Surprised by Hope: Will We Remember Our Former Lives In Heaven?

[Re-posted to include some new material at the end.]

Someone asked this in class Sunday, and I had wondered the same thing as I was preparing the lesson. The question comes from Isaiah —

(Isa 65:17) “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.

Does that mean that we’ll forget our past lives in heaven? Especially, does that mean we’ll forget our friends and family who rejected Jesus? Many contend that this is exactly what this verse teaches. Let’s see.

There are some parallel verses, especially —

(Rev 21:4-5) He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

In 21:4, “old order of things” is translated in the KJV as “former things.” In the Septuagint, “former things” is translated proteros, meaning former. The word in Rev 21:4 is protos, meaning first, but protos is the root of proteros. The Hebrew is ri’shown, meaning either first or former, and so the KJV (and ESV) seems to have it right: “the former things have passed away.” In fact, given that both Isaiah 65:17 and Rev 21:1-3 are speaking of the new heaven and new earth, this just has to be right.

And so, what are the “former things”? It’s a theme that winds throughout Isaiah. The meaning is first explained to us in c 42, part of the “Servant’s Song,” which is highly Messianic —

5 Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:

6 “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,

7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

8 I am the Lord; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.

9 Behold, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
I tell you of them.”

Here, the “former things” are God’s mighty works: the creation, the Mosaic covenant. And he promises further mighty acts.

Similarly, God declares in c 46:8-10 —

“Remember this and stand firm,
recall it to mind, you transgressors,

9 remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,

10 declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’

His point is that God’s mighty works in the past should assure his hearers that what he says about the future will certainly come true.

But in chapter 65, ironically, it would seem, Isaiah speaks of “former things” that are former sins (v 7) and troubles (16).

7 both your iniquities and your fathers’ iniquities together,
says the Lord;
because they made offerings on the mountains
and insulted me on the hills,
I will measure into their bosom
payment for their former deeds.”

16 So that he who blesses himself in the land
shall bless himself by the God of truth,
and he who takes an oath in the land
shall swear by the God of truth;
because the former troubles are forgotten
and are hidden from my eyes.

Thus, verse 17 seems to change the meaning of “former things.” No longer is he speaking of God’s former mighty works. Now he’s speaking of our former sins and troubles.

(Isa 65:17) “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”

After all, it hardly makes sense for Isaiah to be saying we’ll not remember God’s creation. Rather, he is saying that our former sins will be forgotten.

This reading is confirmed by —

(Rev 21:4-5) He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the [former] things ha[ve] passed away.” 5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

It might make sense that we can’t have the full measure of joy in heaven if we remember our former troubles and iniquities.

Now, Isa 65:17 could be read as referring to God’s remembering these things no more, and there are many prophetic passages that speak in terms of God no longer remembering our sins. But the Septuagint’s translation contradicts this possibility —

16b For they shall forget their first affliction and it shall not ascend unto their heart. 17 For there will be the new heaven and new earth. And in no way shall they remember the former things, nor in any way shall it come upon their heart.

In the Septuagint, Isaiah is translated as plainly speaking of the sinful and troubled people forgetting. However, the Hebrew Bible suggests that verses 16-17 say it is God who is forgetting —

16 So that he who blesseth himself in the earth shall bless himself by the God of truth; and he that sweareth in the earth shall swear by the God of truth; because the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hid from Mine eyes. 17 For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.

It’s not entirely clear, I suppose, in the Hebrew, but Rev 21:4 certainly suggests that the result of the former things being done away with will be our comfort, not merely our forgiveness. That hardly answers the questions, though.

Isaiah 54, which is a strikingly beautiful passage (which is why I quote the whole thing), is less ambiguous —

(Isa 54) “Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD. 2 “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. 3 For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities.

4 “Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. 5 For your Maker is your husband — the LORD Almighty is his name — the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. 6 The LORD will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit — a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.

7 “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. 8 In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD your Redeemer.

9 “To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. 10 Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you.

11 “O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. 12 I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones. 13 All your sons will be taught by the LORD, and great will be your children’s peace. 14 In righteousness you will be established: Tyranny will be far from you; you will have nothing to fear. Terror will be far removed; it will not come near you. 15 If anyone does attack you, it will not be my doing; whoever attacks you will surrender to you.

16 “See, it is I who created the blacksmith who fans the coals into flame and forges a weapon fit for its work. And it is I who have created the destroyer to work havoc; 17 no weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the LORD.

God speaks to Israel as a husband who left the wife of youth — making her as though a widow — who then changes his mind and takes her back, giving her children. Although she will suffer a time of distress, there will come a time when she forgets her shame and her “widowhood.”

And then, beginning in verse 11, he speaks of Israel as a city in language that sounds much like the description of the new Jerusalem in Rev 21. Indeed, this is surely the source of the imagery John uses.

It seems clear enough that it’s Israel who forgets, not God. And if this is parallel to Isa 65:17, as seems likely, we are told that we’ll forget our former sins.

