Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Being otherworldly

There was a front-page story in The Oregonian on Easter Sunday that could have exploited the superficial and fleeting feelings some people have on the annual observance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s a twitch reflex that even the spiritually anesthetized still experience. Newspapers used to be good at knowing what stories sell, and old habits die hard. In journalism, this type of article is called an “evergreen”—one that is unrelated to current events, so that in principle it will be as good—or bad—a year from now as it is today. It’s not a big surprise to find a newspaper story that’s targeted at Christian sensibilities appearing on Easter.

What intrigued me is that this article happened to be about heaven, and in particular a book about heaven that I’ve read and liked. The author is Randy Alcorn, a former pastor and author of more than 30 books that are popular with evangelicals. Alcorn is about my age, grew up in Gresham (near where I lived as a kid), and takes the idea of an afterlife seriously, as do I. It’s notable when someone with that profile shows up prominently in the mass media, and is portrayed in a positive light.

In my judgment, what we think about heaven makes a big difference in how we live our lives on earth. Alcorn would agree, and he has helped to shape my thinking about the subject. Most Christians, and even people who aren’t so sure about the Easter story, take an afterlife for granted. Unfortunately, their thinking is strongly influenced by popular culture which—let’s face it—is not the best place to find your theology. When you start talking about heaven being a real place with real people walking around with real bodies, you spook people. Just calling whatever happens after we die “heaven” doesn’t do justice to what we’ve already been told about it. If you believe any part of the Bible, then the parts in which it gives glimpses of what God’s new creation will be like are worth taking seriously. The Bible is resplendent in its detail.

Christianity is not a platonic religion that regards material things as mere shadows of reality that we slough off when we die. I am not a dualist, believing that body and soul will separate at death, never to be rejoined. In ways we can’t fully understand, our human bodies matter, and the current creation in which we live matters. And other people matter. These things matter because God made them, and he has a purpose in all that he does. They are to be cared for. Our bodies and our souls will be reunited in God’s new earth. We will talk, eat, work and worship there. It will be a place thrilling beyond our richest imagination.

For what it’s worth, this is orthodox teaching. I’m not making this up. It’s sad to me that some people I know who should revel at the prospect of spending eternity with God—creatively, productively and joyfully—think this idea is crackers. Or they simply refuse to think about it at all. It’s too abstract, too distant, and too “otherworldly”—as if that were a bad thing!

If you’ve ever wanted to read and think about where those who follow Jesus Christ will spend 99.999999% of their existence, why not now? It’s for this reason that I recommend Alcorn’s book and, of course, the sublime source from which he derives his inspiration.

Here’s my favorite quote from the book:

“Make no mistake: if he rose at all it was as His body; if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle, the Church will fail. Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping transcendence; making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages; let us walk through the door.” –-John Updike


Anonymous said...

What was it C.S. Lewis said, when writing about Heaven?

“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

Carl Pelz said...

Peter, your post and the quote make clear sense. We're joined with an infinite, personal, loving God who joins spiritual reality with the physical world, that is, our bodies, space, time, and history. But, I'll keep lookin' to see if there's something I can take issue with!

David said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Peter, I heartily agree. Heaven, the kingdom, new Jerusalem-- labeled pie-in-the-sky by some--but our eternal hope rests in these. I cannot fully comprehend the mystery and glory of the other world, as a Flatlander cannot comprehend the 3rd dimension.

Cam said...

I'm going to either send you a CD on the subject of Heaven that our pastor did many months ago or find the link and send it to you. He agreed, and I agree, so you have a pretty impressive coalition of people on your side of this question! Meghan's problem with the whole matter is not the nature of Heaven as much as the longevity of it. Completely freaks her out; keeps her up at night. Eternity really is a very long time. What shall I say to her about that?