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A Heavenly Embarrassment

December 6, 2011

I wonder what comes into your mind when someone starts talking to you about Heaven. Do you think of clouds and harps with pearly gates? Do you think of being reunited with old members of your family and dead pets? Or have you dismissed such thoughts as mythical nonsense?

I have a slight confession to make. Even though I have been a Christian for a long time, when I find myself talking about Heaven I get a little bit awkward and kind of embarrassed. Why am I so embarrassed by something so important to the Christian faith?

I wonder if anyone else can relate to this feeling? I reckon the reason I get awkward when thinking about Heaven is because I am so used to suffering and injustice taking place in this world that the thought of Heaven seems a little too good to be true. Imagining a place where there is no more death, no more mourning, pain or tears (revelation 21 v 4) just seems a little fake doesn’t it? How could that be true?

I do still believe in Heaven but when I try to quantify or explain what I believe it to be I struggle. The reason for this struggle, so I’ve been told, is that I have never experienced anything like Heaven. It literally exists outside of my experience. Now this argument does seem like something of a cop out, but then again it is also totally consistent. Heaven is outside of my experience.

Despite this, Heaven remains a hot topic; it seems I can’t make it through a commercial break without hearing someone talk about Heaven, although it’s not the Heaven that I have learnt about. Its Galaxy chocolate Heaven or a Hawaii holiday Heaven or even an X Factor contract Heaven.

Then the other day I was reading through a CS Lewis classic, a book entitled ‘The Weight of Glory’. Now most of you, even if you haven’t heard of CS Lewis, will know of his work, he is the author of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, but he’s responsible for so much more. I love the way he writes about God.

CS Lewis has taught me that very often our definition of Heaven rests solely on what it isn’t. We can say that Heaven won’t be a place for flesh and blood. We can say that it won’t be a place where suffering takes place. We can say that it won’t be the same as life here on earth. So what will it be like? We call it spiritual and in our heads we imagine a world less real. We picture a hazy world of dream like reality.

CS Lewis says the following:

“If flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom (heaven), that is not because they are too solid, too gross, too distinct, too “illustrious with being.” They are too flimsy, too transitory, too phantasmal.”

We think of Heaven like it’s less than but it’s actually more than.

The truth is that Heaven is actually much more real than earth could ever be. The problem is often the constructs we use to define Heaven ends up limiting our ability to understand it and see its reality.

In this book CS Lewis writes a chapter entitled ‘Transposition’, and whilst talking about the understanding of Heaven he gives the following analogy:

“Let us construct a fable. Let us picture a woman thrown into a dungeon. There she bears and rears a son. He grows up seeing nothing but the dungeon walls, the straw on the floor, and a little patch of the sky seen through the grating, which is too high up to show anything except sky. This unfortunate woman was an artist, and when they imprisoned her she managed to bring with her a drawing pad and a box of pencils. As she never loses the hope of deliverance, she is constantly teaching her son about that outer world which he has never seen. She does it very largely by drawing him pictures. With her pencil she attempts to show him what fields, rivers, mountains, cities and waves on a beach are like. He is a dutiful boy and he does his best to believe her when she tells him that that outer world is far more interesting and glorious than anything in the dungeon. At times he succeeds. On the whole he gets on tolerably well until, one day, he says something that gives his mother pause. For a minute or two they are at cross-purposes. Finally it dawns on her that he has, all these years, lived under a misconception. “But,” she gasps, “you didn’t think that the real world was full of lines drawn in lead pencil?” “What?” says the boy. “No pencil marks there?” And instantly his whole notion of the outer world becomes a blank. For the lines, by which alone he was imagining it, have now been denied of it. He has no idea of that which will exclude and dispense with the lines, that of which the lines were merely a transposition – the waving treetops, the light dancing on the weir, the coloured three-dimensional realities which are not enclosed in lines but define their own shapes at every moment with a delicacy and multiplicity which no drawing could ever achieve. The child will get the idea that the real world is somehow less visible than his mother’s pictures. In reality it lacks lines because it is incomparably more visible.”

My conclusion is that I have cringed at conversations involving Heaven because I have been too cowardly to raise my expectations? I am learning to treasure Christ; I have tasted and seen that He is good. Why then am I so surprised that Heaven will be more than fully satisfying? After all it will be full of Christ!

There will no doubt be two reactions to this blog; those who don’t know Christ will dismiss this as pipe dreams and religious, mythical chitchat. Those of you who know Christ will almost certainly have a growing sense of excitement in the pit of your belly. That’s because one day you will stand in that awesome place that, as 1 Corinthians chapter 2 says ‘no heart can imagine’, the place that the bible calls ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’, one day you will be home.

I think it’s totally appropriate that we remind ourselves daily of where we’re heading. The bible reminds us that we are passing through this place and that our citizenship is in Heaven. We crave it everyday we just don’t realise it. All our longings for beauty, all our desires for satisfaction will be fully met and then some in the ever-glorious presence of our master and saviour Jesus.

As I finish this, my first proper blog, I thought it would be worth while to remember that whilst we can get very excited about Heaven and Jesus we can’t expect others to feel the same.

CS Lewis alludes to another analogy that I want to finish with. He talks about a pianist playing on his piano a piece of music originally meant for an orchestra. A friend of his, who has no understanding of what an orchestra is, tells his friend how beautiful that piece of music is. The friend replies, “You have no idea!”

  1. I think one reason why heaven is so embarassing or intangible is because we’ve replaced a Biblical notion of the afterlife with a greek or medieval one.

    Heaven as an immaterial dwelling place for the soul is, on the Biblical view, only the intermediate state prior to the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the age. Heaven ultimately is to meet earth in the new creation. We are to have glorified physical bodies in a redeemed physical creation, not to wander around some abstract spiritual realm (we must be careful how we read the phrase “flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom” – flesh and blood was a Jewish phrase for the frail mortal nature, and not for physical flesh generally).

    We do well to recapture the Biblical doctrine of the resurrection.

    • Wahoo the first comment!! Thanks Martin. A very helpful comment too. So is your view that once creation is redeemed it will be very similar to our experience of earth now except without sin and its consequences?

  2. It will be similar enough for it to be recognisable as this same creation, yes. But there will also be discontinuities too. Not just the absence of sin, but the positive experience of glorified immortal bodies, and of course, the tangible presence of God.

    Of course, I’d want to stress that this isn’t just my view, but the traditional orthodox one 😉

    • I would also like to stress that I agree with this traditional view. However I also think that whilst it will be similar enough to be recognisable it will be so vastly different to what we are able to currently conceive. That’s why the bible is able to talk about Heaven as a place that ‘no heart can imagine’. It will be like someone who exists in 2D black and white transitioning to life in 3D multi-colour. Our redeemed immortal bodies and the tangible presence of God being far more than just a positive experience. In fact the presence of God will make all the difference. This is a fun discussion – I need more people to subscribe to this blog so they can join in too.

  3. Yeah I think I agree with you on all that. I wouldn’t want to “downsize” the glory of it =)

  4. (I meant “positive” experience as in the presence of something good, rather than just the lack of something bad. The contrast between positive/negative in the same sense as the contrast between offensive/defensive apologetics. Defensive apologetics merely defends against objections to Christianity, whereas offensive apologetics actuallys puts a case for Christianity forward. So similarly I was saying that I didn’t want to characterise heaven by what it lacks, but by what it has :))

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