As is true in all the Isaiah passages, this forgetting of former tribulations could be hyperbole — things will be so great you’ll no longer be concerned about how bad things used to be. Or the passages could be referring to a literal forgetting. It’s hard to tell in apocalyptic language such as this.

But I find nothing that says we’ll forget everything, only that we’ll either forget our former troubles or that the joys of heaven will be so great our former trouble won’t matter. And we’ll certainly find comfort.

(Rev 21:4) “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

(Isa 25:8) he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken.

I would not put limits on God’s power, but I can’t imagine that we’ll lose all memory. In a very real sense, we are the sum total of our memories. If we were to lose all we remember, we’d be very different people in many ways. We’d not rejoice to meet loved ones in heaven. We’d not even be able to celebrate God’s victory!

Therefore, I’m confident that we’ll keep our memories — but God will, one way or another, rescue us from the painful memories.

Consider Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. We are only told that Lazarus was comforted (25) while the rich man was in agony. And part of his agony was realizing that loved ones he’d left behind were headed to torment as well.

Therefore, those who, like Lazarus, will be comforted will not have to suffer from such fears. How God will give us that comfort, I don’t know. But the promise is sure.

On the souls of martyrs

In Rev 6:9-10, John speaks of the martyrs in Christ, who remember their martyrdom and beg for vengeance —

(Rev 6:9-10) When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”

This occurs, of course, before the Eschaton. There is not yet a new heaven and earth, and we’ve not yet addressed what happens to us between our deaths and the End.

But, for now, suffice to say that I do not take this to refer to actual souls pleading for actual vengeance. Here are some of the reasons —

* It’s hard to imagine a Stephen or other early martyrs begging for vengeance. Following Jesus’ example, Stephen begged for God’s forgiveness for those who stoned him. And many early Christian martyrs did the same.

* It would be truly awful to imagine spending thousands of years begging for God to avenge their deaths. After all, in Revelation, the vengeance comes at the End of time.

* Other than in the Revelation, we are constantly taught that vengeance is God’s and that our role is to love our enemies and do good to them. I doubt the ethical standards are lowered in heaven.

* Mounce notes that in Hebrew jurisprudence, the victim had to plead his own case in criminal court.

* Mounce further notes that, as the plea for vengeance comes from under the altar, which is where the blood would be, the idea may well be that it’s the blood — or their deaths — that cries out for vengeance, which would be parallel with Gen 4:10 —

(Gen 4:10) The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

* Soul or psuche is also means life. Our “soul” is not our Platonic, disembodied self. It’s our life. A modern near-equivalent would be “life force.” And in some contexts, it actually means the entire person, body and “soul.”

For example,

(1 John 3:16) This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.

“Life” and “lives” translates psuche. Hence, John may be speaking of the sacrificed lives rather than the disembodied martyrs themselves. In fact, this use of psuche is common in John’s gospel (e.g., 12:25; 13:37,38; 15:13). And I think this likely comes closest to John’s thought. In parallel with Gen 4:10, this makes the best sense to me.

If we remember that the Law says that “life is in the blood” (Lev 7:11,14), and we consider that the martyrs’ blood has been sprinkled beneath the altar (Ex 29; Lev 1, 3, 4), then it only makes sense to speak of their lives (psuche) being there.

Hence, I take this as a figurative device building anticipation for the fulfillment of God’s wrath against evildoers later in the book. But there are better students than I am who disagree.

A final note 2/21/10

I was teaching a class on the nature of hell this morning, and a student asked whether we’d be aware of the damnation of those among our loved ones who aren’t saved. We discussed some of the preceding material very briefly — too briefly — and figured that you’d have to forget somehow in order to truly experience joy in heaven.

Afterwards, another student came forward and questioned me. He asked, “Will God forget the souls he damns?”

It’s a good question, and I answered, “No.” I don’t believe that God forgets anything. He is all-knowing.

“Does God love those he damns any less than we do?”

Again, the answer has to be “no.”

“So how does God deal with that memory?”

How, indeed?

Here’s how I’ve got it figured.

First, as explained in the “Surprised by Hell” series, God does not torture the damned for all eternity. Rather, they suffer punishment proportional to their wickedness. God is just.

(Luke 12:47-48)  “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

The scriptures plainly teach that the punishment will be proportional to the sins committed.

Second, the punishment suffered is finite. They don’t suffer forever. Some who die in virtual innocence will suffer very little. And how much is suffered will depend, in part, on how much we’re given — what opportunities we had in this life.

Therefore, the saved may well be aware of the damnation of the lost — even those they love dearly — but they’ll also be aware that God’s punishment is proportional and just. We’ll understand God’s purposes and agree. Like God, we’ll regret that the lost weren’t saved, but we’ll understand the final outcome as completely just and necessary.

And so, we won’t suffer because of what we know. Somehow or other, God will help us see things as he sees things, which is the right way to see things. And God will — somehow — comfort us.


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