Immortal Intimacy: Where, When, Who, Why & What of Heaven
by Dr. Ralph Blair
This booklet is an expanded version of Dr. Blair’s keynote address at connECtion 1991, the summer conferences of Evangelicals Concerned, at Kirkridge and at the University of Denver.
Copyright ©1991. Ralph Blair, 311 E. 72nd St New York, New York 10021
Peggy Lee sings of going to “the greatest show on earth” when she was twelve years old. She remembers:
“There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears
And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads.”
And she recalls that:
“As I sat there watching the marvellous spectacle
I had the feeling that something was missing.
I don’t know what, but when it was over
I said to myself, ‘Is that all there is to the circus?’
Then I fell in love
With the most wonderful boy in the world.
We would take long walks down by the river
Or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes.
We were so very much in love.
And then one day he went away
And I thought I’d die, but I didn’t.
And when I didn’t
I said to myself,
‘Is that all there is to love?’”
Have you ever thought like this? Remember your disappointment when the cartoon show flashed those three unwanted words: “That’s All, Folks!” Remember the emptiness late on Christmas Day, after all the presents had been opened and abandoned, and all the excitement that had raised expectations for weeks was gone? I’ve heard it for years in therapy: Is that all there is—to sex? to love? to career? to success? to rational living? to life? And if we don’t go deeper with such questions, we settle for superficial solutions. We sing along with Peggy Lee:
“Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is, my friends
Then let’s keep dancing.
Let’s break out the booze
And have a ball,
If that’s all there is.”
She goes on:
“I know you must be saying to yourselves
If that’s the way she feels about it
Why doesn’t she just end it all.
Oh no. Not me.
I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment,
For I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you
When that final moment comes
And I’m breathing my last breath
I’ll be saying to myself
Is that all there is?”
Peggy Lee and The Preacher of Ecclesiastes agree: all is vanity. But one responds with calls to reverence God and the other calls for a ball and booze. But the ball ends. Lust doesn’t last. Does anything? Well, after the hangovers we still fear the futility of life we sought to escape. Said Malcolm Muggeridge: “It would be a terrible prospect, wouldn’t it, to just go on and on and on. Everything is bearable because we die.” Yet who wants to die? We die against our will. We may pretend it’s “death with dignity.” There’s a nice lie: Dignified death—“Cold Obstruction’s apathy!” [Byron].
Every eleven minutes somebody dies in a car crash—“by accident” we say. Who dies on purpose? Even suicides are forced. Over 80,000 little children will die—this weekend—mostly from preventable or curable conditions. During this weekend, some 2,000 Americans will die of tobacco-related ailments. Nearly 400 will die of AIDS. These horrible facts affront our efforts to control what we can’t control and they condemn our failures to control what we can. But suppose we cared enough to rescue these little children as we should. Sooner or later they would all die. One day AIDS won’t be what it is today. Yet all who escape AIDS will die. We all test death-positive. Even God is not immune. Christians confess that God does not protect himself from the pains of dying and death. We all dead-end. Demographers, gerontologists and biostatisticians tell us that there seems to be a biological limit programmed into our cells. Human cells divide only about fifty times before they begin to fall apart. Our cells are dust that cycles down to dusty death. Asks the Graveyard Poet [Edward Young]: “Where is the dust that has not been alive?” And The Belle of Amherst mused:
“This quiet Dust was Gentlemen and Ladies
And Lads and Girls;
Was laughter and ability and sighing,
And frocks and curls.”
Death kills laughter but it also stops the sighing. So. Is that all there is then? Emily Dickinson hoped not:
“This world is not conclusion;
A sequel stands beyond,
Invisible, as music,
But positive, as sound.”
Pretty. But not much to go on, is it? And yet she expresses a very old hope. It goes way back to the long ago. Do you know what has been found in the 100,000 year-old graves of our ancestors? The remains of food. Food in graves? Food in anticipation of an afterlife.
The Gallup Poll finds that 77% of Americans say there’s an afterlife. And whether or not there is, it may be good for your health here and now to have a sense that there will be. As Carl Jung noted: “No one can live in peace in a house that he knows is shortly to tumble about his ears.” A cartoon show may have to end with “That’s All, Folks!” but it just won’t do for real life. Have you ever heard people say that if they could live their lives over they wouldn’t change a thing? How uncreative! Being that foolishly defensive they probably wouldn’t change a thing. But who among us, in our wiser moments, would want to go back and do it all just the way we did it? Who wants to repeat the wasted hours, the wasted years, squandered? Do we really want to repeat all the stupid short-cuts that derailed us? We’ve settled for skin-deep friction when we were meant for life in the heart’s deepest chambers. Said C. S. Lewis: “We are far too easily pleased.” Think of the opportunities we let pass by, the insensitive things we’ve said, the love we’ve neglected.
Now we’re all tempted to misuse the discrepancies we see between who we think we should be and who we think we are and we’re then in danger of falling through these gaps. So we need to distinguish carefully between realistic and unrealistic remorse. But even with such necessary caution, there lurks beneath self-reflection a “knowledge that,” as Helmut Thielicke puts it, “I was intended to be something other than what I have actually become. In the heart of God, my image lives as something different from what I actually have made of myself.”
“In the heart of God?” Cynics here begin to smirk, rolling their eyes heavenward and babbling about outgrowing such notions. But if they were ruthlessly to examine their own cynicism they’d find that their desires run deeper than their sophistry. Their cynicism says that they very much want to believe what they very much refuse to believe.
We can freely acknowledge that we were meant to be so much more than we are only if we sense that we can be. And how can we be that, within the limitations of our little time and place? Isn’t this what Robert Browning must have had in mind when saying our “reach should exceed our grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?” “Heaven?” Now the cynics’ eyes are rolling higher. But one philosopher [Peter Kreeft] says that “next to the idea of God, the idea of Heaven is the greatest idea that has ever entered into the heart of man, woman, or child.” And every honestly disillusioned dreamer knows that. And this philosopher says that next to Anselm’s argument for God, C. S. Lewis’ Argument from Desire “is the single most intriguing argument in the history of human thought.” It springs from what the Puritan Richard Baxter said was our God-given “nature capable of desiring, seeking, and thinking of another life.” It goes like this:
Every natural or innate desire in us points to a corresponding real object that can satisfy the desire.
There exists in us a desire which nothing here and now can satisfy.
There exists something outside of the here and now which can satisfy the desire.
Peggy Lee may be onto something. The clues are there in the disappointments, when imagination outruns what seems to be the only reality. Lewis urges us to follow this desire “pursuing the false objects until their falsity appear[s]” and then to “resolutely abandon” them and “come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given—nay,” he says, “cannot even be imagined as given—in our present mode of … experience.” This means we can thank God for our disappointments in that which will not satisfy so that we will seek that which will more than satisfy.
