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Speculations on the Afterlife August 3, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Church, Heaven, Marriage, Peace, Questions, Trust, Uncategorized.
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I know things have been a bit intense around here lately, and given where I’m at spiritually they will probably continue to be intense for some time to come. So I thought I’d take a break from the heavy introspection and talk about something a little cheerier: Heaven. Okay, who am I kidding? This involves heavy introspection too.

I don’t really know what to think about heaven. As a young child my mother told me it would be like an endless church service, which was not remotely appealing (particular since our highly-unstructured Pentecostal church services already seemed endless to me). In middle school an overly-cool youth pastor said heaven would just be this awesome place full of extreme sports where we could go “snowboarding with Jesus”. Somewhat more appealing, but seemed rather unlikely. The culture presented a notion of clouds, angels, and white robes which I found silly and insipid. And some people are apparently really attached to the idea of heaven having literal streets paved in literal gold, which just feels like missing the point.

A lot of the things I hear about heaven from mainstream churches seem to indicate many Evangelicals think of it as like earth; only nicer, cleaner, and Jesus lives in your town. But that vision of heaven isn’t really about God, it’s about us and our “reward”. It doesn’t really involve a change; just an upgrade. Derek Webb satirizes this idea of the white, suburban, middle-class heaven in a song imagining what it would be like if a homeless person made it into that version of heaven:

Paradise is a parking lot
A spot up front is your reward
And all the rest walk down streets of gold
To the house they could afford
I got lost in the swelling crowd
I could not afford to eat
You only have what you came in with
So I’m living on the street

Oh I have been to heaven
And I found no relief
‘Cause I couldn’t find a hand to hold
To keep me on my feet

I heard Jesus Christ was there
He had a car that’s bulletproof
That way everyone is safe
From the man who tells the truth

Christians can’t even seem to agree on whether we go straight to heaven when we die, or just wake up at the Resurrection to the “new earth”. Frankly I’m not sure that’s something we can answer and I don’t know that I care – I’ll find out when I get there, I suppose. Although since I don’t believe in the Rapture and am a little sketchy on the whole “new earth”/bodily resurrection thing altogether, I definitely lean towards the “going straight to heaven” camp.

In short, heaven was never a “hook” for me to be a Christian. I’m a Christian because I really don’t know any other way to live my life in the face of an omnipotent God and the sacrifice of Christ that could possibly work out for me. And I’ve never liked the mentality the this whole world is just some kind of test, or that we’re just waiting out our time here until we can leave. I feel like that leads to a really bad attitude about this life and how we should act and treat other people and the planet, a kind of irresponsibility about the world. It matters what we do here. It may not be all we’ve got, but it’s all we’ve got right now. Yes, there’s more to life beyond beyond this world, probably more than we can ever imagine. But we’re here now, and God put us here for a reason, so obviously we’re not meant to just sit back and wait for it to be over.

And as a scientist, when I think about heaven too long I get overly-analytical about things. Where is it? What is it? A physical place? An alternate dimension? How does it work? What are the physics involved? Does heaven have mass and location? Not particularly helpful questions, nor ones likely to get an answer any time soon.

Although the Bible talks a fair amount about heaven, it is notoriously short on details. And unfortunately the book that mentions what appears to be heaven/the afterlife in the most detail is the one that I trust our modern interpretation of the least – Revelation. So in terms of what I feel we can be certain of about heaven, it pretty much comes down to: we will be with God, we will be with other believers, and it will be “paradise”. We can argue for ages about the return of Christ, the resurrection, the rapture, whether there is anything beyond heaven, what it will look like, etc. But it wouldn’t be productive because we just can’t know.

And I feel like we aren’t meant to. Not that it doesn’t matter at all, but that God doesn’t give us details on purpose. Perhaps for several reasons. I think one of them is that, by definition, we couldn’t really understand what heaven is like while we’re still here on earth now matte how much description we had. Words are not adequate, our human language fails. If we could really imagine it, really comprehend it, then it wouldn’t be anything we couldn’t create ourselves. The more that was said, the more misinterpretation and confusion there would be. True understanding of heaven is just not attainable for us right now.

I think another reason God keeps the exact nature of the afterlife kind of vague is that it is not the story we are living in now. We humans have a hard enough time focusing on what we should be doing now, instead of living in the past or trying to create a particularly future. The more we know about the afterlife, the more likely we are to fixate on it to the detriment of our purpose here, now, on earth. We still have things to do and lessons to learn.

Finally, I think we don’t get a lot of details about heaven because God wants us to trust him. He has promised us a place. He has promised he will dwell there with us. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t he enough for us? Now, I personally don’t think that after we die we spend all eternity sitting around with God doing literally nothing else. But I think he wants us to be able to believe that whatever he has planned for us, it will be perfect because he will be with us there.

