Malleable Heaven ~ BitterSweetLife

Monday, May 30, 2005

Malleable Heaven

Staking Down the Afterlife

Misconceptions about heaven are as numerous as misconceptions about marriage and mail order companies, which is to say they’re everywhere.

Consider, for example, the idea that to hope for heaven is to effectively give up happiness now. In other words, “heaven” is for those weepy, downtrodden people who seem to get the short end of every stick, and then get beaten with it into the bargain.

Or consider the idea (conviction for many) that the ‘other side’ is necessarily and happily ambiguous. As one of my commentators said awhile ago, “I like the mystery of the sky, no pearly gates, no raging fire, just the sky.”

I think there are at least three “misconclusions” we come to about heaven—they begin as misconceptions and end up as latent convictions, exerting influence on our lives. Consider:

  1. Because we have no clinical evidence, we assume the afterlife is whatever we want it to be. (For a glutton, heaven is one long nap in the shade interspersed with buffet lines and Budweiser.)
  2. Resenting the spiritual overtones of the afterlife, we decide it’s irrelevant to tolerant, open-minded people, or should be. (“Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try…”)
  3. Reacting to what we take to be an exclusivist, elitist quality in heaven, we conclude that everyone’s going the same place, and a good one at that. (“Free heaven for all!”) Funny how no one ever concludes we’re all destined for flames.

I think it’s important to realize that the afterlife, or heaven, to have any meaning at all, must be attached to a spiritual worldview—a worldview that necessarily has its own criteria. Therefore, in evaluating claims about the afterlife, we end up pitting heaven vs. heaven—i.e. the Hindu heaven vs. the Christian heaven—and in the end choosing one, which cannot be adopted without its corresponding system of theology.

That’s a clumsy way of saying that although some people would naively sign up for what they think is the “Christian-style” heaven (streets of gold, reunion with friends, luxurious mansions…*) they often do so while jettisoning Christ, which is not allowed. The Christian heaven is founded on Christ. Likewise, it would be untenable to scoff at Muslim pietism and still hope for 70 virgins.

Ultimately, a faith-neutral approach makes the afterlife laughable, mere prescriptivism: “Listen, let me tell you how it will be. Why will it be that way? Because I think it should.” Our personally “spun” heavens have all the allure of political ad campaigns. You don’t have to look far to track down the agenda that shaped them. And all too often, our perceptions of the afterlife reveal that we’re just projecting our own “best-of” reel in what we hope is god-endorsed Technicolor. When we think about it, this is ridiculous. If it really works, then heaven exists in a very elusive realm indeed—the worlds inside our heads. But heaven is not that way. Heaven does not need us—and does not wait on human imagination to actuate it.

Heaven, like earth, is real, and does not change with our preferences. We think that because we can’t yet see it, heaven possesses some malleable quality. We exercise the same inane optimism that some people display over their final grade reports, as if miracles might take place between the classroom and the registrar’s office—all because, “Well, until I get them back, who knows?” But heaven, like an exam scored with indelible ink, changes for no man.

Heaven’s hidden reality exerts a force like gravity—unseen, unchanging. Everyone is drawn toward it but not everyone will arrive. Some will never recognize the magnetism for what it is—“the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds” (C.S. Lewis).

In regard to earth, heaven is the “unshakeable kingdom.” Earth, in relation, is even now starting to sway on its legs. We’re far too cavalier in our trivializing of higher reality. We’re like art students in a teacher-less room. We paint laughable pictures—plaid skies and people without heads—as if the master won’t ever collect our work. In a world with an invisible God, we toy with the unseen like putty, forgetting that our bluff might be called. At the very least, we should grant that heaven, if it is to be talked about, is real. It has form and weight and edges.

In a sense, I think the label I’ve been using in this post, “the afterlife,” would be better termed the “priorlife.” Our adoption of "afterlife" merely reveals the near-blindness of our perspective. Heaven has been going on for millennia. It extends behind us and ahead, hems us in, and the only question is where we enter its arc. Heaven isn’t an optional, afterthought—it’s always been waiting, deeper and wider than earth, outside the illusionary walls of time. It is complete, if not fully populated. When we go there, we’re not entering a shadowy, low-light basement, forsaking our brief “live” status. Life is merely beginning. As C.S. Lewis said, “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

To sum all this up in one sentence I would say: Heaven is profoundly real—deep and wide, piercingly sweet—but it is not pliable.

It is one way or another, not both ways. It is not all things to all men. Therefore, to paint heaven with pc pretension or syrupy sentiment is to depict the sun with a yellow crayon.

* Heaven, as hinted at by Christ, is hardly captured by these words. But that’s food for another post.

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Anonymous said...

I love the thought that heaven is no footnote to this life, but that it is bigger, larger, more concrete than we can imagine. That things here are unsubstantial compared to the firm, weighty reality of the "priorlife" (as you so aptly name it). Heaven is the full-blossoming of life as it was intended to be. No fading of the flower, the petals ever extending into the life-giving Sunshine (Christ).


Skor Grimm said...

Have you considered writing a book? You really have a lot of thoughtful and insightful things to say, and I think you could really write a good book. I would probably buy it.

Ariel said...

Thanks, Skor. I think about it quite a bit, really. Guess it's just a question of time and topic. If I had both mapped out, I'd have to go for it. And at some point, I hope to.

Knowing I have one potential buyer lined up is definitely motivating!

ninjanun said...

If we are to inherit the earth, what is heaven for? And why make a new heaven and a newearth?

I think when "heaven" is referred to in the bible, it either means "sky" or "outerspace," OR, as in the case of Matthew, it is actually an alternative (less offensive to Jews) name for "kingdom of God."

I like C.S. Lewis' interpretation of heaven and earth (most notably illustrated in his Space Trilogy: there will be a new, perfect earth which we will inhabit, and "heaven" (space) was never meant for us to dwell in. Even a close reading of Revelation can yield this.

Fin said...

I LOVE that image!

Ariel said...

Thanks fin. Your blog isn't too visually shabby either.

You make a good point, ninja... Generally I don't get too hung up over the geography of heaven, but there's a good argument for the "new earth"=heaven view.

On the other hand, there are good arguments for the heaven="somewhere else" view. Having read Lewis' space trilogy, I'm not sure he was actually arguing for an earth-bound heaven. I came away with a picture of a gigantic cosmos, all divinely charged...

ninjanun said...

I agree, Ariel. The geography of heaven is not important compared to the fact that it is the Kingdom of God, as He originally intended it and as Jesus began to bring about through his redemptive work on the cross (which we are to continue and advance until He comes in complete and unquestionable victory). When the picture is enlarged thus, God's, and our role in history becomes more poignant, passionate, important, and immediate than some "pie in the sky in the sweet by and by."


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife