by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca) Kingston, Ontario, May 2006
What on earth is Caterpillar Theology? Theology is the science of God. And before their ordination ministers are required to study academic theology for three or four years. It is so complicated and irrelevant that after graduation many preachers never bother again with theology books in their work among ordinary people.
But Caterpillar Theology is simple enough for a child to understand. And it is the best preparation for facing one’s old age and death, or the terminal struggles of a family member or friend. This is how it goes.
Once upon a time (actually it is happening right now among the millions of caterpillars this spring) there was a caterpillar named Katie. She lived in a tree with hundreds of her relatives. They spent their time crawling and chewing. That was all they had to do and it was their only pleasure in life. But she noticed that one by one her friends would go into a cocoon, where they were wrapped around with silk threads so they could hardly move. After a desperate struggle to keep alive they died.
Happily there was a wise old caterpillar who told Katie to look up into the sky. "See those beautiful creatures flying above us; they are the ones whom you are missing." It didn’t make sense, and she went on to crawling and chewing as before. Then she felt herself gripped by a silk thread and then another. She realized she was going to die.
Next thing she knew was that she was struggling out of her cocoon and she had wings that had grown out from her back. She had to wait two or three hours before the wings dried, and she found she could fly. To her delight she was able to feed on the nectar in the flowers she had never noticed growing around her. Now she recognized the friends who were also enjoying their butterfly bodies. A few weeks later they traveled south all the way to Florida.
That is a good story for those who think death is the end. They imagine that we are snuffed out and that is all there is. But if millions of insignificant caterpillars are given a beautiful body when they die, surely there must be a future designed for humans. Paul the Apostle used a similar image of a seed and its flower. "So it is with the resurrection from the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).
The story is also good for Christians. For people who are exhausted from the pressures of life the image of resting in peace at first sounds attractive. But who wants to rest in peace for ever? On the wall of my bedroom when I was a boy there was a picture of a woman lying on her back on a cloud. She had two little wings like an angel but these had no function. She couldn’t move. I used to be terrified of dying and lying permanently on a cloud doing nothing for ever. It was one of the reasons why I became an atheist till I came to faith after five years in the army.
Caterpillar Theology pictures Katie’s move from crawling to flying. We move from walking and running on this earth to the vast freedom of heaven. Katie moved from chewing on leaves to enjoying the nectar of a thousand flowers. We move to the far greater joy of a banquet with others. Even in this life we experience the "God who richly provides for us with everything for our enjoyment" (1 Timothy 6:17). But the greatest joys of this life are only a foretaste of all that is in mind for us.
It is important to note that in Caterpillar Theology there is not a trace of having to earn what is our destiny. Katie was not told that life after death was only for those who went through certain hoops, joined this or that denomination, or performed above average. One could conceive of a caterpillar refusing the joys of butterfly life, but that is not part of the story.
Caterpillar Theology does not take away the concern for friends who are feeling the pain of being squeezed inexorably into their death. Nor does it deny the awful sense of loss when our loved ones die. What it provides is a sense of direction and ultimate meaning for human life.
Caterpillar Theology also helps us to understand why the three Sundays of Easter are such a joyful celebration. On the first Sunday we remember how Jesus greeted Mary Magdalene with his resurrection body. That afternoon he walked and talked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and they only recognized him when they invited him to eat with them. In evening he met with "the eleven apostles and their companions" and had a meal with them (Luke 24:33-43)
I think of the second Sunday a week later as Thomas Sunday. He has said there was no way he could believe his teacher was alive. He would need to put his finger in the nail holes in his hands and his hand into the gash in his side. And when Jesus invited him to do just that, Thomas said "My Lord and my God" (John 20:26-28).
The next morning the disciples set out, as Jesus had told them, to travel back to Galilee. He wanted them to see and know him in familiar surroundings and in their fishing business. They probably took five days to arrive in time for the synagogue in Capernaum on Saturday. Then they went back to fishing and caught nothing all night. Early on the third Easter Sunday (John 21:14) he told them to cast their net in the water and they hauled in 153 huge fish. Then he invited them to have breakfast with him.
It seems that Jesus did not appear to the disciples on the weekdays in between the Easter Sundays. So it is possible he gathered with them the next Sunday on the mountain in Galilee when he gave them the great commission (Matthew 28:16-19). Then they returned to Jerusalem and, perhaps again on the fifth Sunday, there was a great convention when "he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time" (1 Corinthians 15:6). Paul added that "Jesus appeared to his brother James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me" (1 Corinthians 15:7-8).
Evidently Jesus wanted the disciples to have the absolute certainty that they had indeed met with him in his resurrection body in a wide variety of situations.
Caterpillar Theology also explains why Jesus gave us the communion service the evening before he died. Together with our brothers and sisters all over the world, we are "looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding the shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrew 12:2). And together we also look forward to our banquet feast in heaven.