Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Afterlife (Part III)

I have been writing about the Christian understanding of the afterlife, with its four primary dimensions: Christ’s second coming, the resurrection of the dead, judgment, and the end of the present world order. Today I want to talk about heaven, mindful of the great British preacher Charles Spurgeon’s words: “When you talk about heaven, let your face radiate great joy and happiness; when you talk about hell, well, then your everyday face will do.”

So I am smiling as I write this but I must confess to you that in my twenty-two years as a Christian I have had a remarkable lack of curiosity about heaven. Part of the reason for this, no doubt, is my relative youth and good health. But another reason is that I have always felt strongly that the joys and benefits of walking with Christ are so profound now, in this life, that heaven has not held a fascination for me. I believe God wants this life to be far more than a weary holding action until we can experience the joy of heaven. Jesus speaks in this regard of “abundant life” (John 10:10).

And please note that an awareness and anticipation of heaven (one dimension of Christian “hope”) is not an escape from the reality of this life but an enhancement of it. As the great British apologist (what is it with me and the British?!) C.S. Lewis noted, “A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”

At any rate, I talked last time about the Christian understanding of salvation, which is that we are saved by God’s grace working through our faith in the sufficiency of what Christ has done for us on the Cross. Note that a key tenet of this understanding is that salvation begins in this life through our repentance (turning from our old life), baptism (uniting with Jesus in his death and resurrection), and subsequent life of discipleship with him. In Ephesians 1:13-14 Paul describes the Holy Spirit as the “pledge of our inheritance” of the full presence of God we will experience in heaven. Indeed, the aspect of heaven that captures my imagination is that it is a continuation of the salvation we experience in this life but with more power and vividness.

In his classic book The Great Divorce, Lewis attempts to capture this power and vividness:
The cool smooth skin of the bright water was delicious to my feet and I walked on it for about an hour, making perhaps a couple of hundred yards. … Hours later I rounded a bend… Before me green slopes made a wide amphitheatre, enclosing a frothy and pulsating lake into which, over many-colored rocks, a water-fall was pouring. Here once again I realized that something had happened to my senses so that they were now receiving impressions which would normally exceed their capacity. … I exulted. The noise, though gigantic, was like giant’s laughter: like the revelry of a whole college of giants together laughing, dancing, singing, roaring at their high works.

He later speaks of “the waterfall that poured with loud joy.” What a wonderful image.

I’ll talk more about heaven (and of course hell) in future weeks. Keep that joy on your face.


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