I’ve recently had Clem Snide’s latest album, Forever Just Beyond (2020), on repeat. Snide, the nom de band of Jewish-American songwriter Eef Barzelay, collaborates on the album with Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers to produce an understated, folky contemplation of life’s most significant questions: life, love, death, the afterlife, and God himself.
The lead track on the album, “Roger Ebert,” is especially arresting. The inspiration for the lyrics is taken from Robert Ebert’s dying words as recounted by the late-film critic’s wife, Chaz, in a letter written to her. As the song puts it:
Did you know these were Roger Ebert’s dying words?
It’s all an elaborate hoax
It’s all an elaborate hoax
There is a vastness that can’t be contained
Or described as a thought in the flesh of our brain
It’s everything, everywhere, future and past
Dissolving forever in an eternal flash.
Here is the account of Chaz Ebert, Roger Ebert’s widow, that inspired the song:
The one thing people might be surprised about—Roger said that he didn’t know if he could believe in God. He had his doubts. But toward the end, something really interesting happened. That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note: “This is all an elaborate hoax.” I asked him, “What’s a hoax?” And he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was just confused. But he was not confused. He wasn’t visiting heaven, not the way we think of heaven. He described it as a vastness that you can’t even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.
Now, from a Christian perspective, this way of describing whatever it was that Ebert experienced isn’t quite right. The material world is actually not an elaborate hoax. It is instead “the theater of God’s glory,” as Calvin put it—the spatio-temporal product of God’s eternally willed act of love, the object of God’s providential care, and the locus of God’s eschatological purposes. The Christian hope is not some gnostic flight from this world to heaven but the descent of heaven to earth at the resurrection of the just.
Still, there is some truth in Ebert’s (and Barzelay’s) observation: the world in its present fallen state is, in some sense, a shadow of something more real, more permanent, more heavenly. The book of Hebrews is especially concerned with this shadow-reality distinction. “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb 13:14). In their earthly pilgrimage, the people of God “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16). We await the day when the earth and heavens will be shaken so that only the unshakable remains and we will receive “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb 12:28). The earthly tabernacle/temple, the place where the Lord’s shekinah glory dwelled, was simply “a copy and a shadow of the heavenly things.”
As Moses was instructed on Mount Sinai, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain” (Heb 8:5). Scholars debate the extent to which the writer of Hebrews was influenced by Platonic thought on these things, but a close examination of these texts demonstrates that the dichotomy he has in view is not between the material and the spiritual but between the earthly and the heavenly and, when placed on a horizontal axis, between the now and the not yet.
In the biblical reckoning, heaven is a real place, even if it lies “outside” our spatio-temporal universe on some other plane of existence. In other words, you can’t get there in a spaceship. The only vehicle that can access it is death. But heaven is a real place because God lives there; that is, it is the place where God, though he is omnipresent, uniquely manifests his glory. Heaven is a real place because the crucified and risen Christ is there and from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. Heaven is a real place because immaterial angels and human souls live there. To be sure, immaterial beings don’t occupy space but they can be in a particular place in that their causal powers are operative there. In short, heaven is a place more real, more substantive, and more permanent than the corrupted earth on which we now trod.
So, maybe Ebert was right: when confronted with the permanence of the “heavenly things”—things that transcend our notions of space and time, past, present, and future—one might be excused for thinking that this world is all an elaborate hoax. Still, the great Christian hope is not the eradication of earth but its irradiation with heavenly glory (Rev 21:1-2, 22-23). The “heavens will be set on fire and dissolved” not to annihilate them but to purify them for the coming regeneration (2 Pet 3:12-13).
All of this made me think of the story that was recently in the news about a hiker who was resuscitated through CPR and medical machinery after being dead for about 45 minutes. I’d love to hear what if anything he experienced during this time. Humans are naturally fascinated by these near-death and back-from-death experiences. If death is the membrane, so to speak, that separates earth and heaven, then why wouldn’t we be? Death is shrouded in the deepest of mysteries; it is the veil that separates humanity from the blinding presence of God.
Death is for many of us a terrifying prospect. The old trope about “death and taxes” too thinly veils our gnawing anxiety about the end of life. We know death is universal. We know it’s inevitable. We know it’s barreling down on us like a train. We know we will eventually receive that heart-sinking, late-night phone call. We know we will eventually hear that dreaded diagnosis. We know we will one day close our eyes and face the cold silence of that final journey that can only be taken alone. We know we can’t stop it, but we spend most of our time and resources and energy trying to put it out of mind, trying to push it just a little further out of reach. We are all like Antonius Block—the protagonist, brilliantly portrayed by the late Max von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman’s chilling 1957 film, The Seventh Seal—playing chess with Death, valiantly but hopelessly trying to delay the inevitable by our own wits. But death can’t be outwitted. It has already checkmated us. Our only hope for victory lies on the far side of defeat. In short, our only hope is not a resolution in our favor but a resurrection on our behalf.
Which brings me back to the story of the hiker brought back from the dead. One of the nurses who helped to resuscitate the man told the local paper about the ordeal, “It was just really special to see someone that we had worked so hard on from start to finish to then wake up that dramatically and that impressively.” And so it is with us. Death leaves us helpless and motionless and lying on our backs, utterly dependent upon Another to do the hard work—from start to finish—to wake us up. There is, indeed, an elaborate hoax afoot, but as it turns out, it’s not the world we see around us; it’s the enemy of death that threatens to bring it to ruin. But thankfully, the fraud of death has been exposed and on the other side: a vastness you can’t even imagine.