I’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.