Friday, November 07, 2008

Eye has not seen

Christians used to write and preach on heaven and hell far more than is the case today. One might ask why that’s so.

I suppose the major reason for this contemporary neglect is that in the past, life was so often poor, nasty, brutish, and short. With advances in modern science and technology, life is longer and better for many of us than it was for our forebears. As a result, the afterlife doesn’t seem to be as urgent.

Still, for Christians, this is what we’re ultimately looking forward to. What gives meaning to life in a fallen world. So the subject is worth exploring.

Let’s distinguish between facts and possibilities. There are certain things which, as a matter of revelation, we know about the afterlife.

Revealed truths preclude certain possibilities, but allow for other possibilities. Christian speculation about the afterlife should confine itself to what is possible.

There are three or four sources we can use to speculate about the afterlife:

i) Extrapolation from divine revelation.

ii) Extrapolation from earthly experience.

iii) Sheer imagination.

iv) Deathbed visions, NDEs, &c.

The last category gets us into some tricky issues which require separate treatment, so I’ll ignore it for purposes of this post.

I. Facts

1.The afterlife is a two-stage process: an intermediate state followed by a final state.

The intermediate state is disembodied while the final state is reembodied.

2.The afterlife is a two-track affair. The damned have one destiny while the redeemed have another.

3. Heaven is the intermediate state of the saints, while the new earth is the final state of the saints.

Hades is the intermediate state of the damned, while hell is the final state of the damned.

4.The final state is just that—final. It doesn’t come to an end, and there’s no migration from heaven to hell or vice versa.

5.There will be a general resurrection. Believers and unbelievers will both be reembodied.

6.There is no Purgatory.

7. The saints will be in the immediate presence of God.

8. There will be no sorrow in heaven (Rev 21:4).

9. The redeemed will be sinless and impeccable, while the damned will be more sinful than they were before.

10. For the saints, the world to come is unimaginably greater and better than we can even conceive or hope for (1 Cor 2:9; 2 Cor 12:1-4).

II. Possibilities

God has endowed human beings with a lively imagination. And our finite imagination is an infinitesimal subset of God’s infinite imagination. Compared to God, Ray Bradbury suffers from a stunted imagination.

Many things which are impossible in a secular worldview are possible in a Christian worldview. So the sky is the limit. Our speculations will fall far short of reality.

At the same time, the good doesn’t have to be something spectacular. Remember the old adage that a thing of beauty is a joy forever.

1. Both the saints and the damned will be reembodied. Will there be a difference between the two?

I assume the saints will be youthful, ageless, and healthy. They will remain at an optimal age.

The damned will also be immortal, but I wouldn’t assume they will be healthy or even youthful.

2. There’s no particular reason to assume that hell is a torture chamber. You can be miserable in paradise. Consider the lives of the idle rich. They have the best of everything, yet they are bored to death.

3. What will the new earth be like? Will all the cities be gone? Will it revert to a virgin wilderness?

The earth isn’t static. Landmarks change over time. Will the new earth revert to a particular time in earth history?

4. The saints of different ages will remember the best and worst of what life was like when and where they used to live. Will they build new cities based on the architecture of the period they lived in?

Let’s also keep in mind that heaven is full of talented saints. Saints who have resided in heaven for centuries or even millennia. Let’s say that Bach made it to heaven. He’s had a lot of time to write new music. Time to write even better music. Time to hone his craft.

When the saints return to earth, they will be bringing their heavenly culture along with them. A culture with remnants of the earthly culture they left behind, but purified and refined. A culture more advanced than anything here-below.

Culture in a fallen world is not an unmitigated evil. Due to common grace, natural revelation, and Christian influence, there’s much that’s good. Much that’s worth preserving. Which we can build upon.

5. Will we be confined to a particular time? Is time travel possible? Will the saints be able to travel back in time?

i) Of course, there’s the question of whether time travel is coherent. One possible solution is that restricted time travel is possible. That it’s possible to travel back into the past, but you can’t alter the past in a way that would withdraw the future conditions which made possible your excursion into the past. Whether that’s a logical restriction or an ad hoc restriction is another question.

ii) What about virtual time travel? Even if actual time travel were physically or metaphysically impossible, would it be possible to simulate time travel based on our individual or collective memories of the past?

Wilder Penfield, the renowned neurosurgeon, used to stimulate the cortical region of his patients, which would trigger memories. And these weren’t the fuzzy, faded memories we can all conjure up. Rather, these were so vivid and detailed that it was like being there. Reliving the original experience. Total recall.

Moreover, even if our own memories are fragmentary, God knows the past (as well as the future) down to the very last detail.

Under this scenario, it would be possible to occupy the same space, but experience different times.

I'd add that this is more than sheer speculation. Even in this life there are reported cases of retrocognition or timeslips. If that's already possible in the here and now, what about the hereafter?

iii) A Christian might object that this would be a throwback to life in a fallen world. But that’s not quite what I have in mind.

I sure all of us have fond memories of a particular day in our past. It would be fun to go back in time and see it again. That doesn’t mean we want to live in the past. Just have a chance to savor a particular moment. A few hours from the past. Refresh our recollection.

Maybe God will allow us to do that in the world to come.

Moreover, there is nothing inherently wrong about sinless agents observing or interacting with sinful agents. Jesus did that when he was here. Heavenly angels do that when they’re sent on a mission to earth. The shade of Samuel did that when he spoke to Saul.

Furthermore, when I talk about virtual time travel, this can be selective. It doesn’t have to reproduce all of the conditions of the past. You could have the places without the people. Or you could mix and match buildings from one place or period with buildings from another place or period.

The only people you’d speak with or live with would be upir fellow saints. The wicked would be confined to hell. There would be no contact with the damned.

iv) A Christian might also object that this is too materialistic. We won’t care about these things in the world to come.

Maybe not, but any conjectures about the world to come will have to use our earthly experience as a frame of reference since that’s all we know.

In addition, biblical depictions of the world to come are also “materialistic.” The visions in the Apocalypse are very well furnished. The New Jerusalem is a city, with a park. And some visions use the imagery of the Temple.

Of course, that involves a lot of symbolism. But the final state is a physical state. The symbolism is still emblematic of a tangible truth.

Then there’s the question of the cultural mandate (Gen 1:28). Let’s assume the new earth will be a virgin wilderness. What then?

Will we build huts? Plant gardens? Play instruments? If we do that much, we can do a much more.

6. Thus far I’ve been talking about time travel. What about the exploration of space? Will we be able to visit or colonize other planets?

Due to the seeming scale of the universe and the limit on superluminal speed, that’s currently impossible. Yet we have some apparent examples of teleportation in Scripture. If that’s possible, then there might be no insuperable barrier to the exploration of space.

7. Let’s move to a controversial issue. Will there be sex in the world to come?

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the traditional interpretation of Mt 22:30 (and its synoptic parallels) is mistaken.

Glorified men will still have sex organs. They will still produce testosterone. If they didn’t continue to produce testosterone, they would cease to retain the characteristics of grown men. And we could make parallel statements about women (e.g. the production of estrogen).

This raises another possibility: will there be procreation in the world to come? Will there be sinless, impeccable children who mature in the unfallen culture of the new earth?

8. There is also the question of alternate possible worlds. Would we have access to any of these? What might have been, but never was?

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