A Foretaste of Heaven.
by Pastor Stephen Jones
This story describes a liturgical trip we took one morning across the eastern half of New York State. You might well ask how an automobile ride from Ithaca to Albany can be considered liturgical. Some say liturgy relates only to a formal Lord’s Service on Sunday morning, or at least to some sort of formal church ritual. But consider the book of Deuteronomy. It is highly structured liturgy, and at the same time it is a story with lots of life and action. It summarizes the journey through the wilderness taken by the children of Israel. Our story has similar qualities. It begins in the wilderness and goes on to replicate an ancient pattern of life. That pattern is reflected in the Lord’s Service, as first described in the book of Leviticus. A family brings their goat to the Temple for an atoning sacrifice and a meal. “Are you clean?” asks the priest. The goat is slain, skillfully divided with the priest’s knife, and burned on the altar, thus becoming a “sweet savour [ascending] unto the Lord.” The family feasts with the Lord and returns home to live more godly lives. Our story follows the pattern of the Lord’s Service. The Lord calls us, accepts our confession of sin, consecrates us with his Word, draws us to heaven and serves communion with us and, finally, commissions us to go and serve others. Our story is about a trip to the City of Alternity through the perspective of the Lord’s Service.
The call came on Thursday. “There’s a worthwhile conference at Paul’s church all day Saturday.”
It was John on the phone. “Yes, John,” I said, “I saw the notice. How about we go together?”
By Saturday, before six o’clock on a mid-August morning, John and I were traveling across Route 88 toward Albany, New York. Time and space will become important so I mention them here at the outset. Early in the trip we encountered a nasty detour just as I was about to share with John some thoughts about “Heaven.”
I think where believers will end up is not in heaven but rather a resurrected “new heaven,” “new earth,” and “New Jerusalem.” The Bible makes an important distinction between “Heaven” and the final destiny of our resurrected bodies. “Heaven” is the soul’s stopover with God while the body lies in the grave. When I speak of this interim, “stopover” phase, I will put “Heaven” in quotes and capitalize the word. Otherwise I’ll say just plain heaven. “Heaven” happens any time before the Second Coming, and it happens from the time we die a carnal death until the Second Coming of Christ on Judgment Day when, for good or ill, our bodies are resurrected. “Heaven” may be what Jesus refers to as being carried “into Abraham’s bosom,” but I’ll say more about that later. Christ’s Second Coming is also when history is slurped back into eternity, and God is “all in all.” At that twinkle of an eye, the blip from eternity into history and back again is over. “Heaven” is over, also, because God is “all in all” in eternity, which I am not calling “Heaven” but rather “Alternity.”
I need to sort some things out, and I hope to do so in this story.
History blips out of eternity and is slurped back into eternity. Please excuse my using those homey terms, but I don’t want to invent a whole new vocabulary in order to say these things….
Well, that is, except for the one new term: “Alternity.” Our final destination—the resurrection of our bodies, and our bodies’ reunion with our souls, and our body and souls’ reunion with God for the first time since Adam—I am calling Alternity. The name represents God’s eternal victory through Christ “when all things shall be subdued unto him….that God may be all in all.” Most letters of the words “All” and “eternity” are clear enough in my contraction, but the name, Alternity, is also appropriate in a story involving two men traveling to Albany, New York, early on one August morning. Albany was to become our New Jerusalem, our Celestial City, and our Alternity. Furthermore, for some readers it may be a helpful and biblical alternative to what they have considered to be their final destination as Christian believers.
Confession and Forgiveness
In the beginning was the fog. Just as a liturgical church service begins in a sort of fog as we are called in from the wicked world from which we, too, are a bit messed up, so it is that this morning’s journey began with a detour steeped in a thickening, “pea-soup” fog. Fortunately, John and I prayed together before we left on this trip, and in prayer we confessed our sins and sought God’s forgiveness.
“Are you clean?” asks the priest.
The nasty detour was a result of July’s flooding in upstate New York. A few people from a local trailer park were washed away by the Susquehanna River, and two truckers were killed when a bridge on Route 88 fell out from underneath them. Timing and placing: in this case being at the right place, given their personal plans, but at the wrong time—local waters were doing unusual things that day. The truckers were the only victims on Route 88 itself. They were not able to brake quickly enough and, consequently, they careened into the watery abyss and drowned. Now we were following foggy twists and turns over strange roads through this detour to get from the end of one section of unbroken highway to the beginning of another.
The flood was an awful time, but it was a part of God’s plan nevertheless. At the Temple in Jerusalem the family’s offering was brought to the priest, its throat cut, and the death of the goat became atonement for the sins of the family. The death of Christ is our substitute atonement. Beginning with confession and forgiveness we regularly renew the covenant promise with God. We, too—John and I—could have been washed away in such a flood. As it was we only suffered inconvenience because of this detour. It’s not that confessing and seeking God’s forgiveness prevents bad things from happening to us; rather they affirm our covenantal fellowship with God and with one another. They affirm our trust that, whatever things do happen to us, they “work together for good to them that love God [and] are the called according to his purpose.”
Consecration through the Word of God.
The detour came upon us just as the preaching and responsive dialogue between us began. Teaching and preaching the Word of God sorts us out—pierces “even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit” and discerns “the thoughts and intents of the heart”—just as the priest’s knife properly divides among the guts of a goat. This morning John and I would spend a lot of time reflecting on God’s Word and sorting out some things about heaven.
Our thoughts about heaven were related to the C. S. Lewis Narnia Story—a series of tales which are analogous to stories and teachings of the Bible. I was telling John about the last book of the series in which the protagonists, four heroic children from England, die in a horrendous railroad catastrophe. Along with many friends and family members the children are killed when a train veers off its rails at a sharp curve and ploughs through a station house and its platform. Friends, relatives, and the children are rightly placed, given everyone’s plans, but at the wrong time.
