By Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
A man who identifies himself as John has a series of visions on the Isle of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. I heard a loud voice call from the throne, “Look, here God lives among human beings. He will make his home among them; they will be his people, and he will be their God. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no mourning or sadness or pain.
“Then the one sitting on the throne spoke. “Look, I am making the whole of creation new. I will give water from the well of life free to anybody who is thirsty; anyone who proves victorious will inherit these things; and I will be his God and he will be my child. Then the angel showed me the river of life, flowing crystal clear. Down the middle of the city street, on either bank of the river were the trees of life, which bear twelve crops of fruit each year and the leaves of which are the cure for all peoples.
Beautiful picture. A friend gave me a somewhat different picture recently. This woman went to a spiritualist to see if she could contact her late husband. The spiritualist went into a trance and soon a voice was heard. “Mary,” it said, “Are you there?” The woman was overjoyed. “Elwood – is it really you? Are you alright?” “I’m fine, I’m fine.” “Is it nice there, dear?” “Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Blue sky, pure air, green grass. And the chickens, Mary. You’ve never seen such beautiful chickens!” “Elwood – where are you? Chickens in heaven?” “Who’s talking about heaven? I’m a rooster in Iowa.”
Not only do I enjoy that story, but I pass it on because, except for the chickens, it is truer to the Biblical picture than most of our imaginings. For example the cartoons of heaven that appear in the New Yorker with such strange frequency. Two ex-bankers with wings walking across a fleecy cloud. One is saying to the other, “Oh, Eternal life is fine, but what I really like is getting to wear flip flops all the time.”
But Iowa is better, because when this old story talks about life beyond death, it talks not about heaven but about earth. It talks about a better version of God’s good creation. So we pray week by week. Thy kingdom come — where? — on earth. The Biblical faith centers in a very few convictions to which we are challenged to trust our lives. 1. A loving personal God created everything good. 2. Human beings and some other mysterious forces messed it up. 3. Human history is the story of God working to recreate it, especially through Jesus and his people.
Now, as I say, these are the fundamental certainties of our faith, what the Biblical story is all about. We trust these or nothing else about this faith makes any sense. When it comes to the question of our future beyond death, the story is remarkably reticent to say much other than it is a future with God and with one another. Suggesting the human mind has difficulty grasping an existence beyond space and time. Suggesting we ought not to be too dogmatic about either the landscape or the membership.
But these fundamental convictions are important. Jerry Walls in a volume entitled Heaven: the Logic of Eternal Joy, says, not only is it reasonable to believe in an afterlife, but the question is actually the most important issue a human being can face. Citing Pascal’s insistence that “all of our actions and thoughts must follow different paths, according to whether there is hope of eternal blessing or not,” he makes a powerful case for the view that to recover heaven as a positive moral source is to recover our humanity.”
C.S. Lewis thinks this is why Christians, with one eye on the heaven to come, have made such an impact on this earth. As he has so eloquently put it, ” If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you may not even get earth.”
Now I am not talking about how we get there. The Good News is that anyone who trusts himself to the love of God gets God here and hereafter. And I suspect there will be a lot of surprises for all of us. I am talking about the problem of sustaining a robust faith in that future life, robust enough to influence our life here and now. For many, a future beyond death no longer impacts on the way they see our present world, feel about themselves, relate to one another.
But, clearly these axioms of faith do suggest a continuity between life now and in the future world. Creation and recreation. So these fundamental convictions do provide a jumping off place for what I will call inspired imagination So does John of Patmos feel free to imagine quite concrete pictures of our future. Of course, modern culture tends to belittle imagination as the source of any real knowledge. Just flights of fancy. Wishful thinking. It has not always been so. In George Bernard Shaw’s play “Saint Joan,” Captain is interrogating the young Joan of Arc. He is particularly disdainful about the voices she claims to hear, the voices of St. Catherine and St. Margaret, who instruct her, in the name of God to raise the siege of Orleans. Contemptuously, Captain Robert dismisses the possibility that these voices come from God — on the contrary, he insists, “they come from your imagination.” Joan replies, “Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us. ”
And so John on Patmos draws a picture of our future that is quite tangible. And this sort of picture is increasingly important in our time, where the possibility of life beyond this one has become for so many vague and without reality. Annie Dillard comments, “Could it be that our lack of faith is a cowering cowardice born of a massive failure of imagination? If creation had been left up to me, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the imagination or courage to do more than shape a single, reasonably sized atom, smooth as a snowball, and let it go at that.”
In the first place, if a loving God created this world and pronounced it good, then we have every right to imagine that any world beyond will be very much like this one, delivered of pains and perils, sadness and dying. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. I saw the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. God will make his home with us, wipe away all tears. Look I am making all things new.”
So if you do want to imagine what our future may well be like, look around you as you walk out of here this morning. Perhaps you, like I, have found yourself in the midst of a glorious Spring day, the warmth of a breeze brushing your face, life in all its glory and beauty literally bursting out all around. And an almost melancholy feeling comes over you at the thought of one day having to leave all this behind. What if this is the kind of setting that a loving creator wills for his children both here and hereafter? What if glory like this is what we have ahead of us forever. John’s vision of the future is not that of a radically different place. It is a vision of this good creation renewed by a God who loves it. There is continuity.
