For most Christians, Heaven is a big deal. Otherwise, what is the point of “salvation” anyway? After all, in this life we are sure to encounter disappointment, failure, heartache, pain, suffering, and certain death. Oh, sure, there are the good times too, but realistically it’s a very mixed bag and it always ends badly. The Christian may rejoice in God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice, but what would be the point if in the end there were nothing after this life?
One of the great gifts of life is consciousness. It enables us to appreciate our good fortune and to understand the world as well as we can with the limited brainpower that we have. But the downside of consciousness is that we are painfully aware of the brevity of life and the fact that our own existence is fleeting. Our consciousness is so robust that it’s disappointing, to say the least, to think that at some point we simply aren’t going to be around anymore.
So for most Christians getting to Heaven is the ultimate goal, and as I have said elsewhere, this life is really viewed as just a pass/fail exam or sorts. What’s at stake is getting to the Big Event.
So what is your idea of Heaven?
As a child, I was taught about and thought of Heaven in pretty concrete terms. Whatever shortcomings there were in this life, they would be swept away in Heaven: No pain and suffering; no sickness; no disabilities. If I had poor eyesight in this life (which I did), then I would have perfect vision in Heaven. The same is true of all my other senses. And if I had been a paraplegic in this life, then presumably I would no longer be disabled in Heaven. Because only the righteous would be saved and Satan would be destroyed, there would not be any evil in Heaven: There would be no more natural disasters: No destructive fires, earthquakes, or damaging storms. There would be no criminal activity; no intentional physical or emotional harm to others; no bullies; not even any selfishness. Everyone would be considerate of others. People would take turns and play nice. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
But the concrete concept of Heaven left a number of questions unanswered. Would there be other living things in Heaven besides the saved humans? Our favorite pets? All living things now, both plants and animals, have a natural life cycle, including birth, procreation, and death. Would that continue? What about organisms that depend on death for survival--fungi, beetles, vultures? What about microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses? Is the lion really going to lie down with the lamb? The big cats, as well as many other species, are simply built to eat meat. Is God going to restructure their physiology to enable them to live on vegetables? What about those fangs, anyway? Are we going to be vegetarians, or is God going to have us eating something else entirely--manna? Or will we not have to eat at all? Of course, people enjoy eating. Is that something that we will just need to give up? Christ is quoted as saying that there will be no marriage or giving in marriage in Heaven. Would we have “special friends”? Sexual desire is built into our very fabric as humans. Would that change? For many people, life is, to an extent at least, all about competition, whether they are the actual competitors or whether they are just rooting for their favorite teams. Competition is simply central to their life or at least their lifestyle. And I think it is reasonable to assert that competitiveness, like sexual desire, is built into our very beings. After all, that is what evolution is really about, isn’t it? But it is difficult to imagine how there could continue to be competition in Heaven. That would mean that someone would have to lose.
Perhaps more importantly, the understanding is that we would spend eternity in Heaven. Eternity. Wow. That, we know from the mathematics of infinity, is a very, very long time. How long? Well, a billion years--a period of time that I have trouble getting my arms around--is not even as the blinking of an eye compared to eternity. I have friends who have told me that they plan to spend a lot of time in Heaven learning about God and God’s creation. As a side note, would we be “stuck” with the brains that we now have? Some people are more gifted, shall we say, than others. Would those differences persist in Heaven, or would we all be equally smart? And how smart? Even if we were no smarter in Heaven than we are here, I personally think I would eventually have my fill of studying God, God’s creation, or any other subject one might conjure up. But even after I had tackled and mastered that and every other subject one could conceive, I would still have an eternity of time stretching out ahead of me. (That’s the thing about eternity; no matter how much time you spend on something, you still have an eternity of time remaining.) Now what? I think perhaps I would not be a good candidate for such a Heaven.
Why am I posing all of these questions? I think it is to point out that traditional views of Heaven wind up being a sort of child’s wish list. Heaven is seen as the place where whatever we are unhappy about now will be made all better, as our mothers used to say. Seems great, but a closer inspection reveals that experiencing failure as well as success is central to what makes us who we are. Success requires failure to acquire meaning. And the urgency brought on by the brevity of life, while distressing in some respects, is critical to creating the excitement needed to avoid the boredom that would result from trying to endure eternity. There is something about the internal ticking of the clock of life that keeps it challenging and ultimately enjoyable.
Some time ago I read a great story in Julian Barnes’s, A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters. The story concerns a man who wakes up in Heaven. From the very beginning everything is terrific and just keeps getting better. For example, the man’s golf game starts out great and keeps improving to the point where he is scoring an ace on every hole. Eventually, the man can’t take it any longer and approaches his assigned angel to ask how he can end it all, and the angel informs him that everyone ultimately makes the same request.
Recently I asked one of my good friends, a converted Catholic for whose intelligence I have the greatest respect, what Heaven means to him. He said it means being in the conscious presence of God. I asked if he thought he would have a corporeal form. He wasn’t sure but thought not. I asked how he envisioned spending his time, and he said he didn’t know that it would be anything beyond simply being in God’s presence. I have to admit that there is little to disagree with in this view. It doesn’t involve any of the logic problems that more traditional views entail. On the other hand, this view of eternity just doesn’t sound very attractive, does it? Not the jackpot that most Christians are hoping for.
One pat answer to the questions raised here is to say that we simply don’t know what is in store for us in Heaven. We just know that it will be great beyond whatever we can imagine in this life. But that is really just a cop-out, isn’t it? After all, the whole point of the salvation story is that, despite the vicissitudes of this life, through Christ’s sacrifice we are entitled to an admission ticket to the greatest possible future and for all eternity. To say that we don’t know what that future will be is equivalent to saying we really don’t know what the point of all this is. Isn’t it more reasonable to admit that the idea of Heaven is simply a human concept that fills a human need for meaning.
Another way to put this is to admit that it is difficult for us to observe the brevity of life, the inevitable disappointments we all meet on our short journey, and how without meaning all of this ultimately is. It is much easier to believe the child’s dream that life has significance and that this all leads to better things. But that’s not the way it is.
© 2013 John M. Phillips