Lots of English friends die in that fictional accident of 1949, and in a recent upstate New York flood, many trailer residents plus two truckers died. Events of this sort are not usually intended by us. They are untimely from our perspective, and they are out of place and seem to arise from nowhere. They blip into time just as time blips into and then out of eternity. Also, the spacing of such events isn’t normal either. In an oddly similar way, time and location were coming together for John and me as we encountered the intrusive detour which took us miles out of the way and just as I’d finished relating some tidbits about Narnia and heaven.
“Do you think heaven is a cleansed earth?” I asked. “That seems to be what C. S. Lewis is saying.”
John is a thinker, and thinking takes time. At first I thought he hadn’t been listening. Maybe he’d drifted off somewhere into his own fertile imagination.
While John is still thinking or drifting, let me say that I also talked to him about Lewis’ metaphorical use of a strange wardrobe. Near the beginning of the first book in the Narnia series, Lewis gives us the wardrobe metaphor to help sort out time from eternity—at least it did that for me, whatever this author may have intended. The youngest of the English children, Lucy—still very much alive nine years before her death at the train station—enters the wardrobe of an old English mansion where she and her siblings escaped London during the German blitz early in World War II. She’s walking through the soft, fur coats of the wardrobe with “her arms stretched out in front of her so as not to bump her face into the back of the wardrobe.”
She never does bump a back wall. She enters Narnia instead. For Lucy there are no stumbling blocks in Narnia. Narnia is not only a different era than the 1940’s and a different land than England, but also, and more profoundly, Narnia is different TIME altogether and, ultimately, different SPACE altogether. In fact, Lucy, her sister, and two brothers, who have entered the wardrobe to avoid a wicked mistress, live and thrive in Narnia long enough for them to become kings and queens and rule for many years. When, later on, they exit the wardrobe, their wicked mistress is still talking with visitors down the hall of the English mansion. Fifteen years have gone by in Narnia, and only a few moments of time have passed since the children were avoiding the snare of the mistress.
I tell our church congregation that history and eternity may well be like that strange wardrobe experience. For all its time and space, history is a timeless blip in God’s eternal present. The historical stage may exit and enter eternity through an unimaginable, spaceless hole. God the Father speaks history, “His story,” into existence and creates a Bride—the church—for his Son. As Jonathan Edwards put it long ago, “The end, the ultimate end of the creation of God was to provide a spouse for His Son, Jesus Christ, who might enjoy Him, and on whom he might pour forth His love.” The children blipping from England for a few moments and into the relative forever of Narnia is a watered-down version of all of history blipping from eternity into “history” and then being slurped back into eternity so that “God may be all in all.” Lewis was a master of metaphors.
That’s about Lewis’ time metaphor. John still said nothing, and I enter his thinking or drifting on to remind him of Lewis’ space metaphor—a reverse onion. I knew John had once read the Narnia books so I could be brief.
“At the very end of the Narnia series Lewis has the children and all the talking animals—remember they already had died a carnal death—go ‘further up and further in’ toward what we call heaven and yet, oddly enough, they are always on earth. When they reach their destination, which is Lewis’ version of the final resurrection, Lucy’s oldest brother exclaims, ‘Why, it’s England!’ A friend of the children, who has already arrived, explains to them, ‘You are now looking at the England within England, the real England.…And in that inner England no good thing is destroyed.’”
Finally, John began speaking. “Yes,” he said, “I think that’s right. Heaven is that resurrected England—and our own resurrected worlds as well—where ‘no good thing is destroyed.’”
“When I read that, John, and finally got it, I was stunned. Maybe I finally understood because I was reading to my grandchildren, and we were exchanging ideas. In any case, it was an inspiration for me. I never thought about heaven in that way before.”
John nodded. “So when you ask me whether heaven is a cleansed earth, I think, ‘Yes, definitely, it is!’ I agree with the vision of Lewis. Heaven is sort of a cleaned up continuation of where and what we are now. And, of course, in heaven, we’re in the presence of God just like Adam and Eve were in Paradise before the Fall.”
My question to John had been a “feeler.” I didn’t expect this answer, and I was pleased . By starting on this common ground maybe we could make some progress.
“Saint Peter’s fire is a metaphor about that cleansing,” John went on. “Peter talks about the day of the Lord when the heavens shall pass away and the earth also, and all the works shall be burned. This could mean the great tribulation of 70 AD when God judged Jerusalem and Judea by the fires of war, and the new covenant emerged full blown. But I think the fires of heaven and earth also refer to a final covenant—the resurrection of our bodies and of the earth—the new heavens, the new earth, and the New Jerusalem.”
“So the fire is about cleansing and change—?”
The fog was becoming thicker and the detour more complicated.
John was warming to the conversation—our consecration. “Peter says that we look for, ‘new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwells righteousness.’ All this started with the resurrection and ascension of Christ and the subsequent judgment of ancient Israel forty years later in 70 AD, and it will be consummated with Christ’s Second Coming.”
We were now in the very deep fog of a most confusing part of the detour. I’d already gone the wrong way twice. How many times in less tragic ways are we like the engineer on that English train! How quickly and easily we follow a plan of our own devising only to find that the turn is wrong, the fog too thick, the signs too vague, or the speed around a curve is just a bit too much—all in a plan that is not really our own. Often our surprise at what happens tells us that.
The last story about Narnia goes on about the same venturesome children, even though now they are “dead”. Lewis once again takes them to Narnia but then has them take an amazing journey to be with Christ—or his Christ-figure, Aslan, a lion. This final journey that Lewis writes about is what we’re calling Alternity, our final destination.
