Heavenly conversation

 Updated March 20

On March 5 I referenced the poignant scene during President Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress in which the widow of U.S. Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens looked skyward and wept as Trump spoke of Owens looking down and being “very happy” about the lengthy applause.

In attempting to conceive of this literally, I wrote that I could hardly imagine a greater agony, a greater torment for the soul of a husband and father, than to have no earthly agency but perfect awareness while those dearest to me suffer.

Is this what being in heaven is supposed to be like? If not, how do believers conceive of it?

My old correspondent, Bryan O’Neal, a vice-president and dean at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, has offered to engage these questions with me. O’Neal and I had a lengthy online discussion in 2014 about the morality of the Noah’s ark story a lengthy online discussion in 2014 about the morality of the Noah’s ark story so he is more than accustomed to the blunt literalness of my theological questions.

He wrote:

“A common biblical metaphor for the human life is that of a footrace, one we seek to faithfully run to completion, perhaps before “such a great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us.

“If correct, this would indicate that the departed could yet observe our actions, even with a “rooting interest” in our success. However, our own place in a sports-obsessed culture reminds us that we do not uncritically affirm those we purport to back – we are as quick to criticize our team’s missteps as we are to celebrate their victories. And though we might like to be on the field ourselves, we recognize that a spectator’s (or former athlete’s) rightful place is observation rather than participation.

“Metaphors take us only so far. We wonder whether Ryan Owens smiles or aches if he can observe the racecourse before his wife and children. I suspect, with you, that any happiness of his is not conditioned on something as trivial as the duration of an ovation. Instead, from his new perspective, Owens now has a particular clarity about life and its best goals, and he rejoices most when his loved ones choose those as their objectives.”

My response:

I still have basic questions about your vision or the common vision of an afterlife: Do the departed simply watch us all day, every day? Is their existence otherwise static? If they rejoice at their survivor’s good choices, do they despair or grieve at the bad choices?

A 1979 Talking Heads song refers to Heaven as “a place where nothing ever happens,” which seems contradictory — paradise as eternal boredom — yet logically consistent. The song does add, “It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be this much fun.” And I agree that it is hard to imagine.

How do you imagine heaven, hour by hour, day by day, year by year, decade by decade and so on? Do the departed interact with one another? What do they talk about?

His response as our conversation continues online:

To Eric:

Unfortunately (but humorously), too much of our popular theology about heaven or the afterlife is drawn from sources like Dante’s Inferno, The Simpsons, Gary Larson’s The Far Side, and … the Talking Heads.  Put bluntly, there is absolutely zero biblical basis for describing heaven as a static, ethereal, or boring place.  (Is this the original “fake news”?)

Ithink your questions break down into two parts – what is “heaven” like, and what is going on “up there” right now?  I’ll take up the first one, and that can inform our further discussions on the latter.

In broad strokes, nearly all forms of biblical Christianity foresee an eventual final judgment, followed by an everlasting future.  The most explicit description of this ultimate state is found at the end of the Bible’s final book, Revelation.  In part, we read:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away …  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God …

“Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them.”

“Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God …  On either side of the river was the tree of life, … yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”

Taking the Bible on its own terms, it’s clear that the biblical story is not one of a static unchanging heaven (which comes from Plato and Parmenides rather than biblical authors like Paul and John), but instead a dynamic and progressive one: rivers flow and trees bear fruit in their seasons, for example.

In fact, the biblical picture of “heaven” is actually a recreated Earth.  The Bible ends as it begins, with us in a cultivated garden (or a well-ordered city-park) dwelling in perfect fellowship with God. 

This is very significant and purposeful – we often feel that things in this world are “not the way they are supposed to be,” and God agrees.  This is why he commits himself to a restored and perfected creation.
This also answers the question you ask, “How do you imagine heaven, hour by hour, day by day, year by year, decade by decade and so on?” 

It can be reframed, “what would human life have looked like if there had been no sin, no fall, no corruption?”

I think God made us to study, know, and enjoy him and his creation.  In a recreated world, both of these objects offer inexhaustible depth and richness.  The cosmos is a literally awesome place, and God invites us into its exploration and delight-filled discovery. 

Similarly, God presents himself as the paradigm of personhood, and our fellow man as reflections of him – most worthy of our love and honor.  In fact, if the terms were not so ominous, I’d say much of “heaven” is actually an extended experience of science, theology, and psychology, punctuated by basketball games in which I can dunk with impunity.

Even our concept of “heaven” needs to be reshaped – biblically, “heaven” is the dwelling place of God (not just “somewhere up there in outer space”).  The core message of the Bible is that we do not go to heaven, but heaven comes to us – first in the coming of Jesus, and ultimately in a recreation when God makes his throne among us.  If we’re citing pop artists for our theology, Belinda Carlisle sings it better: “Heaven is a place on earth.”

I’m not expecting you or our readers to be convinced that the biblical story is true merely because I lay it out in this way.  But don’t you think it is fair to at least agree that this is the Christian and biblical presentation, and not substitute the emotionless, unchanging, boring “ideal” of the Greek philosophers as an easily rejected straw man? (3/17/2017)

To Bryan:

 One of my editors chided me, upon reading my installments in this conversation so far, that I must have been a very irritating child, the way I ask pesky questions. And indeed I was!

Several readers have chided me for over-literalness, to which I also plead guilty. But the Christian faith, not exclusively but grandly, promises an existence beyond death, and I think it more than fair for me to try to pin you down on your view of that existence, as elements of it seem irreconcilably paradoxical.

 When you write of “a dynamic and progressive (heaven where) rivers flow and trees bear fruit in their seasons…   a recreated Earth. … a cultivated garden (where one dwells) in perfect fellowship with God,” it sounds a lot like a stultifying terrarium.

That which is dynamic features change. Water flowing by and trees bearing fruit on and on is not change, not dynamism in any way we understand it. The word “progressive” implies evolution (don’t worry not that kind!!!) from one state of being to another. But how can something be perfect and yet also progressive?

 You must have a vision in your mind’s eye of what heaven is like and what the soul experiences.

 One critical reader said many of my questions were ill-founded because the soul never looks back in heaven, never considers or even remembers the past. Do you agree? If this is so, it would be the very definition of oblivions and self-erasure, for who are we but the sum of our pasts?

If I get to heaven (or, far more likely, if you get to heaven) and your memory banks are effectively erased, then you are no longer in any sense you.

But a soul that remembers must also grieve, whether or not looking back upon Earth is literally possible. Imagine ascending to heaven but being unable to interact with those one loves very dearly who are still alive. How is that not agonizing.

 Will you meet in heaven those gone on before? I know my gospel music, Bryan, and I know it is replete with promises of reunions. But what would that be like, really? You’d have much to discuss for a few days, maybe a few weeks, but if nothing is happening except rivers flowing and fruit trees blooming, there wouldn’t be a lot to talk about or do, which would be a drag given that eternity is stretching out in front of everyone.

I’ll leave you with this question: What does it mean to dwell “in perfect fellowship with God”? What intellectual or physical sustenance would it provide? (3-20-17)


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