I must confess that when I am invited to write about heaven or hell I feel an extreme reluctance. Does this reluctance spring from the promptings of the Holy Spirit, or from the promptings of the Devil? How much of it is due to a proper fear that it is presumptuous to try to inquire in detail into mysteries that God has left veiled? And how much of it is due to an unworthy determination to focus the mind on things of this world and not on things above? I suspect that the latter motive is strong in all of us. The young do not want to think about the afterlife because it is too far off, and the old do not want to think about it because it is too near.
How long is forever?
Biblical teaching will not allow us to shrug off all thought of life hereafter. It promises "everlasting" life, life that is timeless. Clearly, therefore, any reflection on the character of life hereafter has to reckon with the immense differences that must exist between life that is subject to time and life that is freed from time. Although all human beings are locked for 60 or 70 years in a time sequence of hours and days, weeks and months, we Christians are accustomed to adjust our familiar temporal perspectives when we ponder the truths of Christian revelation. For these truths transcend the limitations of time. Jesus Christ is alive, we say, yesterday and today and forever. His entry into human life and his resurrection are not just historical events of the first century A.D., but realities of our daily experience now. The eternal impinges on the temporal whenever the Holy Spirit touches an individual, whenever a prayer is said or a hymn sung.
It is not only in prayer and worship that what is outside time impinges on what is inside time. Poets through the ages have described how awareness of the eternal came flooding over them as they contemplated the wonder of God's creation. When Wordsworth was overwhelmed on a walking tour by the grandeur of the peaks and crags, the winds and waterfalls of the Simplon Pass, he discerned that all the aspects of the magnificent scene before him were "types and symbols of Eternity / Of first, and last, and midst, and without end." He grappled with words to try to define an irruption into the fabric of time from a world beyond time. John Milton was so moved by music, he said, that it brought "all heaven" before his eyes. Coventry Patmore told how the beauty of the girl he loved had the same effect on him:
She seemed expressly sent below
To teach our erring minds to see
The rhythmic change of time's swift flow
As part of still eternity.
Earthly experiences that open a window in the framework of time are fragmentary. They come and go. In the same way, for most of us, our moments of conscious contact with God are fleeting, our sense of his presence is fragmentary. This fleetingness and fragmentariness are aspects of life in time.
We are always wishing that our life on earth were different in this respect. We use two words that, when put together, sum up the difference between the joys of life in time and the joys of eternity: "If only." If only the vigor and beauty of youth did not fade! If only the energy of youth could be experienced at the same time as the poise of maturity and the wisdom of age! If only there were no human sinfulness to plunge nations into misery! If only bodies could not be destroyed by cancers, wills broken by addictions, emotions poisoned by perversions! If only! And what would follow? Life would be "heavenly," of course.
Life without the negatives
If only we could have the positives of earthly life without the negatives. But that is precisely what heaven has to offer—the removal of the negatives. All those "if onlys" will be realized. Yet two factors especially stand in the way of our realizing them here and now: human sin and the dominion of time. Both will be swept away. Here below, time withers flowers and human beauty, it encourages good intentions to evaporate, it deprives us of our loved ones. Within the universe ruled by time, the happiest marriage ends in death, the loveliest woman becomes a skeleton. Fading and aging, losing and failing, being deprived and being frustrated—these are the negative aspects of life in time. Life in eternity will liberate us from all loss, all deprivation.
Since in heaven there can be neither loss nor deprivation, it follows that possession of a thing in heaven cannot be like individual ownership here below. Owning things in earthly life takes meaning from the fact that others lack what the possessor owns. If you have a highly prized collection of antiques, your distinction in possessing them depends upon the fact that others lack them. If every householder in your street had a matching collection of antiques, your delight in ownership would be diminished. Their value depends on scarcity. That is the nature of material "value" on earth. When you pay a high price for a seat in a concert hall to hear the performance of a world-famous singer, you know that the value of the performance is determined by its rarity. If everyone in the audience could sing like the star performer, the show would lose its point.
Members of an audience might well say, after a night at the opera, "If only I could sing like Pavarotti!" Suppose they all could. What then? No doubt they might all take the same delight in the exercise of their gift as the great virtuoso does; but the rarity value of the accomplishment would be lost. Along with it would be lost many pleasing by-products of the star's career—the power to attract huge audiences, to bask in the glow of fame, to tour the world in style, and to make lots of money. I raise this point because Saint Paul promises us all crowns of victory in heaven. On earth, the value and importance of crowns depends on their scarcity. A sovereign takes his or her dignity and importance from the fact that he or she has the only crowned head in the kingdom. On earth the Olympic gold medalist takes his or her status from the fact that when he or she wins, all the others lose. Saint Paul, however, promises crowns and laurels all around.
The truth is that the relationship between winning and losing, like the relationship between ownership and deprivation, cannot exist in heaven. All delights are purged of these earthly limitations. On earth, value depends on scarcity. In heaven, value resides in abundance. Whatever experience we enjoy in heaven will be magnified, not by the fact that others are deprived of it, but by the fact that others enjoy it, too.