Just as the wardrobe metaphor helped me to sort out historical time from eternity, so now Lewis presents a reverse-onion metaphor to help me sort out spatial possibilities. In his imaginative foray into new heavens and the new earth, space flip-flops. Space in eternity must be, like time’s eternal present, both an infinitely tiny dot and an infinitely extending line—shrinking or exploding dimensions of any sort. To express, space wise, what we can’t experience in our old heavens and old earth, Lewis describes a “garden that is far bigger inside than it was outside….The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets—like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.” Often people have an idea of heaven as up and out into some floaty existence as some sort of spiritual vapor, but Lewis gets closer to the truth when he refers to the journey as “up and in.” All the up-ness is still earthward, but the in-ness is our disappearing in a smallness that, like his reverse-onion picture, diminishes into bigness. Another peek at eternal space is Augustine’s saying to God, “Even if the vessels [which are full of you] break, you will not be spilt.”
Phase 1 of our journey: Earth.
John and I didn’t know it at the time, but in our own morning’s journey, the detour was a metaphor representing history, earth, time—the City of Destruction in Bunyan’s famous story or the City of Rome for Augustine. The detour is the first fixed point in our story and the first phase of our morning’s journey. We are muddled in a detour on Route 88 but we are heading for Albany, Alternity—the Celestial City. The detour, now, is life here on our present earth for which the Lord Jesus asks us to pray that God’s “will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” The detour is seeing “through a glass darkly,” but seeing nevertheless. History is “the valley of the shadow of death.” Indeed, Lewis calls earth the “Shadowlands,” and history is like a dream from which we will awaken to the real thing, eternity, and exist forever in bodies strong enough to endure forever—that is, our glorified bodies. We believing Christians will exist in Aternity as glorified, “spiritual bodies,” in a sort of eternal prime of our lives.
When the children went still “further up and further in” at the very end of the last book in the Narnia series, they “gasped with amazement and shouted out and began waving: for they saw their own father and mother, waving back at them across the great, deep valley.” We learn that, in the final destination described by Lewis, parents and friends who had aged and died long ago were very young in their bodily resurrection—“young and merry as….from very early days.”
Our conversation continued.
“It fascinates me, John, that the Eternal All, Alternity—can we call it that?—will be a glorified and purified version of everything holy right here on earth and in history.”
“Yes,” John said as the car jerked slowly down a hill that seemed to have no relation to Route 88. “Yes,” he repeated, “I think the same thing. A few weeks ago, when you asked whether your dog, Scrapper, would be in heaven—in Alternity—I answered ‘Yes’ without hesitation. For me, Bach’s music will be there.”
“My friend from Alabama says a glorified version of his family garden will be there. He says that’s what Paul means when, in First Corinthians, he speaks of the ‘gold, silver, and precious stones’ that will be purified by the fire. What my friend says, though—and this is what has got me thinking—is that heaven is not referring to that end state. Heaven does not refer to our final destination. Heaven is not the end of all things, but rather the time after death when our souls go to be with the Lord and our bodies ‘sleep’ in the grave.
“Here,” I said, reaching into my shirt pocket for a piece of paper. “Read this. It’s a copy of some thoughts he sent to me. I am hoping to check it out with someone at the conference today.”
John took the paper and read it aloud.
“‘Now let me share with you an idea that is still very fuzzy for me,’” my friend had written, “‘an idea that is still very immature and in its infancy. So take what I say with a grain of salt. The idea is this: heaven is not our ultimate destination, but only a temporary destination until the resurrection. When we die, we go to heaven to be with the Lord, but only temporarily, waiting for the final Second Coming of Christ when "He shall come to judge the living and the dead." We confess every Sunday, "I believe in the resurrection of the body." But the resurrection makes no sense if our final destination is heaven. The resurrection obviously has not yet taken place since the dead bodies of all the saints are still in the ground.’”
John looked up to see if I was still engaged and then continued reading.
“‘Yet we confess their souls are in heaven with the Lord. Jesus made this clear to the thief on the cross. But, Jesus was the first fruits of the resurrection. His body saw no decay. Thomas apparently understood the difference between seeing Christ's resurrected body and simply seeing a spirit. So he said, “I won't believe unless I see the nail prints in His hands.” Thomas actually understood the resurrection better than we do today! The empty tomb, the nail prints in Christ's hands, and his asking his disciples in Luke 24:41, “Do you have anything here to eat?” are all evidences of a resurrected body, not a disembodied soul.
“‘Also, in Revelation 21, I don't see earth destroyed, but rather a transformation to the new heaven and new earth. The New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven, presumably coming down to earth. So God's created earth is not annihilated, but rather has a very different existence than how we know it today. In fact, it no longer needs the sun since God Himself is the light (verse 23 of Revelation 21).’”
Our own morning’s sun slowly was making its way out now to mark what would become an extraordinary series of events on our journey to Albany.
“‘There is a much more intimate connection between heaven and earth here in Revelation 21 than we understand today, but central to this connection is Jesus Christ.’”
I interrupted John’s reading. “He and I talked about that as what we called ‘Solomon’s dilemma.’ In the middle of his prayer of dedication of the Temple, Solomon seems almost to interrupt himself and ask, ‘But will God in very deed dwell with men on earth?’ With all his wisdom Solomon couldn’t really fathom the incarnation—God as man on earth. How could time fit with eternity? How could infinity fit with finiteness? It would take Christ to resolve Solomon’s dilemma for all of us.”
“Yes,” John waved the paper in the air. “And the letter goes on to show that ‘more intimate connection’ through Christ.”
