By George Clifford
In my teens, I thought some about heaven and decided that I wanted no part of it. Heaven connoted the place that good people, or Christians, or some other select group went when they died. Although I did not think of heaven as a physical place, my thoughts were quite foggy about what people did in heaven. Our cultural stereotype of angelic beings strumming harps in a place evocative of an impressionist painting left me, a non-musician, unimpressed. Whatever enjoyment one might derive from harp playing seemed rather limited. (So much of what I found fun consisted of activities that someone had proscribed, activities not likely allowed in heaven.) Even if one could stretch that enjoyment out for a few million years, what happened when boredom set in? Also, as a high school student during the turbulent 1960s, I had my first exposure to Marx’ critique of religion as the opiate of the masses. Marx, with considerable insight, recognized that capitalists often relied upon the Christian promise of heaven as pie in the sky as an inexpensive way to pacify their exploited workers.
When I began to self-identify as a Christian, I struggled to find a meaningful concept of heaven, believing the idea integral to Christianity. In seminary, those struggles became more intense as I grappled with how to comfort the bereaved. Spatial definitions of heaven never resonated with me. Theological descriptions of a spiritual existence outside of time and space sounded like code words that theologians used when they had no more of an idea about heaven than I did. The prospect of endlessly enjoying God struck me as vaguely analogous to harp playing: no matter how wonderful the experience, after some extended duration – no years with which to measure since heaven existed outside of time – I would probably tire of it. Every joy and pleasure I have ever experienced has waned with the passing of time. The thought of watching an endless sunset from a comfortable chair situated on the porch of a house on a semi-tropical island, sipping the beverage of my choice, surrounded by loved ones, and engaged in stimulating conversation often holds much appeal. However, I know that after about a week of similar moments spent cherishing actual sunsets I am ready to pick up the pace of life and to seek new pleasures.
Gradually, I realized that ideas associated with resuscitation and not resurrection shaped most of my thinking about heaven. Resuscitation restores a dead body to life, as when timely defibrillation, perhaps accompanied by the administration of CPR, restores a heart attack victim to life. In the Bible, we read about the resuscitation of the widow of Nain’s son, of Lazarus, and of a man who fell asleep during a sermon (a symbolic warning more preachers need to heed?). This tendency of humans to think about heaven in terms of resuscitation instead of resurrection did not greatly surprise me. Humans can only think in human, finite terms. We have experience of this life, not of heaven. Consequently, talk of heaven and resurrection generally sounds more like resuscitation than genuine resurrection. Perhaps this is why the resurrected Jesus portrayed in the gospels seems so paradoxical. In those narratives, Thomas touches Jesus but Jesus passes through solid walls; Jesus eats but appears as if out of nowhere. Those paradoxes force us, when honest, to put aside our finite understandings and to acknowledge our inability to say much about resurrection.
Perhaps, at most, we can affirm three truths about resurrection. First, whatever resurrection denotes is dynamic not static. Busy, stressful lives may cause us to yearn for static pleasures. Newton’s first law – every body perseveres in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed – can seem true of humans. There are times when I feel that Onslow, a character in the British TV comedy
As Time Goes By Keeping Up Appearances, seems to lead an idyllic existence, spending his days sleeping late, watching the telly, drinking beer, and playing the horses. No problem is of sufficient urgency or importance to disturb or to interrupt him. For me, Onslow models inertia at least as well as any non-comatose human. Unfortunately for those who long for constancy, quantum physics maintains that Newton’s laws are not completely correct. Stasis is more apparent than real, energy and matter are integrally related, and dynamism permeates the universe. Life itself is constantly changing. The dominant metaphor for what follows resurrection, new life, offers no reason to think the future will be more static than is the present. Because this life is the only life that we know, attempts to describe new life – or heaven – necessarily yield ideas that resemble resuscitation more than authentic new life.
Second, whatever resurrection may denote, resurrection is good. Jesus, the one by whose name I call myself and on whom I try to model my life, experienced resurrection and points us toward resurrection,. This world in which problems seem to outnumber solutions needs hope. The media, and too many preachers, regularly recite depressing litanies of the personal problems and social evils that afflict us. Even more depressing, usually when I manage to extinguish one fire in my life, a new one has already begun to blaze. When I begin to treat some people more justly, I find I am exploiting others. When peacemakers negotiate an end to one war, another war inevitably erupts. When scientists find a cure for one disease, bacteria and viruses morph and new diseases appear. Thank God, the world is dynamic and resurrection gives us a glimpse of a better future.
Finally, resurrection is for today. I still do not know what to think about heaven. I remain uncertain about life after death. I wonder what God's justice and love hold for the future. Occasionally I ponder those questions. More frequently, I contemplate how best to describe resurrection, what human words, what finite concepts, can communicate that ineffable mystery. Daily, however, I live with the knowledge that Jesus’ disciples, hundreds of them according to the scriptural narratives, personally experienced Jesus’ resurrection. Without those disciples, the Church would not exist. Their experience of resurrection means that God has not let go of the world, that God remains engaged with us and the world, committed to establishing justice and to building a community of genuine love. I, belonging to that nascent community experience this same resurrection through the Church, its people and its sacraments as I seek to love mercy, do kindness, and to walk humbly with God. This sure and certain hope forms the trajectory of my life today. Tomorrow belongs to God.
The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, with tours at sea, with the Marine Corps, on the staff of the Chief of Chaplains, on exchange with the Royal Navy in London, as the senior Protestant chaplain at the Naval Academy, and as the senior chaplain at the Naval Postgraduate School. He taught philosophy at the Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School.