I don’t know what the world to come will be like. I have no special insight into what happens to us and where we go when we die, what will occupy us in eternity. Like most of us, I suppose, I have my hopes and comforting beliefs about what the life eternal will be; my stubbornesses about which I say, “If there’s not X, I’m not going,” like I have some control over the situation; those feelings you–every rare once in a while–feel and think, “This. This feeling lasting forever; that must be heaven.”
I try not to cling too tightly to any preconceived notion of what awaits us, instead trying to trust in God that it will be far greater than I could imagine anyway. Frankly, I’m not too concerned about whether heaven is some entirely spiritual dimension of existence or embodied life in a world restored by God to perfection on the last day.
But there is one thing that I do believe strongly: even in the life to come, there will be sacrifice.
I don’t mean sacrifice on the cosmic scale, no dying that others may live, no giving up all that I have so that others may have something, not the sort of things that make us look at others who can make those kinds of sacrifices with such awe and respect. I mean the more mundane, everyday sacrifices we’re already called to make. The lesser sacrifices necessary to mutual relationship: I’d rather do X in our free time, but since you want to do Y, let’s do that instead and we can do X another time. That sort of thing.
Perhaps this sounds a strange thing to fixate on, but I think it’s a necessary expectation based on the few things that the scriptures and traditions of our faith do seem to tell us about the world to come. Christ promises us “eternal life.” The words used to create that phrase in the New Testament carry the connotation of not just surviving, but thriving–active, vigorous, fulfilled, unceasing, experiential life.
That means a few things. First, we will be ourselves–perfected perhaps, the dross burned away–but recognizable as ourselves. And why wouldn’t we be if we believe that we are purposefully, “wonderfully and fearfully made?” Second, we will not be idle. I don’t know what kind of activity is planned for us–though I’m fairly certain it will not be sitting on clouds strumming harps, singing ceaseless hymns and trying not to think of toilet-paper commercials. Third, we will be together. There’s no good and dependable answer to the question who “we” is (I believe, based on my limited knowledge of God, that all will be there eventually), so let’s sidestep that conundrum for now. Third, we will be in relationship with God and others forever. Again, why wouldn’t we be? The overarching narrative of both the Bible as a whole and the Gospels in particular is that ours is a God who values relationship.
Let’s look at those three things together. We’ll be ourselves. That means that, just like we do now, we will have our personalities, our preferences, our likes and our dislikes (we can go down some dizzying rabbit trails trying to think about the scope and limitations of what preferences and personality traits qualify as being righteously permissible, just as we could with what kinds of activities will be permissible, but let’s not today). We will do things. As a person with preferences, there are some things I like to do better than others. And we will do them with others.
When people come together, it is natural for personalities to clash at times, for preferences to butt up against one another. Unhealthy relationships can be ruined by this, but healthy ones engage in minor sacrifice to work out such petty disputes. Those relationships that do become stronger for it–when you know that I’m willing to give in for your sake sometimes and you’re willing to give in for mine in others, we know that we mean something to one another.
It is fashionable to talk about this phenomenon as a quid pro quo these days, “deposits and withdrawals from the love bank” if we’d like to resort to some especially cloying purple prose. Human nature being what it is–and some people being who they are–I suppose that sometimes that’s a fitting description. But for the best relationships, you don’t make those compromises simply to get future compromises; you do them simply because you care about the other person.
There’s every reason to think that the relationships we enjoy in the life to come will be the best of relationships. For that to be the case, we will eternally need to make some minor sacrifices for each other at various times.
So best to start practicing now, because some aspects of the life to come are not about the where, the when and the what; they’re about the how, how you see others and your relationships with them. That’s one small reason that we say that the Kingdom of Heaven is both a present reality and a future promise: there are aspects of perfected existence that we may participate in here on Earth if we’re willing to. Christ’s incarnation accomplished more than cosmic salvation–it gave us an example of how to think and act so that we do not have to wait to participate in the fullness of the life to come.
As Milton says in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Jesus showed us how to do the former. Those happy little sacrifices we make for the ones we love are an essential aspect of creating that double joy of relationships that both affirm each person involved and become something greater than either. No reason to think that will change in the world to come.