Perhaps it is the noticeable lack of concrete information surrounding what Heaven is and will be that so jibes against our modern mechanistic minds, but this is no doubt something that so many Christians find very unsettling. Speculation abounds, but such grasping is based upon scant scriptural information, leaving it as more of a reflection of our projected desires than as something upon which a discussion may be built. It can be maddening to consider just how little the Christian knows about what lies beyond this material world, but this frustration, this spiritual tension, is a good thing. Men do not get angry over those things for which they have no passion or belief.
With a dear friend I have had an ongoing conversation over the course of several months regarding the uncertainty and finality of the great Ever-After: uncertainty, because who can say what Heaven will be like, who will be there, or whether we will even be there ourselves; finality, because it is our terminus, the last stop for our souls. There is no after Heaven. In an empirical world such as ours, the idea of a place or a state of being so completely unbound by the strict limits of human understanding is a terrifying place for the mind to wander. What is more, as a mobile species, this notion that there will be a time, or perhaps a non-time if you take my meaning, in which all are where they forever on will be is unsettling. Never having known true contentment, it is impossible to imagine a place in which we are not only absolutely content but indeed abundantly satisfied with everything. It may be much easier to describe the smell of the color blue, or to prove what sound occurs when two circles collide.
The descriptions of this place are scant on tangibility and are only found dotted throughout the scriptures. There have been many who have claimed to have either seen Heaven while in a life-death limbo, or else through divine revelation, but only God knows how many such accounts are true to form. For we who hold Christ as the center, there is very little to go on regarding, for lack of a better phrase, the sensory experience. This is likely where this trepidation for paradise comes from: that we know so very little of what to expect.
This friend of mine is a wife, a mother, a daughter, and a friend to many; her life is filled with love and joy. When we speak to each other about Heaven, it is as two people who have much to lose, and this is exactly the place to which our conversations always gravitate–this scriptural idea that upon our Heavenly arrival we will assume a new identity independent of whom we once were. Of course, the Christian believes that in heaven he will forever be in the presence of the Ancient of Days, in a constant state of worship and thus will never be at a loss for any previous relation or experience, but again, we know not the feeling of perfection or contentment.
Why does the prospect of spending eternity in a perfect paradise in the Presence create such anxiety in the believer? Why should man, conversely, be not afeard and instead look forward to this glad day when the soul may finally experience wholeness and rest? The matter of Heaven is one that begs a much deeper contemplation on the part of the magni corporis of the Church, for in so doing we may stop living lives that seem to point to a nebulous end, if to an end at all, and instead live lives of intentionality, in which every action, every conversation, every unspoken thought will ultimately matter a very great deal.
Why We Fear
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” – C.S. Lewis
This much is known about Heaven: It is perfect. It has to be, for it is the place where God makes his home. It is His residence, and it exists just like all other things for his glory. If it were not up to His admittedly high standards, then there He would not reside. Yet, it is believed that when our lives have ended and are called home, believer and non-believer alike will have to stand before the Judgment Seat, and there one must suspect that a glimpse of perfection will be had.
What, then, is to be feared? Why does the fact that our lives will one day end, and the faith that we may spend eternity in a place that is free from worry or fear or war or famine cause such anxiety? I suspect that one will find our disquiet for the afterlife comes from a mixture of doubt, which all men and women of faith experience to some degree at some point or other, and from complacency or even satisfaction in the world we know. Our imagination has been so constrained by the modern world of the here-and-now that no longer is the average man able to contemplate what can scarcely be contemplated. To borrow from Lewis, we are either unable, or else unwilling, to be drawn “further up and further in.”
The scriptures, as it has been thoroughly documented, are frustratingly light on descriptions of that which awaits our souls when this life is over. Though not explicitly about Heaven, the Apostle Paul puts it quite appropriately when he writes:
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know in full…” (1 Cor. 13.12, emphasis mine)
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly…” Indeed, this colors perfectly how we now understand and speculate on the heavenly things and is precisely the extent to which it may be known what lies ahead. We may read of mansions with many rooms (John 14.12), gates of pearl and streets of gold (Rev.21.21), and believe that this is where righteousness resides, but these are such abstractions as to be all-but-meaningless to our human minds. What does a street of gold look like? What do twelve city gates, each made from a single pearl, look like?