It was on this very day in June [June 8, 1941] exactly fifty years ago, that C. S. Lewis preached to an overflow congregation at Solemn Evensong in Oxford’s University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. It was his masterwork sermon, “The Weight of Glory.” Listen in: “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. … But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”
In the Hebrew Bible we find only faint hints of life after death (Cf. Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2). The overwhelming witness is of a lethargy in the graves of Sheol, the dead place. Later Jews came to think of a general resurrection on the Last Day. Then almost 2,000 years ago, the eternal Word, who was always one with Yahweh, became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. One day this Jesus revealed to his friend Martha, at the tomb of her brother Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life.” [John 11:25] The resurrection is a person named Jesus; he himself is Eternal Life. Jesus promised Martha that “Those who rely on me, even though they die, they shall nevertheless live, and nobody who lives and trusts me shall ever really die.” But then Jesus was executed. Dead. And his followers were left alone in disillusionment. Defeated, as always, by death, the same old enemy.
But then God raised him from the dead. The risen Jesus Christ and his abiding Spirit changed disillusionment into hope. In this hope men and women willingly and literally died to serve their risen Lord. According to a University of Chicago scholar: “The origin of Christianity is almost incomprehensible unless such an event took place.” [Robert M. Grant] “Without Easter,” says Thielicke, “Christianity simply could not exist.” The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the best explanation for the disciples’ transformation. And their own hope of resurrection was grounded in their having experienced their risen Lord. And yet today, as Thielicke sadly notes, “Again and again at Easter services, I am shocked by the casual matter-of-course way in which the news that Christ is risen is taken. Anybody who has really grasped what that means would be rocked in his seat.”
So resurrection life, as serious Christians understand it, is the very life of the living God, not an intrinsic immortality of our own and certainly not merely more biological function or a reincarnation with what Jung called its “too many if’s and but’s.” It’s God’s life, in Christ, and therefore in us who belong to Christ. Says Eugenia Price: “He goes on. So do we, if we have received His life into ours. We can no more stop than God can stop!”
No wonder Paul could speak of Christ’s being our life [Col 3:4], that “to live is Christ” [Phil 1:21], and that it is “no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” [Gal 2:20] It is because of this, our union in the risen One, that we will not die. In the New Testament, we’re so closely identified with Christ that he and we together can be called “Christ.” [Cf. I Cor 12:12 and Acts 9:4] Jesus himself had told his disciples: “Don’t be anxious. Trust God, trust me. … I go to prepare a place for you [and] I will come back and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. … Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” [John 14:19ff] Said Karl Barth: “‘You will live also’ succeeds the present of, and the presence in, the ‘I live’ like two succeeds one, B succeeds A, the thunder succeeds the lightning.”
When we think of everlasting life we think of heaven. But what do we think of when we do? Where, when, who, why, and what is heaven?
Where is heaven, this “otherwhere” [Tennyson]? Is heaven out beyond the stars, past all galaxies and the last quasars? People seem to think it is. Actually, throughout the Bible, the picture of “the ultimate destiny of God’s people,” as evangelical scholar George E. Ladd points out, “is an earthly destiny … a redeemed earth, not … a heavenly realm removed from earthly existence.” This is, of course, all pre-scientific vocabulary, but it stresses the reality of such life.
In Judaism, the term “heaven” became a circumlocution for God’s holy name. This was then carried over into the New Testament. So if heaven is another way to speak of God, heaven is where we’re closest to God. Isn’t that what Maurice Boyd pictures in his Call to Worship: “Savior Christ, Thou hast taught us that on our life’s voyage we need not be afraid, for all seas are the seas of God and if we sink, we sink but deeper into Him.” This year we’re celebrating the 300th anniversary of Richard Baxter’s going home to heaven. He was a 17th century English pastor, a gentle man, who was often jailed for preaching justice. One of his early biographers described this Puritan as “tall and slender, and stooped much; … composed and grave, somewhat inclining to smile.” [Sylvester] Among his many books were Dying Thoughts and The Saints’ Everlasting Rest. When Baxter went to heaven, where did he go? This redeemed spirit went to that same Redeeming Spirit who was in his heart. He had said that “The same spirit is in heaven who is in my heart.” So heaven is where we’re closest to God, and Baxter went deeper into God. Said Augustine: “God is the country of the soul.” The where of heaven is in God—en Theos—that enthused country.
Before moving on to the when of heaven, let’s look at an issue raised by both the where and when of heaven: our orientation in space and time.
Space and time. They’re not what they seem. Does it seem you’re sitting still in a chair? Don’t you know we’re all rotating? Do you feel it? We’re on a rotating planet at this very moment. And we’re also spinning around a star at thousands of miles per hour. That star, our sun, is itself revolving in the Milky Way, so we’re speeding off in yet a third direction. And the Milky Way is speeding away from the center of the Big Bang so we’re all travelling off in yet a fourth direction. Doesn’t feel like it? So much for trusting our feelings.
Our sense of time and space changes as we grow older. The older we get the faster time, that “noiseless file” [George Herbert] seems to grind. That’s because, as we age, each year is shorter relative to our experience of our total years. But notice how this lecture may seem to take longer than the same number of minutes spent on a very special date! Did you ever go back to your old grade school and experience surprise at how small the desks and lockers were? You remember them as being larger because you were then smaller. Our experience of time and space is always mediated neurologically, from our own perspectives and agendas.
We should know that the Bible presents heaven in terms of real time and space. This is contrary to popular ideas of a timeless eternity or of a non-material heavenly nowhere. Eternity, as the Bible sees it, is endless time—on and on into the ages. Heaven will be a revitalized earth in a revitalized time, the new earth in the new age. But who can tell how we’ll experience that new earth and that new age?
When the 92-year-old Somerset Maugham was on his deathbed he summoned the philosopher A. J. Ayer, an atheist, to reassure him that there was no life after death. Some twenty years later, in a London hospital, Ayer’s own heart stopped for four minutes. Afterward he said he’d seen a light and become “aware that this light was responsible for the government of the universe.” He nonetheless remained an atheist. But he did admit that his experience “slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death … will be the end of me, though I continue to hope it will be.” He didn’t want to be wrong.
But let’s not be too hard on Ayer. Paul preferred, he said, to depart from this life to the “gain,” as he put it, of being with the Lord. But do we? When Ayer’s colleague in philosophy, atheist Bertrand Russell, asked a woman about the state of her dead daughter’s soul, she replied: “Oh, well I suppose she’s enjoying eternal bliss, but I wish you wouldn’t talk about such unpleasant subjects.” How is that better than Russell’s own faith? He affirmed: “When I die I rot.”
