Sketches of Heaven

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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 fable in which a woman is incarcerated.  She’s expecting a child.  Her son arrives and then grows up with her 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 two-dimensional sketches.  He cannot comprehend the fragrance of hyacinths, the roar of breaking waves, or the icy coolness of snowflakes on his skin.  He can discern only the barest outlines of such a world.   

So it is with the way we tend to 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 shades of their former selves.  They are drained of energy, joy, and hope.  The Hebrews of Old Testament times described Sheol (an undefined place synonymous with “the grave”) in similar terms. 

Even contemporary Western civilization has managed to transform heaven into a comparatively boring place.  Can you imagine floating on clouds, strumming harps, and singing Handel’s “Messiah” forever – especially if you’ve always had a fear of flying and aren’t a big fan of Baroque music? 

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 do we get this idea?

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright suggests that trying to perceive the future is like peering into a thick bank of 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 his 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 one day.

But Jesus did something no one else has yet done.  He came back. 

What was Jesus like when he reappeared to his disciples?  He was himself.  His memories, identity, and relationships were intact.  Most importantly, he was whole.  He retained evidence of the wounds he had experienced on Good Friday.  But instead of signifying pain, they now represented God’s victory. 

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, to work, and to experience joy?  Will there be reunions with those we love?  Will our wounds at last be healed?   

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?