Into The LightI’ve been thinking about “the afterlife” recently, following the death of my co-worker and friend Carol Wilson last week. (My grandmother died several months ago, as well.) Carol had chronicled her two-and-a-half year journey with cancer on a blog, which she updated daily. At her “celebration” service (complete with great food and balloons), we mourned our loss but rejoiced in the hope of the Resurrection that she is now experiencing.

As I was reflecting on the language that we use around the passing of a person from “this life” to “the next” (even that has a linear ring to it), I was just realizing how much of our perspective is, well, just that—our perspective—from “this side of eternity.”

I know I probably need to read Tom Wright’s latest book Surprised by Hope to get a better grip on his theology of heaven (Scot McKnight has a whole blog series on heaven that I also need to explore), but until then I guess I’m primarily influenced in my thinking about heaven by Dallas Willard, who writes:

“The clear teaching of Scripture is that we will reign with him forever and ever. We will serve him forever. So we need to understand that that is the capacity in which we will continue to grow. And we will never cease growing in that regard.

“So, suppose you have the responsibility of running a solar system? That’s going to be a demand on you, even though you’re going to be running it with God! So the rule is, if you were faithful over two cities, take five. People who have matured in their relationship with God are going to have a much better idea of how to run cities with God. Those who have not will have a lot of learning to do. So I think our preparation now makes a lot of difference. Once you get over the idea that you are going to be warehoused for all eternity when you die, lying about on shelves, listening to harp playing on Muzak, you can see how it makes a real difference.”

God has work for us to do in heaven? You mean, life actually does go on? That was a radical concept for me when I first read The Divine Conspiracy and other articles by Willard.

Recently I was blown away by Jurgen Moltmann’s theology of the culmination of God’s future, via an article by Dr. Andy Root. As Root explains:

“Moltmann ultimately asserts that there are two timelines, one of conventional time which moves from past through present to future, and a timeline of the coming of God which moves from the future through the present and back to the resurrection. For Moltmann God’s future time breaks into our own conventional timeline. Where our timeline leads from life (you’re born) to death (you’re gone), God’s timeline moves from death (the crucifixion) to life (resurrection). The resurrection is a future event (an event of God’s future) that penetrates and therefore happens in conventional time. The resurrection is a future event that happens now for Jesus.

“Jesus Christ is the one who lives fully in our time, but as Son of God, through resurrection is taken up into God’s time. Jesus Christ stands between the two timelines. He is the new humanity, the new creation, the new Adam, the man of the future. … Jesus’ resurrection frees him from the constraints of conventional time and places his resurrected being now fully in God’s in-breaking time. After the resurrection Jesus is on a new timeline, he has a resurrected new body; a body not bound to conventional time, a body that will no longer see death for it lives on the timeline of God’s future. …

“The crucifixion, then, is seen as the puncturing of time, it is the point in conventional time where fate wins, where time that moves from life to death, from past through present to future, overcomes even God. In the death of Jesus conventional time is victorious, it becomes the ultimate and complete reality. There is no hope, for time and fate have beaten even God. But even in the midst of conventional time’s triumph God is moving in God’s grief from God’s future. In the crucifixion conventional time shows its fissures and cracks as even dead bodies once pinned by conventional time escape their past death determined by fate and wander Jerusalem. With the empty tomb conventional time has been overcome, for God’s future time has broken in, seen now fully in the body of Jesus Christ.

“But it is only in the body of Jesus Christ. Conventional time still moves forward, but God’s timeline has now broken in, in cognito though it may be, into conventional time, asserting that God’s timeline will now determine humanity and creation’s destiny and not the fate of conventional time and the death it promises. We still find ourselves in conventional time moving from the past to present to future, moving from life to death, but we confess that in Jesus Christ there now not one but are two timelines. God’s future has dawned, and one day conventional time will give way to God’s future time. One day it will be the only time we know, a time beyond death, fate, futility, and sin.”

So, assuming that Moltmann’s “two timelines” theology is right (and it sounds pretty compelling to me), what if when we die it is simply like waking up to a complete and different reality where everyone who ever was, is, or will be in the kingdom of God is already there. And it won’t be as if we’re surprised to see them, because it will be as if the world has always been this way (as it always was meant to be): the kingdom in its fullness.