But even an atheist can’t entirely ignore what are called near-death experiences (NDEs). Cicely Saunders, the founder and Medical Director of St. Christopher’s Hospice in London tells of another old atheist who, just at the moment he died, seemed to display the most extraordinary expression of anger and chagrin—I was wrong! His niece observed this and lost her own atheism right then and there —she converted to agnosticism. We don’t want to be wrong, do we?
Ten years ago the Gallup Poll estimated that eight million Americans had had typical near-death experiences. Study of NDEs has been carried out by psychiatrists and other physicians, behavioral and social scientists, and theologians. Fundamentalists are upset that the NDEs seem never to take note of “hell” as preached by fundamentalists and seem not to differ between people holding divergent theological beliefs. So fundamentalists join with even non-Christians and anti-Christian secularists in debunking NDEs. They don’t want to be wrong. An editor at Christianity Today, for instance, even tries to trivialize “Paul’s other-world vision [as] a minor footnote to his faith [saying that] he gives it a few lines in the context, and almost as an example of petty wrangling over trivial matters.” The CT writer does acknowledge though, that while “Demonic (or New Age) elements cannot be ruled out, … neither can the possibility that something of God is being glimpsed, however imperfectly.”
Can it be that in the NDEs we have some sort of reply to Tennyson’s prayer?
“Ah Christ, that it were possible
For me short hour to see
The souls we loved, that they might tell us
What and where they be.”
Several traits have been cross-culturally documented in NDEs, though no one person necessarily experiences all of these. What are they? When these persons come close to dying, they have a sense of being dead, of painless peace. They have an out-of-body experience and then seem to pass through a dark tunnel, meeting friends who have died as well as beings of light and love. They then meet The Being of Light and Love with whom they want to stay forever. They experience a life review in which they judge soberly their life’s attitudes and actions. They have a reluctance to return to their bodies, sensing that it is not yet time to pass over completely. Afterwards, a loss of the fear of death and a strong desire to be more loving in this world today characterizes their experience of life.
As Christians, what are we to make of this? To me this is—at least—not incompatible with the biblical witness of God’s grace and peace in Jesus Christ. But many conservative Christians, as we’ve said, are skeptical and go so far as to attribute NDEs to the Devil, if for no other reason than that NDEs seem to reveal a greater ultimate graciousness than they’re prepared to approve. Isn’t that outrageous? But even the CT editor acknowledges that since Christians are supposed to judge spiritual phenomena by the fruit they bear (Cf. Matt 7:15-20), and since after NDEs people tend to be more loving toward others, Christian critics may have a bit of a problem dismissing NDEs out of hand.
Let’s look at just two of the NDE traits. Take, for example, the testimony of the Light the dying say they see and feel as the most loving and beautiful experience of their lives. Why can’t Christians see this Love/Light as the Light of the World? “All true light,” as an evangelical scholar notes, “is in some degree an effulgence from him who is the light of the world. [F. F. Bruce] Those who accept the partial light that is available to them,” he reasons, “will gladly accept the perfect light when it shines on them.” Listen again to Cicely Saunders: “Those of us who have often been with people who have been dying, from time to time see somebody who suddenly has a gleam of amusement: as if all the answers are so good that it is even funny to look back at how much you were worrying about it.” How might this not be the True Light that, as John wrote, “enlightens everyone?” [John 1:9]
Citing a number of biblical texts—for example, I Peter 3:19-20; 4:6; Ephesians 4:8-9; John 5:25-29; Matthew 8:11; 12:40; Luke 13:28-30; Hebrews 9:15; Romans 10:7; Revelation 21:25—another evangelical scholar says that “In one way or another these passages indicate the postmortem possibilities of grace …. The overall New Testament picture of the implacable love of a just Savior is described in these texts as reaching the unreached dead …. Thus the glorified Christ as well as his Body on earth is the organ of the good news, the Hound of Heaven whose pursuit cannot be confined to calendars and timetables of our own making.” [Gabriel Fackre]
And look at the NDE life review. The dying person, in the presence of the Love/ Light, is “examined in love” as St. John of the Cross put it. Seeing in a flash his or her entire life, the individual intuits an evaluation and understanding, “convicted by the witness of [one’s] own conscience” as the Belgic Confession puts it in Article 37. It is, after all, only internalized judgment that convicts. Such intuited and sober self-examination may even enable us to experience as others did, what we were for good or ill in their lives. That would counter our defensiveness, wouldn’t it? Paul wrote of this judgment in the presence of the Light and was careful to note, by the use of the singular neuter, that, as a New Testament scholar at Fuller Seminary explains, “the person’s habitual action, and not his [or her] individual acts, are the basis for judgment.” [Ralph Martin] He says “we should not characterize this recompense [of II Cor 5:10] as solely a penal operation. … Paul is suggesting that those who do well will receive good.” (Cf. I Cor 3:14; Matt 16:27) This particular NDE experience might be compared with the following remarks by Karl Barth, the century’s most important theologian. According to Barth, we’ll see, in heaven, the “reverse side [of our lives] which God sees although it is as yet hidden from us.” We’ll then understand “our tears, death, sorrow, crying, and pain” and how all this is related to the “decrees of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ. … this veil will be removed, and our whole life, from the crib to the grave, will be seen in the light and in its unity with the life of Christ, in the splendor of Christ’s mercy, of his grace and of his power.”
What does the Bible say happens to us when we die? Reading different texts within the same Bible, Luther and Calvin concluded differently about that question. Luther said we are unconscious until our resurrection and he cited some Bible verses to back this up (I Cor 15:20 and I Thess 4:13). Calvin said we’d be conscious awaiting resurrection and he cited some Bible verses of his own (Luke 23:43 and Phil 1:23). Well, whatever we make of these Bible verses, or of the NDEs, we might do well to exercise some good Christian agnosticism and say with Walt Whitman: “To die is different from what anyone supposed.” In his opinion in the Nancy Cruzan case, Supreme Court Justice Paul Stevens wrote: “[N]ot much may be said with confidence about death unless it is said from faith.” Says the foremost French Bible scholar: “To speak of death means to gaze on a mystery.” [Xavier Leon Dufour] But then, isn’t that what we Christians are called to do?
The when of heaven is both now and in the future, already and not yet. Unfortunately, our ideas of heaven get stuck in the future tense. But Jesus said: “Those who hear my word and trust the One who sent me, have everlasting life.” Now. Present tense. In Christ, we are already everlastingly alive. And Mother Teresa shows us how to live everlasting life in everyday life. She says: “We all long for heaven where God is, but we have it in our power to be in heaven with him right now—to be happy with him at this very moment. But being happy with him now means: loving as he loves, helping as he helps, giving as he gives, serving as he serves, rescuing as he rescues, being with him for all the twenty-four hours, touching him in his distressing disguise.”
Well that’s the when of heaven. The when is today and tomorrow and forever. We faithe a future of face-to-face love with the Lord. In the meantime, the only faces we see are those of our sisters and brothers whom we, “loved into loving,” [Maurice Boyd] may begin to love into loving forever.
