Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Problem of Heaven

In a previous post, I wrote about how Beauty and the majesty of the eternal dwelling of God, men, and angels ought to be spoken of with radiating joy and hope. Poor conceptions of Heaven only encourage cynicism. This is in part because it 1) sounds like wish fulfillment 2) many preachers, out of a boring Heaven, turn to a terrible Hell. This comes off sounding like emotional manipulation. It's how insurance companies sell policies: fear of the unknown and anxiety of weakness.

In the comments section, Randy Alcorn's work was mentioned and a brief conversation occurred. I have not read Randy Alcorn. I have great respect for men like him and N.T. Wright who are trying to create a popular, and public, discussion about the Eschaton and what sort of hope Christians possess. I commend him for that alone. However, as I commented, many of his ideas sound like wish fulfillment and making Heaven rather creaturely.  Resurrection is a part of the Gospel's affirmation of creation's good. However, it is a stretch to say that resurrection means there will be baseball, reunion with lost (and talking!) pets, and theological debate.

However, I want to push beyond this to a deeper critique. I recall a conversation I had in 9th grade. I was a fool and knew little. However, I was a part of a conversation where a boy in my class criticized any notion of Heaven. He admitted frankly that there is nothing in this world that is so enjoyable that he'd want to do it forever. After so much time of living, he'd desire a peaceful and quiet termination, a return to non-being. I was not a Christian, but I was Pagan enough to be disturbed by such notions. My soul thirsted for life everlasting ever since I became consciously aware of death.

However, my instinctual thirst was both true and naive. Yes, to this day, I desire some kind of life everlasting. The fear of termination, whether biologically or psychologically, lurks around every thought. But my classmate was right. Every quest I have ever put myself to has only resulted, when accomplished, in an eventual boredom or apathy. When you exercise vigorously, the only thing you will desire is to sit and rest. But once such is accomplished, desire passes onto something else. Man lives not by bread alone.

Therefore, the Randy Alcorns do right to rematerialize the destiny of Mankind. But, this does not make their answer sufficient. Popularized Platonism is kind of inane and foolish, but it derives its being from a very noble and serious thought. Plato did not imagine his vision of man's origin and destiny solely because he hated physical reality. The Athenian was trying to imagine an eternity that would push behind inevitable boredom found in the finite. Neo-Platonists would concretize this in the philosopher's lonely pursuit towards the Alone. This became altered and Christianized in the Beatific Vision. Where there was a notion of completion (Thomas' insistence that we will see God's essence), could only collapse to a popular piety of both abstract boredom and esoteric ecstasy. None of these convey well beyond academics and mystics.

Thus the necessity of Randy Alcorn to seriously contemplate what the confession of the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting actually means. However, the existential question is not answered. Why would we not get bored? Conceptually, eternity is impossible to fathom, and even when beginning to, we must ask whether we would exhaust the possibilities of Creation. Why wouldn't we ask for termination?

Thus, Plato's, and many Eastern religions, assertion that the Many will eventually return to the One. Our personal identity will maintain anxiety as long as we are separated. Thus paradise and death become mixed and intertwined. Our completion is our end.

Existential atheists argue that the above, despite any metaphysical dressing, is equivalent with a kind of death. This is both sad yet real. Our lives should be spent understanding this. The hope, therefore, is to break free from this in appreciating the authentic creativity of the finite, and fleeting, moment. Life may be a Sisyphusian struggle, but the joy can be found in accepting the struggle and defying it. Perhaps it's for this reason that John Zizoulas argues that for the materialist, the only possible free choice is suicide. Everything else is trapped in biologically determined necessity.

If you want to believe in resurrection and the life everlasting, you must ponder this critique. What can stop the anxiety and boredom of existence besides the Nihilistic option of Death and the Platonic answer of Absorption (which are not so far apart)?

Here, Gregory of Nyssa might actually be able to offer a semblance of hope. Two major things to consider are: 1) the Creator/creation distinction 2) the nature of the Infinite. For the first point, if God has created us, our finitude is all a matter of the Creator's will. God determines our boundaries. God can expand us not only to appreciate deeper and more beautiful levels of creation, but expand creation everlastingly in new and fresh ways. We can seek God forever in the contexts of created reality. However, does this not become a quest of the alone seeking the Alone? How do we stave off the possibility of anxiety and existential dread from never being able to reach our destination?

Here, the nature of the Infinite benefits us. If God is Infinite, there is no boundary line He cannot cross. By Nature (a knowingly deficient term to describe the Divine), God cannot be circumscribed. Therefore, God can uncircumscribably be circumscribed. The untouchable can be touched. This is the logic of the Incarnation. Therefore, even though we remain at infinite distance from God, God can meet us in the distance and be present. We can truthfully experience God's personal presence, and yet ever move forward.

This sort of insight gives weight to both the veiling/unveiling dialectic in Barthian tradtion, the presence/absence dialectic in Post-Modern philosophy, and also the Eastern insistence in the real distinction between God's essence and energies. I won't get into these discussions, though they may be helpful in continuing to work out these ideas.

However, this begins to answer the existential argument against any notion of Heaven. It opens the possibility beyond Hellenism and less sophisticated religious doctrines of the return to the One. Eternity can be creaturely, and yet ever spreading. Randy Alcorn may be doing the service of the conversation, but it must not end there. Otherwise, nothing will seriously change. Eternity must be both Human and Divine, Finite and Infinite. The Incarnation may indeed save the hope of Paradise.


  1. Here's a small section about this question Alcorn published in a common questions pamphlet thingy

    First page
    Second page

  2. Thanks for sharing this. It only confirms both the necessity of Randy Alcorn, and yet the need for more work to be done. He argues that the "Platonic" is the cause of boredom, yet Plato and the Platonic tradition (both Christianized and non) is staged against this existential anxiety. So just because it is abstract doesn't mean Alcorn is right.

    Also, he quotes Augustine, and yet theologically Augustine is apart of the tradition he reject. His assertions are necessary, but given some fundamental confusion of things, it might seem that his argument is trite. I think he's right, he just lacks proper arguments.