Q. What is the one thing that is not present in heaven (or in the millennium, or in the New Jerusalem, depending on your take on eschatology) that we can be thankful is still present with us here today on earth?
A. Religious liberty.
“[The woman] gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne.” (Rev. 12:5)
“And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!’” (Rev. 12:10–12)
“Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Rev. 19:11–16)
“The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father.” (Rev. 2:26–27)
“Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.” (Rev. 20:6)
“And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rev. 21:22–27)
According to these scriptures, one day Jesus Himself will rule over the nations with a rod of iron, and we as His faithful followers will rule with Him. In the New Jerusalem there will be no one whose name is not written in the Lamb’s book of life. In a sense, there will be true liberty, the type of liberty a train feels when it runs on its track and that it ceases to feel when it gets untracked. But if I am reading and understanding these scriptures correctly, there will not be the same type of religious liberty we have in the United States and many countries around the world today.
I am not necessarily arguing here in favor of one millennial position over another (though I don’t mind saying I am a premillenialist who is somewhat torn between the progressive dispensational and historical versions of premillenialism). If someone in the comments wants to make the case that one’s millennial view affects the stance he/she takes toward the present discussion, I am open to entertaining that argument. But I am personally convinced that a big error we often make as 21st-century Evangelical Christians is seeking to introduce ahead of time many of the blessings of the age to come into the present age.
As I understand it, as Christians in this day and age, it is not our place to rule the nations with a rod of iron. It is, rather, our place to manifest in the way we live our lives “love and faith and service and patient endurance” (Rev. 2:19). Jesus says, “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations” (Rev. 2:26). It is also our place to call out the redeemed from among the nations we will one day rule; to repeat, as it were, the message of Peter on the Day of Pentecost when he “bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation’” (Acts 2:40).
As the Body of Christ around the world and down through the centuries, we have not always enjoyed the same degree of religious liberty some of us enjoy today. There is, in fact, nothing in the New Testament that guarantees us this privilege. Biblical revelation appears to promise us just the opposite: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:12–13).
Nevertheless, we do well in this day and age to pray and to work for religious liberty. Paul wrote to Timothy: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1–4) And to the believers in Colossae, he wrote, “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison.” (Colossians 4:3). When given the opportunity, Paul pled his case before government officials and he took full advantage of the legal rights his Roman citizenship gave him as he sought for a way to continue to freely fulfill the ministry God had entrusted to him.
During this day and age in which we now live, we live and work side by side with those who are not disciples of Jesus. Some of these are followers of other religions—false religions! Yet, because we believe that religious liberty is a good thing, we join forces with these neighbors and fellow citizens to protect the rights of everyone to follow through with their own religious convictions, whether from our perspective they are false convictions or true ones.
Down through church history, often when Christians have acceded to positions of power in secular society and have exercised that power in the name of Christendom, the results have not been good for the interests of religious liberty, nor, in the long run, for the purity of the church. The Spanish Inquisition, the bloody regime of Oliver Cromwell, the Salem witch trials, and the Guatemalan dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt come to mind as a few examples.
That does not mean, as I understand it, that Christians cannot, or should not, occupy official positions as civil servants. Paul told Timothy that we should pray for those in authority with the hope that they would be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. When asked by King Agrippa, in the presence of the Roman governor Festus, if he thought he might in such a short time persuade him to be a Christian, Paul replied, “I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.” (Acts 26:29) Though certain early church writers looked askance at the idea of Christians serving as public officials, I do not find any reason in Scripture to infer that if a public servant should come to Christ, this necessarily entails resigning his/her position of influence upon his/her conversion.
What I do not find justification for in the New Testament is the idea that we as Christians are to exercise authority in places of human government in the name of Christ or with the purpose of imposing specifically Christian values upon society as a whole. While it is true that at the present time Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father “in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph. 1:21), and that God has “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6), the reign referred to in this passage is a heavenly and not an earthly one. Thus, while as Christians, we may legitimately serve as civil servants, we do so in the same way we might serve in any other earthly capacity: side by side with non-believers, working for the common good of all—not only as we understand it, but as they understand it as well.
While it is certainly our desire that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, we do not seek to take advantage of our positions of influence in society to advance the agenda of the Kingdom of God per se. Rather, we seek to serve in such a way as to commend ourselves as diligent and praiseworthy workers in the sight of all, Christian or not, and work for the benefit of all. Not that our knowledge of the truth of God’s will does not at times influence our understanding of what best contributes to human flourishing and enlighten us with regard to universal principles of justice, but we must be ever vigilant to not impose our unique worldview on those who do not have the same faith commitments as we do.
Both as Baptists and as Americans, we share the unique heritage of forming part of a people who have been instrumental in blessing the world with one particular gift that in the last several centuries has rendered great benefit for many people in many nations: the gift of religious liberty. True religious liberty, though, does not seek for special privileges for those of one religious tradition over against those of another, or even over against those of no religious belief. It seeks to defend the rights and freedoms of all.
As we as Christians seek to live lives of “love and faith and service and patient endurance” in the present age, we do well to exercise whatever power, authority, and influence we may happen to gain with a sense of respect and a certain deference for those who don’t see questions of ultimate importance with the same eyes of faith with which we see them. We do so knowing that in the long run our witness will bear more long-lasting and quality fruit when it is done in a spirit of honest and open dialogue with listeners who are free to accept or reject what we have to share with them, totally devoid of any sense of coercion or enforcement of cultural norms associated with a civil religion that may well be “Christian” in name only. And we do so knowing that this world is headed toward a future very different from the reality we know now, a future in which there will be no need of sun or moon, and in which the gates of the city will never be shut by day, and there will be no night, and “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rev. 21:22–27)
But we also do so knowing that that time is not now.
 For example, Tertullian: “I owe no duty to forum, campaign, or senate. I stay awake for no public function. I make no effort to occupy a platform. I am no office seeker. I have no desire to smell out political corruption. I shun the voter’s booth, the juryman’s bench. I break no laws and push no lawsuits; I will not serve as a magistrate or judge. I refuse to do military service. I desire to rule over no one – I have withdrawn from worldly politics! Now my only politics is spiritual – how that I might be anxious for nothing except to root out all worldly anxieties and care.”