Heaven: Careful What You Wish For

By Terry Hulsey

Isn't it amazing? Millions of Christians profess that they will enjoy everlasting life, and yet there is nothing — nothing, an absolute vacuum — among contemporaries that details this supposedly everlasting world. On this fact alone it seems fair to raise a suspicion of the sincerity of their belief.


More specifically for Christians, why do so few of them refer to the Resurrection in a meaningful way? In spite of the fact that the Resurrection of Christ is the heart of what Christians believe, it is astonishing how little they understand it. Most Christians look upon their faith as the guarantor of their immortality. But the promise of immortality is nothing new; most faiths offer that hope. The fact that is an absolutely watershed idea in all human history, rending it apart, is the Christian hope of a resurrected body. And the idea is just as hard to comprehend today as it was when first proposed over two millennia ago.


When the apostle Paul tried to explain this idea to the Athenians, who in general were open to anything, they were baffled, and they called him a “babbler” (σπερμολόγος, in Acts 17:18). What is this? Doesn't everyone know that the dead stay dead? All right, say that a disembodied spirit goes to an everlasting world — that we can understand. Indeed, for a philosophical understanding of this dualist or Platonist view “there is no problem here for the general hypothesis of survival as an immaterial soul.” But to insist on the restoration of your corpse to immortality — this is something entirely new and difficult to understand.


Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins is a series of 16 novels that focus on the Rapture, that supposed moment at the end of time when those still living are snatched from the earth by a judging God, which is the beginning of a period of Tribulation when God punishes the world. But in spite of selling over 65 million copies, it manages to say nothing significant about either the resurrection or the afterlife. The series is in fact a giant Christian disaster movie, more closely related to Titanic, Independence Day, or 2012, than to the central message of the Christian faith.


You might expect better from a more highbrow source on this topic, C.S. Lewis. But in his book Mere Christianity, which is his statement of the minimal common beliefs shared by all Christians, the word “resurrection” appears not once.


This is not to suggest in any way that LaHaye, Jenkins, or Lewis doubt or intentionally slight the Resurrection. But the judgment and damnation of human impurity, and above all, the dualistic view of the human being as a ghost in an “overcoat of clay” are ideas far easier to understand, and come almost automatically to us.


Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) mocked this overemphasis on purity and ethics at the expense of the message of the Resurrection in his most famous work, The Tragic Sense of Life:

[I]t has been necessary, for the benefit of the social order, to convert religion into a kind of police system, and hence hell. [...] The most authentic Catholic ethic, monastic asceticism, is an ethic of eschatology, directed to the salvation of the individual soul rather than to the maintenance of society. And in the cult of virginity may there not perhaps be a certain obscure idea that to perpetuate ourselves in others hinders our own personal perpetuation? The ascetic morality is a negative morality. (p71)


A new and controversial book that restores the emphasis upon the Resurrection has been written by a New Testament scholar in the Church of England, N.T. Wright, entitled Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Wright forcefully rejects the “ghost in an overcoat of clay” dualism that in his view is the inevitable result of minimizing the central event of Christianity. He scorns the notion of disembodied spirits wafting up to heaven at the moment of death:

[I]t is not we who go to heaven, it is heaven that comes to earth; indeed, it is the church itself, the heavenly Jerusalem, that comes down to earth. (p104)


ABC News provides an excellent interview of N.T. Wright, including his explanation of why the Left Behind “beam-me-up view” of Christianity, and the Rapture in general, are misunderstandings (p121 in his book).


What happens between death and resurrection?

While walking the Freedom Trail along Boston Common decades ago, I remember stopping, I think, at the Park Street (Congregational) Church where I found a copy of the sermon — oddly titled, I supposed then — I Believe in Death. The sermon was an attempt to answer a child's questions about death. I remember most of all the conclusion, which said that yes, Christians do go to heaven after death, but not for a long, long time.


If you are a Christian, you must affirm Christ's Resurrection, and thereby, your own resurrection; and if you affirm resurrection, you are immediately faced with a very problematic question: What happens between death and resurrection?


If there is life after death, then the physical remains cannot be you. Call this somehow still-living thing a “first-person perspective” if you like. Whatever you call it, it is not the thing that is burned or buried. The problem is that somehow these once united things must be kept apart as separate identities, but then much later be reunited as a single identity. The quandary is well expressed by the desperate suggestion of philosopher Peter van Inwagen:

Perhaps at the moment of each man's death, God removes his corpse and replaces it with a simulacrum which is what is burned or rots. Or perhaps God is not quite so wholesale as this: perhaps He removes for ‘safekeeping’ only the ‘core person’ — the brain and central nervous system — or even some special part of it. (quoted in Paul Edwards, Immortality, p246)


Things were very much simpler in the old days. Gregory the Great (540-604) taught that “the dead Christian enjoys the beatific vision while still awaiting the resurrection of the body” (quoted in Wright, p158).