He resumed the reading. “‘God, in Christ Jesus, has become "all in all" as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:28. So one can say they are, in fact, in heaven here, but they cannot say they are not on earth! Is this not the fulfillment of what Jesus taught us to pray in Matt 6:10, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven"—?’”
John looked up from the paper and said, “Here’s a good example of ‘Already and not yet.’ Heaven is here on earth where God’s chosen people are building the kingdom now.”
“Yes,” I said, “‘building the kingdom’ in the sense that the kingdom is in us, through the Holy Spirit, and the kingdom is expressed through us and plays itself out eternally. Presumably what we do that is God’s perfect will expressed in us becomes eternal. Our ‘gold, silver, and precious stones’ withstand the cleansing fires that Peter describes and become eternal.”
“Okay, I think that’s right. And that’s the ‘not yet’ piece of the puzzle. What we’re building now is ‘already’ but there is more to come—the consummation of God’s plan—so what we’re building now is ‘already’ but it is also ‘not yet.’
“But what I wonder,” John was saying, “is whether it’s just our ‘gold, silver, and precious stones’ that’s involved in God’s building through us. What about our ‘wood, hay, and stubble’?”
“That’s a good question. And related to that is the question, what about the ungodly who are destined for hell? Clearly, the Bible says that we are God’s ‘workmanship,’ and the ‘epistle[s] of Christ,’ but I do think that our wood, hay, and stubble as well as the lives of the ungodly are used in God’s building plan for the kingdom. Everything and everyone is a part of the plan!”
“Even Satan.” John laughed. “If God uses Satan to scrub up Job, why not use our sin as well as unregenerate sinners to create his perfect kingdom?”
“Yes, and he surely does use the unbelievers—the ‘vessels of wrath,’ even those who are ‘fitted to destruction’—in other words, those going to hell.”
“And all of that that is happening here on the present earth. That is happening before the cleansing fires which consume the wood, hay, and stubble, and before our final destiny.”
“The wheat and tares grow together in the already and not yet,” I said.
“But all are sorted out by the time of the yet,” said John still laughing and finishing my thought.
Our excitement during this conversation of consecration was growing.
“Right!” I exclaimed, “and, to go back to what you were saying, the ‘not yet’ becomes the ‘yet’ following the resurrection of our glorified bodies and the glorifying of the earth through the cleansing fires that Peter speaks of.”
“Hallelujah! Long live the eternal Yet!”
“Yessir!” We laughed together.
Even powerful events can occur long before we are conscious of them. A passionate athlete can finish the game with a freshly broken bone, and then discover his pain later on in the locker room. So it was now that we remained oblivious to subtle changes in ourselves and our surroundings. In retrospect these changes probably began with the sun filtering through the fog. Never could we have imagined that during this morning of our journey the sun would be replaced!
“You know, Pastor. Right now I’m glad for the story of talking trees in chapter nine of Judges. It gives us biblical license for speculative stories…. But let me get back to the paper.”
As I chuckled at his comment, John continued reading from my friend’s letter. “‘I think almost all preaching today is way too focused on escaping earth and going to heaven. This may be why most churches today have abandoned the Apostles’ Creed. The resurrection of the body simply doesn't make any sense to them under their Gnostic ideas of heaven and escaping this wicked earth. But God made us creatures as a part of this earth. We are tied to the land. The Old Testament patriarchs understood this; thus, land for a burial place (rather than cremation as practiced by the false religions) was very important to them.’
“Whew!” John whispered, lowering the paper to his lap. “I wish my ‘fuzzy’ ideas were as clear as this.”
“Yes. Me too.”
“I’ve often wondered if Paul has in mind such an in-between state—a state between our carnal bodies now and our resurrected bodies.” John handed the paper back to me and continued with his thought. “In Second Corinthians, chapter five, Paul uses the word ‘naked’ in verse 3 and ‘unclothed’ in verse 4, and I think he means without being dressed with any sort of body. Our souls are temporarily naked. When we die our souls are bodiless, like your friend is saying. In verse 8 Paul says he is willing to be ‘absent from the body’—any body, carnal or resurrected—‘to be present with the Lord.’”
“We become the ‘dead in Christ,’” I said.
“Yes, that’s true, and those ‘dead in Christ’ surely are in the grave because Paul also says that they ‘shall rise.’”
“His meaning is to rise from the grave.”
“Right, and if we die before Christ’s return, our bodies are in the grave, yet we are ‘absent from the body.’ We are, literally, a disembodied soul but ‘present with the Lord.’ Notice that our person, our soul—the ‘I’ for Paul and the ‘we’ for us—is now not united with the body. It’s an extraordinary, but temporary, state. That union of body and soul comes again with the resurrection in Alternity, when God is ‘all in all’ in eternity.”
“Yes,” I replied becoming drawn in by the possibility of penetrating more deeply into something that had been vague. “And remember that Paul said that such a temporary state, as we’re calling it, would be ‘swallowed up by life.’ We go from the interim place, state, condition, whatever—what the Bible refers to as ‘Heaven’—to a true life after death and that’s why we confess every Sunday that ‘We believe in the resurrection of the body.’ Carnal death becomes a doorway to eternal life that is unimaginable in its glory.”
“One. Two. Three. Earth. ‘Heaven.’ Alternity.”
Phase 2 of our journey: “Heaven.”
The fog was beginning to lift and the sunlight filtering through the separating clouds. We’re moving into the second phase of our journey, and this phase I am calling ‘Heaven.’ In our One-Two-Three scheme, the detour itself is God’s kingdom on Earth, and the coming out of the detour is “Heaven.” How clearing fog and brilliant streaks of sunlight became a metaphor for “Heaven” has no more rationale than the coincidence of these climatic changes happening at this particular point in our conversation about heaven, as well as presenting us with that kaleidoscope of rainbow colors that is often associated with heavenly themes, starting with scripture itself.