Now, who’s who in heaven?
When the evangelical philosopher Elton Trueblood was 90 years old, he was asked who he was looking forward to meeting in heaven. He said that, of course he wanted to see his Savior first of all. Then, citing the advice of Socrates, that one should have a list of people to look up when one gets to heaven, he said that he wants to meet the great Socrates himself. That will shock fundamentalists whose experience with Christianity is limited to their own 20th century American brand. Huldrych Zwingli, the Protestant Reformer of Zurich, also expected to meet Socrates and the “noble heathen” in heaven . Zwingli looked forward to meeting even fictional characters from Greek mythology such as Hercules and Theseus! “In short,” said Zwingli, “there has not lived a single good person, there has not been a single pious heart or believing soul from the beginning of the world to the end, which you will not see there in the presence of God.” An evangelical church historian [Geoffrey Bromily] explains that “even in his assertion of the salvation of the pious heathen Zwingli was not departing from his evangelical presuppositions. It is not merely that on occasion Luther too had hinted at a similar possibility … The real point is that Zwingli could make the assertion because it was congruent with his whole conception of the divine sovereignty and the election of grace. The redemptive purpose and activity of God was not limited by the chronology or the geography of the incarnation and the atonement.”
You mean there will be those in heaven who never heard the gospel before they died? Well why do you think it’s called good news? It’s the everlasting good news of God’s free grace! This was the “old-time religion” of C. I. Scofield: If they follow whatever light God gives them, he affirmed, “they will find their way to God.” And how do they find their way to God? Just like the lost coin and the lost sheep. It is as the Lord first seeks them. Simply put: We don’t find ourselves; we find ourselves Found! “It was not I who found O Savior true / Thou taught my soul to seek Thee, seeking me.”
Having said this, let’s not forget that all the so-called “unreached” have already met Jesus and have already responded to him—in the faces of the least among them: the hungry, the lonely, the outcasts—lesbians and gay men. Didn’t Jesus himself say that when he spoke of the separation of the sheep and the goats? [Matt 25] Judgment won’t be about intellectual assent, religious information or affiliation; it will be about loving as an act of will and God’s everlasting grace.
Evangelist D. L. Moody was asked about the eternal fate of the most famous agnostic of his day, Bob Ingersoll. Said Moody: “I don’t know. We are not judges. It is for God alone to judge.” Said John Henry Jowett, the pastor of The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church during World War I: “God’s love is deeper than sin. I thought of all the human wreckage engulfed and sunk in oceanic depths of nameless sin. Too far gone! For what? Too far down! For what? Not too far down for the love of God! Listen to this,” said Jowett: ‘“He descended into hell,’ and He will descend again if you are there. ‘If I make my bed in hell, Thou art there.’ However far down, God’s love can get beneath it.” Said the great preacher of London’s Westminster Chapel, G. Campbell Morgan: the Universalists may be right in saying that I Corinthians 15:22 means “the ‘all’ in the case of Christ is co-extensive with the ‘all’ in the case of Adam. … Ultimately I find perfect rest in the conviction that God is not only better than our fears, He is better than our hopes, and that, in the last analysis, ‘the Judge of all the earth must do right,’ and will do right.” Morgan added: “It is not permitted to us to know what passes between the soul and it’s Maker in the last hours of this probationary life, and therefore we cannot definitely know the state of those gone before. At the same time a soul who willfully rejects Jesus Christ to the utmost limit will be finally lost.” Morgan went on to say: “God alone knows and appoints that limit. … It is conceivable,” he acknowledged, “that there may be [another chance beyond the grave].”
And if we want to go back to the really old-time Christian faith, we can go back to Jesus’ brother James and to John the Divine. “Bearing the promise of a rich harvest to come,” [F. F. Bruce] didn’t Jesus’ brother James call Christians “a kind of first fruits of God’s creatures?” [James 1:18] And what did John, in the Revelation, call those 144,000 redeemed and singing men who never had sex with women? He called them fruits! He called them the first-fruits of all humanity. [Rev 14:4] Going back to Justin Martyr, the Christian philosopher born about the time John received the Revelation, we find another Christian who expected to see Socrates in heaven, along with the Stoics and others who never ever heard of Jesus. F. F. Bruce says Justin “was not wrong” in this expectation.
The poet William Cowper, author of the Olney hymns “There is a Fountain Filled With Blood” and “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” among others, expressed this Christian inclusiveness in verse in his “Truth.”
Is virtue, then, unless of Christian growth,
Mere fallacy, or foolishness, or both?
Ten Thousand sages lost in endless woe,
For ignorance of what they could not know?
That speech betrays at once a bigot’s tongue,
Charge not a God with such outrageous wrong.
Cowper went on to voice the basis of his hope:
But still in virtue of a Saviour’s plea,
Not blind by choice, but destined not to see,
Their fortitude and wisdom were a flame
Celestial, though they knew not whence it came,
Derived from the same source of light and grace,
That guides the Christian in his swifter race;
Their judge was conscience, and her rule their law;
Led them, however faltering, faint, and slow,
From what they knew to what they wished to know.
As John Wesley rode in his coach one cold December day in 1767, he reflected on the salvation of mystics who denied Justification by Faith and he wrote in his Journal: “Is it not high time for us … to return to the plain word, ‘He that feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him’?” Here, Wesley was quoting Peter. According to a Calvinist cleric of Wesley’s day and the writer of the hymn, “Rock of Ages,” Augustus Montague Toplady: “The purpose of God is not restrained to [people] either of particular country, or age of time, or religious denomination. Undoubtedly, there are elect Jews, elect Mohametans, and elect Pagans. In a word, countless millions of persons, whom Christ hath redeemed unto God, by his blood, out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.” And the often rather odd little Toplady went even further. When the nonconformist minister William Bull teasingly asked Toplady if his belief that the souls of all animals go to heaven really included all the animals, Toplady replied: “Yes, certainly, all, all. “ Bull joked that he hoped the bulls would all be there, but not the flies. The solemn Toplady was not amused. The Graveyard Poet [Edward Young] affirmed that “there is not a fly, but infinite wisdom is concerned … in its destination.” Isn’t this what Jesus said: that God is concerned with every sparrow’s fate? And if the tiny sparrows are the concern of “that tender care that nothing be lost” [Whitehead], how much more, as Jesus reasoned, are persons God’s deep concern!