Until the Reformation of the sixteenth century, all of Christendom believed in three divisions of the church: the Church Militant (Christians still living), the Church Triumphant (saints in heaven), and the Church Expectant (those in purgatory). Today even most Catholics (including the current Pope Benedict XVI, says Wright, p167) are embarrassed by the notion of purgatory. N.T. Wright himself, who might have been suspected of harboring a belief in it, delivers a vicious aside to those who do: They “ought to see not a theologian but a therapist.” (p170) In the contemporary Christian world, the Protestant dualism of Church Militant and Church Triumphant — and the de-emphasis on the resurrection which that implies — reigns supreme.


The astonishingly unasked question

Believers are willing to give those who pretend to knowledge of the hereafter great influence over their brief earthly happiness, wagering that their everlasting happiness might thereby be assured. This observation should make it clear, contrary to Pascal, that this is definitely not a cost-free wager. Wouldn't you want a glimpse of what you're getting yourself into? But astonishingly, the question is almost never raised: What will heaven be like?

Some Christians contend that there should be no prying into matters that are unknowable (1 Corinthians 2:9). But as Aquinas wrote, even “the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.” (Summa, Part 1, Question 1, Article 5) Furthermore, many answers are plainly provided in the Bible, and these we reference below.


What will the new world itself be like?

 • The clichéd vision is half-right on one score: There will be harpists (Revelation 14:2) — but only those taken directly from life at the end of time will be playing (Revelation 14:3).

 • The new earth will have no sea (Revelation 21:1).

 • There will be no sun or moon (Revelation 21:23).

 • Nevertheless, there will be perpetual day (Revelation 21:25), with the single light source emanating from God himself (Revelation 22:5).

 • Life will center in the city of New Jerusalem, an enormous cube 1500 miles on each side and made of gold and the most precious gems (Revelation 21:16-21).


What will the new man in heaven be like?

 • Each person in heaven will receive a new name, handed to him inscribed on a white stone, although nobody will be able to use it (Revelation 2:17).

 • Believers will receive a new body (Philippians 3:21), although its age or capacity is uncertain (1 Corinthians 15:42-44), and the new body can be touched and sensed (Matthew 28:9, John 20:27). (Christ's admonition to Mary not to touch him is likely a mistranslation, where he meant “don't cling” instead of “don't touch.”)

According to Hugh of St. Victor, the resurrected body will be “around thirty years old” because — and “because” may be a stretch here — Christ entered his ministry at this age (Wright, p158). But whatever its age, the new body will still have scars (John 20:27), though painless (Revelation 21:4), supposedly worn as a badge of triumph over those infirmities, with transformed capacities.

 • The risen, glorified bodies will eat, just as the resurrected Jesus ate fish and bread with the Apostles (Luke 24:41-3), although they will have no appetite (Revelation 7:16).

 • There shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain (Revelation 21:4, Revelation 7:17). John Milton says that Adam and Eve indulged in sufficient light “gardning labour” (Paradise Lost, Book 4) to recommend them to their food and rest, but in heaven apparently there is no effort, even as a sport or a foil to sharpen the experience of bliss.

N.T. Wright in a way anticipates the problem of idleness, and in fact his entire book is an offered solution. He says that the renewed creation will be assisted by the resurrected believers who go “out in new ways, to accomplish new creative tasks” (pp105-6) although he doesn't say what these tasks might be, or why they would be necessary in the economy of heaven. (It must be noted that Wright's emphasis on the value and continuity of work is at the very heart of his book. For him the renewal of creation is assisted by work done by believers while still living. He says that “[w]hat you do in the present... will last into God's future” {p193, his own italics}, citing 1 Corinthians 15:58 in support. Even supposing this to be true, I think that some would question the renewing power of working to cancel “the ridiculous and unpayable Third World debt” {p216}.)

  • You will be with, and recognize, your spouse and believer friends, although there will be no marriage in heaven (Matthew 22:30, Luke 20:34-36) and no physical intimacy of an earthly kind. If sexual differences endure at all (Galatians 3:28), likely they will be much different than the earthly kind. Marriage seems to be a preparation for a nonsexual but somehow physical intimacy with God (Hosea 2:16, Revelation 19:7, Matthew 22:37-38). As Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, puts it, in heaven “the ethical goodness of agape [is] joined to the passion of eros,” producing a fire of passion unlike anything on earth. He argues that heavenly love is public and promiscuous among kindred spirits there, but as superior to earthly lovemaking as earthly lovemaking is to eating candy. He cites Augustine's expectation of a “voluptuous torrent” of pleasure in heaven.


Problems with heaven

If life in heaven seems agreeable to you, especially in view of the last enumeration, you might consider a small qualifier: You will be bereft of reason, conscience, free will, and human nature.


No reason

Those in heaven will have full knowledge of God (1 Corinthians 13:12). Without implying that those in heaven will be all-knowing, this new consciousness does clearly imply a non-human kind of intelligence in which all of the strivings of reason, logic, and science are superfluous.