Therein lies the problem. Man, by nature, fears what he does not understand. This is why ancient man, as well as so many in the modern world, feared the dark. The very thought that just beyond their sight is something, maybe good or maybe bad, terrified them. It is not the fear of what lies ahead, necessarily, so much as it is not understanding what might await, and the Christian, due either to poor teaching or a complete lack thereof, does not understand Heaven.
The other side of this coin, of course, is that man is most comfortable with that which he does understand, and this means unfortunately that he is quite at home in this world. The reason for this is that he is simply more committed to what is familiar than they are to what is healthy or good. Man lives in this world, his senses are bombarded by the values of this world–however vapid they those prove to be–and he becomes however unwittingly a product of this world. It is all that he knows. Lewis puts it this way:
“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
The good things in this life, not the moments of temporal pleasure, but rather those that touch us in the way that escapes intelligible description, are those small glimpses of Heaven that are so gifted to us. Listening to a beautiful piece of music, enjoying the incredible smallness one feels when in the natural world, the laughter of the ones you love—these are, as Lewis calls them, “news from a country we have never seen,” and it is just this news that awaits us in full.
What is more, so accustomed to this world have we grown that a fear of loss in the afterlife begins to develop. There will be no marriage, so what of our spouses? Will we know our loved ones? Fear of the unknown melds into a fear of loss, because despite knowing that waiting for us in eternity is the unbridled perfection for which the soul has always longed, what we have here and now in the flesh is quite nice unto itself. Upon our death it will not be those “echoes of a tune we have not heard” that are lost, but instead only those moments, and thoughts, and experiences that brought pain. This loss will open to us wonders and joys so far beyond our imagining as to render the topic almost arbitrary.
This is too much for most to comprehend. Man understands what it is to need based on our time in this vale of tears, yet he reads in John’s Revelation that there shall neither hunger nor thirst, and that every tear shall be wiped from our eyes. He will, in short, perfectly exist in a place that is itself perfect. Still he worries, because though he believes that there is no greater joy than to be in the presence of the Lord for eternity, he cannot understand how joy can be felt outside of what is already interpreted as joy. He identifies with a world he claims to lament, a veritable Stockholm Syndrome. This world is imperfect, full of sorrow and darkness, but at least he knows this world. He knows more or less what to expect when he rises in the morning; it is an imperfect world, but it is his imperfect world. Greater hands than our own created it, but it has been made in the image of man.
The Apostle Paul, in writing his second letter to the Corinthian Church, touched on the cognitive dissonance felt by the believer, between calling the earth his home, and the longing for his heavenly home to come. He writes,
“For in this tent (earth) we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling… He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. (2 Cor. 5.2, 5-9)
A Simple, Comforting Thought
Peter Kreeft suggests that aside from the scant details afforded from the Biblical authorities regarding the nature of heaven, there is another means of understanding what it will be like: divine revelation. As Mr. Kreeft says,
“I think God wants us to use our reason and also our imagination (for why should we neglect any God-given faculty) to explore the treasure of tantalizing hints in Scripture. To be indifferent to it is to be like the unprofitable servant who hid his master’s talent in the ground.”
As such, while descriptions of heaven may not be strictly true, it may just be that in every, or most, or even just some of these descriptions there is as little as a grain of truth, and any such grain, however small or seemingly insignificant, is no less beautiful.
Like so many others, I am a great fan of the tales of Middle Earth, and a great admirer of Mr. J.R.R. Tolkien, who brought so rich and beautiful a world into being. The books are, in most estimations, far superior to the cinematic re-telling by Peter Jackson; however, there is a scene found in the films that I believe deserves the praise of all Tolkienites: It is found in The Return of the King, in which Gandalf and Pippin, as they await what seems to be a most brutal and certain death at the ruthless hoard of Mordor that angrily and determinedly attempts to break down the gate separating the former from the latter, discuss what is to come next. In a most tender and vulnerable moment, Pippin and Gandalf reflect on their impending doom:
“Pippin: “I didn’t think it would end this way.”
