The creepiness of Hallowe’en, followed by the day of which it is the eve (All Saints' Day), holds together as one community the living and the dead. Together they expose the limited range of images that we hold in common with which to explore what (if anything) eternal life might mean.
Perhaps in our time when we bury or cremate people we should put with them their credit cards. A credit card statement can evoke rather well the modern paradigms by which we interpret existence.
For example, we experience life and death schizophrenically. Sometimes the way existence feels to us is that we are unique and precious. Equally it may make us feel statistically insignificant. So with a credit card. Our own card is a unique and precious thing which we take care not to lose, yet at the same time (even if it has an endangered whale on it) we know it is exactly like millions of others.
More profoundly, most of us understand life as a straight-line sequence of events in time with linked cause and accountability, which is what a credit card statement is. What I have done in the past adds up to change what I can do in the future. If I make only the minimum repayment this month, I will be affected next month. This time-line experience of life and identity appears to be encoded powerfully within us. It is symbolised by what a credit card statement is. This is true whether the ink-marks on any particular statement suggest we are training for the shopping Olympics or for a monastic order.
A consequence is that what we are most likely to think eternal life might be is a special platinum card existence, with no expiry date and possibly some sort of moral balance transfer from this life. To this we may add some uncertainty as to whether there will be nice enough things to buy in heaven when we get there. This picture of what eternal life might be may have power over us whether we say we believe in eternal life or not.
This picture or one like it is also common to the many everyday jokes in which the Christian heaven is ‘boring’. But what other pictures do we have? If we try to visualise eternal life as Hollywood would have it (‘Your Life: The Sequel’), then it is true that the ‘heaven’ section of The Bible Video and DVD Shop has a limited range to offer. The directors are heavily reliant upon mountain scenes, possibly sponsored by a manufacturer of laundry detergent (the radiance of those clothes!). How different in Islam – the ‘heaven’ shelves are overflowing with vivid action movies.
The problem is that the time-line model of heaven does not work, and this tests to our limit (and probably beyond) our capacity to imagine really critical things like relationships within a heaven. For example the challenge which the Sadducees, who did not believe in heaven, put to Jesus concerning a woman who ends up having married a succession of seven brothers: ‘In the resurrection whose wife will she be?’ (Mark 12: 18-25). Jesus’ answer (‘When they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven’) only takes us so far.
What kind of relatedness can one picture which would survive the Sadducee test – any kind? If none, the sense in which there can be any meaningful connection between my earthly identity and any hypothetical heavenly identity seems dangerously small.
A different image would be one of heaven as a forest of large trees. Trees with giant, interlocking root systems. Each root system, unique to each tree like a fingerprint, represents a pattern of desires, refined, exposed and matured through our human journey. Imagine ‘desires’ here in the largest possible sense, to include desires for peace or for justice, as well as for art or for music - or for other people. Parents with young children typically find that even the smallest infant has a different pattern of desires from his or her siblings.
If this pattern identifies us and connects us together, then it also provides a means to identify others to whom we are close (ie we understand their desires deeply), for we can recognise within the forest the patterns of what they desire. It also enables mutual connection (if we desire each other then our root systems interlock). And of course to belong to the forest at all is only possible if one desires to be in the presence of the One, whose own desire Jesus describes thus:
John 17: 22-24
The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.