Saturday, January 10, 2009

Imagining the unimaginable

“But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’” (1 Cor 2:9).

The Bible is a remarkable book. And this is one of the most remarkable passages in that most remarkable of books.

Paul mentions the three basic modes of natural knowledge: sensory perception (the eye), testimony (the ear), and intuition (the heart).

So this is exhaustive. There’s what we learn by direct observation. Personal experience: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (Jn 20:25).

Beyond that is what we also learn by testimony: the collective experience of others: “I will utter dark sayings from of old; things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation” (Ps 78:3-4).

These two modes of knowledge concern what is—or was. The real of the actual: past and present. My present observation. My memory of what I’ve seen and done. As well as the collective recollection of our forebears, who recorded their observations for posterity.

Then there’s our imaginative faculty, which concerns what might have been. The real of the possible or conceivable.

Yet Paul says that heaven surpasses all of these. Surpasses what we can extrapolate from personal experience. Surpasses what we can extrapolate from collective experience. Surpasses the past and present alike.

And, most remarkably of all, heaven surpasses what we can even imagine. Now that should give us pause. That’s an amazing claim. No more amazing claim was ever made.

After all, we can imagine quite a lot. God has blessed us with a vivid imagination. Think of painters like Dali, Da Vinci, Botticelli, and Hieronymus Bosch—to name a few.

Think of writers like Dante, C. S. Lewis, Cordwainer-Smith, and Ray Bradbury—to name a few. Or think of filmmakers like George Lucas.

For that matter, think of yourselves. You and I may have no artistic ability, yet every man, woman, and child is a genius when they dream.

All your dreams about strange places, places you’ve never been. And yet you dream about them in such vivid detail.

Yet Paul says that heaven even surpasses what we can extrapolate from flights of sheer imagination.

What is more, Paul speaks from firsthand experience: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Cor 12:2-4).

The glories of heaven await every believer. And it’s worth the wait—beyond all hope, beyond all imagining.


  1. Why would Paul talk about his experience in third person like that? It's always mystified me a bit why he doesn't just say "fourteen years ago I experienced..."

  2. Hi Mathetes,

    Maybe I'm wrong, but I think it has to do with Paul's humility.

    It's been said that 2 Corinthians is probably Paul's most personal letter. One reason why Paul gets personal and talks about himself in this epistle is because he's responding to charges by opponents that he's not a genuine apostle or who are in some way calling his apostleship into question.

    Of course, Paul wouldn't want to talk and boast about himself to the Corinthians. He wouldn't want to draw attention to himself here. Remember, the Corinthians were already inclined toward regarding certain men as better than others and regarding themselves as better than others for following certain men, and hence creating divisions within the church as a result: "I follow Paul," "I follow Apollos," "I follow Cephas," etc. So Paul wouldn't want to add fuel to the fire (however dimly burning at this point) by boasting about himself in such a manner. Rather, he'd want the Corinthians to fix their eyes on Christ and the cross.

    At the same time, Paul has to defend himself. Again, not for his own sake as if he cares what others think about him more than he cares what God thinks about him, but for the sake of Christ and for the sake of Christ's church in Corinth. He had taken great pains in the past to preach and teach the gospel to the Corinthians, and doesn't want this work to come to nothing because of certain "super-apostles" deluding true believers in Corinth about who Paul is and the message he's preaching, etc. In other words, Paul knows he's just a messenger, but when opponents call into question the messenger to (whether intentionally or unintentionally) discredit the message, he stands up.

    So my thought is Paul's speaking in the third person here is a way to establish his "credentials" as an apostle, so to speak, without taking pride or causing others to take pride in his experiences and visions and so forth. He's talking about himself without talking about himself. Something like that anyway.

    Of course, I don't know if this an entirely solid explanation, but hopefully it's at least thinking in the right direction.

  3. Steve: All your dreams about strange places, places you’ve never been. And yet you dream about them in such vivid detail.

    Vytautas: Not all of us dream though. And sometimes our dreams are nightmares, so that our heaven turns into a private hell, but we look forward to our treasure in heaven anyway.