So while we experience the feeling of “loss” in this “dimension,” in the kingdom “dimension” (or timeline, to use Moltmann’s language) Carol is not waiting for any of us to join her where she is—we are already there, enjoying the kingdom together with her.

I’m sure I’m not saying anything original here. I’m just not well-read enough to know who’s thought this and written this before me. Perhaps Wright has in his book. Do you know of other authors/theologians who have discussed death and “the afterlife” like this before? If so, please leave me a comment with names of people and books/articles! Thanks.

Or if you think I’m getting this whole “heaven” thing wrong, please post a comment and let me know why/how. Thanks for that also.



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Posted on 07-14-2008


  1. josh says:

    July 14th, 2008 at 11:16 pm

    This has always been something interesting to me, even when I was a kid and thought of penguins when I thought of heaven. But I think you’ve hit on some good things here… I tend to put stock in the idea that the afterlife is the actual reality and everything we’re experiencing now is a representation of it (like Plato’s “Forms” and C.S. Lewis’ ideas in The Great Divorce), and I also like some of the eastern thought about the past, present, and future. I have no trouble believing that there is actually no past and no future, and that everything that has ever happened or will happen is happening right now, at this moment (we humans sort of have to have a past, present, and future for reference, but you get the point I hope), so all that matters is living in each moment as it comes.

  2. Jonathan Brink says:

    July 14th, 2008 at 11:31 pm

    Steve, Wright’s book actually lays down the framework for the new heavens and the new earth and how heaven is not the final destination. It’s a fascinating read that will expand what you have here. A brief summary of him on Colbert is on Youtube.

  3. Jonathan Stegall says:

    July 15th, 2008 at 7:36 am

    Steve, I also have yet to read Surprised By Hope and look forward to doing so, and am equally compelled by Moltmann’s eschatology. In a different way, though, I have been blown away by the way C. S. Lewis allegorizes (is that a word?) the afterlife in The Last Battle (book seven of the Narnia series, for anyone who is curious).

    I have to say, it was the first literary work that made me want to even think about the afterlife, and even want to go there. For me, it still has a power to place a longing for eternity in my heart that theology proper, as wonderful as I think theology is, doesn’t have.

  4. Steve K. says:

    July 15th, 2008 at 8:04 am

    Josh, thanks for this. To clarify: As Anthony Smith articulated to me yesterday, I don’t think we will notice the passing of moments like we do in this “timeline.” So, in that sense, it isn’t really a “timeline” at all, I suppose (Moltmann’s analogy breaks down?). Is it an “eternal present”? I suppose that’s one way of looking at it, although even that seems connected to time, whereas I’m thinking of it being “timeless” (i.e., we won’t even be aware of “time” any more).

    Jonathan B., I have seen the video of Wright on The Colbert Report, so yes I do recall that he is talking about the “life after life after death.” From what I’ve read so far of McKnight’s series, he seems to disagree with Wright about heaven, but I could be wrong. I’ve just read the first installment so far!

    Jonathan S., I’ll have to add “The Last Battle” to my already-too-long list of books to read. Thanks for that recommendation!

    Anyway, keep sharing your thoughts. I appreciate the help in sharpening my own thinking on this.

  5. Chris says:

    July 15th, 2008 at 9:21 am

    Great post Steve! I have always found the concept of heaven interesting, and I have gone back and forth in my views, but in the end I keep coming back to the thought that I need to shut up. Here is what I mean (I’ll go from the weakest reason to the strongest).

    1) The thought of doing “growing” or “working” in heaven is hard for me to understand. If God is perfect, his presence is perfect, his heaven is perfect, and we are made perfect through his love and sacrifice, then what would we need to “work on” to make ourselves better? To put it another way, the concept of growth means that there is some deficiency or immaturity that needs development – but these “lacks” seem absent (even necessarily absent) in the perfect heaven God creates. This seems especially true considering that we will be in God’s perfect presence. However, since I cannot ever fathom how I could ever be in a state where I need no more growth, this is one reason why I think I need to stop talking about heaven. I just don’t understand.

