Theology & Spirituality

The Utopian Trifecta

Once upon a time, there was a good and gracious King. Though he was king of all the land, he gave one of his lands to his oldest subject, but this man was soon tricked by the king’s enemy into giving up his authority over the land.

The king’s enemy ruled with wickedness, and an iron fist. He allowed injustice, championed selfishness, and permitted evil. Under the evil king, the people of the land hurt each other often, and after just a short while, it seemed that nobody remembered the way things had been under the good and gracious king.

So begins the story of the history of the world. God gave earth to mankind, for us to have dominion, but we ceded authority to Satan the rebel, and so we joined in his rebellion against God. As students of the Bible, we know that God’s ultimate goal is to reconcile Himself to us, but how we think about what earth will look like after this reconciliation will shape what we think the reconciliation looks like.

I would like to offer a theoretical picture of what this reconciliation looks like, and then to extrapolate from this picture what this reconciliation must accomplish in us, in terms of our sanctification. I suggest that God intends to create an actual, real-life utopia, full of creatures with free will (and therefore, the capacity to show love) but without sin (and therefore, with no chance of bringing about another Fall).

C.S. Lewis touches upon this catch-22 in Mere Christianity, writing that if a creature is free to obey, it must also be free to disobey–and since mankind has fallen, even with Jesus’s imputed righteousness, we must be free to disobey and therefore, to sin. Unless God intends, in eternity, to restrict our mental and physical capabilities on an individual basis–in other words, unless God intends to limit our free will based on the progress we have each made to be sanctified–so that we are unable to act in ways in which each of us would inevitably sin, then it stands to reason that we will both be capable of, and engage in, sin during eternity.

On the one hand, this is plausible–we are forgiven for all of our sins for all time, which should include those that we commit during eternity…but on the other hand, this seems like a very implausible possibility. God says through the prophets that He will create a world with no more tears, where sin and death will be defeated. Death was defeated by Jesus’s death; perhaps sin is defeated by Jesus’s life?

I believe that, after Jesus’s second coming, we will absolutely be capable of sinning–and I believe that, for a while, we may still sin–but I believe that, over time, we will sin less and less frequently, and eventually, not at all. I also believe that this will take place without any restriction of our own free will, thereby preserving our ability to genuinely love while eradicating sin from existence and creating the perfect world, a genuine utopia. And I think that the manner in which God intends to accomplish this is in the top-3 most beautiful machinations He has ever devised.

How can this be? I see only one way, and admittedly, it does start with embracing one specific aspect of an eschatological viewpoint you may not hold firmly to. That is the existence of a literal millennium after Jesus physically returns and after the day of judgment, but before Satan and evil are fully eradicated from our existence. But it doesn’t have to be a literal thousand-year millennium, as it is clear from Scripture that the number ten and its multiples serve to symbolize a time in which things are brought to completion, or made whole. The viewpoint that must be embraced is not a period of one thousand years between the second coming/day of judgment and the start of eternity–the viewpoint that must be embraced is that there will be a period of time in which things are brought to completion. In which we are brought to completion.

If you find yourself willing to admit this as a possibility, then I want to return to the fairy tale for a moment.

This good and gracious king needed to address two problems. Firstly, he needed to reestablish authority over the world from the evil king; the rebellion had to be quelled. Secondly, he needed to teach those living in the land, whose sense of morality had been twisted during their time as subjects of the evil king, what goodness looked like. He had to make them want goodness and He also had to make them capable of sustaining that goodness in their behavior.

The first problem has, from our perspective, already been addressed. God sent His Son, Jesus, to earth, and while He was here, the evil king and his subjects put God’s son to death. As so many great fictional stories tell us, however, when you put somebody who is truly good to death, they tend to come back to life. In this case, not only did Jesus return to life, He returned to life as the newly crowned King. 

Adam ceded his authority over the earth to Satan by obeying him over God, but, as Lewis puts it, Jesus came to earth, landed in disguise, and organized a rebellion against Satan’s rule. When He was discovered, the enemy sentenced Him to death, but His innocence not only prevented death from holding Him, it returned the authority of earth to Jesus as the risen King.