Fuller Seminary professor Lewis Smedes says that “Paul knows that when Jesus died, the world was won to God. Paul’s vision of reconciliation is not cabined by a narrow theology which counts as gospel only the possibility of individuals escaping hell. The entire world that God made, the world that people led away from God’s love, the world that God kept on loving, the world to which God gave His Son—this is the world reconciled through Christ. Nothing less than the panoramic vision of a world recreated will capture Paul’s vision of reconciliation.” According to the Scottish theologian T. F. Torrance, the resurrection of Jesus “was not just a miracle within the creation, but a deed so decisively new that it affected the whole of creation and the whole of the future.” According to another evangelical theologian, Donald Bloesch, “it can be affirmed that the whole human race was crucified on the cross. … Christ is the surrogate or substitute for all people, pagans and Jews as well as Christians.” In the words of Oswald Chambers: “The redemption of Christ rehabilitated the whole human race.”
The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was, of course, not a Christian. But listen to what he said about God: “That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.” Sartre died in 1980, adrift in a meaningless universe with no exit. Does the Hound of Heaven finally track down even Jean-Paul Sartre? Said Dorothy L. Sayers: “There is no power in this world or the next that can keep a soul from God if God is what it really desires.” Sayers knew her Savior; she also knew her Dante, who said: “The Infinite Goodness has such wide arms that it takes whatever turns to it.”
Sayers speaks poetically of the “soul.” But Christians believe that we who will be living forever will be doing so as body and soul together. What kind of who are we?
Some people think of themselves only in terms of gross anatomy. They say we’ve outgrown the notion of souls. But can we really reduce what we are to the three trillion cells of a human body or to the 50,000 to 100,000 genes that lie in the nucleus of each of those cells? The skeptics say they’ve never seen a soul. They’ve never seen a gene either. When we say we’re bodies and souls, they say that can’t be. They say that even what we call “personality” or “mind” or “me” is nothing apart from the activity of brain tissue that finally gets chewed up by worms.
World-class brain scientists, however, are not impressed with the reductionists’ argument. A molecular biologist at Oxford says: “The personal … can’t be reduced to atoms and molecules.” After studying the human brain for fifty years, Wilder Penfield, “the father of neurosurgery,” concluded: “the consciousness of man, the mind, is NOT something to be reduced to brain mechanism. … the brain has not explained the mind fully.” But we Christians mistakenly tend to think of our eternal life as a bodyless life. Now, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is admittedly difficult—Luther worried that it would remind folk of a butcher shop—but we must nonetheless try to understand it as best we can.
First of all, let’s remember that Jesus’ tomb was found to be empty after his resurrection on that first Easter morning. His resurrection was no ephemeral haze that left behind bones and stinking tissue.
Secondly, the risen Christ walked and talked and even ate with his disciples. He invited them to touch his risen body, to feel his flesh and bones and even his wounds. As Luke the physician records, this was some sort of body. He was no ghost, as even Jesus himself assured them (Luke 24). And yet he was not easily recognized. Luke notes also that the risen Jesus Christ appeared and disappeared unlike any mortal body. Clearly, his resurrection body was of “a new order of physics,” as someone has said.
In all that Paul wrote about the resurrection after his own encounter with the risen Christ, he used the Greek term for body, soma, “precisely because,” as New Testament scholar Robert Gundry puts it, “the physicality of the resurrection is central to his [teaching on salvation].” Gundry notes, however, that “Paul’s use of soma does not separate the body from… the true ego.”
Gundry further says that “the resurrection of Christ was and the resurrection of Christians will be physical in nature. Anything less than that undercuts Paul’s ultimate intention that [the] redeemed … possess physical means of concrete activity for the eternal service and worship of God in a restored creation. Otherwise, God’s purpose in the creation—material as it is—would be thwarted. … Permanent disruption of body and spirit would constitute an ultimate defeat of God’s will concerning the nature of [humanity],” according to Gundry.
In Gundry’s reading of Paul, “the human spirit bears the consciousness of continuing personality and thus provides a link between the old body and the new. Nevertheless,” he says, “a physical continuity is also needed.” He points out that Paul is, of course, not “interested in questions such as those which are posed from the standpoint of modem science, [and so Paul] fails to spell out the how of molecular continuity vis-a-vis the discontinuity of death and dissolution.” He refers to another scholar who he says “helpfully suggests that the continuous change of cells in the present body without destruction of its identity has some of the characteristics of continuity-cum-discontinuity seen more radically active in death and resurrection.”
So by God’s grace we will be raised to everlasting life as embodied spirits. We’re who’s who in heaven.
But there is an immeasurably higher and profoundly deeper who of heaven. As we’ve said, in biblical times the term “heaven” was often used as a reverent reference to God, circumventing a casual use of God’s name. The expression, “the kingdom of heaven,” for example, just means the kingdom of God. So the Who that Heaven really is is “Our Father” in whom is heaven (as C. S. Lewis phrased it), “Grace [that] is God” [Evelyn Underhill], Emmanuel—God with us. “To be in the presence of Christ is heaven.” [Donald Coggan] Remember that at Bethany, Martha had agreed with Jesus that her brother would rise in the general resurrection but that Jesus revealed to her: “Martha, I am, myself, the resurrection!”
Last year, novelist Walker Percy went home to that heaven who is God. Fie had reflected on his life’s experience in Esquire magazine: “This life is much too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then be asked what you make of it and then to have to answer ‘Scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore, I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less.”
The very best pronoun for heaven is Who. God is the Who of heaven. The next best pronoun for heaven is whoever. Whoever thirsts for God is who’s who in heaven.
Says Frederick Buechner: “I know no more now than I ever did about the far side of death as the last letting-go of all, but I begin to know that I do not need to know and that I do not need to be afraid of knowing. God knows. That is all that matters.” Says Thielicke: “I do not believe in the life of the world to come, then, because I look into eternity and let my imagination play around with golden streets and crystal seas. I believe simply and solely because I am already the comrade of him whose faithfulness to me will never end. His hand gives me confidence to walk into the dark, even into the ‘inconceivable’ and ‘totally other’ world to come. For then he alone will not be different or strange to me. …with this knowledge I walk into the night of death, truly the darkest night; yet I know who awaits me in the morning.”
Now what’s the why of heaven?
“Why?”—the shortest, the hardest, the most heartfelt and least rewarding of all the questions of humankind. But here, linked with heaven, it’s quickly answered. The why of heaven is God’s love. “God loved the world so much that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but have everlasting life.” [John 3:16] That’s the why of heaven.
Now what about the what of heaven? Or better: What’s heaven like? Posing the question so as to anticipate a figure of speech is the best we can do.
