Right now I'm reading Randy Alcorn's Heaven, a popular Christian book about the life to come. Unlike many such popular books, Alcorn's has a bit more thoughtfulness and depth--and cannot be dismissed easily by us snooty theological types. I'm only about eight chapters into the book, but already its effects on me are significant: he's getting me to exercise what I hope is sanctified imagination--helping me to reflect more about our future hope. Interestingly, this doesn't seem to promote in me a form of pious denial of the complexities and suffering in this world, but rather it inspires me to a deeper and more profound engagement in this world, motivated and strengthened by an emergent hope in the world to come. Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis: if I fix my gaze only on this world I'm usually frustrated and disappointed; but if I fix my gaze on the next world, I'm freed up to engage, enjoy, and serve this current world, while not mistaking it for the world to come. Put succinctly: if you and I aim at this world alone, we'll miss it; but if we aim at the world to come, we'll get this world thrown in.
Alcorn's big points so far seem to be:
1) In the Bible, "Heaven" actually describes two states and stages: first, the intermediate state, into which believers in Jesus enter upon their death; and, secondly, the final state, which believers enjoy after Christ's Second Coming and Judgment Day. This second state is more aptly described as "the new heaven and the new earth" (Revelation 21);
2) Heaven, especially this second aspect or state, has physical attributes and cannot be wholly spiritualized (as the Platonic tradition has tempted us Christians to do). All that we enjoy in this world, those vestiges and remnants of original goodness which are not altogether obscured by sin, death, and evil, are reliable pointers to their ultimate fulfillment in the world to come.
Point #1 involves two truths, which we often wrongly combine simultaneously: 1) upon their deaths, Christians do indeed "go to be with Jesus" (see Philippians 1:23), but 2) this is not their final state, for their bodies have not yet been raised and the new Creation has not been spoken into being by the One who makes all things new. We can confidently maintain that death ushers us out of the pain and strife of this life and into the restful presence of Jesus (see 2 Corinthians 5:8). There, conscious of his love, we await the end of history as we know it, when he returns to earth, all bodies are raised, reunited with their souls and judged, and the final state for all is determined.
Point #2 sharpens my appetite for the afterlife. It also lights a fire beneath my soggy imagination. I want to extrapolate: if I enjoy certain good things now, how much better will they be later? Think of it: what would it be like to live in a body which didn't age, get injured, sick, or die? What would it be like to relate to people purely, freely, and in love? What would it be like to not awake daily to reports of bodycounts, abductions, starvation, disease, and natural disasters? What would it be like to walk in woods and next to streams untrammeled by pollution? What would it be like to relate to people from other cultures and races with mutual respect and admiration, untainted by suspicion, prejudice, and fear? What would it be like to amble through life with a light step, unburdened by guilt, shame, and regret? It would be like heaven; that's what it would be like.
"We are homesick for Eden," writes Alcorn, for that prehistoric state of grace and peace, which characterizes true human life--and the life to come. A beautiful piece of music, a moment of delicious joy at a spectacular sunset, a lovely interlude with someone we care about--these are whispers of the world to come. Do we have ears to hear? Are our hearts awake? Do our imaginations stir?