This week’s (8/14/2011) message at Crafton Heights was centered on the idea of eternal life. It was occasioned by some of the controversy surrounding the Rob Bell book on Hell…but as I thought about it, it seemed that Heaven was more interesting to me. The texts for the week were I Corinthians 13:8-13 and Revelation 21:1-5
What will heaven be like?
That’s a question that I get asked with some frequency. Perhaps it’s because I’m a pastor, and therefore am culturally presumed to have some sort of “inside track” on this sort of knowledge. Maybe it’s because I radiate a sense of holiness and godliness that simply screams “heavenly” to strangers. But mostly, I think, it’s because I am privileged to spend time with people who are dying.
Actually, of course, we are all dying. When I say I spend time with people who are dying, I should say, “people who realize that they are dying” or “people who know that their time is short”. At any rate, I am often in conversation with people who have significant questions about the afterlife and are close enough to discovering the truth for themselves that they’re willing to talk through them with an amateur like me.
The stereotypical depictions of heaven seem to involve clouds, angels, and a lot of harp-playing. Mark Twain commented on these notions in his inimitable style:
Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it’s as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body could contrive. It would just make a heaven of warbling ignoramuses, don’t you see? Eternal Rest sounds comforting in the pulpit, too. Well, you try it once, and see how heavy time will hang on your hands.
In my own preaching, I have succumbed to the temptation to describe heaven as a place where you get to do all the things that you really like to do on earth, but somehow just haven’t gotten a chance. I remember describing the death of a sports fan and saying something like, “Now, he’ll never miss another game.” But it gets worse: at the funeral of a woman who liked to visit the casino I actually said something like, “Well, now our friend is living life in God’s Kingdom, where the slots always come up winners and every hand is a full house.” Someone should just slap the microphone out of my hands when I say stuff like that. That’s just ridiculous. As if God created us and Christ redeemed us so that we’d be able to cheer for the black and gold, or pile up the chips for eternity. Seriously! Pick any one thing that you really, really like…and then imagine doing it over and over again. Forever. I have a hunch that it would stop being heavenly in short order. I suppose the Muslim version of this caricature involves 72 virgins. One thing, no matter how exciting it may appear to you now, done ad infinitum, is probably not what heaven is about. Give me a break, Carver. Heaven had better be bigger and better and, frankly, more important than that.
My grandmother, prior to her death (obviously), asked me what age I thought she would be in heaven. Would she be a little girl running and playing in the Midwestern cornfields of her childhood? Would she be the beauty queen she was in her early twenties? (I’m here to tell you I didn’t get these rugged good looks by accident. Clara Sophia Eickhoff just happened to be Miss Falls City, Nebraska, c. 1925) I think her fear was that she wanted to know both her grandparents and her grandchildren – and be known by them. If, in heaven, she were assigned an age of say, seventy, she’d know me and my siblings, but she’d not know her own parents.
Not long after my ordination to the ministry, I had a dream wherein my recently deceased mother came to visit me in the study as I was preparing to preach. She had always hoped I’d wind up in the ministry, and I ended up dragging my feet enough to stretch the three-year seminary experience into eight, thus graduating four months after her death. In my dream, I was dithering about in the study here at Crafton Heights, wondering if I was “good enough” to be a pastor, wondering why anyone in the world would want to listen to anything I was saying. As the dream progressed, my mother basically kicked me in the rear and told me to get out there, that people were waiting for me, and that I better make sure that I told them the truth. When I told my wife about that dream, she asked, “Do you think that she knows what you are doing? Do you think that she’s in heaven looking down on us?”
My immediate reply was something along the lines of “Oh, please, I hope not. I mean, I love my mom and I miss her, but I hope that heaven is somehow more interesting than that. She’s in the presence of the Holy…and somehow, watching me preach is going to beat that? I doubt that. You have the opportunity to look Jesus in the eye, to be in the presence of the Father, but you’d rather come to church at CHUP? Don’t get me wrong. We’re good. But we’re not that good.”
Erastus Salisbury Field, The Garden of Eden (1860)
Genesis gives me a clue about the afterlife, because it tells of a time when humanity and God enjoyed fellowship that was unencumbered by sin. I’m a big believer in the notion that Genesis exists to give us some great insight into why things are the way that they are, rather than how these things came into being. So it doesn’t matter so much to me to think of Genesis as describing twenty-four hour days or long epochs; I’m more concerned with the truth that God created humanity with the notion that fellowship between us was a good and beautiful thing. In the beginning, we’re told, God created Adam and Eve in his own image. From the description in the opening pages, it is clear that God seems to have conversed freely with the pair in Eden. Note, too, how Adam and Eve are free to be totally honest with each other. The biblical phrase is “naked and not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25).
