Further Up and Further In

Jul 14, 2012

I was talking to a writer friend the other day who told me she had just finished a manuscript about a lovely older gentleman who, in the course of treatment for a rare medical condition, had a vivid, detailed near-death experience. My friend’s job was to listen to this fellow tell his story and write it up as a book. The manuscript is now in production, and the gentleman—of whom my friend grew very fond—has since gone permanently to his heavenly home.

Naturally hearing about such experiences make us wonder what heaven might really be like. Of course there are cultural commonplaces featuring harps, clouds, white-robed angels, and St. Peter at the pearly gates. The Bible offers a few glimpses: a shining city, a fruit-bearing tree, white-robed martyrs—a whole different thing from angels—and a sort of large lamb on a throne. Not a lot to go on, really, so I suspect we all fill in some personal details when we contemplate the great beyond.

My thirteen-year-old son, for example, seems to think of heaven as a something like Orlando, Florida. The other day he said that the first thing he wants to do in heaven is spend seven years at Hogwarts pretending to be a wizard.

“Really?” I remarked. “The first thing you’ll say to Jesus is: ‘Nice to see you, I’m off to Hogwarts?’”

“Well, I might have a few questions first,” he said.

“Yes, there will probably be an FAQ,” I replied.

And that got me thinking about what most people might want to know and do upon arrival. Of course people would want to see loved ones right away. After the embrace and the orchestral swell, though, how to manage the need for a good long cry and hours of catching up? Perhaps there could be reunion rooms where people could spend some QT with long-missed spouses or parents or children. Sofas, lamps, boxes of kleenex, that sort of thing. Come to think of it, that sounds like a fairly smooth transition from the funeral home.

Then what? Probably a move-in to that heavenly mansion. For some of us, that will include a long, delicious period of redecorating to our heart’s every desire—lots of knotty pine for me—all without long contractor delays or horrifying bills at the end of it.

Then, I’m imagining some serious focus on those agonizing questions we could never answer this side of the veil. Perhaps there will be monthly theodicy seminars with plenary lectures by various philosophical luminaries and breakout sessions for the most troubling categories—infants born with crippling deformities, war refugees, violent crime, the terrible and the tragic. I wonder if we’ll understand, finally, or just find peace with the mystery.

After the tearful reunions, the mansion remodel, and some theodicy seminars, then what? We’ve got eternity to fill, so we’re going to need something to do. Here’s where I’m imagining angelic activities directors coming in to suggest and arrange personalized itineraries for the next few millennia.

Personally, I’m excited for the choir and orchestra rehearsals, the worship services—and sure, I’ll take harp lessons. How about language classes? Latin for everyone, plus any other languages you like. And the library! Oh, now that could keep me busy for thousands of years. I’ll have to pace myself.

How about meeting famous people? There would have to be signups or something, because I bet there’s a long waiting list for Augustine and Martin Luther and Aquinas. In fact, those poor guys would probably wonder if they’re not actually in some other place. Me, I would sign up for Calvin, Augustine, Beethoven, Mary and Philip Sidney, Dvorak, Shakespeare, John Donne, and George Herbert, just for starters. I suppose the big names would have to appear at conferences, just to manage all the fans.

Between conference rounds, I would be curious to meet some ancestors—another popular activity, I’m sure. Having never known any of my grandparents, I bet I would make some immediately interesting discoveries. And for those who might uncover unsavory or embarrassing things about their ancestors, well, no worries: all is forgiven here.

Then there’s the activity category of “stuff I never got to do in life.” For most people this would be art or music or maybe embroidery or scrapbooking. No doubt there would be a busy work area for moms who never did finish those scrapbooks of their kids’ toddler years. Also popular would be sports or dancing, especially for people who had no talent for such things during their earthly run. I, for instance, would like to learn to ride horses—with no risk of breaking my neck, thank you very much.

What about travel? Would people be able to visit a redeemed Paris or Hong Kong? Would that be any fun? A Mount Everest without the peril? Or what about time travel? Could we view the real ancient Rome, complete with gruesome spectacle and horrible decadence? Or would it just be fountains and mosaics?

Well, who knows? My imagination is pretty limited. And I haven’t said anything about judgment or repentance, a topic I take very seriously. I’m not trying to rival Dante or Milton, at least not today.

Maybe I take this freedom to be playful about my eternal destination from C. S. Lewis, who was not afraid to engage in fictional imaginings such as the wonderful conclusion to The Last Battle. Lewis understood perfectly well the philosophical description of heaven as union with Divine Life, but according to our Hope College colleague Peter Schakel, Lewis created fictional depictions of heaven in order to address our human need for more concrete images.

Schakel writes: “[These images] aren’t ‘true,’ but they express Truth. They get across the bliss and beauty that awaits us. They create a longing for what Lewis often refers to as a true home. In Mere Christianity he writes, ‘I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death.’ The stories help awaken and sustain that desire.”

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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