Gandalf: “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey-rain curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it.”
Pippin: “What, Gandalf? See what?”
Gandalf: “White shores and beyond a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
Pippin: “Well, that’s not so bad.”
Gandalf: “No. No it isn’t.”
Not only does this very brief conversation provide one of those rare moments of cinematic theological reflection, but it also gives the viewer (or the reader, as it were) a simple and comforting idea. Perhaps—and I hope that you will forgive me for taking a very long shot in the dark—all this worrying is over something that is actually wonderful quite beyond measure. I very much like the thought that when I have breathed my last, and when I come before glory, it will not be something unsettling and unfamiliar, but rather something that is intimately familiar–something for which my soul has cried out and longed for all these toilsome years in the vale, and something that will be such a relief that I will never again feel as little as an iota of the worry I experience here and now. As Paul again writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rm. 8.18)
Similarly comforting is the manner in which Mr. Lewis concludes his Narnian saga:
“And for us this the end of all the stories… But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth had read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Taken together, as it seems most appropriate to do given the authors, a beautiful picture is painted: one of a far country teaming with life and color and experiences unknown to the mortal’s far limited intellect, in which endless joy and adventure (in a manner of speaking) abounds, filled with all that we knew and all that we loved that was good, and bereft of all those things that managed to separate us from enjoying longer glimpses into the infinite whilst still in the flesh. That is not so bad.
It is easy to be anxious about the unknown, and I will adamantly disagree with anyone who would suggest even slightly that our wonderings and anxiety about what lies beyond in any way offends the King. I think, to the contrary of such a nonsensical thought, that God delights in this frantic fumbling in the dark. How so? I think it is to Him how it is when you or I tell a loved one how excellent is the gift that we are soon to give. A hint may even be given here or there in order to pique their interest and get their minds to wondering. Some may draw anxiety from not knowing, but we rest assured in knowing that their gift is good, and that their enjoyment is all but guaranteed. How much more certain must God be that the gift that awaits will be one that so far exceeds our every thought, speculation, and expectation?
Turning again to the wisdom of Peter Kreeft, when addressing the question of how such questions about eternity will look to us once we have arrived,
“I think they will look very much like Michelangelo’s first lump of clay—worked on at the age of two—looked to him after he had sculpted the Pieta. I think we will see these childish babblings about “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived” (1 Cor.2:9) as we will see everything else in our present lives: suffused with the light and love of God. And so we will cherish these childish toys, even as we laugh at them.”
We mustn’t worry about what comes next in the progression of eternity. To worry over such things will rob us of the precious fleeting moments we have in the flesh, and these are the moments that have for now been given to prepare ourselves for that for which we cannot be prepared. The best we can do, rather, is merely to open ourselves up to experiences that are “the good images of the things we desire…the echo of a tune we have not yet heard” and beyond to a swift sunrise.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
1. Lewis, C. (2001). The Weight of Glory. In The Weight of Glory. New York: HarperCollins.
3. This, along with multitudinous wisdom regarding eternity, can be found at Mr. Kreeft’s personal website in an article titled 35 FAQs About Eternity.
4. Scott, M. (2012). A Far Green Country: Glimpses of Eternity in The Lord of the Rings. Imaginatio Et Ratio: A Journal for Theology and the Arts, 1(2), 15-22. As the author also points out, “the screenwriters amalgamate and adapt two separate descriptions of “a far green country” from the novels: “…Frodo heard… a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise. The vision melted into waking…” (emphasis mine, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring [1954; New York: Ballantine Books, 1989], Book I, Chapter 8, “Fog on the Barrow-Downs,” 153); “… And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld the white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise” (emphasis mine, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [1955; New York: Ballantine Books, 1993], Book VI, Chapter 9, “The Grey Havens,” 339).”