Butterflies and the Afterlife

A Glimpse of Orange By Stavros Markopoulos

A Glimpse of Orange By Stavros Markopoulos

Say the word ‘heaven’ and you will conjure up a range of ideas and images from the saccharine to the absurd. To some it’s a non-existent crutch for weak people. For others, an abstract place where the deceased experience disembodied bliss. Or as Harry Potter describes it, ‘It’s like St Pancras Station, but cleaner, and with no trains’ which I find baffling, since I have spent quite some time in St Pancras Station, and whilst I can confirm that a minute there feels somewhat like a thousand years, it feels to me less like heaven and more like ‘the other place’!

I was encouraged, therefore, to see a feature in Time Magazine this week entitled ‘Heaven can’t wait: Why rethinking the hereafter could make the world a better place’ in which the author explores some of the competing views of heaven and the afterlife, and the effects they have on life, the world and social justice.

Insofar as the article sought to draw lines between those who think heaven is our eternal destiny: clouds, angels and harps abounding, and those who think heaven is the place where God dwells and that our future will be in resurrected bodies in the New Creation, I know which side I fall on. I’m firmly with the Tom Wrights of this world. The Resurrection of the Son of God is an outstanding work, and despite its density, is one of the books I’ve most enjoyed reading and rereading over the past few years.

However, as is often the case when theology reacts against previous misconceptions and then gets popularised, it can end up becoming a little less honed, ill-defined, or downright confusing. A few times recently I have seen preachers and writers unpacking a Wrightian view of the afterlife in ways that have made me wince a little.

I remember years ago seeing a child learn the word ‘butterfly’ for the first time. He pointed with wide-eyed amazement at the creature and uttered the word, much to the joy of his parents. He pointed to another butterfly and again exclaimed ‘butterfly’, which elicited more congratulations and a round of applause. Then the excitement (and perhaps the desire for adulation) set in and he started pointing wildly to other objects around him: grass, leaves, pebbles, a dog, all of which he enthusiastically called ‘butterfly.’

You see, there is a great deal of difference between learning a new word and really grasping what it means and what it doesn’t. So often when careful, nuanced theology gets popularised, in the hands of its new owners it loses some of its precision. (Had the term not already been used, I would be tempted to call this ‘the butterfly effect’!) At an academic level, Wright has written a masterpiece book: for the most part carefully worded and provocative. But as the idea has trickled down into more popular forms like regular preaching, lighter mass-market pop theology books, art and articles like the one in Time (for all of which I’m grateful!) the new proponents, in their enthusiasm, have been less careful with their language.

So the article includes quotes like the following:

Heaven isn’t just a place you go – heaven is how you live your life

Is it?! Is that what the word actually means?!

Heaven thus becomes, for now, the reality one creates in the service of the poor, the sick, the enslaved, the oppressed. It is not paradise in the sky but acts of selflessness and love that bring God’s sacred space and grace to a broken world suffused with tragedy until, in theological terms, the unknown hour when the world we struggle to piece together is made whole again.

Really?!

I mean, I know what they’re saying and I think I agree with the sentiment, but is there not a danger of confusing questions of ontology, function and application to the point where we’ve redefined the term ‘heaven’ entirely beyond biblical recognition? To say that heaven is acts of service makes little more sense than saying the casual application of a plaster to a wounded kneeis ‘hospital’.

We are not at liberty to redefine terms at will. Nor is it sensible to point to social action projects, good art, justice dispensed, the gospel responded to, relationships mended, and declare ‘heaven’ like a child with a new word. In some way each of those things might be a foretaste of heaven, or reflect the intentions and aims of the One who dwells and rules in heaven, but they are not in and of themselves ‘heaven.’

I applaud the fact that a biblical view of New Creation is trickling into the general water supply, but may I appeal for some careful thought, lest we wield loaded terms a little too casually. What does the word heaven strictly mean in Scripture? How is that different from the definition it’s come to have in preaching, theology and popular culture? How can we accurately delineate between the strict definition of heaven, the acts it motivates us towards, and the effects it has in the world around us? How can we educate our hearers to ensure that we are all operating with a common definition, and that heaven doesn’t mean whatever we want it to, which surely was one of the problems in the first place?!

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