Who Wants to Live Forever?

One of the things I love about the rock group Queen is that they had this crazy way of going back and forth, between the profound and the absurd.  Sometimes, they would sing about “Big Bottomed Girls” or “I Want to Ride my Bicycle.”  Other times, they would work up this profound crescendo around bravery– even bravado– in the face of certain death, like in “The Show Must Go On.”  My favorite, though, is when they found the sublime firmly rooted in the ridiculous: when they mixed them up, like some sort-of smoothie for the mind, made of equal parts silliness and profundity.  Consider, for example, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  The title evokes these high brow ideas and concepts.  Where a lesser song would have a guitar solo, this thing has some sort-of operatic break.  And yet, their is an awareness that is just a just a pop song, at the same time.

More to the point of the things I am thinking about today: “Who Wants to Live Forever?”  This was on the soundtrack to that masterpiece of science fiction cheesiness, “Highlander.”  Highlander is a lot like the band itself: an exquisite balance of pop culture and something so much deeper than pop culture.  It’s an interesting song to be located in a movie about characters who don’t age.  In some sense, they do live forever.  The movie is about their quest for a different kind-of eternity.  Somehow, they all know that they have to fight each other.  When their is only one of them left, that immortal will receive “The Prize.”

highlander

I remember the first time I saw the movie.  I assumed “The Prize” would be some sort-of set of extra super powers.  I don’t know if this is connected to my own silly presuppositions or if the idea is planted in the movie.  I don’t know if this is points to the assumptions I carry around, or the assumptions the screen writers do.  But it doesn’t much matter.

I am thinking today, about living forever.

We Christians spend a lot of time thinking about that.  We wonder what our lives in the afterlife will be like.  We get so focused on the externals: mansions and feasts and all kinds of things that sound great.

I think that would all be great for a year, or a hundred years, or a thousand.  But if it is only about the outside of me that is getting transformed…  Then my heaven?  It would eventually become my own personal hell.  I don’t know about you, but me?  I am kind-of a mess.

No matter how much my circumstances get better, there is a time that I forget how far I come, and I begin to take greatness for granted.  No matter how much my relationships improve, there comes a time when I stop appreciating people.

In short, if you gave me the easy, obvious heaven, if you just extended my life indefinitely, I would be like those guys in Highlander.  I would be a mess.  Not aging, being nearly impossible to kill, having the resources of a fortune at my fingertips: none of it would mean anything.

Who wants to Live Forever?  That suddenly becomes a pretty interesting question.

The lyrics of the song imply that we ought to go after love.  And there is something to that.  (Sometimes we make an idol out of our relationships, especially our romantic ones.  That’s not what I am talking about.  Bare with me.)

When we are at our best, perhaps deeply in love…  Time stops meaning anything.  We also have these moments, I think, when we are doing the things we are great at.  For me, when I am my very best writing.  Or I lose myself in the middle of the nature.  Or I am teaching somebody, maybe something we have been working on for a while, and their eyes light up and they finally get it.

Joseph Campbell told his students to follow their bliss.  I think we know we are following our bliss when time just slips away.  It loses meaning.

When we talk about this kind of idea, we often point out the promise that the kingdom of heaven is already here.  Today, I read something that really struck me.  There is this lawyer, who approaches Jesus.  The lawyer says, “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life.”  Jesus’ answer is the parable of the good samirtain.  His answer?  Love on people, recklessly, unhesitatingly, uncompromsingly.

I think that the lawyer was asking about just extending out his days.  Jesus answer wasn’t a formula for how to get to this eternity.  It pointed the lawyer to the other type of eternity, the other way of conquering time.  I think he was inviting the lawyer to sample eternity right here and now.

If we want to hold onto the idea of a loving God, we almost have to believe in both kinds of eternity.  If he extended time out forever?  Well?  So what?  That’s a little bit like going to a crappy restaurant.  They bring out crapy food.  To make up for the first crappy meal they served, they offer you a lifetime of crappy meals.  More of something crappy does not make it un-crappy.

But on the other hand… if we just get these little tastes of losing ourselves.  If those little droplets of eternities, those two minute, or two hour experiences are the best that there is…  It’s all been a cruel joke, a tease.

The idea that I could spend an eternity in that wonderful state where I have lost all the worst parts of myself?  That is a pretty cool thing.

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Pure Joy

There are times, that I look at people who are less mature than me, and I want to say “Really?!? All you have to do is ________ and you can’t simply do that and just figure it out and get along with other people.”
My own kids and my students are two groups that come to mind, that occasionally I think this about.
As if it doesn’t apply to me.
I have been meditating on the opening of the book of James, today. We focused on it at the amazing Fellowship church.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.”
Seeing the oppurtunities for peaceful, blessed living, that is right in front of us… That is maybe our fundamental mission in life. And just maybe, it’s the difference between heaven and hell.
What if eternal torment is a real, living possibility, but it’s not a place we are sent by God? What if our experiences, maturity, and responses to the challenges of life determine what the after life is like for us?
When I am feeling judgemental, I look at others in “easier” positions, and I think, “Man, if I was in that position, everything would be so easy. If I didn’t have to worry about bills, providing, balancing professional and personal obligations, it would be so easy.”
Of course, there was a time before I had all these challenges. And at the time I didn’t see it that way at all. Souls more evolved than mine, people with different, bigger challenges, might be tempted to say the same thing to me. “The Kingdom is right there, so close! Why don’t you just grab for it?!?”