And yet, when things down here get so hard and so complicated, and when our problems seems so big and insurmountable, I feel like it does help to be able to think of the promise of an eternal life with God and remember “This isn’t all there is. No matter how bad it gets, there’s still something more coming.” I don’t want to use that as a way of avoiding dealing with things in life, but just as an encouragement that one day it will be okay, one day we will understand all of things that happened to us and all our wounds will be healed. It’s a reason to keep on going, not a reason to give up on life.

Of all the authors who have tried to capture the idea of heaven, for me at least, C.S. Lewis has done the best job. Through his Narnia books and other writings he talks of our longing for heaven, our lack of ability to truly understand it, and a little bit about what he thinks it will be like. In “The Last Battle” one of the characters, upon reaching the afterlife and finding it be a world realer and more wonderful than the one they had come from, remarks that all of the things they had loved about the old Narnia they must have loved because they reminded them, a little, of how it was in this place. Lewis describes worlds within worlds, each more real and more beautiful than the last, calling them perpetually further up and further in (presumably to more closeness and joy and knowledge of God).

That is how I like to think of it. That heaven isn’t just a place you get to and then is always the same, but that it’s the beginning of a never-ending journey leading to ever-increasing knowledge and love and closeness to our Creator and more and more understanding of him and the universe and each other. And when I feel a sense of longing for something, or when I have to leave a place or person that I truly love, I try to remember that the reason I feel that way is because that place or person or thing reminds me of something about heaven. Not necessarily that I love the mountains because there’s a physical, Platonic ideal of mountains in heaven that I’m longing for, but that all the good things here are echos of something better yet to come there.

Even if I never live in that place or see that person again, I will someday receive that something better, which is so much more that I cannot even comprehend it except through my longing for the shadow of it on earth. And even if I do get to live in my favorite place on earth and have a perfect, close relationship with that person I love, I will still be longing for something more after that. Because what God has given us here is good, but there is still something more excellent.

I think my biggest stumbling block about the afterlife though, is the verse in Mark about marriage:

When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.
Mark 12:25

This has always bothered me. Will I not get to be with my husband in the afterlife? Of course being with God is more important, but why should it have to be a choice? That just seems cruel.

But I think (and all this is just my own personal speculation) that what Jesus is trying to say is not that marriage will be abolished, but that marriage will be obsolete. The kind of deep connection and emotional intimacy and knowledge that we can right now really only have with our spouse, we will be able to have with God in person and with all other people. Marriage now, on earth, is a promise of that kind of deep and universal intimacy to come, only more so because there will be none of the walls we put up or unhealed hurts that exist in even the best of marriages. The kind of deep and (ideally) unconditional love we have with our spouse here, as a reminder of how God loves us and how we are all to love one another, will be perfected and put into practice in heaven.

And whatever else is there, I view heaven as a place of joy and of laughter. I think we will be able to at last see everything in perspective, and look at all the things we’ve done, and the ways we tried to control our own lives, or tried to make God love us more, and see how foolish we were and laugh at them. In the same way that we can now look back on things we said or did or believed as very small children and are able to see how funny it all was and how silly we were at the time. We will realize so many of the things we put great importance on now were not really important at all, but we will not feel guilt or shame because we will know how completely loved and accepted we are and we’ll just be able to laugh at ourselves.

The same for when we meet each other in heaven. I think we will be able to look at each other and for the first time, really and truly understand each other. We’ll be able to see past all the hurts, the misunderstandings and miscommunications, the broken relationships, and be able to finally see each other as we really are and love each other as we really are. And we will laugh together at how ridiculous we were to take offense at such small things, or to not be able to say what was really on our hearts, or that we let anything at all get in the way of loving each other. We won’t condemn each other for the things that happened or the ways we wounded each other, but we will at last be able to have perfect joy in being together in the presence of God.

That’s just how I imagine it. And if it’s nothing like that then it will so much better the difference will be, as Lewis (again) said, like a child making mud-pies in the gutter who cannot understand the offer of a holiday at the shore. But I know we will be together, we will be with God, and it will be paradise.

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Comments»

1. Like a Child - August 3, 2010

Wonderful post – I’ve been struggling with the concept of heaven since my daughter has been asking me “questions”. This is a good starting point for me to figure out how to talk with her!

2. Cliff Martin - August 7, 2010

Thank you for your post. I lost my wife of 39 years in April, and so, as you might imagine, Heaven and the after-life have been in my thoughts lately … and in fact I just posted some of my own speculations on those topics earlier today. I share many of your perspectives, particularly Lewis’s winsome portrayals both in the Chronicles and in The Great Divorce.

Thanks again!

3. Josh - August 9, 2010

What a meaningful post. I like the perspective you and Cliff have on this topic.


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