Our highway progress was well along the way by now. We’d left the detour after some uncomfortable bounces through a temporary, here-to-there entrance to the highway which was rougher than the worst of logging roads in these hills. The tragic circumstances of the flood apparently demanded such a make-shift, cob-job of highway access. Now, however, we were back on smooth pavement, and returned to the main point of our conversation.
I said, “I think Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man is about that in-between state. Our bodies are in the grave, and our souls are with the Lord—Father Abraham.”
“Bur if Lazarus were only a soul, why did he have a finger for dipping?” John asked.
“I’ve wondered about that. In fact, there are lots of bodily references in this story, but I chalk them up to the story being a parable. Remember that both men are in the grave, yet the soul of Lazarus is with the Lord and the soul of the rich man is in hell. Either they each have two bodies, or one body is metaphorical. I think it’s the latter, don’t you? It’s a metaphorical finger!”
“Well, maybe our immortal bodies have nothing to do with what’s rotting in the grave…. No, that doesn’t work.” I saw John glance at me and nod his head. “It’s that rotting body—‘the dead in Christ’—that shall rise and ‘ever be with the Lord.’”
All this time we were so engrossed in our mental efforts that we failed to notice the strange realities of the climatic changes surrounding us.
“Besides,” John continued, “the Book of Matthew says that, on the afternoon of the cross, ‘the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose.’ I doubt there was any rotting carcass remaining in those graves.”
“Yes. That’s right. Those bodies are mortal. They are resurrected but not yet eternal. Our present earth hasn’t yet become a new earth, even though the seeds of change have been planted with the death of Christ. Those bodies rising from the grave on the afternoon of the cross are a kind of preview of our three phases of the kingdom of heaven: One. Two. Three. Earth. ‘Heaven.’ Alternity.”
“Okay,” said John. “I think I’ve had a similar picture of things. Certainly in the final resurrection, our ‘spiritual bodies’ aren’t wispy and ghost-like, as in Gnostic thinking, but they are infinitely more solid than we are on this present earth. The resurrection brings about the terra firma of our bodies. After all we’re going to last forever. Come to think of it, John the Revelator first ‘saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus’ and then “saw a new heaven and a new earth.’”
“And by then,” I added, “‘the first heaven and the first earth’—the ones we live in and are struggling with now—‘were passed away.’”
“At that point Saint John is carried away to a ‘great and high mountain’ and he sees ‘the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.’”
“Is that the second phase in our scheme?” I asked.
“I don’t think so. That’s number three. That’s Alternity, so in our scheme it’s number three. The first phase is right now, when we live in God’s kingdom on earth. The second phase—which occurs during the same earth time as the first phase—is about our bodiless souls before the ‘resurrection of the body.’ In our scheme it’s just ‘Heaven.’”
“Yes,” I said. “So what we’re saying is that the present kingdom of heaven on earth is phase one. It becomes Alternity forever—phase three with a stopover for our souls alone—phase two, which lasts until the Second Coming at the end of history.”
“And all this means that things aren’t so much destroyed and made again in a totally different form as they are restored in a cleaned up, sinless, and permanent form.”
“Yes. God’s original creation is restored, and it’s restored with all the good things which God has ‘added’ since the ‘beginning,’ though they were all a part of his eternal plan. No good thing is destroyed, as Lewis says. Every good thing is resurrected and invested with Life to the fullest, which includes permanence.”
“Sooo,” John intoned in a whistle, “where we believing Christians end up is a whole lot more continuous with where we are than we generally imagine.”
“Yes. Paradise plus the good things of history and minus sin….. And that includes the good things in our own lives.”
“That’s Alternity.” We already were getting used to this new word.
“Now we only get a glimpse of it—maybe most especially at the Lord’s Table,” I said. “At the Lord’s Supper we have ascended into the heavenlies with God.”
In my thoughts I was recalling that during my first years of going to church—which happened to me as a very lost man in his mid forties—our pastor never served the Lord’s Table because we were never ready for it. Having been an adulterer, an idolater, a drunkard, a liar, and a cheat—just for starters—and leaving both broken wives and broken children in my sinful wake, I could only agree that I wasn’t “worthy” of the Table. I did wonder, however, about the small handful of uneducated and poor black folks who made up the rest of our church. Their trust in Jesus was simple and profound. I have rarely encountered such trust and dependency since that early experience. I guess, however, that simplicity—or at least a lack of formal education—was the problem. There was some confusion about Paul’s “let a man examine himself” from first Corinthians, chapter 11. We weren’t sure what to examine or whether we were good enough examinees to get beyond “the fence”—that is, the fence that would keep us from participating in the Lord’s Supper. It’s the way many churches still view their children. Interestingly, this was a self-inflicted limitation among the congregation: We love the Lord, but don’t know enough to be sure of his Supper! Also, it turned out the pastor was spawning mulatto babies in town so he must have had his own struggles with the Table. Whatever the real reasons, we all believed you had to earn your way to the Table or get clobbered by God. It was easier just to forget the whole thing. Nobody got hurt that way. So for the first seven years of my going to church, I’d never been to the Lord’s Table. Now, many years and many changes later, we go to the Table every week—not because I want to make up for lost time! It’s simply the high point of the Lord’s Service, and we love it!
Apparently John, also, had been thinking about the Table. He said, “That ascent to the Table and eating with the Lord becomes so vivid as a heavenly picture that I think that, as we lose the practice of the sacrament, we lose also our intimacy with heaven. I’ve often wondered why it is that what we generally imagine about heaven is pretty vague for believers and pretty boring for nonbelievers.”
“You mean souls without bodies flying around in vapor somewhere, and singing—?
