The lectionary for this week includes John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This is the reference you see held up on little yellow signs at football games. “John 3:16” is what University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, perhaps the best college player ever, had printed in the eye-black on his cheeks this season. John 3:16 is the most googled biblical reference. I want to talk a little about everlasting life.
The atheist’s position is simple. There isn’t an afterlife. When electrical activity in the brain permanently ceases, I (what I mean when I say “I”) will become as dead as a computer without electricity. Shortly the circuits themselves decay, and no new electrical power could make them function again. Memory, personality, intellect, imagination, sensation, integration – all gone. There is no soul to survive death, says the atheist.
The agnostic position is almost as simple. There is no way to know, one way or the other, what happens after death. This was Socrates’ view. He said it might be nothing at all (like a dreamless sleep), or it might be the greatest adventure one could imagine. However, this didn’t stop Socrates from speculating about life after death. Why should it stop me?
The third position is based on the religious hypothesis. The soul is immortal and travels or is transformed to a new existence after the body dies. Logically difficult, this is a much more attractive arena for imaginative speculation. It has given rise to some beautiful ideas:
When we’ve been there ten thousand years.
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.
Or the old Gospel tune
Will the circle be unbroken?
By and by, Lord, by and by,
There’s a better home a-waitin’
In the sky, Lord, in the sky.
How about this song by June Carter Cash?
I’ll be waiting on the far-side banks of Jordan,
I’ll be sitting drawing pictures in the sand,
And when I see you coming, I will rise up with a shout
And come runnin’ through the shallow waters,
Reaching for your hand.
What a lovely sentiment. Really.
One would think that the religious hypothesis would find ammunition in the Bible, but the Bible is almost silent on the details of Heaven. It seems clear in the Bible that there is such a place, and that God is there on a throne, and Jesus is there, but beyond that, not much specific. The few descriptions of Heaven in the Bible, from Daniel to Revelations, talk about God’s throne and about a collection of strange beasts there. The traditional views of heaven (wings and harps) don’t come from the Bible. They come from the Apocrypha, from commentaries, or just from ordinary speculation, like mine. Even Jesus’ comment, “In my Father’s house are many mansions,” only widens the field of speculation without being particularly helpful. And why did Jesus add, “If it were not so, I would have told you”? Does that mean there is nothing that is not true about Heaven?
The Greeks imagined a section of the underworld called the Elysian Fields, where heroes went to live a delightful afterlife, spent mostly in contests of strength and warfare – sort of a perpetual Olympic Games. While that doesn’t do it for me, I have always been a competitive person, and the pastimes I enjoy on Earth have often involved testing myself against puzzles or others. I’m not sure Heaven needs to be “fun” in the earthly sense, but if it is, I guess I’d like to play games, solve puzzles – just as others imagine going fishing in Heaven. Will there be crossword puzzles in Heaven? Duplicate bridge? What would a heavenly golf game be? A hole-in-one every time? Would a heavenly bridge game be one in which I won every hand? Something’s wrong here with the idea of “heavenly.” Winning all the time would be not heavenly but boring. For winning at golf or bridge (or even fishing) to be “perfect,” there would paradoxically have to be at least the possibility of something less than perfect. We perhaps should conclude that non-perfect things must exist in Heaven because Jesus never told us that they don’t.
Well, Jesus said, “ With God, all things are possible.” (Matthew19:25-27; Mark10:26-28). But this is a tautology. God is by definition supernatural. It’s like saying, “With magic, all things are possible.” Magic, by definition, is making something impossible happen. If the thing wasn’t impossible (or didn’t seem to be impossible), it wouldn’t be magic.
But “anything is possible” doesn’t suit me any more than “there’s no such thing.” It does seem that some ideas are far less likely than others, and so while I can’t absolutely rule anything out, I can speculatively rule many things out as just plain unlikely. For example, when I once assigned an essay on Heaven to a senior English class, one 19-year-old star football player wrote that Heaven would be a continuous, never-ending, eternal ejaculation. (It would be nice to think that he meant it as a metaphor, but he did not.) Now, Jesus never told us that this is not so. If “anything is possible,” then I can’t say that that young man’s view of Heaven is any better than my own, but to me, his seems even more unlikely than wings and harps.