We have to make a special effort if we are to picture heavenly things disentangled from the limitations of earthly experience. The seventeenth-century English poet Lord Herbert of Cherbury depicted a young lover assuring his beloved that their bodily delights will be renewed in heaven:
These eyes again, then, eyes shall see
And hands again these hands enfold,
And all chaste pleasures can be told.
Saint Paul, however, wisely urged us not to equate the resurrection body with the earthly body. The one is sown in corruption, the other is raised in incorruption. After all, our earthly bodies are finely adapted to their earthly environment, and our resurrection bodies will inhabit a very different environment. Consider how our senses are tuned to the measure of space and the span of time that we inhabit. I can see a mountain a few miles away, but I cannot see distant stars without a telescope. I can see a fly on my hand with the naked eye, but I cannot see house mites in the carpet without a microscope.
Owen Barfield once recommended to scholars the need for the art of "unthinking." If we are going to try to conceive of life in a resurrection body, we must first unthink some aspects of our physical situation. For instance, we must accept that our physical equipment might conceivably be very different from what it presently is. I don't just mean that we can imagine a human being with a third arm, which could conveniently be brought into play to hold a flashlight while the left hand holds a screw and the right hand holds a screwdriver. Immensely useful as this appendage might prove, it would not fundamentally alter our basic human interconnection with our environment.
The resurrection body will not be constructed and equipped to match the conditions of the space-time dimensions from which eternity will release us. It will not be tuned to the 24-hour day of darkness and light, sleeping and waking, for we know that heaven has no need of sun or moon. It will not be programmed to a 70-year life span, with its rhythm of blooming and fading, growing and decaying.
In what sense, then, will our bodies in heaven be the same bodies we have here on earth? Will they, perhaps, resemble the earthly bodies in the same way as the butterfly resembles the caterpillar? There, indeed, the risen body has a beauty scarcely hinted at in the appearance of the original body. The caterpillar, even if it had an almost-human level of intelligence, would be hard put to understand what life as a butterfly would be like.
Suppose we had the task of trying to explain to it, as it clung to a leaf or crawled along a twig, that its risen body will enable it to fly like a bird, and to escape all the limitations imposed by gravity on a creature accustomed to drag its long segments from level to level by a cumbrous array of legs. We should have to explain that the array of legs will be forfeited as redundant. What will remain will be little more than a couple of props, for the present power of mobility supplied by the legs will be utterly transcended by mobility in a further dimension on an unthinkably more liberated scale. As for "seeing," the caterpillar's rudimentary apparatus that is sensitive to little more than the distinction between darkness and light, will be superseded by the butterfly's truly perceptive "eyes."
To try to make a caterpillar imagine its future life is a useful, if fanciful, way of pinpointing the difficulty men and women have in picturing life in resurrection bodies. When I look up caterpillar in an encyclopedia, I find its structure defined in terms of its future as a butterfly. "Caterpillar is the name given to the larvae of the Lepidoptera, or butterflies and moths." I cannot help wondering what an angel would find if he looked up Man and Woman in the Encyclopaedia Caelestis: "The name given to the larvae of the saved in their prepupal stage as terrestrial beings. They are two-legged, two-armed, two-eyed, and two-eared (and the most degenerate specimens are said to be two-faced). They are wingless. They have only a rudimentary sensitivity to reality. They tend to measure everything wholly on the basis of their immature understanding as creatures imprisoned in the space-time continuum.
Is heaven real?
It used to be fashionable in the pulpit to declare that heaven is not a place but a spiritual state of being. I never thought such efforts to de-substantialize the afterlife were helpful to anyone. The poet Shelley could rhapsodize nebulously about the "white radiance of eternity" dissolving all substance into a mystic glow; but nothing could be more concrete than the picture of heaven in the Book of Revelation. In Saint John's vision of the New Jerusalem, we have a city of walls and gateways and foundations, its measurements defined with the clarity of a mathematical textbook. This is one of the most crucial corrections that need to be hammered into our heads when we think about life in heaven.
Our education is such that many people tend to picture the afterlife as something less solid, less substantial than our earthly life, an existence in some ethereal and virtually disembodied state. In this respect, much current thinking is topsy-turvy. The one thing we can with certainty say about life in heaven is that it is more real than life on Earth. We rightly sing hymns in church about the ever-rolling stream of time bearing us all away, about change and decay in everything around us here; we compare the brief life on Earth with its cares and sorrows to the tearless life that knows no ending. Such, of course, is the true Christian perspective—to set our eyes on what has more substance than earthly life because it is beyond the power of time to wither and destroy. Christian teaching does not represent the afterlife in terms of what is attenuated and intangible. Christ's imagery of heaven speaks of a place where treasured objects can no longer be consumed by moths and corroded by rust. The biblical imagery of harvests and wedding feasts, Abraham's bosom and fiery torment, compels us to grapple with concepts far removed from what is vaporous or nebulous.