“Something like that.”
“And maybe our ignorance has something to do with a general fading out of practicing the Lord’s Supper in our present Christian culture—?”
If we could have seen beyond our preoccupied minds, we would have noticed a spectacular view beginning to take place outside our car windows. But, lost in our abstractions as we were, we didn’t see it, at least not yet, not quite yet….
“Do you think that people have been more attracted by the idea of not going to hell than by notions of heaven?”
“Well,” said John with a sigh. “I think it’s a sure thing that the New Testament is painting a much more glorious picture of heaven than we’ve ever been able to frame.”
I smiled at his wording and mused, “We don’t say much about it. It’s been two millennia since the New Testament was written, and not much has ever been said at all about heaven.”
“And what’s said is more out of our popular mythology than from the New Testament.”
“So, then, what’s the big deal about heaven?!” I exclaimed
“I’m not sure there is much of a big deal.”
“Yes, but also for two millennia, as you say. We’ve never really gotten hold of what we call heaven.” John took a long pause, and then said slowly, “We may have been missing some of the greatest glory of the Good News by downplaying Alternity. I wonder why….”
Some time passed.
“What will it be like?” John asked, returning to driftings that never had fully left his mind. “The in-between phase—what will ‘Heaven’ be like, when our souls are with the Lord and our bodies are in the grave? Will there be time there?” John was speaking very gently and very slowly—like John but also unlike John.
“Time, yes,….” I struggled for an answer. “But also eternity will be phasing in. Here on earth the time of our soul’s being with the Lord is the time from our carnal death until the second coming of Christ. But the ‘time’ in that ‘Heaven’ with God may be like an extended time wandering through Lucy’s wardrobe. It’s not timeless but a different kind of time. Think of it this way. It’s not time as in the seconds of a ticking clock, not normal earth-time. But rather it’s time as determined by whatever must happen during that heavenly phase. The rich man’s talk with Father Abraham may have taken all the time the rich man had between his own carnal death and Christ’s Second Coming. Does that sound weird?
“But here’s something even weirder: After his very thirsty hell in the stopover phase, the rich man would be resurrected into a new hell—‘the resurrection of damnation.’ Why not?”
“Hmmm. ‘A new hell’ like ‘a new heaven.’ We’d better leave that one alone.”
Apparently John was considering what I’d said about time in “Heaven.” He suddenly clapped his hands together and blurted out, “So in ‘Heaven’ the events determine the nature of time rather than fixed time bounding the events!”
“I guess that’s what I am saying…. I think I see it but don’t yet have the words to say it.”
Now we would shift from time to space as John asked, “What will this ‘Heaven’—this way station to Alternity—look like?”
No answer came immediately because of what was going on just outside of our inside focus. By now the climate around us was nudging with more insistence. “Hello,” it said to our preoccupied minds. “Is anybody home?”
Hey! What is going on out there?!
The darkness of the deep fog had gradually become a very faint, early-morning glimmer of light which continued to brighten as we traveled. The fog was breaking up, in patches at first, and then beginning to swirl and move in the gentle breezes from the warms and cools intermingling outside our windows, like smoke from a wizard’s pipe.
Soon this misty world began breaking into a variety of colors. The colors were faint at first, then growing brighter and deeper and sorting out like a rainbow detached from all moorings. Here a golden yellow ribbon, there string-like sea-greens and sea-blues and purples unraveling; here a lavender eel sinuous in water, there pale ruddy hues, oranges and pinks snaking, spraying up and over then downward again. The medley of colors was fluent and impressive, visually vague, and an opaque covering to the world outside.
I thought I heard John repeat his question.
“What will ‘Heaven’ look like?”
Now my answer came quickly.
“Like that!” I said, indicating with a sweep of both arms life outside the car. Like me, John seemed to notice that my hands remained off the steering wheel, but he said nothing about it. Imagine riding with somebody whose hands are off the steering wheel and saying nothing…. It was very strange…. John was going through a metamorphosis right there beside me in the car. So was I, and all of it corresponding to the puzzling changes in the consecrated universe around us.
Ascent and Communion.
I need to tell you flat-out here that most of the rest of the story may be pure fantasy. Saint Paul himself wasn’t sure if his visions of a third heaven were “in the body, or out of the body.” In a similar way, our journey becomes very strange with respect to normal “body-ness,” and you might want to be prepared for that. In reply to the question of whether his experience was “in the body” or “out of the body,” Paul says, “I cannot tell.” I’m not sure what was going on with John and me either, but as I write about it I’m well aware that it certainly was not a normal trip to Albany!
Phase 3 of our journey: Alternity.
Here we begin the third phase of our One-Two-Three Scheme and the metaphor goes far beyond the simplicity of a detour—representing the kingdom of heaven on Earth, or of the fog breaking up—representing ‘Heaven’ before our bodies and souls are reunited and the end comes. This third phase becomes a metaphor that seems to explode in all directions. For example, at right about this time we began to notice that we, too, were rising—We were rising off of the highway!!—and that the fog was doing something more than lifting and being streaked by the sun’s rays. We would have been more astonished except that we, also, were changing and seeming to fit the changing conditions around us. It’s as though we had been talking our way to Alternity, and words were now coming alive.
Our journey entered a sea of changes. Our conversation ceased, and the consecration—the teaching and learning—in this liturgical journey had come to an end. The changes in what we saw and heard around us were more than matched by the changes in ourselves. The fish doesn’t know the water until he’s outside and drying, but at least our changes were of a happy sort and not that of a drying fish.