Listen in on one of Calvin’s conversations. Asked Calvin: “Do you think tigers go to the same heaven that people go to? I mean, in heaven, everyone is supposed to be happy, right? But people wouldn’t be happy if they were always in danger of being eaten by tigers! … Maybe tigers just don’t eat people in heaven.” Hobbes replied: But then we wouldn’t be happy.” Obviously one has to keep his Calvins straight, as well as his Hobbeses. Actually, the 16th century theologian cautioned against those who “leave not a comer of heaven untouched by their speculations,” warning that “alluring speculations instantly captivate the unwary” who are afterwards led farther into the labyrinth, until at length, everyone becoming pleased with his own view, there is no limit to disputation.” So Calvin concluded that “the best and shortest course for us will be to rest contented with seeing through a glass darkly until we shall see face to face.” But such good advice never stopped a theologian hell-bent on fussing over a fuzzy focus. Thomas Aquinas had opinions on whether our fingernails grow in heaven and whether or not, in heaven, we’ll urinate! Said Luther, in his own good earthiness: “When I hung at my mother’s breasts, I did not know much about the manner in which I would eat or drink or live later on. We understand far less what sort of life yonder one will turn out to be.”
C. S. Lewis refused to push his creativity past celestial similes. At the end of his Preface to his fantasy of purgatory, The Great Divorce, Lewis states: “The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the afterworld.” And his fellow Inkling at Oxford, the poet Charles Williams, wrote: “The kingdom of heaven may suffer violence, but it never yet for a single moment suffered, much less allowed itself to be taken by, a niggling curiosity.”
Trying to imagine what life after death is, is more futile than trying to imagine what this life is to a person born blind. It won’t do just to shut our eyes. Look, the plain fact is this: The Bible does not describe the afterlife. Thielicke states that “the Bible never talks about life everlasting as a condition that can be described; it simply makes the point that we shall be with the Lord and that we may see him face to face.” Said Paul: “Eye has not seen nor ear heard.”
Doesn’t this reticence of the earliest Christian writers suggest a greater credibility than the unrestrained speculation of later authors? Bob Dylan said it well last year: “God knows there’s a heaven / God knows it’s out of sight.”
The fact that we have no biblical description of heaven doesn’t mean we have no biblical metaphors of heaven. We do. What do you think is the bible’s best metaphor of heaven? Believe it or not, the Bible’s best metaphor of heaven is sex! That’s why I’ve titled this talk: IMMORTAL INTIMACY.
By “sex” we’re not thinking about the reproductive system or procreation. We’re not even thinking of conventional marriage. And we’re certainly not thinking of pornography and other forms of sexual exploitation. We are thinking, however, of sexual urge, of interpersonal desire, affection, and union at the deepest, truly sexual, levels.
Let’s get into this through an incident recorded in the twelfth chapter of the Gospel According to Mark. In it, the literalistic Sadducees confront Jesus by poking fun at the idea of resurrection.
Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked: “Teacher, Moses wrote that ‘if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man should marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.’ There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.
Jesus said to them: “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”
Thinking like Sadducees restricts our view of God’s power and perspective to our familiar conditions and agendas, in this case to the legal technicalities of heirs and to customs of an impersonal system of property rights in which women were chattel. This is all far from the radically new values of the heavenly reign of Love. It’s important to see what Jesus did and did not say to the Sadducees. He said that, in the resurrection, there would be no conventional marriage as they knew it. Procreation will be pointless. But Jesus did not say there would be no sexuality, no sexual intimacy.
Jesus takes on both parties of religious know-it-alls. He teaches the Pharisees that they’re wrong to imagine that the afterlife is to be merely a continuation of marriage as they know it. He tells the Sadducees, in rather sarcastic tones—since they didn’t believe in angels—that the life of the resurrection is angel-like. More tactfully, Jesus appealed to the Torah, the Sadducees’ limited canon, to say that they knew neither their own scriptures nor God’s unlimited power. It’s God’s power, after all, that brings us to life in creation as well as in re-creation.
By the way, if we get a bit distressed in reading that there will be no marriage as we know it in heaven—or if we fear there will not be something else we prize—we’d do well to hear C. S. Lewis say in “The Weight of Glory” sermon: “If Christianity could tell me no more of the far-off land than my own temperament led me to surmise already, then Christianity would be no higher than myself. If it has more to give me, I expect it to be less immediately attractive than ‘my own stuff.’”
Why does Jesus’ saying that there’s no marriage in heaven disturb so many people? Isn’t it odd that people who have trouble sustaining sex with the same person for more than a few months or a couple of years are disappointed to hear that they won’t have to sustain it everlastingly? Isn’t it strange that people who refuse to love think they want to live in Loveland forever? Nobody there will be speaking their language. They just won’t get it. Lust can’t last forever. Quentin Crisp wonders if it can last longer than a weekend. And deprived of volitional love it won’t. Eternity lasts on love.
Now to be sure, some people do love into being a lifelong love that gets past the ecstasy and the agony of obsessive lovesickness to the rigors and rewards of maturity. Smedes says that “When a person becomes our hope for what we most wondrously desire, we are in love. And the love we are in is desiring love. It is one of God’s better inventions. No one should go through life without it.” Smedes warns, however: “Desiring love is a fragile flame, burning bright for a springtime, maybe through summer. But then there is a love we call committed love. It is the love that stays alive through the longest winter.” Sadly, many people know nothing of such love. No wonder they’ve tried to cope by asceticism, or cynicism, or by pretending that sex is nothing but a bodily function not unlike going to the toilet. When people ask “How’s your love life?” they may mean “How’s your sex life?” and, by that, they may mean “How much are you juxtaposing genital nerve endings and with how many different people?” And we all know the shorthand for that.
Sex is a wonderful gift of God’s grace. It’s a wide ranging joy, from the high enchantment of infatuation and the extravagancies mediated by the cells of our optic, olfactory, and epidermal nerve endings, through the chosen love that Jacques Ellul says “is made to last because it is life … This love that gives … [that] changes, taking new forms and acquiring new and different powers.” It’s intimate communication, deep connection with a person we experience as fascinatingly other. And yet, given its venue here and now, in flesh and blood, in sickness and in health, even this love cannot be experienced without difficulty, pain and loss, no matter how rationally and caringly nourished. We reach out to each other with even the best of intentions and in the most loving ways and still our reach is somehow never long enough, always the other is just out of reach. We can never get beyond our own versions of each other. We can never be known as we are known to ourselves. We never know as we are known by the other. We’re always looking through dark glasses, never do we see face to face.
It does help to know that for practical purposes, we can indeed connect, albeit imperfectly. And there’s some consolation in reminding ourselves that we can’t possibly have any of the highs without the lows. But where is the comfort we really want in hearing that unrequited desire is statistically what we should expect? It helps to remember that unrequited love is really only a fantasy, and that our “if only” prediction is a fictionalized scenario that flies in the face of reality, that it wouldn’t be experienced as we dream it would since we’re not taking seriously that the other person really is not fantasy. It does help not to personalize another’s “no”—understanding that it is not a rejection based on our own ideas of our rejectableness—but we’re still just as lonely. We long to merge and, even in requited romance, our efforts are frustrated as well as facilitated by physicality as we know it. We kiss on the mouth to exchange the breath of souls—and have to grab for a Tic-Tac!