Also, it is impossible to think without language; and no heavenly language is suggested or implied by the Bible. (The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) conducted a horrific experiment to determine whether we have an innate language used before the Fall or in heaven. Starting with a newborn group of orphans, he took assiduous care of them, with one exception: No one was ever permitted to speak a word to them, in the belief that they would speak this innate language themselves. But our presumed pre-worldly language was not proven to be Hebrew, as was expected: The children all died.)


No conscience

Obviously all those who enter heaven have sinned (Romans 3:23), and many of them will have been evil people, since they gain entry not by purity of thought or deed, but by sincerity of belief (Titus 3:5). Nevertheless, it is clearly stated that “[n]othing unclean shall enter [heaven]” (Revelation 21:27) Even if it is conceded that all of the physical inclinations to sin are removed by the resurrected body (e.g., no gluttony, no lust, no greed, etc.), how does that in any way remove the spiritual ones? N.T. Wright seems to suggest that removal of the physical inclinations perforce removes the spiritual ones: “Death itself gets rid of all that is sinful.” (p170) But Christ himself said that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). If the new man is free in heaven, clearly there must be the ability to consider moral alternatives, and any imagined real alternative must detail some evil in contrast to the good.


The worst gulag on earth at least permitted the privacy of one's conscience to remain intact; but in heaven this tiny corner of solace will be laid open to God and possibly other beings, and thereby destroyed. Of course, the reply is: You wouldn't want to have thoughts contrary to God's. Damned straight, you wouldn't: As Peter says, just try it and you will be immediately cast out of heaven into hell (2 Peter 2:4).


With no ability to imagine alternatives and with no privacy there can be no conscience.


No freedom of will

Even if it is conceded that conscience (the ability to consider moral alternatives) exists in heaven, how can there be will (the ability to act upon moral alternatives)? How can there possibly be a world where human beings are free and yet always do what is morally correct? It is argued that in heaven “[w]e will freely choose never to sin, just as now great mathematicians do not make elementary mistakes, though they have the power to do so.” Is this an argument for or against? It should be self-evident that great mathematicians can and do make elementary mistakes: They are human.


Mince words all you like, but I see no difference between a turtle that can't compose a sonnet and a turtle that can compose one but is incapable of entertaining the possibility.


No human nature

In view of the foregoing, it is obvious that those in heaven cannot have a human nature. But what does this prove? After all, heaven promises not more of the same, but a participation in the divine (2 Peter 1:4). Any depiction of what may be is “seen through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), with no proof of what in fact will be.


And in any case, let no one suppose that the church will ever be cornered by a syllogism. When that seems imminent, the church that established one God that is simultaneously triune, the church that established that Christ is both fully God and fully human, has an unanswerable reply: It is a mystery.


What endures everlasting?

“Man cannot live without a continuous confidence in something indestructible within himself.”

So wrote Franz Kafka (Observations on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way, Number 50).


The corollary of the will to live is the desire to attach ourselves to something more permanent than ourselves. Even those who profess no belief have this desire, but they find it more suitably placed in some enduring institution (their family, a charity or corporation that they donate to, or even their own business) or to an abstraction (honor, truth, etc.) that will be remembered by those who follow them. Ask any librarian and he will tell you that his predominant group of patrons is those researching genealogies. Everyone wants to “hitch his wagon to a star.” Those who don't seem somehow less than human.


Like all desires, it admits of extremes. No one any longer wishes to construct a pyramid for himself. Within religion the desire for literal immortality is tempered by our lack of knowledge; outside religion it is an extreme of silliness (like the Soul Catcher nerve cell recorder) or ghoulishness (like cryonics). The desire can have unorthodox expressions such as DNA preservation or memorializing of cremated remains (Eternal Reefs, Memorial Ecosystems, Cremation Fireworks, etc.) but any reasonable desire for something outside our nature must be sublimated.


The reasonable form of this desire reduces immortality to a life in the memory of others. The success of NPR's StoryCorps shows how important is the capture of these otherwise forgotten memories. But what is that? According to Unamuno immortality in the memory of others is “nothing but a fratricidal procession of phantoms, going from nothingness to nothingness, and humanitarianism the most inhuman thing known.” (Tragic Sense of Life, p42) The desire to live in the memory of others may be more significant than Unamuno supposes. But even if it's not, it is much more certain, more under the influence of our will, more immune from religious passion, than any speculative promise.


Unamuno screamed “I do not want to die — no; I neither want to die nor do I want to want to die; I want to live for ever and ever and ever”! (Tragic Sense of Life, p45) And with this he epitomized the “argument from desire.” What passion! — A passion that for him tolerated a single binding solution. — Or was it much like a petulant child stamping his foot at something he cannot have? We should desire to make of ourselves something everlasting, and desire it powerfully; and desire it in accord with a nature that we cannot change.


Your life, your choice in marriage, of friends, and in the work that you do is like a stone cast upon the water of all future time, with ripples sounding beyond your ken. But you have been given self-consciousness alone; just what gives you the inhuman chutzpah to think that everlasting life is guaranteed with the package?