The droning of the highway was disappearing. A little gray dog was in the back seat. It was my dead dog, Scrapper, come to life again. My wife, Mitzi, and John’s wife, Abby, were hitch-hiking in the air above the ground, and we “picked them up,” so to speak. Soon they were petting Scrapper in the back seat. Even the back seat was going through a metamorphosis. I, too, was changing, and these curious events were almost becoming a matter of course. (Mitzi calls this sort of thing “curly thinking,” and I wonder what it’s like, now, for her being alive right here in the midst of a curly thought. Abby, too; for John’s imagination stretches more than mine.)
From somewhere, a Bach concerto began to play softly. There was no other sound except the sound of the colors, soft and rhythmic and oddly in harmony with the concerto, and yet a vastly different counterpoint to the music.
“John, look!” Something was so astounding as to wake me from this reverie.
Away in the distance an object was coming down from the heavenlies. It was tiny-looking at such a great distance but growing rapidly as it descended. Our speed on earth accelerated far beyond our control.
The far away object in the sky was a Cube—a huge Cube. No, it was more than that. We soon could see that it was far beyond “huge.” As we approached from the west we saw the colors from the clearing fog move toward a high and massive wall of the Cube. We were able to see this descending Cube only because of the strange upward tilt of our car and the fact that our car was shedding its metallic skin. The colors of golden yellow and sea greens and blues and rusts and reds, carried by slow-motion brushes, now tinged the western wall of the Cube as they flowed through a special prism and onto the wall’s surface, making clear lines of demarcation. The separating rays of the sun mingling in the fog seemed to both be painting and changing, in the same motion, the walls of the Cube. All this is hard to describe. Forgive me if the approach of heaven seems more like an old-time Disney movie.
Written names appeared on the western wall which was visible to us. First, the name “Bartholomew” was written in the yellow area, then “Thomas” in the sea greens and sky blues, and finally “Matthew” in the rusty reds and oranges. As the descending Cube began to overshadow hundreds of miles of earth in all directions around us, Gates appeared among the sets of color and there were names for each Gate—“Gad,” “Asher,” and “Naphtali.” They were tribal names from the first and ancient “Israel of God.” As the Cube settled to the earth all of its boundaries were softly permeable, and we were disappearing on the inside. Rushing winds and colorful sounds gently stroked us all around as we passed through the boundaries and into a space which, like Lewis said, was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. We continued moving east, toward Albany which became the new Albany, the true Alternity, after the Cube settled to earth.
Now, on the inside of the Cube, we were engulfed as if by invisible fur coats from a wardrobe. We were hugged and cherished. We were cuddled by every shading of sight and sound, of taste and touch. We were becoming a sweet-smelling savour unto the Lord. The scene was transformed into unspeakable radiance and glory, yet it remained very strangely similar to upstate New York. There were glistening green hills in the new morning light and dew. There were trees, like always, yet they were dancing and laughing with us. There was a wide highway becoming a golden pavement and then more like a genie’s carpet carrying us, gently undulating underneath us, heading eastward and rising slightly. The hills became far larger than usual, and we saw them at a vast distance that also seemed very close. The trees were both alive and life-giving and we could see their outsides, their insides, and all sides all at once.
These transformations involved us as well as the trees and the hills and the highway. I wasn’t the same and neither was John. Albany was far, far away, yet we saw it so close that it seemed as though we might crash into the twin towers of the government buildings at any moment. Our eyes were changing. Our minds were changing. Our wives were changing. Sixty-year-old Mitzi and thirty-year-old Abby were the same age and ageless, laughing behind us on the carpet. Scrapper had died the week before our present journey, but now he was running from side to side like a puppy. We could taste and smell and see the Bach music. The spacious carpet narrowed to a golden artery drawing us ahead and toward the Eternal City, this transformed Albany, New York.
Children began to appear in front of us. They were also moving toward Alternity. They became guides. Susannah came first. She’s the youngest member of our church, and the youngest daughter of John and Abby. Her face was the same as it had always been with her luminous sea-green eyes and brilliant strawberry-golden hair. She appeared in her same tiny 5-month body. Yet here was an ancient Susannah—walking and talking and floating near us while she pointed the way toward the City. We were following her and the many children with her guiding the way to the City.
Young Rasaiah—Sister Hattie’s great, great grandson—now sported what we once called an “Afro” hair-do, and his eyes, radiant with joy, had lost the look of mischief and wariness. He, too, was directing us toward the City. I did not recognize Martha Jones, my granddaughter, at first because the wisp of curly, yellow hair that for almost two years has been tied in a blue bow, had given way to long, wavy curls covering the back of her neck. “Who is that?” I asked and then answered my own question as Martha, also, showed the way to the City. Baptized children from our church were the first to guide us—the children I’ve mentioned plus Mercy, Millie, Anika, Isaac, Kenya, Juan and others—but then there were many other children, thousands of them and more, all urging us toward the City, now lit from within by the Light of Holiness. We never really noticed the sun’s translation into the Light, other than the light’s increasing brilliance. Later on, I would reflect upon not noticing that there was no more sun, but not now.
We were floating, and the speed was the new earth moving rapidly beneath us more than our own moving above the earth. Albany, becoming Alternity, began sweeping under us. It was recognizable as Albany and was made by men, through God, with the gold and silver and precious stones of their believing lives. We were reminded of this description from The Pilgrim’s Progress: “It was built of pearls and precious stones; also the streets thereof were paved with gold, so that by reason of the natural glory of the City, and the reflection of the sun-beams upon it, Christian [the pilgrim] fell sick with desire.” Indeed, we were mesmerized and in a reverie. We felt light-headed and our hearts burned within us as we were drawn inexorably toward a destination somewhere within the boundaries of Alternity. We, too, were sick with desire, an exquisite yearning that became unbearable as we neared and then entered the intense center of the Light.