Sometimes the order of events in Scripture confuses us, but it is important to note that, though the effects of Satan’s rule over the earth still affect us today, the fallen angel that is Satan no longer has any lasting power. He was deposed several millennia ago, replaced by King Jesus, and King Jesus has reigned in the hearts and minds of His subjects, and will continue to do so until He returns to reign in person.

As I said, the first problem has already been addressed. Yet the second problem is significantly more complicated than it may first appear. The law, which God gave to Moses long ago, could not fully teach mankind right from wrong because, as Jesus made clear to us in the Sermon on the Mount, the problem extends deeper than mankind’s behavior. Rather, the problem is in mankind’s heart. We may be able, through severe effort, to control our anger for a while; unless we eradicate it from our heart entirely, however, it will eventually burst forth from us. Paul talks about this in Romans 7, about how he does what he doesn’t want to do, but doesn’t do what he does want to do.

And yet, he ends Romans 7 by giving thanks to Jesus for saving him from such a wretched state of existence. We often miss this–he doesn’t thank Jesus for calling him righteous even though he is not, he thanks Jesus for clothing him in Jesus’s righteousness.

If you consume Christian media and attend church today, I hope that you notice that we are in the midst of a genuine revival. As somebody who reads TGC and Desiring God often, as somebody who watches two different sermons from two different denominations each week, as a Master’s student in Bible and Theology, I can attest that in all of these spaces, there has been a renewed emphasis that salvation is not simply equivalent to justification. Sanctification is just as vital to ultimate salvation as justification, neither occurs without the other, and this is a process called salvation that occurs over time and is not a one- (or two-) time event.

Sanctification, as most Christians will be quick to stress, is never completed before we die. What we often fail to acknowledge is that, once we rise again, it is very possible that we will still need to be further sanctified before we are made perfect.

I want to make it clear before I go any further that what follows is simply a theory, and not something I claim to be unequivocally true. I believe it is true, but I also think it is possible that, when Jesus resurrects us, He may have already removed our imperfections, so that nothing more is required to sanctify us. If that is true, then it would negate the purpose of this article; nevertheless, though I think that option is plausible and Biblical, I think this theory has slightly more evidence in favor of it, and I think the deciding factor is God’s history of interaction with humankind.

If you look at the way God interacts with humanity throughout history, He doesn’t just snap His fingers and enact changes. He brings about change over time. This is because growth takes time, and sanctification is about growth. While God certainly has the power to snap His fingers and sanctify us, this isn’t His M.O. He doesn’t just do the right thing–He does the right thing in the right way–and I contend that the right way to bring about our sanctification is not simply to do it in the blink of an eye, but to produce it over time, because over time, it can become ingrained in our character.

Which brings me to my point. I submit that God intends to complete our sanctification during a figurative millennium (a period of completion) after Jesus returns and final judgment is administered, but before the world is fully and finally restored to its state pre-Fall. To show why, I want to once more return to our fairy tale.

To solve the complicated second problem, the good and gracious king issues an edict. He is now the ruler of this land, and if anybody wishes to continue to live in his land, they must submit to his rule. Otherwise, they will be exiled with the evil king. But he is good and gracious, which means he is patient with the inhabitants of the land. He gives everybody time to make their choice; mankind is given their entire lives to decide to lay down their arms, offer allegiance to the good king, and choose to be faithful to him rather than to the evil king (who has convinced mankind that loyalty to him is synonymous with looking out for themselves).

Whenever somebody decides to submit to the rule of the good King, the King sends his emissary to educate the individual on what it means to live in this kingdom. Living under the new King’s rule isn’t easy; it requires breaking long-held habits developed under the rule of the evil king. No matter. The good King is aware of this and, since He is good, He is willing to be patient and to meet his new subjects where they are at. But, this doesn’t negate that, in the end, he intends for each of his subjects to become perfect. He tries very hard to make this clear to them.

Some day, you and I will die. If we have pledged loyalty to King Jesus prior to that point, we will have a place in his kingdom. But what does this pledging of loyalty look like? To what degree must we be sanctified prior to death in order to have a place in God’s kingdom?

The loaded nature of this question is one reason why justification has come to be equated with salvation: technically, no degree of sanctification prior to death is required to have a place in God’s kingdom. The pledge of loyalty to Jesus itself, believing in Him, having faith in Him, that is enough. That is baptism of the Spirit, being born again, and in one respect, this is absolutely true.

