Stephen Witmer is the Pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, MA and teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He agreed to answer some questions for us about his new book Eternity Changes Everything: How to live now in the light of your future (The Good Book Company).
CGC: You’ve written a book called Eternity Changes Everything: How to live now in the light of your future. Who is this book for?
SW: It’s written mainly for Christians who believe in the reality of the future new creation, but who find that belief making very little practical difference in their everyday lives. I hope reading this book will help transform bland belief in the new creation into eager delight. The life to come is meant to be a mighty source of encouragement, endurance, and resilience in this life, as well as the rocket fuel for persistent, creative deeds of love.
CGC: What gives you hope that it can actually have that effect for Christians?
SW: As humans we’re all naturally wired with a fascination for our future. It’s why people go to fortune tellers and why we’re fascinated by apps like InTwentyYears (which takes a photo of your face and simulates what you’ll look like in twenty years…scary!). This future focus sets us apart from animals, which are concerned only about today. Your dog is not wondering where he’s going to retire, and your cat is not saving to put her kittens through college. To some extent, humans are naturally wired to be interested in our eternal future.
But more importantly, it’s clear that the new creation has actually served as a source of transformative power for Christians throughout history. I’m challenged and amazed by Hebrews 10.32-34, which describes early Christians who took big risks for the gospel and lost reputation and property with joy because they knew that they had ‘a better possession and an abiding one.’ They were so certain of their spectacularly great future that they could flourish in a spectacularly bad present. That’s the same dynamic Paul talks about in Colossians, where the certain, future hope of the Colossian Christians has produced faith in Christ Jesus and great love for all the saints. I long for increasing measures of this in my own life.
CGC: But we can’t see the new creation now, and sometimes it seems very far away. How can Christians today be assured that this is actually their future?
SW: This is one of the points I press hard in my book, because I don’t think other books on the practical importance of eternity emphasize it nearly enough. The key to our confidence is understanding the already/not yet nature of the Kingdom of God. We can know that Jesus will conquer evil because Jesus already has conquered evil. We know he will establish the new creation because he’s already begun to establish the new creation. And we can know that we will experience eternal life with Jesus because, if we’ve trusted in him for salvation, we already have begun to experience eternal life in the present. This is the consistent teaching of the New Testament, and it’s hugely important. We look back to Jesus’ past, accomplished work in order to be assured of his final, future work. The Kingdom will come because the Kingdom has come. Grasping this will massively boost our confidence that God will bring about a beautiful new creation and we will be welcomed into it. We can know already that an amazingly good future is securely ours.
CGC: Are there examples from Christian history in which we can see eternity changing everything in a person’s life and ministry?
SW: Yes. In the book, I tell the story of Henry Martyn, who left behind a promising scholarly career to sail to India as a missionary in 1805, at the age of 24. On board the ship he struggled with major doubts and fears. But he found the strength to keep going by meditating upon his future with Christ in the new heavens and new earth. He died just six years later in India, recording in his journal a few days before his death that he was eagerly longing for the new creation. Rock-solid confidence in a perfect future allows us to risk everything in the present, to be resilient in hardship, because we know something very good is coming very soon.
CGC: How has this reality been changing you?
SW: Frankly, up until the past 6-7 years, I never devoted much time or thought to my eternal future. I just assumed it. I’m still a work in progress, but slowly, surely, meditation on the new creation is bearing fruit in my own life. I can deal better with disappointments. I have fewer regrets. I’m more focused on the right goals in my parenting. I’m helped in my fight against sin. I’ll never forget a time several years ago when God delivered me from giving in to temptation by reminding me of Jesus’ sweet promise that I will one day gaze upon God forever. I took hold of that promise and let go of the promise sin was making. I’m beginning to understand a bit more of what John Calvin meant when he wrote, ‘If meditation on the heavenly life were the prevailing sentiment in our hearts, the world would have no influence in detaining us.’
CGC: Thanks for speaking to us about your book.
SW: Thanks for the opportunity, and for the work of the Center for Gospel Culture. I’m excited about what you’re doing to promote gospel renewal in New England.