Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June,
Dawdling away their wat'ry noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Mud unto mud! - death eddies near -
Not here the appointed End, not here!
But somewhere, beyond Space and Time,
Is wetter water, slimier slime!
Oh! Never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud celestially fair;
Fat caterpillars drift around,
And Paradisal grubs are found;
Unfading moths, immortal flies,
And the worm that never dies.
The problem is that this picture of heaven might be good for fish. But as humans we wouldn't thank a loving God for a heaven of "wetter water, slimier slime." Nor do we aspire to eating insects. For our purposes we would need a heaven suited for humans.
Unfortunately the Christian creeds do not give us much content. "I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life ever lasting" (Apostles' Creed). "We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come" (Nicene Creed). There has been the suggestion we could play on harps. Or engage in interminable prostrations. Even worse is the idea of resting. On my bedroom wall as a boy there was a picture of a woman with two little wings lying on a cloud. I couldn't imagine anything worse than lying on a cloud doing nothing for ever and ever and ever. I think it turned me into an atheist.
When I was appointed interim minister of Christ Church, Cataraqui, I saw a tombstone by the entrance with a man's name and dates on the front, and on the back in large letters the one word RESTING. I told the committee that if I died I didn't want RESTING put on my tombstone. Better put "He's having a whale of a time." I hate that dreadful prayer "May the souls of the faithful rest in peace." Some people may need to rest up a bit, but resting for ever and ever would be hell for any of us.
If we want to consider the possibility of a heaven which we can deny or believe in, we should make it appealing. In Canada when cabin fever has struck us in February, we picture lying on a tropical beach with nothing to do except swim, and eat, order drinks, and make love with our partner. But even that palls after a couple of days. We want to go places, play golf, go scuba diving, dance the hula, or whatever. Soon we think about getting back to seeing our friends, getting our garden ready for spring, and we even look forward to creative work again.
So, instead of merely resting, or surviving as disembodied spirits, our concept of the kind of heaven a loving God would have in mind must be enriched to include a freedom for all our human longings and aspirations.
But there cannot be freedom to hurt, cheat, humiliate, rape, destroy others. I love walking barefoot on the sand, and I certainly don't want people who love to smash bottles on my favorite beach in heaven. In the picture of the eternal city given in the Book of Revelation we are told "Nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood" (Revelation 21:27). That means that whose who delight in violating the freedom of others would certainly not want to be there. And for the rest of us it wouldn't be heaven if they were.
Having said that, we continue to proclaim the good news that if there is the least desire for change God can not only forgive but perfect any of us in love. That is why Paul said he was sent "to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God: (Acts 26:18). As C.S.Lewis pictured in The Great Divorce, 1945, all are welcome, and nobody is excluded. Those who leave do so because they prefer the darkness (John 3:19-21).
A perfect environment should be stunningly beautiful. And if our world was created by God, we already know that God managed this very well with our lakes and seashore, rocks and mountains, grass and trees, flowers and shrubs. In the last chapter of the Bible heaven is pictured as "the river of the water of life" flowing through "the middle of the street of the city" (Revelation 22:1,2). City dwellers long for a water-front cabin. Young people in the country look forward to the busy excitement of a big city. We need the best of city life and the best of country, activity and relaxation, people to be with and solitude.
In this world we enjoy the animals, birds, and fish in our environment. Would Rupert Brooke's fish have a place in our imagined heaven? Paul the very cerebral converted Pharisee seems to suggest this. "The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. The creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Romans 8:19-21).
That God would not find it difficult to arrange this is suggested by the way the humble caterpillar is designed. It dies to a life of crawling and eating leaves, but it is resurrected as a bright colored butterfly enjoying nectar from the flowers of the garden. In another epistle Paul refers to the billions of seeds that fall into the earth. "What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed a body of its own" (1 Corinthians 15:38-38). A dried up crinkly bulb coming out in the spring as a yellow daffodil is sufficient proof that God could very easily have millions of different flowers in mind for heaven.
