Yesterday I had the regular pleasure of meeting with an academic and administrative colleague who is also an Episcopal priest. (We share a fair amount in common, as you can tell.) Understandably our discussion turned towards how I and my family are coping nearly ten months after Mack’s death. One topic in particular we dwelt upon was the envisioning of heaven. I have written elsewhere on this blog of my “back of the napkin” concept of time, the universe, and the resurrection. This friend and I had both recently listened to Craig Koester’s “Great Course” on Revelation.1 It is an excellent discussion of Revelation and its impact on Western history. We both agreed that while we are given lots of detailed imagery about heaven, it is also just that, imagery.
Long ago, guided by Pheme Perkins when she was visiting professor at Cornell in my senior year, I came to the conclusion that, like Gen. 1-3, Revelation is intended to convey truths rather than details, essentials rather than specifics. Genesis is not a “guide on how to create your own cosmos” any more than Revelation is a checklist of things to look for in the End of Days. But just as Genesis clearly asserts the fundamental truths that God created this cosmos (mechanical means are irrelevant) and us, specifically so that we might be in relationship with God, one another and creation, so too does Revelation convey the truth that life continues beyond this mortal world, there will be justice, and God’s order will prevail. Exactly how that happens and what it will all look like is not terribly relevant.2
Coincidentally I came across this article shared on Facebook. Christian, Not Conservative: Why Marilynne Robinson’s literary—and liberal—Calvinism appeals. While my wife was very familiar with Marilynne Robinson, I have to admit I did not know her work or anything about her. The article is largely about her political views, as we might expect in an article from The American Conservative, but it also dips into theology quite a bit because clearly her Christian faith informs her work and her politics. At one point they address her views on “the Second Coming.”
I expect to be very much surprised by the Second Coming. I would never have imagined the Incarnation or the Resurrection. To be astonishing seems to be the mark of God’s great acts—who could have imagined Creation? On these grounds it seems like presumption to me to treat what can only be speculation as if it were even tentative knowledge. I expect the goodness of God and the preciousness of Creation to be realized fully and eternally. I expect us all to receive a great instruction in the absolute nature of grace.
This is where I too find myself. How could we have imagined the incarnation? The resurrection made little sense and was not expected by anyone. So we should not be surprised that we cannot fully imagine, let along comprehend, what and how that the transition from this life to the next, from partial to full, will occur? [pullquote]I expect the goodness of God and the preciousness of Creation to be realized fully and eternally.[/pullquote]
I have often noted in teaching Psalms, especially when dealing with difficult passages like Ps. 137, that a major role of Psalms we often overlook is that they teach us it is OK to pray openly and honestly with God. We are allowed to be bitter and angry and to call God to account for our distress. (We ought not to stay in those places. Psalms teaches us that as well.) In a similar manner we tend to overlook the fact that Revelation is really a work of exhortation and encouragement. It is written to a people who are scared and harassed to tell them that it will be OK. We have to lift our eyes from this short horizon and consider the longer and larger view. When we do we will see that God remains God and that this creation, His Creation, is just the beginning. Details, shmetials. That is not what Revelation is about. It is about God’s justice, grace, and mercy.
- As an aside, I noticed that in the first episode of Sleepy Hollow they said “RevelationS” but in later episodes they corrected themselves. [↩]
- To try another analogy, might we say it is a bit like spelling? We have conventions of how we expect words to be splled, bt we cn steel unnerstan what is ment evn when convntn isnt fllwed. [↩]