Our reaching comes from something deep inside. “As soon as we are fully conscious,” said C. S. Lewis, “we discover loneliness.” Erich Fromm called it our “deepest need,” this overcoming of such aloneness. And so we seek others. “Every theory of love, from Plato down, teaches that each individual loves in the other … what [one] lacks in self.” [G. Stanley Hall] And even if we ever do meet this “deepest need” in some way, we live under the threat of loss. And it’s beyond our control finally to prevent the loss. In the words of Sarah York’s old Dutch Reformed hymn:
“I am weary of loving what passes away;
The sweetest, the dearest, alas! may not stay;
I long for that land, where these partings are o’er,
And death and the tomb can divide hearts no more.”
William Butler Yeats felt it:
“It is love that I am seeking for
But of a beautiful, unheard-of kind
That is not in the world.”
Why? Because, as Jorge Luis Borges put it: “To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible God.”
Is that it? What if the immortal intimacy for which we all hunger is to be found only beyond this mortal world, beyond these mortal gods?
Charles Williams defines what he calls “Romantic Theology” as “the identification of love with Jesus Christ, … This again may be reduced to a single word—Immanuel [God with us]. Everything else,” says Williams, “is modification and illustration of this.” As he sees it, “Love and Christ are one.” He identifies “romantic love with Christ.” Now as unfamiliar as this may be to some people today, this is an old Christian theme. Dante knew it in his passion for Beatrice. It’s there in the sonnets of John Donne: “Take me to You, imprison me, for I / Except You enthrall me, never shall be free; / Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.” Nourished on the Bible’s Song of Songs, the 17th century English poet Richard Crashaw wrote:
Lord, when the sense of Thy sweet grace
Sends up my soul to seek Thy face,
Thy blessed eyes breed such desire,
I die in love’s delicious Fire.
Still live in me this loving strife
Of living Death and dying Life.
For while Thou sweetly slayest me,
Dead to myself I live in Thee.
And it’s there in the erotic coloring of heavenly love in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel.
But going back to basics, it’s the Bible that pulsates with such passion. Read the Song of Songs. “The intense passion of the Song,” according to Williams, “is a mortal passion moving and sustained by an immortal principle: it needs for its full perfection just the identification of Christ and Love … Nor is there any need to distinguish carefully whether it is Love or the mortal lover of whom the daughters of Jerusalem ask ‘What is thy beloved more than another beloved?’ … It is in the certitude of the union of love that the Shulamite answers, beholding her beloved glorious with all the graces of Christ, ‘My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand. … His mouth is most sweet: yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.’” [Song 5:10, 16] Although much of the explicit sexuality has been rendered by euphemisms of “hands,” “feet,” and “door bolts,” the Song’s powerful erotic depiction comes through. For example, the lover says: “I trembled to the core of my being … when my beloved thrust his rod through my hole … and liquid myrrh ran over the rod … and my hands (or genitals) dripped with myrrh.” [Song 5:4-5] Church tradition says that this is a portrait of Christ and us!
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, Israel is the unfaithful wife of Yahweh. But the promise was that the Lord’s unrequited love would win. Someday, says the commitment-keeping Lord through the prophet Hosea [2:16] “you will call me ‘My Husband’ and no longer ‘My Master.’ … I will betroth you to me forever, with rightness, justice, loyalty, compassion, faithfulness. You will know me.” Here is the most common Hebrew euphemism for sexual intimacy. We read in Isaiah [62:5] that God will one day joy in us the way a bridegroom joys in the bride!
Jesus’ allegory of the kingdom of heaven was of a wedding banquet that a sovereign gave for his child. None of the “respectable” invitees bothered to come. So everybody was invited, including the “nobodies,”—both good and bad people—and the wedding hall was finally filled. [Matt 22:1-14]
Paul uses the marriage symbol, metaphor of closest possible union, for our relationship with Christ. [II Cor 11:2; Eph 5:25ff, Rom 7:2ff] We’re engaged to be married to Christ, says Paul. He applies the “one flesh” principle to our union with Christ. One conservative commentator ventures: “This spiritual intercourse with God is the ecstasy hinted at in all earthly intercourse, physical or spiritual. It is the ultimate reason why sexual passion is so strong, so different from other passions, so heavy with suggestions of profound meanings that just elude our grasp. No mere physical needs account for it. No mere animal drive explains it. No animal falls in love, writes profound romantic poetry, or sees sex as a symbol of the ultimate meaning of life because no animal is made in the image of God.
Human sexuality is that image, and human sexuality is a foretaste of that selfgiving, that losing and finding the self, that oneness-in-manyness that is the heart of the life and joy of the Trinity.” [Kreeft]
Then there’s the Marriage of the Lamb in the book of Revelation. There, we believers, all together, are “prepared as a bride for her husband.” This never-ending romantic bliss symbolizes “the intimate and indissoluble communion of Christ with the community which he has purchased with his own blood” as one scholar puts it. [R. H. Charles] Even the City of New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven is “a family, … the ideal of perfect community” [Martin Kiddle]—Jesus’ new “family,” doing the will of God, loving God and neighbor.
Didn’t Paul tell us that “In Christ, we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others?” [Rom 12:5] The earliest Christians took this solidarity so seriously that they not only saw that they themselves belonged to all the others but they saw to it that what belonged to them belonged to all the others as well. Living everlastingly is loving everlastingly. We all share together in immortal intimacy. Hear from the Dying Thoughts of Baxter and notice how he couldn’t speak of the everlasting community of the Body of Christ, the Bride, without speaking of Christ, the Bridegroom: “I doubt not we shall [fore]ever have use for one another; … and when I think how sweet one wise and holy companion has been to me here on earth, and how lovely his graces have appeared; O what a sight will it be, when we shall see millions of ‘the spirits of just [ones] made perfect,’ shining with Christ in perfect wisdom and holiness!”
Baxter reassures himself of the continuing and ever clearer love of God as he writes: “If the Jews discerned the great love of Christ to Lazarus by his tears, canst thou not discern his love to thee in his blood? … O my soul, if leaning on Christ’s breast at meat was a token of his peculiar love to John, is not his dwelling in thee by the faith, and his living in thee by his Spirit, a sure token of his love to thee? … Be not so unthankful, O my soul, as to doubt whether thy heavenly Father, and thy Lord love thee.” In the words of Dame Julian of Norwich: “We are all, in Him, enclosed.” Said William Penn: “Death cannot kill what never dies. … Death is but crossing the World, as Friends do the Seas; they live in one another still.” Sociologist Andrew Greely writes that “we will love one another in the resurrected life even more intensely, even more joyfully than we do in the present. … It is utterly unthinkable that there would not be between those who work close to one another on earth an even more powerful and more rewarding intimacy in the life of the resurrection.”