I understand that to mean that prior to the entry of sin into our reality, there was nothing we needed to hide from ourselves, each other, or the Lord. Genesis 3 describes the intrusion of sin and brokenness into that reality, and the immediate rush to hide a part of ourselves.
If we were created for intimacy with God and with each other, and sin interrupts that, and Christ came to free us from the eternal effects of sin, then it would seem to me that the essence of eternity must mean a true and real presence with and for each other and the Lord. This is borne out in the apocalyptic writing that ends the scripture. You heard a piece of that earlier, when we read from Revelation. In both chapter 21 and 22, we see that the new heaven and the new earth is characterized by God’s dwelling with his people. God as present to us. Do you remember what Mary was told to name Jesus? Imanuel – God with us. In the new order, says the author of Revelation, we will know that full power and grace of God in ways that we cannot imagine right now.
God’s curse will no longer be on the people of that city. He and the Lamb will be seated there on their thrones, and its people will worship God and will see him face to face. God’s name will be written on the foreheads of the people. Never again will night appear, and no one who lives there will ever need a lamp or the sun. The Lord God will be their light, and they will rule forever. (Revelation 22:3-5)
I believe and hope that the eternity we experience will have more to do with celebrating the real and true presence that we have with each other and less with singing praise songs or listening to harp music. Although I have an unshakeable belief in the bodily resurrection for all as a condition of the “new heaven and new earth”, I believe that the “resurrection bodies” we will have will somehow be ageless. I also believe that we will be recognizable to each other and to our Creator, and that we will enjoy the gifts of fellowship unencumbered by the self-consciousness or limitations of sin.
In 2010, I had a vivid picture of this kind of heaven. Many of you will recall that I was gifted with a three month sabbatical from my pastoral ministry, and that involved an incredible amount of travel. I walked the beaches of Chile, and hiked the rain forests of Peru, and sat for weeks on lakes and rivers in Pennsylvania; I visited the wonders of ancient Egypt and the Holy Land and I slept under the stars in the desert of Wadi Rum and swam in the Sea of Galilee and the Nile River. When I returned from that adventure, many people asked me, “Dave, what was the best day of your trip?” I had about thirty different answers, depending on the mood of the day and the questions that had preceded that one. But whenever someone asks me, “What was the best ten minutes of your trip?” there can only be one answer.
Along the Tambopata River in Peru.
We had traveled many miles – and many hours – by motorized canoe down the Tambopata River in Peru. When we got to our campsite, most of the rest of our group went towards the shelters. But I thought I’d try my luck fishing. I put my line in the water, and on the very first cast, I caught a little catfish. What a thrill – to say that I’d caught a fish in the rain forest! I rebaited, and after ten or fifteen minutes, I got a hit that was simply amazing. The reel screamed and line flew out. I would battle the fish in, and he’d head for the deeps. I’d drag him closer, and he’d turn around and go flying once more. For ten minutes on a cloudy day somewhere in the northern half of South America, I battled that fish, and finally pulled a barred sorubim (a.k.a. tiger catfish) from the murky waters.
Does this look like a shot for "Field and Stream" or what? Nice hat, eh?
During that time, I wasn’t worried about what was for dinner. I didn’t wonder whether my friends thought that I was really all right or if I was simply annoying. I didn’t think much about how the Steelers were going to fare in the upcoming season, or worry about the fact that I seemed to be putting on a few pounds. I didn’t feel guilty about not reading as much as I thing I ought to, or not calling my family more. I didn’t think about myself much, and I didn’t think about you at all. No offense.
The Tiger Catfish: pseudoplatystoma tigrinum
No. For those ten minutes, all that mattered was the fish on the end of the line. I didn’t want my line to break. I wanted to see that fish! For the ten minutes that it took me to bring that fish in, adrenaline surged through my arteries and my heart pounded. I was fully present in that moment, totally attentive to it. It was exhilarating.
And you say, “For crying out loud, Carver, it’s a fish. Get over it.” And you’re right. It’s a fish. But more than that, it’s a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven. Because if right now, in my sinful and broken-down estate, I can get such a rush out of being fully present to a member of the family Pseudoplatystoma tigrinum for ten minutes along a muddy river bank in Peru…what in the world will it be like to be fully present to the Lord in all his glory? What will it be like to know God as I am known by God, as we read in I Corinthians? What will it be like to know you, and be known by you, even as God knows each of us?
What if heaven is a place that we don’t have to hide anything? A place where we can truly be “naked, and not ashamed”? What if our experience of eternity is one of being fully known, and knowing fully? Of realizing who God has made us to be, and who God has been, is, and will be? That’s an eternity worth hoping for – not just for me, but for you, and for the kid down the street, and for all whom God has called and loved and created. What’s heaven going to be like? After getting a glimpse of it through an unlikely experience along a river in the Amazon basin, I’m dying to know.
 “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” in The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories (Harper & Brothers, 1922, p. 241)