“Can You Imagine?”
C.S. Lewis once imagined what it would be like to grow up in a prison. In a sermon that was ultimately published as “The Weight of Glory”, the British author and theologian crafted a table in which a woman is incarcerated. She’s expecting a child. Her son arrives and then grows up in that dark and limited space.
But she’s an artist and she’s been able to secure pencils and a sketchpad. She draws pictures of the world “out there” doing her best to reveal to her little boy the wonders of forests, rivers, fields and mountains. He dreams of personally experiencing those realities one day.
He knows something of the world beyond the prison bars, but only by means of a three-dimensional sketchpad. He cannot comprehend the fragrance of hyacinths, the roar of breaking waves or the icy coolness of snowflakes on his skin. He can only discern the barest outlines of such a world.
So it is with the way we picture Heaven.
Lewis points out that most cultures historically, have imagined the next world to be far less real than this world. The ancient Greeks pictured Hades, the place of the dead, as a shadowy realm where men and women exist as mere shadows or shapes of their former selves. They are drained of energy, joy and hope. The Hebrews of Old Testament times described Sheol in similar terms.
Even contemporary Western civilization has managed to transform Heaven into a comparatively boring place. Can you imagine floating on clouds, strumming on harps?
There are 1,189 chapters in the Bible. Few of them have anything to say about Heaven. Scripture is surprisingly shy about depicting Paradise.
Where does that leave us? Trying to imagine Heaven by extrapolating from a handful of verses is like attempting to experience the tastes, sounds and colors of a three-dimensional world by studying some pencil lines on a flat sheet of paper.
Here’s what we know. Heaven will not turn out to be less than our present experience. It will be infinitely more. Where did we get this idea?
N.T. scholar, N.T. Wright suggests that trying to perceive the future is like peering into a thick fog. We cannot see what lies ahead. All of a sudden, someone steps out of the fog and greets us. It’s Jesus. This is the meaning of resurrection. A real flesh and blood person, someone who truly died, left this world and entered the next. All of us will take that trip someday.
What was Jesus like when he reappeared to his disciples? He was himself. His memories, identity and relationships were intact. More importantly he was whole.
People may live as if money, status and beauty are supremely important. That means all we have are a few years in this world to attain them.
But humanity’s deepest dreams have always been related to the possibility of a next world. Can anyone survive the grave? Will we still be conscious? Will people retain the capacity to think, work and experience joy? Will there be reunions with those we love?
Right now, all we have are sketches of a reality we cannot possibly comprehend. But followers of Jesus have every reason to believe that the fullness of life doesn’t come to a screeching halt in a cemetery.
What else would you expect from a God who raises the dead?
Ron Naylor, Chaplain