Saturday, March 26, 2016

I don't believe in Heaven

Samantha Muljat, Bloodbankdesign
Full disclosure: my last blog, "I don't believe in God," was really just a set-up for this one. I realized that the things I wanted to say here needed to be prefaced by the things I said there.

So, now that you've read the last one (because of course you read every single thing I write--of course!), you can properly understand what I really want to be saying this week.

Like most weeks for me, this one has come with a somber reflection on death. I think about it a lot. Wow, I am actually going to die. What does that mean? Is there something after death? I can't be certain that there is. It could just be nothingness. But, my god, what is nothingness like?! I don't want to cease to exist! I love life! But I could die at any minute. I make plans, but I could die today, or tomorrow. There's no guarantee that I will live a long life. And even then, I'm still eventually going to die.

This is usually the point where I almost start crying and I feel the need to change the subject. That happened this week. But then I thought, No, I need to come up with an answer to this problem. I can't just be ignoring it forever. I need to console myself, to, like David, encourage myself in the Lord (I Sam 30:6).

So here is my modest attempt at a kind of self-consolation.

Starting where I left off in the last blog, I'll reiterate that we as Christians makes ourselves vulnerable and sensitive to the in-breaking of God, to the moment of God's revelation. We anticipate God's revelation, and orient our lives around that anticipation. In this, we don't believe in God, but God happens.

I don't believe in the afterlife the same way that I don't believe in God: I can't.

Just as we tend to think of God as someone finite, we tend to think of the afterlife as something finite. Yes, we understand it as lasting forever and so infinite, but we still conceptualize it as more life, or more temporality. It's that thing we experience now, just longer.

Additionally, in the church's imagination, Heaven is basically just the fulfillment of human desire. Everything will be covered in gold. All our dreams will come true. We will be constantly happy, and whatever. (You can begin to understand why some people think of heaven simply as wish-fulfillment.)

But, unfortunately, as with God, we have no real reference point for Heaven. In order to believe something, we have to know the object of that belief, but we don't for Heaven. We've never experienced anything like eternity. All we can say is that when we die we will experience eternal life, whatever that means.

And so, just as we should live our lives making ourselves vulnerable to the happening of God's revelation, we should orient ourselves around the anticipation of eternal life. Believing in eternal life is really just saying Yes to surrender, to the mystery of death.

Death is ultimate surrender, even if uninvited (and oh, how it is uninvited). It is also ultimate mystery. What happens after death is, for us, an entirely unanswerable question.

The Christian orientation toward death, then, is submission to that surrender. In other words, trust God. "Let God be true and every man a liar" (Rom 3:4).

I don't believe in God; I surrender to God's revelation. Likewise, I don't believe in Heaven; I surrender to death's mystery.

All of this, however, cannot provide any certainty. My thought about Heaven is summarized perfectly by Walter Brueggemann:

“There is no assurance or announcement of hope; there is only yearning that is admittedly hope-filled, but it stops short of knowing too much or claiming too much.”(1)

Am I certain? Absolutely not. I'm not even certain that I have any hope. I can only, like Abraham, hope against hope (Rom 4:18). I have only a glimpse of hope. But, ultimately, hope is better than the despair. At least, that's the dumb thing that I believe.

Notes:
(1) Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 54.

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