And if we take this seriously, ought it not enhance our attitude toward this glorious, mysterious creation even now, a creation of which God has made us stewards, how we treat it, how we share with him in its renewal, making it a foretaste of the world to come, where there are no more tears or crying. Rather silly to hope for a renewed creation, if we beat up the old one so badly, treating it as ours to exploit as we see fit, so often despoiling the work of God’s hand. Note that John’s vision is of a city, but quite unlike the oft inhumane steel and concrete jungles we throw up, much more a garden city with a river running through it lined with trees for feasting and healing.
To believe in a future for God’s incredible creation ought to grant us a different way of seeing the one around us. Like that of Pablo Casals. “When I awake in the morning I go immediately to the sea, and everywhere I find God in the smallest and in the largest things. I see him in colors and designs and forms. I constantly have the idea of God when I am at the sea. What is God but this world in which we live— alive with His life! What is music but God! Every human being is a miracle. The world is a miracle that only God could make. Think of how no two grains of sand are alike; how there is not one nose, one voice like another; how, among billions and billions of living and non-living things in the Universe no two are exactly alike. Who but God could do that? God will be present to his creation forever! Nothing can take that from us!”
And again, as we are very much a part of that good creation, it ought to enhance our attitude toward ourselves and even and especially our physical beings. Unlike the Greeks, who thought the body a nuisance, a temporary prison, John on Patmos cannot imagine any life for us without some kind of bodily existence. Not fleshly existence. He is not dumb. He knows what happens to mortal flesh when the blood drains out of it. But for John and Paul and Jesus body means more than cells and corpuscles. It means form and identity which makes for personhood, unique form and identity created by God.
As we imagine ourselves as new creations beyond this life, as real and more so than now, it might help renew and enhance our attitude toward our minds and bodies here. Do our young people see their bodies as a marvelous creation and gift of God to be used for his purposes here and now. Is it not true that contemporary culture treats the human body as an object to be used and abused for our amusement according to our own inclinations, rather than a precious gift and mystery from God? Can you imagine that six feet of DNA coiled into a single cell summons an adult human being into existence, whose cells then proceed to make tens of thousands of miles of DNA an hour? Someone commented the other day that scientists have found the gene for shyness. They would have found it years ago, but it was hiding behind a couple of other genes.
But seriously, dare we risk the thought that there is no connection between our relationship with God and our relationship with our bodies which he has lovingly created?
Finally, if the kingdom we pray for, if the world beyond this one is very much like this incredible creation, minus its scars, and if we shall enjoy it as whole beings with form and identity very much as we do now, this ought to change our attitude toward one another here and now. Ever imagine that the people you meet and know and learn to love and live with are forever? Ever imagine that beyond the brief parting which is death, you and I and all of us here will be together forever. Forever? Oh, all right, 200 million years. A brief time in the history of the universe. It ought to affect the reverence and care with which we approach one another in our days here, ought it not?
And it means that our future is above all reunion. Occasionally I will hear someone suggest that heaven sounds boring. What a reflection on the rest of us. How could life with all the greats, the quiet unsung, the variety of human stories and persons, ever be boring. And John’s picture suggests that we will do stuff, sing, tend gardens, create sonnets, yes do something like bridge and golf, all kinds of stuff that angels do. Jesus tells us that we will be like angels, and angels do stuff. And drink good wine. One of the last things Jesus said to his friends was, “I shall not drink of this cup again until I drink it with you in the kingdom.” How’s that for a future to look forward to.
I love the way the late Cardinal Bernardin imagined the world to come. In his last little volume, The Gift of Peace, he pens this. “As I write these final words, my heart is filled with joy. I am at peace. It is the first day of November, and fall is giving way to winter. Soon the trees will lose the vibrant colors of their leaves and snow will cover the ground. The earth will shut down and people will race to and from their destinations bundled up for warmth. Chicago winters are harsh. It is a time of dying.
“But we know that spring will soon come with all its new life and wonder. It is quite clear that I will not be alive in the spring. But I will soon experience new life in a different way. Although I do not know what to expect in the afterlife, I do know that just as God has called me to serve him to the best of my ability throughout my life on earth, he is now calling me home.
“Many people have asked me to tell them about heaven and the afterlife. I sometimes smile at the request because I do not know any more than they do. Yet, when one young man asked if I looked forward to being united with God and all those who have gone before me, I made a connection to something I said earlier in this book. The first time I traveled with my mother and sister to my parents’ homeland of Tonadico di Primiero, in northern Italy, I felt as if I had been there before. After years of looking through my mother’s photo albums, I knew the mountains, the land, the houses, the people. As soon as we entered the valley, I said, “My God, I know this place. I am home.” Somehow I think crossing from this life into life eternal will be similar. I will be home.”
Then the one sitting on the throne, said, “Behold, I am making the whole creation new!” New world — new me — new you. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Copyright 2004 Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.