religious treasures in God (294).
For more check out this article on the book of Hebrew’s teaching on the vital connection the believer already has today with the world to come.