Another student, reacting to the same assignment, speculated that Heaven will be whatever a person believes it will be. If you are an atheist, you have no soul, there is no Heaven – you’re just worm food. If you’re a follower of Islam, then Heaven is what the Koran says it is, houris and all. If you believe in reincarnation, then you will be reincarnated. And so on. If she is correct, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash are at this moment seeing paradise together.
More important to me: if she is correct, I have a pressing responsibility to find a Heaven I can believe in. But I have two problems.
My first problem is Memory. Even if I conclude that I have a soul which is immortal (immortality is not by itself an impossible idea), I have a hard time seeing how my soul could carry my memories with it. Memories, it seems clear, are contained in the brain. Even while people are still alive, if the brain is diseased or is injured, they can lose their memories. When electrical activity in the brain ceases at death, those circuits must be erased as surely as a computer memory is erased when the power is shut off. But so much of how I think about myself is connected with my memory. Who-I-am does not exist only in the present. Everything I’ve ever done is trailing invisibly behind me. If I can’t take memory with me, I wouldn’t be the same soul I am now, nor would I recognize loved ones in Heaven. Without earthly memories, there would be no reunion, as Heaven is popularly represented in songs. If that circle is to be unbroken, qualities such as memory and recognition, if they exist in Heaven at all, must be completely different there.
The second problem is Time. My mother once said to me, “Oh, I don’t believe in Heaven. It sounds boring.” This was a surprise to me, because my mother did believe in God and in the divinity of Jesus. I surprised myself by answering, “Well, if God’s as smart as he’s supposed to be, then he ought to make Heaven not boring.” God could, because He’s supernatural, make singing “Amazing Grace” for 10,000 years NOT be boring — even though on earth five minutes is my outside limit.
However like my mother (and Huck Finn, you may remember), I’ve always found the traditional view of Heaven boring in the extreme. Sitting on a cloud, strumming on a harp, and singing hymns would be fine for an hour or two, but for eternity . . . ? Assembling at the Throne would be exciting, but for eternity . . . ? Even the “cloudless skies” Willie Nelson sings about would shortly become tiresome, and the angels would yearn for a crackling good thunderstorm. Whether I imagine rainbows and elders wearing crowns, or whether I imagine racing across a beautiful spring meadow with my wife and the best dog I ever owned, all of us restored to the health and vigor we shared when he was alive, I keep stumbling on the specter of eternity. Nothing that has delighted me on earth is likely to delight me for eternity.
Most organized Christian religions talk about the end of time, at least of historical time. Logically, it seems that one way for God to insure that Heaven isn’t boring is to remove time as we know it. And if I imaginatively remove time as we know it from Heaven, it also solves some other troubling paradoxes, such as what happens to the widow who remarries and then meets both husbands in Heaven? But what would an afterlife be like outside of Time? How could I be me in a place with no time? There, my imagination fails. Duration is an implied part of all my experience. If an object exists for me, it exists in a framework of time. How could you observe a rose if it had no duration? If it had infinite duration, how could you observe anything else? With no time, there could be no “next” event, and so existence would be an unbroken whole. It might not be so very different from being reunited with all the atoms and molecules of all the earth, which will happen to my body literally, whether or not I have a soul. Time, like Memory, must also be very different in Heaven.
In conclusion, John 3:16 and hymns and gospel songs are to me only metaphors, indications of what Heaven might feel like, not what it will actually be. Metaphor, I understand. Heaven, if it exists at all, must be a place where Time and Memory, if they exist there, exist in ways that are beyond the scope of my imagination to conceptualize. And so I come back to Socrates’ “great adventure.” If death is not, after all, the end of everything, I’ll be going to an existence that is so very different that I can’t even imagine it. Now that sounds interesting.