Heaven Will Be a Nightmare (for Some)
All Saints Sunday
On days like today, when we remember our loved ones who have died and with whom we long to be reunited, we may find ourselves speculating about what heaven will be like. That’s all we can do, really, is speculate, because nobody now living on this earth really knows. From people who have flatlined we hear accounts of lights and tunnels and feelings of goodwill, but skeptics have shown that it’s possible to explain these phenomena as biological functions of the brain. Hamlet calls death “the undiscovered country from whose bourn / no traveler returns,” and we are frankly just as clueless as the tortured Dane himself.
Even what we read in the Bible is speculation, when you come right down to it. Otherwise you might expect more consistency in the descriptions. Heaven is variously pictured as a banquet, as a throne room filled with scary six-winged creatures, as having a sort of viewing gallery from which one can look over a great chasm to see those being tormented in Hades, as an eternal worship service, and as a city with streets of gold and gates carved out of gigantic pearls. Popular depictions have added features such as harps and clouds and a bouncer named Peter. Other faith traditions see heaven as a luxuriant garden or as a state of enlightenment and nonbeing.
This rich variety tells us that the descriptions of heaven in the Bible and elsewhere consist of metaphorical language meant to approximate a truth that none of us can fully grasp. These are not newspaper accounts; they are poetry and speculation.
My wife Sarah enjoys speculating about heaven. She says that in heaven you can run really fast and jump really high. Nobody is sick or disabled in any way. There are a lot of trampolines to jump on, and you can breathe underwater. No one is afraid in heaven; you can run around after dark and not have to worry about someone trying to hurt you. She says the way we will communicate in heaven is by singing to one another, always in perfect harmony.
The animals in Sarah’s vision of heaven all get along; there are no predators and no prey. She says if you see an eagle swoop down and pick up a turtle, it’s just giving it a ride; it’s not planning to drop it from a great height so it can crack its shell and eat what’s inside. If you were afraid of certain animals on earth, you get to make friends with them in heaven so you’re not afraid of them anymore.
Did I mention the trampolines?
Sarah says that in heaven there is a big picnic, and you get to (or have to) share a blanket with those you had conflicts with on earth. Only now you can see past the differences and hurts, and each of you sees what is best in the other person, and reconciliation is the result. Summing up her vision of heaven, Sarah says that the many fun and wonderful things she has imagined are meant to convey that all the divisions of our earthly life are dissolved there, and there is nothing to keep us suspicious or afraid or at enmity with anyone else. Ideology, politics, race, sex, language, religion, tribe, even the natural enmity between carnivore and herbivore do not exist in heaven. We are all part of one family, and we like our family.
John’s vision of the multitude before the throne of God in Revelation 7 resembles Sarah’s picture in some important ways. John does not mention the trampolines or the underwater breathing, but the principle on which Sarah’s version of heaven operates is also at work in John’s. He writes, “I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (vv. 9–10).
Here is a vision to bring deep consolation and joy to people like Sarah and others I could name, some in this very congregation, who embody what Paul meant when he called us to be “ministers of reconciliation.” At the same time, it is a vision that will strike fear and loathing in those who have a vested interest in maintaining divisions, or who fear diverse expressions of humanity and faith. This heaven will be a nightmare for some.
Richard Spencer is suing Ohio State University because they have rejected his request to speak on campus, citing concerns about public safety and violent protests. Spencer has made big headlines in the last few months. He was one of the marquee names at the notorious “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, and last month he provoked more unrest and protests when he spoke at the University of Florida. Spencer is a “white nationalist,” or a member of the “alt-right,” both euphemisms for the racist fringe occupied by neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, and the Ku Klux Klan. He is one of those who would be horrified by John’s or Sarah’s vision of heaven.
Spencer believes that people of European descent are inherently superior to those of other races, and believes that the US should be dominated and ruled by white people. He has called for a white homeland for the “dispossessed white race,” and wants to institute what he calls “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to halt the deconstruction of white culture. He supports the creation of a “white ethno-state on the North American continent.” Alternatively, he has suggested that the European Union could become a potential racial empire and an alternative to American hegemony.
For Spencer and others of his ilk, the great multitude “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” gathered before the heavenly throne and worshiping God together is anathema. If these people had the great good fortune to get to heaven, they would likely experience it as hell. And you don’t have to be a white supremacist to feel this way. I suspect a great many Christians are looking forward to their time in heaven as a respite from all the demands for tolerance and coexistence that have hounded them all their lives on earth. To expect an enclave of “folks like us” and to find instead that your next-door neighbors are a Pakistani family on one side and a gay couple with their three kids on the other would be a nightmare.
But that’s what we mean when we talk about the communion of saints. The great cloud of witnesses. In John’s vision, they are martyrs—those “who have come out of the great ordeal [and] have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14)—but I think we can imagine others besides just martyrs. Ordinary folks like us with our sometimes strong, sometimes wavering faith; strivers and slackers; and the completely clueless—all sinners in need of grace. I would not even be surprised to find in that crowd people who have espoused other faiths, not as interlopers in a Christian heaven but rather as people like us—children of God waking as from a long nap, rubbing our eyes, and setting about trying to learn the curious ways of this heaven that, like God’s grace, is open to all.
I suppose we all will have some learning (and unlearning) to do when we arrive on that other shore. What we don’t learn in this life will be part of the curriculum in the next. One of the lessons we will almost undoubtedly have to learn is how to get along with, respect, honor—in short, love our fellow citizens of that fair city. The communion of saints will be a time of reunions—with those we have known and loved and with those we have never met before but who are nevertheless also our sisters and brothers, children of one God. As Sarah says, all the barriers will be removed, all the enmity and fear and prejudice, and we will share our picnic blanket with a glorious rainbow of humanity and animal life, singing together in perfect harmony to the glory of God and the Lamb forever.
What a nightmare!