My hands gripped the pew before me so tightly they ached, as if caught in an over-wrought handshake. I drew in quick, sharp breaths. Though I was careful to keep my head still, my eyes darted wildly around the room. This was church, after all. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, but what I was experiencing was terror – or at least panic. My mind had attacked me.
Specifically, a voice had erupted from the back of my thoughts. “You are never, ever, ever going to end.” I was ten years old.
“You’re going to go on forever!” I had been skipping children’s church to sit with my parents due to some mix of social anxiety and a burgeoning love for adult preaching.
“You’re never not going to be anything but Gary.” This was the third Sunday in four weeks this had happened. It was probably a deep psychological issue.
But it isn’t just me. The more the topic has come up, the less I am convinced that many of us are getting eternity right – or particularly the Christian hope of eternal life. Person after person have confessed to me the fear that the idea of living forever brings up for them. Eternity is scary. Forever is scary. Not dying looms just as large as dying in our fearful imaginations. Hell has been a hot button issue over the last decade, but it seems strange to reject the punishment when we’re not even sure about the rewards. This should not be.
The Bible seems to think that our hope in the beyond ought to give us strength to really live our life now in a radical way. It should be a source of strength. What are we missing?
Not everybody’s brain attacks them in the middle of service. Sometimes, their fellow parishioners do. My friend Alex, as a young man, asked an old woman in his dying Presbyterian church what heaven was like, only to be told “It’s like this, but forever and ever.” That is genuinely terrifying. Before we get into the depths of Christian doctrine, we need to admit that we rarely get into the depths of Christian doctrine. We’re wrestling first with cultural assumptions and personal fears. I hadn’t yet articulated at the time of my experience that I wasn’t exactly happy being Gary, and that I needed a healthy dollop of God’s love and grace before I was going to look forward to remaining myself.
If you’re wondering where we get our assumptions about the afterlife, read Paradise Lost. It is the guiding epic of western society. It has saturated our culture to the point that you don’t have to work through the hundreds of pages of tight, beautiful poetry (newly-minted demons streaming out of heaven like bright autumn leaves on their descent into the gloomy pit is just one image that you might have trouble getting out of your head) to really have read it. If you have a picture of the supernatural world that you can’t pin to a Bible passage, you almost definitely inherited it from John Milton.
What struck me when I first read through the book was the juxtaposition of heavenly and earthly glory. Milton’s heaven is all golden light, white robes, armored angels, harps and trumps – a beatific stasis of eternal perfection, immovable as the stars. You know, heaven. His earth is another story. Thus begins book 5:
Now Morn, her rosy steps in the eastern clime
Advancing, sowed the earth with orient pearl,…
What follows is an apprehension not just of natural beauty but also human love. It is sublime, heavenly in its own earthly way.
My fairest, my espoused, my latest found,
Heaven’s last best gift, my ever new delight!
First, this is just romantic. But reading these passages in tandem makes me realize something: I feel made for earth. Experiencing Paradise Lost cements that. I get emotional reading these passages. I am alive reading these passages. I feel a longing in my heart, from a place deep within that is not always awake, to be there in Eden. Not so with heaven – in fact, it seems forbidden to do so.
Milton takes great care during his depiction of the fall to emphasize how the heavenly denizens were, while concerned for the tragedies emerging on our planet, still suspended in perfect peace. It would be unloving not to care, but it would be impossible in God’s presence to really feel negative emotions. This is heaven, right? No suffering allowed. And perfect joy as a constant state, without the possibility of sadness, loses some of its heft.
Milton may be right, but it is a difficult paradox to resolve even poetically. In the end his heaven – and ours, for most of us English folk – is all well and good, but it is made for the angels and for God. We were made from the earth and we belong to the earth, and that is perfect in its own way.
Well, it’s perfect until it isn’t. The beauty of earth captured so ably by Milton still exists, and it speaks to us because we witness the same from time to time; however, it does so alongside great pain, corruption, danger, and hatred. Sin and death, in other words. It exists alongside ten year old boys who resent their very existence. It exists along a whole human race so alienated from life that they rarely witness its beauty at all. The possibility of an earthly paradise seems to most of us theoretical at best.
