What are we waiting for? And what are we going to do about it in the meantime?

Those are the two questions which shape this book. First, it is about the ultimate future hope held out in the Christian gospel; the hope, that is, for ‘salvation’, ‘resurrection’, ‘eternal life’…Second, it is about the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals…(Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright)

Most Christians don’t think about heaven, except that we would like to be there. Most of us do, anyway, and we tend to think it will something we will enjoy. We are put off by the fact that other people think it might be: (1) endless praise and worship services or (2) small group discussions about social justice while crocheting organic smocks or (3) theological lectures or…you get the picture. Other Christians think about heaven a lot though, for different reasons. The most pressing reason is that we want people that God loves, which is everyone, to be with God when they die. I think this is a good reason to think about heaven, but there are also other reasons to consider what we mean by ‘heaven’.

Surprised by Hope
Tom Wright stirred the heavenly cauldron recently, as he is wont to do, with a book about heaven called “Surprised by Hope”. I first heard a radio snippet of his views on heaven which was transcribed for an article in Time Magazine. In the radio snippet I heard, he said that heaven is not what happens after we die, but that it is “life after life after death”. This repetitive sentence momentarily confused me, which I don’t cope with well. So I bought the book. ((Heaven is a large, dusty, wooden room with ceiling high bookshelves, a comfy recliner-type couch next a small table with one of those Tim-Tam packs that never runs out, except it’s Cadbury, and large cold glasses of milk…and no doors…so no-one can interrupt…)) The book explains what he meant by “life after life after death”. Heaven, in Wright’s view, is not the state that we go to immediately after we die, but a later event which happens when God brings all history to a close, renewing as God has promised. A disembodied state after death may be what happens…but it’s not heaven. It’s just a disembodied state after death. Heaven is what happens when God renews all Creation, as the end of Revelation indicates. When that happens, Wright says, we won’t be disembodied souls floating around, but in some way we will be living life in real bodies as God intended – radically different from how things are now, but in some ways radically the same.

Heaven Here on Earth
All very interesting. I like interesting thoughts, and so I’m a sucker for books like that. But does talk of heaven matter now? I think it does. And not just because I want everyone to be there. It matters to how we live our lives now. And no, I’m not saying that we earn our way into heaven by being extra good in our life now.

I think it matters because of 2 things: books and ends.

‘End’ is a funny word, elastic word. In a story, like the Bible or whatever story, ‘end’ usually means the chronological finish, when all the events have happened. In Peter and the Wolf, the end of the story is the procession of Peter, the animals, the hunters and the wolf with the quacking duck inside it. That’s where the story leaves us. But ‘end’ also means the ‘purpose’, the meaning, the message of the story. That, of course, is a matter for interpretation. What is the ‘end’ of Peter and the Wolf? Chronologically, it is the procession with Peter at the head. Meaningfully, it is the triumph of youthful risk over elderly caution. Or the success of nonviolent means of defeating your enemy. Or, to stretch things, a cautionary fable that mother wolves tell their wolflings. Both ‘ends’ have to make sense for the story to ‘work’. Chronologically, the end of Peter and the Wolf would be a nonsense if Peter played billiards with the wolf after capturing him. Meaningfully, our interpretation would be a nonsense if we decided the story’s meaning was to listen to your elders’ advice, because that is exactly what Peter refuses to do, and the story vindicates him.

So, for discussions about ‘heaven’, the ‘end’ is what happens chronologically, but also what heaven means, what it is, where it is, our place and part in it. Why is this important? Now we need to think about stories, which for me are often found in books.

Books – because yes, they are heavenly. If you have ever read a book, or watched a movie, or listened to someone tell a story, you will be familiar with the following narrative device. I can’t remember its name, but it goes like this: at the start of the story, a small glance at the chronological end of the story is revealed. For example, in the opening scenes of recent film Tomorrow When the War Began, the main character (Ellie) is narrating the story from the end, via a video recording. Then the story goes back to the events that led up to that, every now and then returning to Ellie’s narration. The effect is get us, the viewer/reader, to wonder how the story is going to get to the end. Given what we have seen of the end, and given that we know the initial events in the story, how will we end up at the end? In Tomorrow, the end sliver gives us the picture that something violent, bloody, unexpected has happened, and Ellie is a world-weary, tired but intrepid character. But the events at the start of the story show her as a care-free, happy, idealistic character. Our interest is piqued…how will the Ellie character be transformed from care-free to world-weary? What events will shape her? How will she respond? We are interested because our interest in the chronological end (how will the story make its way to the last events) but also in the meaningful end (what the story’s message is).

Our Role in Hope on Earth
Christianity is the same. Our story (the Bible) has given us slivers of what the end is, in both chronological and meaningful sense. In the book of Revelation, this is most clear, with graphic passages seemingly about the end of the world. ((There is a fair bit of debate about whether Revelation is describing what the literal end of the world will be, or whether it is an allegorical way for the writer, John, to describe the society of his day. My opinion is that he is primarily describing the Roman Empire of his day, but also saying that ’empires’ like Rome will be present in all times. When it comes to the questions of whether he is describing literal ‘end of the world’ events I think that is not his first concern, but I think we can safely say that John definitely thinks there will be an end to the human story)) We also know some of the initial events that have set us on our way to the end – Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and the early church. But what will happen in-between?  To use a oft-used metaphor, we are actors thrust upon a stage without a script. We have the first few acts of the play, and some inkling of the exciting but ominous end. So, how do we fill in the remainder of the play?

Stay tuned…