The glorification of the Christian is that we shall share in God’s glory when we are in our resurrected bodies in the new heavens and new earth, experiencing deeper fellowship with God and not being at risk of falling away into sin, God’s glory finally being “all in all.”
Understanding the glorification of the Christian begins with understanding the glory of God, the state of incomparable greatness in which God dwells and through which he is perceived by his creatures. As creatures marred by sin, we are separated from this glory in two ways, both by the fact that we are creatures and not the Creator, and because of the effects of our sin upon our nature. The first part of our glorification is thus our dying to sin in this life and our eventual death in this body. The second part is our being raised to new life and a new body with Christ in the new heavens and new earth. This will not simply be a return to the Garden of Eden, but we will live with God and share in his glory forever, enjoying deeper fellowship with God and greater opportunities for praising him than we presently enjoy. This glory does not become our own but remains God’s own glory; we simply share in it as sub-rules and creatures who dwell in his eternal light.
The Christian doctrine of the eternal state of the redeemed is rooted in the concept of divine glory, which his chosen people will share with him in eternity. Glory is not a divine attribute like holiness, but the state in which God dwells and the way in which he is perceived by others. The biblical picture of God’s glory is usually derived from the court rituals of the ancient world, where monarchs were often installed in great pomp and even regarded as divinities in their own right. The biblical writers draw on that analogy but make it quite plain that the glory of the Lord is incomparably greater than anything that can be seen on earth. It is the heavens that declare his glory (Ps. 19:1) and the earth is merely the footstool of his heavenly throne (Isa. 66:1).
The glory of God also stands in sharp contrast to the humble conditions in which human beings dwell. The difference between his state and ours is twofold. First, it is the difference between the Creator and his creatures, a gulf that no human effort can overcome. Secondly, it is the difference caused by the effect of human sin, which has marred the glory of God’s image in us and made us less like him than we were before the fall. Entering into God’s glory is thus a two-stage process. We must first overcome the damage caused by sin and then be transformed from the material to the resurrection world. The two things are distinct and are never simultaneous, even if they are not far removed from each other in time. For example, on the cross Jesus told the repentant thief that they would be together in Paradise that same day, but the promise to the thief was still in the future, even if it was only hours away (Luke 23:43).
Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed that his Father might restore him to the glory that they had both shared before his incarnation, evidence that life on earth is a departure from the glory of God, even if there is no sin involved (John 17:1–5). In this same passage, Jesus says that he has glorified the Father on earth, an expression that can only mean that he has revealed the Father as he truly is. That interpretation is supported by John’s assertion that in the incarnation, Jesus’s disciples saw the glory of God in him (John 1:14). Glory is therefore a spiritual quality, not determined or restricted by material things like human flesh which, to those who have spiritual discernment, can become a means for revealing it rather than a covering that conceals it from view.
That God’s glory can be seen in human flesh is demonstrated by the transfiguration of Jesus, when his divine character was revealed to Peter, James and John (Matt. 17:1–8; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:8–36). It is not clear how, or to what extent, the transfiguration reflects the eternal glory of God, but it may tell us something about what the life of heaven will be like, because alongside Jesus, and in communion with him (though not with the disciples), stood the iconic figures of Moses (the law) and Elijah (the prophets). They were part of his glory and shared in it, which may give us some indication of the exalted state that we shall enjoy when we go to join them in the new heaven and the new earth.
The first stage in the glorification of redeemed humanity is a process of transformation that is outlined for us in 1 Corinthians 15:35–58. Paul describes the future state as a dying and rising again to new life, and it is in this passage that he gives the most detailed explanation of what that means. He tells us that the material body that we now have will die and that we shall be raised with a spiritual body that will not be subject to the current laws of human nature. It is not clear whether that body will be like the one that Jesus had after his resurrection—material enough to eat and be touched, but spiritual enough to be able to appear and to vanish without notice. It seems more likely that our spiritual bodies will have passed through a subsequent stage that is marked by the ascension of Christ. In other words, there will be no lingering elements of our present material condition in them, but everything about us will be raised to a higher spiritual plane, comparable to that of the angels. The best evidence we have for this is the statement of Jesus that in the resurrection there will be no giving or taking in marriage, a statement that implies that current human desires and needs will disappear (Matt. 22:30). There is also the assurance that earthly pain and suffering will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4), which probably means that our transformed spiritual bodies will be immune to the causes of the things that plague us now.