As Ellul sees it, “the human couple in its love is the only true image of God that we can have among us: and another Christian says that “The best way to gain insight into the afterlife is to extrapolate on the deepest earthly love.” Another Christian suggests that “In contrast to the exclusive sexual union [here and now], the ecstasy of marital coupling could be expanded in the resurrection.” [William E. Phipps] According to biblical scholar C. F. D. Moule: “The exclusive loyalty … in this life may prove to be a way forward into a wider and more inclusive fellowship in that other life.” Kreeft agrees: “The relationship need not be confined to one in Heaven. Monogamy is for earth. On earth, our bodies are private. In Heaven, we share each other’s secrets without shame and voluntarily. In the Communion of Saints, promiscuity of spirit is a virtue.” On the other hand, he adds: “I think there must be some special ‘kindred souls’ in Heaven that we are designed to feel a special sexual love for.”
In addition to the intimacy of community in Christ, symbolized as the Bride of Christ, the Bible also recognizes an intimacy of individuality in Christ, a very personal and special relationship that each member of the Body has with the Lord. The Good Shepherd calls his sheep by name. In the Revelation which John received (2:17), we read that each faithful believer will be given a “white stone with a new name written on it, a name not understood by anyone except the person who receives it.” Now although as William Barclay says, there have been “almost endless interpretations” of this white stone and new name, what is not in dispute is the fact that, whatever prompted the image, the idea is clear: each believer lives in a special and personal relationship with Christ. George MacDonald imaged it this way: “For each, God has a different response. With every [one] there is a loneliness, an inner chamber of peculiar life into which God only can enter. … [and] There is a chamber also …—a chamber in God Himself, into which none can enter but the one, the individual … out of which chamber that [one] has to bring revelation and strength for his brethren. This is that for which [that person] was made.”
With such a prospect of God’s grace, how can we help but voice the old Dutch saying: “We go laughing to heaven.” Chesterton knew it: “You never laughed in all your life as I shall laugh in death.” Said Barth, even now, “within present reality,” we may enjoy “a liberated laughter that derives from the knowledge of our final position—in spite of appearances to the contrary.”
Have you ever known the rapture of being, as they say, “in love with love?” We lost all sense of time and place in that mixed blessing. But in Love after death, in endless time and space, we, all together, will experience the unmixed rapture of being in love with Love—who is God. Love will be all we ever wanted love to be, and better than we could have imagined, because as Calvin said, the “happiness will far surpass all the means of enjoyment which are now afforded.” Remember C. S. Lewis’ illustration of how impossible it is for little children to figure out the joy of sex. They can conclude only that grown-ups must engage in sex while eating chocolates! Without the ability to fall in love with somebody of the same gender, people don’t know why we fall in love with somebody of our gender. Without likewise being imprinted to her or him even gay people don’t see what we see. Without the ability here and now to experience whatever will replace marriage as we know it we cannot see what we will enjoy. But just you wait! We’ll all be ex-gays for good. The heterosexuals will be ex-straights for good. We’ll all be Jesussexuals. All sex will be safe sex. And we’ll all be in love with each other in the deepest union, embraced together in the loving arms of the long-awaited Other—everlastingly Emmanuel. As Barth said: “God will not be alone in eternity.”
So sex is the best metaphor of heaven. But sex is only a metaphor. Sex, in the here and now, is not immortal intimacy. That gracious gift of God—to know and to be known face to face in Christ—is so far beyond the metaphors of our experience so far. The fullness of immortal intimacy is surprise beyond all imaginings.
It’s important for us to remind ourselves that everlasting life matters today in everyday life. For heaven is not “pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by.” Heaven is our daily bread in the here and now. Christ rose so he could live in us, so in us Christ and Christ’s concern for all of us would live. [Cf. II Cor 5:15] Paul’s words on resurrection conclude, not with idle speculation, but with: “Therefore, my beloved, [in view of the resurrection], be steadfast, immovable in your resolve, always doing even more than your share in the work of the Lord, knowing that what is done for the Lord will not be lost. And now about the collection to aid God’s people.” [I Cor 15:58] And now about the collection to aid God’s people? That’s practical! “The Christian hope of resurrection,” as Bonhoeffer said, “sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.” Richard Baxter wrote his Saints’ Everlasting Rest to energize believers for service in this world. In his Dying Thoughts he wrote: “… if they say, ‘because heaven is all, we must make light of all that befalls us on earth,’ they say amiss. … It is then an error … to think that all religion lies in minding only the life to come, and in disregarding all things in this present life. … Heaven must have our highest esteem, … but earth must have more of our daily thoughts for present practice. A man that travels to the most desirable home, has an habitual desire to it all the way; but his present business is his journey; and therefore, his horses, inns, and company, his roads, and his fatigues may employ more of his thoughts, talk, and action, than his home. … As it is on earth I must do good to others, so it must be in a manner suited to their earthly state. Souls are here closely united to bodies, by which they must receive much good or hurt. Do good to men’s bodies, if thou wouldst do good to their souls. Say not, Things corporeal are worthless trifles, … Dost thou not find what a help it is to thyself, to have at any time any ease and alacrity of body; and what a burden and hindrance pain and cares are? Labour then to free others from such burdens and temptations, and be not regardless of them…. But alas! what power has selfishness in most! How easily do we bear our brethren’s pains and reproaches, wants and affliction in comparison of our own! How few thoughts, and how little cost and labour do we use for their supply, in comparison to what we do for ourselves! Nature indeed teaches us to be sensible of our own case; but grace tells us that we should not make so great a difference as we do, but should love our neighbor as ourselves.”
So let’s not be “so heavenly-minded that we’re no earthly good.” But let’s be heavenly-minded enough that we can live love every day of this pilgrimage and not despair.
The interim may be rocky indeed. ‘ Even Nietzsche understood that “only where graves are, is there resurrection.” As Emil Brunner said, “there is no other avenue into the world of glory except through death.” Vincent van Gogh put it strikingly: “it seems possible,” he wrote, “that cholera, gravel, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age would be to get there on foot.” Plainly put by the patron saint of authors, St. Francis de Sales: “It is in order to be with God that we die.”
That Great Morning begins as all mornings do, hidden in the deep darkness of midnight. And long before we can see any sign of daybreak, we keep watch in the dark, by faith. And then, in a moment, the first glimmer of light twinkles in our eyes and faithing gives way to the face of the Risen Son, and the fresh New Day of immortal intimacy dawns over us all at last, to last. That love of each other and of our Lord which we could never fully enjoy before death, awaits us at home. On that day that catacomb Christians called their “heavenly birthday,” we will whisper the last prayer of Teresa of Avila: “Bridegroom and Lord, the longed-for hour has come! It is time for us to see one another, my Beloved, … It is time for me to set out. Let us go.”