Assorted Thoughts on Suffering, Mortality, and Heaven

Last night my thoughts drifted toward a terribly serious and scary subject. That’s right: the future.

If my perspective is right, the future shouldn’t be scary. Death should be least frightening of all. It is our passageway out of this fallen existence. For the Christian that is a wonderful thing. But that isn’t the first thought in my mind when people talk about the dismal possibilities of the future. I am too bound by things of this Earth in my thinking for that kind of right thinking.

The thing that set me off was a couple of headlines. I didn’t even read the articles – just the headlines. I don’t remember them exactly now. Something about Israel, Iran, and war. I honestly don’t read too much news and I read even less about geopolitical conflicts and maneuverings. But I know enough for the stuff I read to be a little disconcerting.

What I don’t want to talk about here is the specifics of world politics or the validity of the idea that war might be on the horizon. What I want to talk about is where those thoughts took my mind and what that says.

What if conflict does happen in the Middle East or anywhere? What if it escalated? What if it comes here? What if we experience another World War?

I live a very comfortable life. I’m not “rich” by American standards, but I’m not going to starve or go homeless. I don’t have to work nonstop to make ends meet. I get to spend a fair amount of my time doing whatever I like. For those reasons I should count myself very blessed. Something like a war could threaten all of that.

People of past living peaceful lives weren’t planning on dropping everything and going to war but it happened time and time again. Why shouldn’t that happen now? The world is only superficially different. Some people think the world is ripe for such a conflict and they are not without evidence for a case.

The immediate thought is: what if I die? Well, that’s easy. I’m going straight to Heaven, right? That’s what I believe, isn’t it? If death is nothing then what do I have to be afraid of?

Though I have never stared it in the face, I don’t fear death. That is to say, I don’t fear the thought of it.

I don’t fear death. Theoretically.

What I do fear theoretically is suffering.

One of the most horrifying parts of The Lord of the Rings didn’t make it into the movies. Toward the end of The Return of the King, the Hobbits return to their home in the Shire to find it in ruins. All the trees have been cut down. The hobbits living there are enslaved. And Saruman is running the show.

That’s what I don’t want. I don’t want war to find my home. I don’t want to go through the ruins of my town, my neighborhood, my house and see the destruction. I don’t want everything I’ve ever known to be uprooted.

Is this natural? Absolutely. Is it okay? I’m not sure.

On the one hand, I don’t think scripture prescribes the sort of detachment Yoda recommends to Anakin in Episode III: “Learn to let go of everything you fear to lose.” On the other hand, scripture says to be “in the world, but not of it” along with many other such admonishments.

We have to be in the world. We are. To deny that fact and act in ignorance – or worse – in opposition to everything the physical world presents us is wrong. This the mistake of the Gnostics who believed that, in a nutshell, all things spiritual are good and all things physical or material are evil.

Paul addresses that belief in Colossians by emphasizing that Christ was both fully God (spirit) and fully man (physical). Jesus certainly enjoyed some small physical comforts now and then. He enjoyed the pleasure of food and wine. He expressed gratitude toward Mary sister of Martha when she anointed his feet with some expensive perfume.

So I have a problem with the thought that enjoying life for its physical comforts and pleasures is a bad thing. Yet that is the extreme I jump to when presented with the idea that it might all go up in flames. Indeed, in the end it will all go up in flames if only to be replaced with something better.

Through this thought process I have identified two great problems in me. One: I love my present comforts far too much. I would rather die than lose them through suffering. Two: perhaps even more fundamentally, my mind fails to grasp the future blessings which will come in spite of whatever suffering might occur in this life. If we could only truly and fully understand the depth of our depravity, the goodness of God, and the blessings to come, it would be much easier to live the life we are called to now.

I like C.S. Lewis’s concept of “shadowlands” – that the Earth we are living in is but a shadow of the true Earth to come. This idea is well presented in The Last Battle.

Two-thirds of the book detail the destruction of everything I’d come to love of the world of Narnia as described in the previous six books. Basically Narnia gets wrecked. The last Narnian king fights a losing battle as the bad guys of the series take over. All the while there’s this weird syncretic cult which combines Aslan with the false god of the series. It’s basically Lewis’s take on Revelation and I hated it as a kid. It gave me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach to see beloved places and characters suffer and seemingly lose. I reread all the other books, but never this one.

But the last couple of chapters talk about Aslan’s return and explore Lewis’s ideas about Heaven and the afterlife. They’re really great.

After the characters have come into Aslan’s Country (i.e. “heaven”) they look below and see England and this exchange takes place:

“Why!” exclaimed Peter. “It’s England. And that’s the house itself – Professor Kirk’s old home in the country where all our adventures began!”

“I thought that house had been destroyed,” said Edmund.

“So it was,” said the Faun. “But you are now looking at the England within England, the real inner England just as this is the real Narnia. And in that inner England no good thing is destroyed.”

I always liked that sentiment. I kind of suspect it has a lot of truth to it. Revelation speaks of a New Heaven and a New Earth – not completely new and different places. The implication is that they’ll have some relation to the lesser Heaven and Earth.

Whatever the case I am sure of this: all our speculation is missing the mark. We lack the capacity to properly understand eternity in any intimate way. Nevertheless there is one more wonderful quote from The Last Battle which I’d like to share.

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”

This Earth is not home. I fear pain, suffering, and loss because they are personally difficult. But I also know deep down (as I think we all do) that suffering is not meant to be. It is the result of evil and we must all suffer its consequences.

I believe suffering is coming in some form. Things are fairly ugly on the world stage right now. Something’s got to give. It’s simple cause-and-effect.

The truth is a lot of the time I enjoy my possessions, relationships, abilities, and comforts because they allow me to believe I have control of my life independent from God. I can do what I want. I can be happy in the way I want. That is a truly damaging and false line of thinking.

To enjoy the blessings of prosperity and cherish them to a degree is not bad so long as I am not kept from the task at hand; so long as I recognize and give thanks to the Creator of the gifts and not fall into the trap of thinking I had something to do with it.

I must give thanks more diligently for God’s blessings. I must be prepared to lose some of those temporal blessings. It is time I stopped holding on so dearly to the shadow of things to come.

I think the Apostle Paul sums this whole thing up best.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Romans 8:18, NASB

That’s pretty well put, Paul. Were you divinely inspired to write that or something?

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