But this pledge of loyalty itself needs to be examined. What it means to be faithful to Jesus, to have faith in Jesus, to believe in Jesus, to trust Jesus–we need to understand what was meant by these phrases as written to understand what is required to “be saved” (and there is also a real need to dive deep into what “being saved” entails).

To pledge allegiance to a king is to submit your heart to the king. Real loyalty is not saying aloud, “Yes, king, I will do as you say” while thinking, in your heart “Nope, I’m not doing that.” King Jesus isn’t deceived, even if you deceive yourself. Real loyalty may say, “I have no idea how I’m going to conquer this particular sin, and part of me doesn’t want to because I love it, but I also want to and have the genuine intent to overcome it.” It’s the presence of this genuine intent, not the degree, that indicates faithfulness.

This “genuine intent” is very difficult to describe, but it’s pretty easy to recognize in ourselves if it’s present. When we tell somebody that we will do something, we know in our hearts if we’re being sincere or not. “Be home by ten!” our parents may tell us. “Okay,” some of us would reply, knowing we have no intention of following through. Often this is tied to a lack of concern about the consequences of the punishment for failing to follow through. In John Bevere’s book The Bait of Satan, he insightfully ties this to our earliest years, when our parents threaten us with soft consequences for frequent, minor misbehavior and then repeatedly fail to follow through. Through this conditioning, we learn that we cannot expect consistent consequences, or even any consequences at all, and so we are subtly taught not to consider the consequences of our actions when choosing our actions.

There is a single way of acquiring this “genuine intent”: humility. To follow Jesus, to believe in Him or pledge allegiance to Him or have faith in Him, one must be humble. Humility is the willingness to listen to God over oneself. When you and the good king have a difference of opinions on a particular matter, humility is defaulting to the position of “you are right and I am wrong, even if I can’t see how.” This should be accompanied by the question, “Will you please show me how I am wrong?”

Effectively, to develop this humility is to develop new habits, and then a character, of turning away from the bad and harmful habits that we developed under the evil king so we can develop new, good habits under the good king. In Christian terms, this is repentance. Humility leads to repentance, both are required for one to pledge genuine allegiance to King Jesus, and both flow naturally from a genuine desire to follow King Jesus.

But there is a third requirement with regard to our allegiance to King Jesus that does not depend on us at all. We have to be forgiven. Because, under the evil king, a great deal of injustice occurred, and lots of that injustice was perpetrated by you and I. So much so, in fact, that if the good king was to get justice for all the victims of our bad behavior, we would end up imprisoned, all of us, and for (eternal) life.

Though our sin may be relatively minor, it can cause damage that destroys a multitude of lives. Suppose a gun salesman runs a background check and there are a few red flags, but he deletes the report and sells the guns anyway because he needs the money. The next day, the buyer kills a class of kindergarteners, a few teachers, and a few cops, before he turns the guns on himself. Strictly speaking, the seller committed a very minor offense. It’s possible that the shooter would have found another way to get guns. But he didn’t. He got them from the gun salesman’s negligence.

What we often fail to consider and what God always considers is that this sin of negligence enables, and thus is responsible for, any future sin that is committed as a result. We cannot take this into account because we are not God–but He is God, and He knows exactly to what extent our sinful actions perpetuate that sin in other’s actions.

People act sinfully in their grief and anger, and though this is absolutely understandable, it doesn’t alter the fact that we can’t hurt others just because we are hurt–and when we do, though we are absolutely responsible for our actions, there is a real causal relationship between what hurt us and the hurt we inflict.

God, being just, knows that a just and fair assessment of the situation yields this conclusion. We may think this is unfair, but we are partially responsible for others’ sins when they are made possible by our sins. And the just punishments for these absolutely add up to an eternal life sentence over the course of our lifetime. Perhaps this puts sin in an entirely different perspective for you–to realize that a “small” sin here or there may end up resulting in the death of a stranger I’ll never meet–it did for me.