In our environment we also enjoy little children. And Jesus said we have to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. That does not mean being childish, but having the childlike ability to enjoy fun and play and parties, singing and dancing, curiosity, exploring, loving and being loved. If God planned for us to be childlike, it seems unlikely he would want heaven to be somber, staid, stuck-up with dignity. A loving God would know enough to give us all the freedom we need, and much more than we can possibly imagine.
Next we need to throw into the environment of heaven the enjoyment of music, and there should be as many styles of music as humans enjoy on earth. Those who couldn't sing in tune here should enjoy the freedom to be Pavrotti or Shenaia Twain. And those who long to dance should delight heaven with the grace of Karen Kane. They say it is impossible to be a gardener and not believe in God, so of course gardeners must be freed to grow the flowers. If we delight in study and learning new things we will want to keep growing. And those who have missed out on a good education and the pleasures of travel should be freed to enjoy those pleasures to their hearts' content.
Before we painfully left our mother's womb we never imagined how incredibly large this world would turn out to be. And inevitably the heaven a loving God would have in mind would be infinitely more spacious and interesting than what we take for granted in this life. We could add a lot more, but that is sufficient to make the point.
In the New Testament the Son of God is described as The Word (John 1:1). We can be silent when we choose, but words are needed for the richness of human relationships. We have no doubt that these are possible in all sorts of ways in this life. We have seen how heaven is pictured as a city. In cities on earth there are slums, class distinctions, loneliness, violence. We are afraid to talk to strangers, play with children. But the apostle John wrote "I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God" (Revelation 21:2). It is populated by all those who are willing to be perfected in love. That suggests the possibility of enjoying an infinite richness of new relationships.
Admittedly here on earth our freedom to love has to be limited by rules and institutions. We cannot kiss and cuddle everyone in sight. But even marriage is only a temporary framework for loving which will be taken up into the infinite love relationships of heaven. "In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven" (Matthew 22:30).
The possibility of enjoying people of other cultures is severely limited by shyness, racial prejudices, and our inability to learn other languages. If God cares about our freedom he can easily give us the ability to love and communicate with people we could never talk to on earth. And that would enable us to enter into the mystery of innumerable new friends.
Similarly we have thought about the richness of the Holy Spirit's inspiration. Many children have this drilled out of them at school, but we all have some residual longings for creativity.
The heavenly city is to be enriched by the greatest treasures of culture of every nation from every period of their history. "People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations" (Revelation 21:26). But that will not just be enjoyed passively like tourists gawking around Rome. To picture heaven we need to imagine all the freedoms we would need to compose music, play instruments, sing songs, create sculptures and paintings, make tapestries, write poetry, tell stories, take part in plays. Most of all we need the inspiration to love the way God loves.
If the Holy Spirit can give astonishing inspiration for this life, we can hardly imagine him saying "That's enough of that. Now sit still and be bored for ever."
But where could this heaven be? C.S.Lewis said, "Looking for God - or heaven- by exploring space is like reading or seeing all of Shakespeare's plays in the hope that you will find Shakespeare as one of the characters or Stratford as one of the places" (Christian Reflections, 1967, p.167).
Having said all that, we still haven't given a logical proof that either a loving God or a heaven of perfect freedom really exists. But who gave us the ability to picture what God and heaven could be like? And not only picture, but enjoy and long for what we have pictured? Some think the ability to picture perfection came by chance evolution from some original slime. That takes a huge amount of faith. It is much easier to thank God for making sure this world evolved for our eventual freedom.
Finally there is Pascal's wager. Blaise Pascal (1623-62) was a brilliant French mathematician and scientist. At the age of 31 he was converted to faith in the Creative Love of God. After his death his notes for a book about faith were published as Pensees. And it is still published and read in many languages. One of the notes is "the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing." The wager is unanswerable. We can put it this way. If there is no God and no heaven, faith makes us enjoy this life and we lose nothing. If our imagination of God and heaven turns out to be the true picture of reality, our pleasure has been multiplied a hundredfold in this life and this is only a foretaste. The atheist loses either way, and the believer gains everything.
Paul said "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him" - these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit" (1 Corinthians 2:9,10). That suggests that if we have been able to picture God's heaven, we received it by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And if we got it by inspiration, God's love gave it to us for our freedom as one of the multifaceted forms of grace.