Pilgrims and Strangers on our Way to… Earth?

Rev. Dykstra is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Doon, Iowa.

What is your hope, your expectation after death? What does the Bible lead us to expect on the other side of the grave? Where will we live after we die, and where will the church live after the return of Christ on the clouds of heaven? Where will this “new heavens and earth” be and what will life be like there? Or, to bring it closer to home, are you a pilgrim and a stranger seeking a heavenly, spiritual city, or are you devoting your attention to the earth, helping to reform this present world and to receive your inheritance here below? 

Many readers will be puzzled that these questions should even arise. So was I when I received these questions. From infancy, children of Reformed parents are taught that we are on our way to heaven. This earth is not our home. Pilgrims and strangers are we, with no abiding place. We live here, serve God as best we can, and look for the day when we can go home, to heaven. 

Increasingly, however, both college and high school students are taught that that attitude is wrong. They are told to direct their attention and their efforts toward this earth. The argument runs something like this. Because we Christians were created to live on the earth, we have a responsibility to be stewards of it. But sin has twisted and corrupted this world. As Christians, we must set the earth back in the order it had when God created it. We must not therefore, be so concerned about heaven. Rather we must get things right here on this earth

This is not, of course, all new. For some time now movements have been afoot within the Reformed camp to improve this world—rebuild homes and fix up buildings in the inner city or in poverty-stricken areas in the south. But with these endeavors, the alleged purpose at least was to witness of Christ. Today, however, instructors are getting bolder. Witnessing is not the main point. The point is that the earth is our home. Our interests should be in caring for our homefirst. Christians, it is said, should not be longing toleave this earth to go home! And if one objects, “But what of the promise of God. that we will dwell with Him forever?” the answer of some, incredibly, is that that happened already in the Incarnation. Christ is God in the flesh, God with us, who came DOWN from heaven to live on EARTH. He lives with us now by His Spirit. Some even teach that after Christ returns we will come back to live on this earth. 

Incredible? Yes. And yet this contains just enough of Scripture to make one pause, and enough to carry along the student who is not knowledgeable or grounded in the Scriptures. What are we to say about this? 

First, we must insist that heaven 1) is real and 2) is the proper hope and desire of the Christian. Heaven is a real place. It is a spiritual (not earthly) place for spiritual beings—the angels, saints who have died, and God. Heaven is God’s “holy habitation” (Deut. 26:15); the Lord “sitteth in the heavens” (Ps. 2:4). Jesus taught us to pray to “our Father who art in heaven.” He will either confess or deny men before His “Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32, 33). And Jesus Himself “was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19). It was in heaven that there was fought the war of Michael and the angels against Satan (Rev. 12:7-9). And the saints who have died are there already. Adam and Eve, Abel, Seth, Abraham, Moses, David, the apostles, and our grandparents or parents who died in the Lord are part of the innumerable multitude gathered about the throne of God in heaven right now (Ps. 73:24Matt. 8:11John 14:2, 3;Rev. 7:9ff.). Heaven is a real, spiritual place. 

Equally important is the fact that heaven is the object of the believer’s longing while on the earth. The Old Testament believers understood this well. The psalmist sang, “In thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for ever more” (16:11). The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, understood that the earthly Canaan was not their final inheritance. They “looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” They were “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” who showed plainly that “they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly” (Heb. 11:10, 13-16).

Likewise Jesus exhorted us not to lay up treasures upon earth, but in heaven, for, said He, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19-21). He wants—demands—that our hearts be set upon heaven! In no uncertain terms He informed Pilate that His “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). In harmony with that, Paul longed “to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (Phil. 1:23). And he exhorts us to “seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1).

Does the believer long for heaven? Should you look forward to leaving this earth? Of course! How could it be any different? Here is tribulation, sickness, disease, pain sorrow, SIN, and death. In heaven, all that is gone forever. In its place is joy love, peace flowing out of covenant life with God—face to face—in Jesus Christ. 

But perhaps you wonder, what about our calling towards the creation? This question really deserves a separate article or two because it is very important. But, very briefly, the calling of us Christians is to be good stewards in all our lives, using wisely the possessions and world God gave us for God’s glory. Having said that however, we must remember that this earth is not an end in itself, but it serves its God-appointed function On this earth is played out the divinely ordained drama of life—the fall of man, the redemption of the elect, and the gathering of the church out of all nations. After the counsel of God is accomplished, and especially after all the elect are gathered, the creation will have served its purpose and will be burned up (II Pet. 3). Thus the earthly creation is not to be the focus of our attention and labors. To do this is not only utter folly, since all will be destroyed, but is ignoring God’s command to seek the heavenly kingdom. 

We are, therefore, young saints, pilgrims and strangers here below with no abiding place. We are on our way to heaven. Christ did come down to earth to save us, but His goal was not an earthly kingdom. It was emphatically a heavenly, spiritual kingdom. 

We must recognize and identify these ideas for what they are—fiery darts of the Evil One. Satan would like nothing better than for Reformed young people to turn their thoughts and hopes away from heaven, and set them on this creation instead. He would convince covenant youth to consume their strength on earthly concerns and problems, that there be no time or energy for personal spiritual growth or work for the spiritual kingdom. You recognize that he has been attempting this throughout the history of the church. This is just a new variation of an old lie, a different phase of his attack. What is so deadly about this is that he has instructors in Christian institutions essentially teaching covenant youth to forget about heaven and to get this world straightened out first. 

We must be on our guard. We must consider ourselves to be pilgrims and strangers no less than Abraham was. “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Heb. 13:14). We are to pass the time of our sojourning here in fear, knowing that we were not purchased with corruptible things, as gold and silver, but with the precious blood of Christ (I Pet. 1:17, 18). For this reason we live in the hope of Christ’s return, not to dwell with Christ on this sin-cursed world, but to be taken out of this world that it may be burned. And then? Then the promise will be fulfilled of the creation of the new heavens and the new earth and eternal life with our God there. We are pilgrims and strangers on our way . . . to heaven.