C.S. Lewis wrote,
There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of heaven ridiculous by saying they do not want to spend eternity playing harps. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolic attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs. (Mere Christianity)
There is much scorn for Christian conceptions of heaven in the secular community. Much of it is, I’m afraid, people talking about things that they don’t understand. Very often this is the fault of the skeptic, but very often we can blame it on the Church, too.
I was watching the television show “House” the other night where Dr. House tells a person who is near death but refusing a procedure that there is no afterlife and mocks the man for wanting to escape his shell of a body. A comrade of Dr. House’s points out that Dr. House had never been to the afterlife, so how would he know with such certainty? House apparently sees the logic in this because later he electrocutes himself. While he is unconscious, his patient dies. Going to look at the body later on, we have Dr. House saying to the corpse, “See, I told you so.” Never mind the obvious fact that Dr. House did not die, or that given his character as we know it he’d be an unlikely candidate for ‘heaven.’ Instead I want to think about the expectations common about the afterlife.
I said that we can blame much misconception on the church itself. We can start with the word ‘heaven.’ You will have much difficulty finding any passages that talk about us dying and going to heaven. Jesus says that he goes to prepare a place for us, but does not say it is ‘heaven.’ We are told there will be a resurrection, for both the saved and the unsaved. The closest we read of anything heavenly is referenced in the CS Lewis quote, but in fact it is not heaven, but the New Earth in Revelation 21. And just what happens in a new earth?
Do we eat? Do we drink? Do we play? When it says there are no tears, does that mean there are no tears of joy, as well? No pain? But I argue along with many that a certain amount and kind of pain is helpful and theologically good. For example, when you put your hand too close to the fire, you want to feel some pain so that you withdraw the hand before you are burned. So, no pain? What about the pain you get from a good work out? What about values like ‘courage’? I among others argue that courage without genuine danger and risk is not courage at all. If there is no genuine danger and risk in ‘heaven’ how can there be courage? If ‘courage’ is an eternal value, but there can be no danger in ‘heaven,’ does going to ‘heaven’ actually diminish certain values, or even make them impossible to experience?
We could think of a number of scenarios along those lines, and I think the problem goes back to failing to recognize that there is symbolism involved in discussions of ‘heaven’ and ‘heaven’ itself is a symbol standing in for whatever fantastic reality awaits some of us. But the problem is that ‘heaven’ as portrayed in many circles is just not very interesting to many people. For the purposes of this entry, I suggest that it is not very interesting for men.
Dr. House was under the impression that the afterlife was a release from the body. In the Christian conception, the reality is that the body is transformed, in the twinkling of an eye. The body is not diminished, it is changed. The body is not weakened, it is strengthened. (1 Cor 15 is your friend here). In other words, the noble values that we perceive on earth are gutted shadows of their realities. The willingness to die for someone so that they might live is something we all consider to be noble, but such accounts are rare. For most of us, we’ll settle for seeing such things in the movies, but I dare say that many if not most men wishes that they would be willing to do just that.
But if that is a noble value we perceive in our weakened and fallen bodies it is all the more one we’d perceive as resurrected and transformed entities. But where can we find a conception of ‘heaven’ where such sacrifice can happen and the doing of it considered valiant? In our popular accounts of ‘heaven’ I fear that ‘heaven’ sounds more like Dr. House’s morphine then it does a New Earth- valuing everything we value on the old earth but even more.
Men seem to be unimpressed by a ‘heaven’ that is a mere release from this day’s agonies. Some skeptics I’ve read foolishly see little difference between heaven and hell: sitting all day in church and singing songs about God is pretty hellish from their point of view. They say that not really understanding ‘hell’ either, or else they wouldn’t speak that way, but the point is worth dwelling on. If you were to try to frame the ‘inexpressible in the expressible,’ are you really moved by the notion of spending eternity on a church pew, singing?
I think the time has passed where we can rely on the traditional symbols, if only because the level of ignorance in interpreting them is immense. Men thrive on competition, danger, courage, etc, and even if we factor in that some of this represents inflamed values, it still holds that there are kernels within them that are timeless values. Perhaps more men would be willing to investigate Christianity if they didn’t think that if it were true, it would emasculate them, either this side of the veil, or the other. We need a more robust understanding of what life is like in the New Earth, and it is our job as Christians to develop it.