James is making a huge and radical statement: trials produce perseverance, and perseverance makes us complete. He specifically says that when we are complete, we will not lack anything. If we were truly complete in this way, if we lacked in nothing, what need would we have of the comic-book version of heaven, where we sit on the clouds, or participate in some sort-of eternal theme park.
This reading makes sense of the otherwise strange segue; suddenly James is talking about wisdom in verse 5. But if this complete-ness is actually a deep and Godly sort of wisdom, then it begins to be a reasonable transition. Leaving this implication, that maybe, sometimes, we can side-step trials and the accompanying suffering, by making like Solomon and asking God for wisdom.
In the middle of it all, it can be hard to find comfort in all this… But when we sit back and reflect and recall on our pain and suffering, I think maybe there is some reassurance here.

None of Our Business

Fallen angels in Hell
Image via Wikipedia

What if it turned out that the final destination of other people is none of our business?

If that turned out to be a correct, it would not necessarily imply that we’re not meant to work at spreading the truth.  It seems to me that if we take Jesus seriously, we are meant to talk about him.  But having this responsibility doesn’t imply that we are part of the decision-making process.

In fact, this whole thing is actually analogous to behavior we expect all the time.  We might want our sons and daughters, or students, or whatever to encourage each other, to teach each other etc.  But even if we did, hopefully we wouldn’t consult the kids (or students or whatever) in assigning punishment, consequences, etc.

For obvious reasons, Christians have sought to figure out what the entrance requirements are to get to heaven.  Similarly, we have wanted a cut-and-dried formula for escaping Hell.

Though understandable, it seems to me that this is the wrong question to ask.   In some ways, it’s a bit like asking the question, “How much X can I get away with and still be following Christ?”  How drunk can I get?  How high can I get?  How greedy can I be?  How judgemental can I be?

There is an element of legalism in all this.

But more to the point I want to make today, it is certainly more sensible that I try to determine the issue of eternal salvation for myself than for somebody else.

I can’t speak to the content of someone else’s heart.  I can’t directly experience what God is doing within them.  So many sins, and fruits of the spirit are really about our heart-condition, not the actual external things we can be seen doing or not doing.

It is of course easy and fun to shift the focus to others.  Analyzing the nature of their problems and going on to solve their problems gives us the appearance of someone pious with out calling on us to do the hard work of change.

It all hangs on Easter

Sometimes, being a Christian can feel like learning an obscure card game.

Have you ever been learning one of these games and it seems like people are toying with you, because the rules are just this long list of unrelated points?

Christianity can appear that way: a long list of unrelated points.

We have this list of things:

Individual souls go to heaven.

Jesus was reseructed bodily.

Adam and Eve brought sin and death into the world.

The rules that applied to Jews don’t apply to us anymore.

There is/will be a new kingdom.

If these beliefs, taken together, formed a garden we might enter into that garden and think it was made up of 5 different plants.  Some of us would try to tend all the plants.  Some of us would emphasize others.  Some of might view one or two of the plants as a weed and try to get rid of them in the hopes that the others would flourish.

I’d submit that if we dug a little into the ground we’d find that these five plants which look different actually share a common root.  They aren’t a list of five unrelated rules.  They flow naturally out of one great story.

In some way, the miracle of Easter, the truth of Jesus’ bodily resseruction is the central piece of this story.  Scripture attests to this.  And also, logic.  One could wrongly neglect any of the above premises with out it impacting the others: except for the fact that Jesus returned from the dead.  Without this truth, the others just fade away.

Here’s my attempt at digging below the surface and finding the common root:

A long time ago, sin entered the world.  The result of this sin was death.  All sorts of death.  Humanity attempted to overcome sin on its own.  God was kind enough to share a long list of rules in helping us determine what counts as a sin.

The problem was nobody was able to follow these rules.  If somebody had lived sinlessly he would have escaped the consequences of sin (which is death) but nobody did.

Systems and rulers popped up that operated in a fallen, sin-filled, dead world.  Even God’s chosen people eventually gave up on the rules and wanted a king like everybody else.  The promises of every empire and government that has ever been have ultimately been ones which are built around managing sin and death.  Without sin and death, these sorts of empires would be irrelevant.

Along comes Jesus.  We can choose for him to have lived and died for us.  If we do, we get the benefits as if we had lived the sinless life.  We transcend all those forms of death that entered into the world.