A Theology of Resurrection
Of course, just because I feel something shouldn’t be the case doesn’t mean that it isn’t. Moreover, as a Christian I believe in the power of submitting my will to God as best I know how and in that processing discovering why His will was perfect the whole time. If heaven is good enough for God, it’s good enough for me.
So let’s get into scripture, specifically into a bit of scripture that i’ve never heard addressed from a pulpit in its fullness: 1 Corinthians 15.
The text is, admittedly, complicated and difficult to follow at points. It is no wonder the only coverage of this I’ve heard are citing “Bad company corrupts good character” and vague paraphrases of vs. 19 “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied”.
Paul sets the stage in the first two verses, reminding the reader that all that follows is part of the Gospel message, inseparable from the story of Jesus’ incarnation and death. The Corinthians, it seems, have stopped caring about the afterlife. We know from the larger letter that they like their crazy fellowship, their spiritual powers, their version of freedom from law – that’s enough benefit for them in terms of being Jesus people. Paul’s not having any of it.
The Resurrection of Jesus is many things. It’s a vindication of Jesus’ innocence – God refusing to let him face eternal punishment after living a righteous life and being unjustly murdered for doing so. It’s a miraculous sign that reminds us of God’s power and sovereignty over even death. It’s the definitive declaration that Jesus’ suffering on the cross for our sins took, that it worked. It’s heaven proclaiming agreement that Jesus was who he said he was all along. If he was just a perceptive moral teacher with delusions of divine grandeur, dead was going to mean dead.
This is all standard Christian doctrine, though we may disagree about the phrasing. But about halfway through Paul starts pushing deeper in response to apparent questioning: “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’” (1 Cor. 15:35 NIV) Turns out, some of the Corinthians share our concerns about the hereafter. What does it mean that the dead are raised? How does that work exactly? It’s like a seed that “dies” in the ground and becomes a flower, or maybe a caterpillar that gelatinizes inside a cocoon. Verse 51 says it the most clearly: we will be changed. Transformed.
This is the detail we sometimes leave forget. The Christian hope of resurrection is a hope in God’s power to transform us into something eternal, not to hold us in suspended animation. It’s a hope in transformation, not perpetuity.
We will all be changed. Paul says it twice. He also coins this a mystery: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51 NIV) Mystery in the Bible isn’t used to describe something above the paygrade of our understanding. Quite the opposite, they are promises that we will definitely understand, but only in the time of their fulfillment.
Transformation is the newcomer to this list, and we haven’t reached its fulfillment yet. For now, as vs. 47 reminds us, we are “of the dust of the earth”. We belong here. But Jesus is a concrete example of how that’s going to change. Jesus became a man, and He’s still a man. But He’s a new sort of man, one who can eat a fish but also seemingly disappear and reappear at will. He is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven but who is also present with each of us individually, really present. And according to Paul, whatever happened to Him is what God has in store for us. What exactly does this entail? For now, it’s a mystery.
In fact, it’s a mystery couched inside a greater mystery: a whole new heavens and new earth, a great re-forging of everything. 2 Peter 2 and Revelation 21 speak plainly about this mystery, and yet we are left with the same dilemma: We have only a shape, an image, of what that will look like in practice. But this is what it means that Jesus defeats death, as Paul reminds us was prophesied as far back as Isaiah and Hosea the prophets. He brings with His victory a new creation, of which He is the first. The new creation is immortal, not of this world. That’s the bittersweet part: we’re not going to belong to this world anymore. To material reality as we understand it. And time – as it exists and as we perceive it – is built into the framework of material reality. So it’s all up in air at this point. But we have good reason to be optimistic – in fact, we have real hope. God has promised in mysteries before, and in their revealing it’s always been better than we could have hoped.
So for all of us wary of heaven’s joys, rest easy. The future vision of Christianity isn’t “This, but forever”. It’s something new, something different. Somewhere we belong that isn’t saturated in wrongdoing and death. Somewhere God is but that we’re also made for. In the meantime, Paul and Jesus both encourage us to remember to really invest in the things we have that do last forever. That is, faith, hope, love, and the spirits of people around us. And the greatest of these is love.
Gary Benton is an M.Div Graduate from Ashland Theological Seminary, and an essayist, poet, chaplain, and novelist. He lives with his wife Amanda and son Taran in Urbana, OH. You can read more of his work at godofeveryone.com.