Imagination and Hope
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has
not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears,
we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
1 John 3:2 (New International Version)
“To infinity—and beyond!”
Buzz Lightyear, in Toy Story
What is the content of Christian hope? What happens after we die? What does the New Testament teach about the afterlife? These, and related questions, are the subject of N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope. Part of the “surprise” is that so many Christians seem unaware of what the Bible teaches about the future.
First, and this is of central importance, we will be raised from the dead. We will have “spiritual bodies.” Our bodies will be like Jesus’ resurrected body. Second, the kingdom of God will come to earth. Christians still living will join resurrected Christians to meet Jesus when he comes to rule. (The picture is that of a happy throng welcoming a Roman emperor as he comes into a city.) Third, there will be a righteous reckoning, a judgment, for all human beings. Fourth, our lives now—that is, Christian ethics—ought to reflect values of the coming kingdom. These four ideas form the core of Christian hope, but it takes 300 pages for Wright to explain them, because it takes a lot of work just to distinguish Christian doctrine from Platonic, pantheist, or naturalist views. Wright has to show that these four ideas really are what the New Testament teaches, and that there is good reason to believe them.
Along the way, Wright firmly opposes ideas that have become commonplace among Christians (judging by hymns, sermons, and prayer books); e.g. the Platonist idea that at death our souls leave our polluted bodies behind, the pantheist view that at death the individual consciousness merges with the universal spirit, the naturalist belief that at death the person simply ceases to exist, or the Neo-Platonist notion that the physical world is fundamentally evil, something we should be happy to escape. Many people today, in the church as well as out of it, assume that these ideas are what Christianity teaches. Against these views and others, Wright argues vigorously for the coherence and truth of the four points I listed before.
Why have non-Christian ideas become so prevalent among church people? Partly, of course, because we live in a pluralistic society where people with varying worldviews interact regularly. Partly, Wright suggests, because Christian leaders have done a poor job of teaching Christian doctrine. There are priests, pastors, and bishops who haven’t so much as considered whether the New Testament contains a plausible doctrine of the afterlife, so when it comes to offering hope to parishioners they grasp at whatever comforting notions are available in popular culture. I want to suggest there is another cause as well.
I agree with Wright on the four essentials of Christian hope: resurrection, second coming, judgment, and kingdom ethics. The problem is that those essentials don’t tell us everything we would like. In regard to the resurrection, the apostle John admits plainly: “and what we will be has not yet been made known.” In 1 Corinthians 15—the most detailed passage in the New Testament about the resurrection—Paul isn’t much clearer. Paul insists that the resurrection will happen, but then he says, “it is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” Naturally, we all want to know what a “spiritual body” is. Paul answers with an analogy: a seed of grain dies to become a plant. He talks about different kinds of body and different kinds of “splendor.” And he concludes: “the dead will be raised and we will be changed.”
For two thousand years, curious minds have asked: how shall we be changed? What will that change be like? And after the change, then what? The honest New Testament answer has to be, “What we will be has not yet been made known.”
Enter the Christian philosopher. I don’t mean Thomas Aquinas specifically, and I am not mocking. The Christian “philosopher” has something right. He says, “Look. Scripture does not tell us all we would like to know, for good reason! The very next verse (1 John 3:3) says, ‘We will be like him, because we will see him as he is.’ The fact of the matter is that our existence in heaven is unimaginable to us. God cannot tell us all about it; at best, hints of heaven are all our minds can handle.” Aquinas called the state of the blessed “the beatific vision.”
As I say, this philosophical answer has something right. The eternal, transcendent God is an infinite being—perfect in power, holiness, and love. This God exists, we believe, as three persons. We will see the Son (and presumably, the Father and Spirit as well) as he is. We do not know what that will be like.
The philosopher (or the philosopher in us) walks away, content that he has stilled our desire for an answer. Has he?
Many people in our culture, people in the church as well as out, will confess that heaven sounds boring. Christians will admit this hesitantly, because they know eternity with God is supposed to be good. But they don’t have any picture of it. Unbelievers, some of them at least, take the boredom of perfection as final proof of the falsity of Christian dogma. (One of my atheist friends claims that God himself, if he existed, would be bored.) If heaven is unimaginable to us, what are we supposed to think? Our cartoons give us pathetic pictures of angels strumming harps. Notice that cartoon hells are much more interesting.
We are not just philosophers; we are poets. Part of hope (only a part) is imaging the good future we desire. I agree with Adrienne Martin, who says hope is a “syndrome” consisting of different elements: emotions, beliefs, behaviors, perceptions—and imagination. If we obey the philosophical side of us, and cease trying to imagine the age to come, it is no surprise that we will come to think it boring.
Notice that I just changed terms. Instead of “heaven” I wrote “the age to come.” The poets in us need to imagine the future, and the age to come is easier to grasp than heaven. It’s also closer to New Testament language, which speaks in terms of the coming new age, not in terms of going to heaven. This is one reason why stories like J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle” and C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce have such an appeal. Tolkien and Lewis let the imagination explore beyond the grave.
It is perfectly right to heed our philosophical side. In the preface to The Great Divorce, Lewis explicitly warns that he is not trying to actually describe the afterlife. The point of the book, he says, is to confront the reader with the choice—the divorce—between heaven and hell, between allegiance to God and allegiance to the self. Nevertheless, the book has had the wonderful effect of helping Christians imagine a beautiful, interesting and delightful afterlife rather than some static changeless perfection.
Lewis’s warning was right. We must be careful not to confuse our images with the kingdom of God as it will be when Jesus reigns. When it comes to doctrine, we must be content to say Jesus will reign, and that will be good. But when it comes to hope, it helps to have a picture, an image.
Buzz Lightyear had it right.