The biblical presentation of the future life also underscores the compensatory aspect of the life hereafter. We see this illustrated in the parable of Lazarus where the earthly relationship between the rich man feasting sumptuously at his table and the beggar lying in rags at his gate is going to be turned upside-down. The rich man would now be grateful to have his lips moistened by the touch of the once-squalid and bedraggled creature. He is told to remember that he had a good time during his earthly life when the beggar suffered badly. The emphasis of the parable is that the injustices and deprivations of earthly life are going to be fully corrected.
Clearly Christ did not mean that those who scarcely had a cent to call their own on Earth will be gloating over piles of dollar bills in heaven, and that those who lived on bread and water will sit down in the hereafter to platefuls of jumbo steaks and bottles of vintage burgundy. The losses and deprivations that constitute the worst miseries of life are not primarily financial. They are those that take loved ones from us or otherwise damage our physical and mental well being. More than once in his parables Christ pointed to the joy of recovering what has been lost—the coin, the sheep, the prodigal son. The Lord who raised Lazarus knew that recovering lost coins and sheep is going to be small compensation to the man or woman who has lost a loved one. The cancellation of bereavement is precisely what the resurrection life is all about.
Living in God's home
The highest reward of heaven, however, is that it is a place where we will be with God. We have seen how the most blissful experiences of earthly life give Christians fragmentary glimpses of what the joys of heaven will be like.
They do so in showing the hand of God at work in our world. The whole character of heaven is essentially determined by the fact that it is God's home. Evidence of his touch is here no longer fragmentary; awareness of his presence is here no longer fitful. The supreme joy of heaven is the vision of God himself. Poets and mystics have depicted the beatific vision as a culminating experience of almost intolerable bliss. In Milton's heaven in Paradise Lost, the brightness of God's presence is so intense that a shadowy cloud is drawn like a veil around the central blaze; but such is the blinding dazzle escaping from the edges of the cloud that the seraphim have to fold their wings doubly over their eyes to approach the Presence.
The keynote of many accounts of what it must be like to be confronted by God himself is this note of unbearable intensity. In Elgar's setting of Newman's Dream of Gerontius, Gerontius, lying on his deathbed, is carried in a dream into the hereafter. His first approach to heaven brings him within earshot of angels singing their praise in rapturously glorious chorus. The dreamer is all the more eager and impatient to see his Lord; but when he actually draws near the Presence, the music escalates to an overpoweringly climactic thunderclap, and Gerontius's voice is heard screaming, "Take me away!" From before the seat of judgment he would plunge into the depths and hide from the overwhelming promise of the bliss to come.
Whatever form your most moving earthly experiences of beauty have taken, they were foretastes of heaven. Wherever you have found lovingkindness in human hands and human eyes and human words, you were confronting Christ's personality operative in God's creatures. Since the source of all that beauty and all that tenderness is God, the full opening up of his presence before his creatures can be nothing less than the aggregation and concentration and intensification of every loveliness and every goodness we have ever tasted, or even dreamed of. All the love we have ever known in our relationships with others—all that collected and distilled into the personal warmth of him from whom it all derived, and he standing before us: that is the kind of picture that the Christian imagination reaches towards when there is talk of the ultimate reward of the redeemed. It is small wonder that mind and pen falter under the weight of glory brought to mind.
This article originally appeared in the May 22, 1991, issue of Christianity Today. Harry Blamires is the author of The Christian Mind and Knowing the Truth About Heaven and Hell (both published by Servant).
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Other stories appearing on our site today include:
Harleys in Heaven | What Christians have thought of the afterlife and what difference it makes now.
The Believer's Final Bliss | The regeneration of man requires that old things must pass away and all things become new. By John Murray (July 7, 1958)
The Glories of Heaven | While heaven will be glorious, the greater glory will consist in our transformation. By Stanley C. Baldwin (May 22, 1964)
The Hope of Heaven | Have Christians forfeited their rightful anticipation of eternity? By L. Nelson Bell (May 24, 1968)
Illusion or Reality? | Heaven is a place. There is a city we are going to see and walk in. By Edith Schaeffer (Mar. 12, 1976)
Heaven Can't Wait | I have seen the electrifying results of what can happen when the reality comes alive. By Philip Yancey (Sept. 7, 1984)
Heaven: Not Just an Eternal Day Off | As if anticipating the question, "Will life on the new earth be boring?" the Bible points to much activity there. By Anthony Hoekema (Sept. 20, 1985)
What Will Heaven Be Like? | Thirty-five frequently asked questions about eternity. By Peter Kreeft (from Tough Questions Christians Ask, 1989)
Afraid of Heaven | We do not yearn to be near God because we do not find sin utterly repugnant or goodness rapturously attractive. By Kenneth Kantzer (May 27, 1991)
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Hell's Final Enigma | Won't heaven's joy be spoiled by our awareness of unsaved loved ones in hell? (April 24, 2004)
Christian History Corner: How the Early Church Saw Heaven | The first Christians had very specific ideas about who they would meet in the afterlife. (August 9, 2002)
What's a Heaven For? | Lewis saw belief in heaven not as wishful thinking, but as thoughtful wishing. (Oct. 26, 1998)