    2) Moltmann’s two timeline theory is interesting but both timelines still follow our basic conception of time that it is a series of sequential moments. I want to tack onto that a “series of causal moments,” but I’d have to think a lot more as to whether there are such things as non-causal moments. As such, there couldn’t be a “puncturing” of time; there is just time, where possibly different causal sequences of events converge or intersect. Time remains simple time. The odd consequence of this is that God is bound by the same constraints of time like we are: a series of moments. Again, that seems weird, especially because I cannot find anyway to understand what “eternal present” could possibly mean. The term “Eternal” is fine (just an infinite series of moments), but “eternal present” escapes me because there must be some series of moments (however infinite) and the earlier moments would be the past and the moments to come would be the future. Hence, I cannot understand how the present can remain present when we consider earlier and later moments. I know about the parade metaphor, but that is simply a metaphor. Thus, this is another reason why I feel like I need to shut up about thinking about heaven.

    3) Another consequence of the two timeline theory may be that there are two of me, like Steve suggested. One toiling on earth, while the other me is in heaven. Of course, no matter what concept of time one has, that means that there are two of me existing at the same time (!) Now consider this: if for some fantastical moment, I (the earth Chris) happen to meet the heaven Chris, who would I say is me? Surely, I would say, “me!” the earth Chris. But the heaven Chris would say the same thing. We might even get into an argument over the real Chris. But the point is that personhood appears to be tied to personal location, so that one person cannot be located in two distinct spaces.

    4) I’m sorry this response is getting long. My last point is that from everything people say about heaven, it sounds like something radically different from anything we have ever known. I think that most people would agree. Yet, if it is something so conceptually different, then the concepts WE use to describe/explain heaven will be so radically off the mark that there really is no sense in talking about it to any great extent. We will necessarily be wrong about anything we say. Even to say that heaven “exists” is to speak falsely because our only understanding of existence is our existence, and we are applying it to heaven. We continually (re)make heaven according to our own thoughts so that we can feel that we are getting some sort of grasp on it. Thus, I have come to the conclusion that I can say nothing meaningful on what heaven really is (there goes that existence talk again); I can only comment on what others say of heaven. In the end, I realize that I just need to shut up.

  6. Chris says:

    July 15th, 2008 at 10:43 am

    Let me quickly add that for those who have passed on before us, since God must be an unconditionally loving God (a love that radically surpasses our comprehension), they are in tremendously good hands. We don’t understand what exactly happened to them after they crossed over, but they are doing far better than they were doing here.

    I’m sorry if my previous post might have sounded a little insensitive to the motivation of Steve’s post. Surely, no insensitivity was intended.

  7. Steve K. says:

    July 15th, 2008 at 11:27 am

    Chris, wow, good thoughts. I think ultimately you are right — whatever we think/say about heaven is pretty futile.

    In response to your argument in #1, I think you’re basing your assumption on a “this worldly” view of “work” and “growth.” I agree that “growth” is probably the wrong word to use, because of what it implies, again a “this worldly” sense. But “work” can be labor-less and perfect in the kingdom. It doesn’t have to have the same meaning as the one we give it on “this side” of eternity. Does that make sense? Again, I think we really have no concept of what that will “actually” be like, so it’s total speculation. But the idea of there being something “to do” in heaven is appealing to me. Especially if it doesn’t involve pain or sweat or toil or frustration 😉

    In response to your argument in #3 above, I’m not really suggesting there are 2 of me. There’s the “present” me (the one I am and experience in this dimension/reality), and there’s the “future” me (“future” in relation to the me I “am” — the only me I “know”!), who I will be/become. In the kingdom, the “future” me is me. That both “exist” at the same “time” does not necessarily mean that it is a different me. It is still me, just in another dimension. To suggest that it is a “second” me, is based on an understanding from this world. But looking at things (however much one can imagine) from the kingdom, it is the same me. If that makes any sense.

    And yes, this is a very hopeful reality that we are discussing. There’s no end really to the speculation we could have about heaven, and most of it will be completely wrong. But again the idea that when I get to heaven everyone will already be there with God, enjoying God in an eternal sense, where there’s effort-less activity for God and infinitely-joyful time-less existence with God — that’s a heaven I can get excited about.

    BTW — Isn’t Facebook great?! I’m so glad to be back in touch with you, man. Hope you and Deilee are doing well. Those kiddos of yours look awesome.