And here’s how all those different ideas listed above come together:

In living sinlessly and transcending death, Jesus changed the structure of the cosmos.  He gave us a path to escaping the death that had entered into the world.   Following the old rules becomes irrelevant.  I would submit that the law, as handed down to Moses and company would never have been necessary if Adam hadn’t sinned.  (If it had been necessary in the first place than I think God would have given it to Adam and not waited centuries.)

Because of this new order, all the old empires are instantly irrelevant.  They are like the soldiers you hear about in World War II, the ones who were isolated on islands for decades and hadn’t heard that Japan lost the war.

Heaven in a Body

“Surprised by Hope” by NT Wright is doing more than playing with my head.  It’s exploding my brains. 

He articulates some things that I’ve been trying to put words to.  I’ve bumbled around with ideas about how embodied and physical Christianity is.  I’ve babbled about how  our traditional disembodied ideas of heaven don’t seem biblical.

He pulls all this together.  I’ll share some quotes later.

Today, I was reading a passage where he repeated one of his main points.

The idea is that Jesus didn’t actually defeat death if the afterlife is this nonphysical place.  He accomodated, death, perhaps, but he didn’t defeat it, if we wander around, ghost-like, after death.

Rob Bell, Wright himself, and others emphasize the idea that Revelations describes the final end that we were promised in the Garden of Eden.  The whole of human history was just a back-pedal, a delay, in reaching our final destination. 

This seems so dead on to me: Adam and Eve would have participated in the city described in Revelations.  They would have gotten to it much sooner than the serpent.

And so it struck me, as I was reading the book today:

We have no problem imagining an embodied, physical existence for Adam and Eve.   Many people agree that through Jesus we’re heading to the final destiny intended for Adam and Eve.  But people struggle with the idea that we’ll be physical beings in this eternity…

This all leads to the question: If Adam and Eve hadn’t fallen, at what point would they have lost their physicality?  If Adam and Eve are physical… if the final desination is non-physical… if Adam and Eve were supposed to end up there.  They’d have had to suddenly (or gradually, I suppose) become ghost-like and nonphysical.

A whole lot of Shakin’ goin’ on

The more time I spend in scripture, the more I come back to this theme: that God plans to redeem and purify the world itself.  There’s this common understanding that we’re headed somewhere else after we die.  This understanding is rooted on two dangerous preconceptions. 

The first is that the Earth itself is irredeemable.  I don’t want to live in denial of sin, of what we have done.  But it’s a lot like our humanity itself.  Though we do have a sin-nature, this came after the fact of our glorious creation, where we were made in the image of God.  The whole point is to get back to our most basic nature.

And so it is with the Earth itself: once it was so perfect.  The idea that God is restoring, rather than re-creating, speaks to this fact.

The second dangerous is idea is that have nothing to do with this reclamation and redemption.  If our eternal home were somewhere impossibly distant for us, we couldn’t possibly do anything to bring this about.  And it’s certainly true that left to our own devices, and under our own power, we still can’t do anything.  But Jesus is working among us to create the Kingdom of God, right here.

While reading through Hebrews, recently, I came across this metaphor I never paid much attention to.  The idea is that in this life, the earth and heavens will shake.  They will shake as a result of our interactions and disobedience to God. 

But the promise is, in the next life, the heavens and earth won’t shake.  The whole point of this life is that whatever can not be shaken will remain into the next life.

What an incredibly human and subtle demonstration!

Have you ever been working on something and wondered if it was going to hold?  Perhaps to test it, you’ve shaken or tugged on it.  When you were done, after subjecting it to that pressure, you were confident that it would make it through.

It’s like tugging on a luggage strap to make sure that it would hold.  It’s like putting half your weight on an iced-over lake to see if it’ll support your weight.   It’s like a factory simulating the pressures on material before putting them in a car or on a bridge.  Perhaps, most of all, It’s like when you have a heaping bowl of something hot and you shake it gentle back and forth, to make sure that it won’t all fall out over the edges as you walk over to the table.   

Predestination and God’s love

“3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5he[c] predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.” That’s from Ephisians, chapter 1, and it got me thinking.

It got me thinking about the whole Calvinist/Arminian debate.  As you may know, some people (Calvinist) think that it is already predetermined whether or not we will go to heaven.  They have lots of scripture that backs them up.  Others have trouble with this idea.  It seems to make our actual choices in life irrelevant.  It makes our very existence something of a cruel joke.  They also have scripture to back them up. 

On the surface, the above quote seems to support the Calvinists.

But there’s an important question about the text I got to wondering:

Who is the “us” he refers to?

Is it only Christians? 

I am NOT claiming that everybody ends up in heaven.

But I find myself thinking that the destiny of everyone is heaven.  That is what we are meant for.  That is where God wants us.  That is where we’re created to be.

What better definition of desinty could there be?

If Destiny is not the place we will end up but the place that we’re supposed to end up, then this quote becomes about God’s love for all of us, rather than an exclusionary promise of damnation.