I’ve been thinking about my mother dying. From all I can determine, that’s probably not morbid, so much as realistic. She’s not doing awesome and she’s apparently just not taking care of herself. People… make choices, I guess. I’m not even particularly fussed over that. She’s going to do whatever she’s going to do and I’ll deal with what happens. But I was thinking about heaven.
I’m not really sure heaven is a concept I believe in anymore. One of the funny things about growing up evangelical is that there’s a lot of vague talk about heaven and a decent amount of pretty specific talk about hell but we’re supposed to really be working towards that heaven thing. There’s are probably lots of reasons that evangelicals don’t have much to say about heaven but one of the reasons might be that the Bible doesn’t give them much to work with. There’s a few weird images of pearly gates, there are a couple images of judgment day, a great supper. Jesus says that there are a lot of mansions. There’s a lot of singing, apparently. But very little attention is given to what you actually do there, which is funny because you’re supposed to be there FOREVER.
I actually had a period of being really interested in this during my days as a Christian. I figured that you had to still be learning and growing in heaven because otherwise, what was the point? We couldn’t just be stagnant forever. I mostly figured this because the idea of being stagnant forever and not learning and growing seemed like about the worst fate I could imagine. I decided there was no reason there wouldn’t be art in heaven, after all, God was very creative and supposedly inspired creativity so probably there would be very great art. Maybe even movies, or something even cooler than movies that I hadn’t thought of. I have to admit that I spent a lot of time confused over what we would tell stories about in this new world that would apparently lack conflict. How do you make good story arcs in a literally perfect world? But I brushed over it, I figured that somehow God would work it out.
But there was something I never gave a lot of thought to that I find myself giving a great deal of thought to now and that’s the day you show up in heaven. See, the general concept as I’ve always understood it was that we would go to heaven and wake up perfected before God. If things went well, we would hear the “well done, good and faithful servant” which is the thing we were supposed to get super excited about. I guess if you were not quite as faithful you get a dressing down and feel properly ashamed before being let in but just barely? Whatever. We all know if you prayed the prayer and were a Real True Christian, then Jesus said “yeah, I totally know this person” and they let you into heaven. But there’s a part of that that no one ever seemed to focus on. What does this waking up totally redeemed look like?
When my mother dies, if she was totally right about all her beliefs and she dies and comes face to face with her God, then according to her theology, she wakes up a different person. She wakes up unrecognizable. My mother has had over 60 years of choices that have led her to the extremely miserable place she is now at… and none of them will mean anything. Rather than being the miserable, cruel, manipulative, possibly abusive person that she is now, she will be someone else entirely. Apparently she’ll be who God always intended her to be. But what would that mean, what would that look like? How could our minds, redeemed or not, possibly cope with such an extreme change?
We are creatures of process. If there is a God up there, he or she seems to have designed us that way. We do not change overnight or in a “twinkling of an eye.” Some of us have had incredible experiences that changed our lives but even those moments are not truly moments. We did not wake up a different person. We still had to battle all of those past things, we still had to work through that process. Because that is a natural and good part of being human. We earn the change we get. We fight for it or else we allow things to happen to us and we spiral.
C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Great Divorce that is much beloved by many Christians. In it he posits a view of heaven in which you don’t just show up at the gates, you have to decide to walk there. C.S. Lewis was actually an annihilationist, he didn’t believe in hell so much as that people winked out of existence if they didn’t go to heaven (evangelicals do not emphasize this part of his beliefs because they love him and that counts as heresy). In this story, you could choose to stay behind, you could choose not to journey towards the mountain. The road was hard and the closer it got, the more real everything became, it hurt to walk on the grass, it hurt to move forward because you were not as real as the things around you. You had to choose to give up things in your life that were not worthy of the goal in front of you. It was a long journey. It was a hard journey. Not everyone made it. People really love this book, but of course even Lewis himself writes in the introduction that there is nothing biblical about the interpretation. But I cannot help but think that people are drawn to that story because it makes sense. Certainly more sense than the idea of waking up in a foreign country as a different person. Certainly more sense than the idea of having “every tear wiped from your eyes” and never crying again, even though you know that those you love are burning in hell as you sing praises.
I used to dream that someday my father would wake up in heaven and he would understand. He would see how he failed me, how he didn’t love me like he was supposed to, how he screwed up. But that would be my father waking up a different man. He would not have earned that, no processes followed, nothing would have made that real. So in this strange reality, someday I as a completely different person and my father as a completely different person could reconcile for his past wrongs. Strangely, that thought doesn’t exactly hold the comfort it once did.
The idea of being redeemed back to who I was “meant to be” does not hold appeal for me. I have fought for my life. I love my life. The choices I’ve made have been hard and they’ve been complicated. It is cruel and absurd to me to say that none of those choices have any value or meaning except one – whether or not I accept that a man was tortured to death in my place 2000 years ago. I think the choices we make matter a great deal. I’ve seen healing and beauty and incredible things in the lives of people I love. I’ve seen them here and now. I don’t believe anyone wakes up perfect and I take no comfort in the thought. I think that we do the best we can with what we’ve got and I think that’s no small thing.