Everything has become present now and seemingly everywhere, yet not at all muddled. Nothing is moving into memory, and we are waiting for nothing. The radiance increases as we float toward the heart of Alternity. The Light is so brilliant that without our own changes we fear that we would cease to exist in its blaze. The new earth has stopped rushing beneath us. Held by a warm and invisible hand, we are drawn by the children toward a Throne and a long Table. The Table is translucent and made of pearl. It extends from just beyond where we are hovering and on to the Throne of God.
The children glide to the ground and beckon us to follow. We wander behind them along a River of living water, clear as crystal and bordered by the Trees of Life. As we walk, we have no weight and our effortless strides carry us slightly aloft until our toes touch the ground once again for another stride. The Table is as far away as the joy we have traversing the earth and coming nearer to the Throne behind it. Our destination is pillows on which we recline to feast with the Lord. We lie down on the empty places indicated by the children, and they lie down with us. Our feelings of desire are calmed in their fulfillment.
We gaze, helpless and surrendered, at the wonders before us. We are filled with a peace beyond understanding, with a joy beyond speech, and with a love beyond knowledge. We are eating the bread and drinking the wine served by the Lord to his new Bride. A growing multitude is joining us at the Table. The Table extends to accommodate all the people finding new places. The greater numbers and greater distances function to draw us all together with an intimacy that softens distinctions among ourselves yet makes us more uniquely loved than ever before. The meaning of covenant replaces the requirements of space.
We see infants and children and many adults among the children. We see nursing mothers, and fathers who are very animated toward their children. We see young and old and people from every tribal color and nation. We see people who were once alone and now settled into families. We see cattle and sheep and other friends of God who are under man’s dominion, running with joy, like Scrapper, or grazing in fields near the River and its streams. We see familiar Christian believers whom we have known, but then we see many, many more people who appear and are familiar only because of their holiness. We see Jesus.
Nothing appears to change, yet we go “further up and further in” to a peak, as though we are “caught up into paradise.”
Jesus is at the Throne with his Father, but he is also sitting across from me, beside me, and within me, and that is true for everyone else around the unlimited Table. Jesus breaks the bread from a never ending loaf, and he serves each of us from an ever-filling Cup. Jesus shows us how they dipped the sop in the olden days, and it isn’t quite as I imagined. Jesus lays hands on us and blesses us, especially the children. Jesus comforts us all with his being and with his words. Jesus does something special with every one of us, seemingly all at once.
Now he is talking with John who holds Susannah in one arm and Mildred in the other. Jesus is expressing his enjoyment of how John holds his little daughters like he would hold two small barrels of the best wine. John whispers something to his oldest tot and nothing happens at first. Her face crushes shyly into her father’s shoulder. He whispers again, and this time he nibbles her ear and kisses her neck. She giggles and wriggles and, finally, with exquisite seriousness, she raises her head toward the Lord and says softly, “Thank you, Jesus, for supper.”
At the peak we have a foretaste of things “so great and beautiful that I can not write them” and we “heard unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”
Such a foretaste of Alternity, ultimately, is in time, and so we must descend again and return to the world. It’s still not yet, and we must leave the Table. Now, on the way back down, mortality returns and with our mortal lives come fresh new tears. Tears of joy, yes, and tears of relief, but tears nevertheless.
I think of John holding his little ones. Or was that me holding my own tiny children of yesteryear? Was that me holding the dear children I once neglected and failed? Was that me finally lifting up the children I never brought before Jesus?
Is that me, now, so forgiven that I am both a grandfather holding my grandchildren before Jesus and a father holding my children before Jesus?
How could he die for me and so totally forgive me?
It’s agonizing to think about and, on the way down, I weep a little at first and then am awash in my own tears. Each new time at the Table, like this, there are further cleansings and deepening desires to serve the Lord. Like any living sacrifice we have been carved up, consecrated, and changed, and we have been further prepared for God’s work. Like ancient families leaving the Tabernacle, we return home to live more godly lives.
“Thank you, Jesus, for supper.”
Sending us on a Commission.
During supper, Jesus told us to return and tell others about our journey. That is why I am writing this account.
After the journey: the not yet of going back home.
Yesterday’s journey toward Alternity was a wonderful Lord’s Service with the Table as a sublime preview of “the marriage supper of the Lamb.”
Today is Sunday, the Day of the Lord. Today at the benediction, when we asked the Lord to make us “perfect in every good work….through the blood of the everlasting covenant,” there was a vivid significance to those familiar words, “the everlasting covenant.” Through our own sweet Narnia of yesterday we had new eyes to see the meaning of the church in history. We could see how we, living in this “blip” into history which began nearly eight thousand years ago, must await and yearn for the “slurp” back into eternity at the Second Coming of Christ. Through yesterday’s journey we had new ears to hear the liturgy of the Lord’s covenant renewal worship singing the refrains of our own daily lives. We could hear with fresh sensitivities the psalms calling us to confession, consecration, communion, and commission and setting the patterns for the whole of our lives. With renewed vigor we could say “Amen!” to knowing “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.” Each new service of covenant renewal, each new struggle with his Word, and each fresh, patterned journey of going to Alternity keep before us the meaning and hope of our daily, suffering lives in Christ. In Christ, we slowly fulfill the promise toward Eternal Life.
Now, the Lord’s Service is over for this week. We leave and go forward, breaking bread from house to house and eating with gladness and singleness of heart, as the Lord adds “to the church daily such as should be saved.” New believers see Christ and rejoice to join us at the Table. A dying ember is sparked, and an old, old flame lightens our own pagan City of Ithaca. In Christ, we renew the covenant renewing us, as the earth is filling with the knowledge of the Lord. Already we look forward to next Sunday’s service but, for now, there’s much work to do.