  8. Dave says:

    July 16th, 2008 at 5:42 pm

    Yes, Steve, you will enjoy Wright’s book. It will get you thinking about life after life after death. 🙂

  9. Chris says:

    July 17th, 2008 at 9:45 am

    Yes, Facebook is very cool! I hope that you and Becky and doing wonderful.

    I forgot to make one comment about Willard. In his article, he says, “So, suppose you have the responsibility of running a solar system? That’s going to be a demand on you, even though you’re going to be running it with God! So the rule is, if you were faithful over two cities, take five. People who have matured in their relationship with God are going to have a much better idea of how to run cities with God.”

    This comment strikes me as odd, even dangerous. It smacks of Mormon influence (and possibly other branch-off religions). Mormons believe that when they die (married males to be exact), they will rule individual worlds under the guidance of the all-powerful God; they become, in effect, minor gods. They become what Jesus was/is to our world. Aside from the utterly wrong view that our blood could ever wash away the sins of others, there are two glaring problems. (1) There is a tremendous underlying hubris – that we are worthy enough to rule others because of our faith and that God needs us to govern. And (2) there is a radical departure from the scriptural idea that we can be in a similar right-hand position to God BECAUSE of what we have done. Xnty is not works-based, but faith-based. Mormonism violates this principle royally.

    Willard squarely faces both of these problems. I find it tremendously prideful to launch the idea that we would be worthy to rule over others because of our faith. That job is God’s, and God alone, because he is the only one worthy. In heaven where his presence is absolutely encompassing and radically palpable, why would there ever be a need for us to govern? In fact, why would there be a need for any governance in heaven with God’s presence constantly enveloping us? We would all be doing the right things all the time automatically because that is what one does in the nakedness of God’s presence. To think otherwise, to think that God “needs” us to govern, is hubris. I’m not saying that you are being prideful, but that this is the end consequence (and possibly motivation) of Willard’s theology.

    Willard also faces the second problem. If God loves us, finds us worthy, and makes us perfect, why would some people be elevated above others? Even if you consider the ruling part just a “role” and not an “award” so that the glory of elevation is mitigated, there is still an honor bestowed upon the person BECAUSE of what he/she has done. But that is anathema to an unconditionally loving God who makes us perfect in every way so that we can actually be in his presence. This, again, is why I find the idea of growth in heaven so odd. How can one who is made perfect grow anymore?

    So I think that Willard borrows too much from Mormonism in the ruling bit.

  10. josh says:

    July 17th, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    Lewis’ analogies in The Last Battle are definitely brilliant and one of the best ways I’ve heard to describe the afterlife. He likens, in one sentence, life on earth to a dream, dying to waking up, and the afterlife to being awake. Memorable enough that I got the text tattooed on me!

    But of course, everything Lewis does is genius. The Narnia books, The Great Divorce, Till We Have Faces, the Space Trilogy (far better fantasy lit than the LOTR books)… his analogies are always so spot-on.

  11. Eric says:

    July 19th, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    The clearest view of redemption history was expressed to me by David Flusser, rooting it in Jewish thought, in his book titled “Jesus”. Jesus expressed that he inaugurated the Messianic age, an indeterminate age between this world and the one to come, where redemption begins playing out in this world. Still, the “world to come” is still a point in the future, to be experience at the passing of this world at the Last Judgment. The Kingdom of God is God’s movement in this world, which He invites us to participate in.

    I do not think, me personally, there is a bleeding between one world and the next. I will accept that our world is sort of like a “trial world”, prep school for that life to come. I am a sojourner in it, inviting others to follow the Lamb of God to Paradise. Having said that, this world is a world, not an imagined less Platonically perfect world. I think C.S. Lewis’ depiction of Paradise (as a somehow more Platonically perfect world) not so helpful.

    Remember, the life to come is a Life. We are creatures now…and we will be creatures then. All indications are that we will be as living beings, experiencing growth, reward, direction, feeling, perception, with a body and belonging to time.

  12. Jacob Mic says:

    June 7th, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    I think C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” is a wonderful look at the afterlife (it’s rather unconventional as there are no religious images). I wonder how would you compare scriptures with service descriptions and rest descriptions i.e. Hebrews Chapter 4?

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