Recognizing this transformation is important because it reminds us that the glorified state of heaven will not be a return to the Garden of Eden. This is symbolized by the statement that the tree of life, which was formerly in the Garden, will then be in the midst of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:2). The conditions that allowed for the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve will no longer exist, so that believers will have the assurance that they will never be deceived or fall away again. There will be a new heaven and a new earth, a totally transformed environment in which the redeemed will flourish.
It is not entirely clear whether human achievements in this life will also be redeemed. The question arises because the picture of the glorified universe is of a heavenly city, and cities are human creations. It makes sense to say that if God put man on earth in order to develop its potential, then the fruits of that labor will also be on display in heaven, but it must be admitted that this is speculation. We also cannot say what we shall look like in eternity. Will we recognize one another, for example? Will we reappear as old as we were when we died, or will age be irrelevant? If that is so, will anyone know who we are? These questions and others like them are impossible to answer, but we do know that there will be a direct continuity between us as we are in this life and the persons that we shall be in the next. It must be so, since otherwise salvation would have no meaning. If I return as someone else, I can hardly claim that I am the one who has been saved!
Related to this are a number of questions that are occasionally asked but that are extremely difficult to answer. Presumably, the spiritual body that we shall receive will be finite, but where will it be located? Is heaven a definable place? If God is infinite, will the distance between his being and ours be overcome, or will we find him just as invisible then as we do now? Will the glory given to us be in any way comparable to his, or will it have to be defined and understood quite differently? Here we are venturing into a realm that lies beyond our present ability to comprehend, and we must be very careful about how we try to explain it. The Bible often uses symbolism, especially in the book of Revelation, which incautious readers are liable to take literally or else depict in sentimental ways that bear little resemblance to reality. Whatever heaven is, it is almost certainly not a place where fat baby cherubs play on harps, despite the number of paintings that have portrayed it in that way.
The Glorified State
For Christians, the life of heaven will be the fulfillment of life on earth, first in what is called the intermediate state (from death to the resurrection) and then in the final or eternal or glorified state—the life of resurrection. What is promised to us now will be given to us then. At its heart will be a deeper fellowship with God and greater opportunities for praising him than we presently enjoy. In the company of Christ, we shall be seated next to the heavenly throne and installed with him as rulers and judges of the world. This does not mean that we shall be independent actors, but that we shall be so closely united with God in Christ that we shall share his thoughts and execute his will as we were originally meant to do. Everything that Adam and Eve were called to be we shall become—and more.
Glorification must be understood primarily as the honor that will be given to us in our transformed eternal state. That honor will protect us from sin and falling away and will ensure that we suffer no pain in the way that we do here on earth. Those who have suffered and died for their faith will be recognized appropriately, but it is hard to say what this might mean in practice. Jesus told his disciples that those who enter the vineyard at the eleventh hour will receive the same reward as those who have labored there all day (Matt. 20:1–16), and if this is true of heaven, there is no reason to suppose that there will be a hierarchy of rewards than makes one believer greater than another.
What is certain is that the worship of God will be central to our experience of glory. The Bible speaks of massed throngs standing around his throne and praising him, but whether this is all that we shall be doing is impossible to say. Perhaps we shall be engaged in many different tasks, but if so, all of them will be marked by a sense of the presence of God and a consciousness that whatever we shall be doing, it will be an act of praise and thanksgiving to him. We know that we shall be dwelling in eternal light, but we are also told that this light will not come from the sun or the moon, the only sources of natural light currently known to us, but from the glory of God, which will supply all our needs (Rev. 21:23). From this, we may conclude that our glory will be an extension and reflection of God’s glory and would be inconceivable apart from that. As the Apostle Paul put it, God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28) and our life will be caught up in his. The precise details are beyond our current ability to comprehend, but we have the assurance that when the time comes, we shall have no regrets and shall not look back with longing for the imperfect existence that we shall then have left behind.
- Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson, eds., Heaven
- David Cooper, Man: his Creation, Fall, Redemption and Glorification
- George Beiderwieden, Heaven
- J. C. Ryle, Heaven
- Marcus Peter Johnson, One with Christ. An Evangelical Theology of Salvation
- Randy Alcorn, Heaven