But sin isn’t the end of the story. King Jesus is a good king, and he offers to pardon us unconditionally for all of this. This forgiveness is a gift, and it extends both to the sins we committed under the rule of the evil king and the sins we commit as we struggle to change and live under the rule of our good King. But this forgiveness is necessary because the purpose of forgiveness is to restore our relationship. Without a belief that we are forgiven, our guilt and shame over our sins will persist and we will continue sinning as a result. Without genuine and fulfilled forgiveness, we aren’t free.

We also need to remember that we didn’t simply violate God’s laws through our sin, we hurt our neighbors–and our neighbors hurt us by sinning against us as well. If we are going to live in peace with our neighbors, we cannot hold their debts against them, nor they against us. We have to forgive from the heart and believe we are forgiven by others.

I titled this article “The Utopian Trifecta” because, to be truly allegiant to King Jesus, there seem to be three basic requirements. 1) We must be humble, willing to submit to Him regarding right and wrong, willing to listen to Him over ourselves; 2) We must be repentant, genuinely sorry for the hurt our actions have caused and having a sincere desire not to engage in those behaviors (even if we simultaneously still have a residual desire to engage in them); and 3) We must give and receive forgiveness, believing that when King Jesus and others say that they forgive us, we really are forgiven, and meaning it when we tell others that we forgive them.

My original premise was that we will be free to disobey, but all of us will reach a point in time in Jesus’s eternal kingdom where we will never disobey again. Try to imagine, for a moment, that you live in the type of society I just described. Jesus Christ is living here on earth and is ruling as king. Every single person that remains here on earth considers Jesus’s words the highest law. We all consider His authority absolute and His judgment unimpeachable. We respond to His correction with humility, every time, because none of us are rebels against Him any longer. Whenever we act against what God says is right, He can simply correct us. And no matter who He does this to, and about what, we will listen. Why? Because He is present with us, because we are humble, and because our entire society is in agreement that what He says is good and right. 

If I obey my father even when he is not physically present, am I not even more likely to obey him when he is there with me? Similarly, if you are willing to obey Jesus here and now, even though He is not visibly standing before you, how much more will you be willing to obey Him when He is capable of appearing before you the moment you sin and correcting you, gently and kindly?

Of course, this admits that sin will still be present…and I think that it will be, at first. But society is not simply universally humble; every single person in this world is genuinely repentant whenever we sin. We are willing to recognize and accept any time we are called on our sin, and we are genuinely sorry for doing it and want to refrain from it in the future. Furthermore, since everybody living in this society is like this, and since we all know this is a requirement for our presence in Jesus’s Kingdom, we can trust that everybody around us is genuinely repentant as well.

Forgiveness is also a requirement for our presence in Jesus’s Kingdom. Whenever you or I sin against anybody, we will not only know that Jesus forgives us, we will also know that whomever we sin against will, from their heart, forgive us our sin. There will not be any doubt that, if somebody sins, they will accept correction for their sin, they will be sorry for their sin, and they will receive forgiveness (and believe they are forgiven) from all the offended parties. The cycle of healing which Christians engage in and practice now will continue in eternity, but in a society in which everybody is committed to the core tenets of this healing: humility, repentance, and forgiveness. A trifecta of tenets that enable a utopian society, all originating from and echoing forth from a present and loving King Jesus.

God has nothing but time. He can allow this type of existence to continue until even the memory of sin has gone from our minds. Until we have developed such sinless habits that, though we are technically capable of sinning, we never will. And in this way, we will have retained our free will. Can you think of a better definition of a utopia than a place like this, where we are free to act as we will, and yet we never again hurt anybody through our behavior?

I don’t presume to know the particulars, of course, but I think it is likely that Jesus’s eternal kingdom will resemble a society such as this. And if it does, this has certain ramifications for our life here and now. It means that faithfulness to King Jesus, the kind of faith/belief that leads to salvation, depends upon acknowledging our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves, turning away from this sinfulness from the heart, and believing that God has offered us forgiveness of sins, which we are to offer it to others as well. To do this is to submit ourselves to Jesus, and those who submit themselves to the lordship of King Jesus will stay in His kingdom forever.

Tim Arrington grew up in the LCMS before he began attending non-denominational churches about a decade ago. He is in the final year of a Master’s program at Lincoln Christian University studying Bible and Theology. He lives with his wife Brittney and their 2-year-old daughter Amelia in Pittsburg, Kansas.
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