It was a heavenly day. The bright morning sun gave the sea a rich, translucent lapis lazuli blue, flecked with white tops, with a temperature of 24C and a let up in the wind. A good day to talk about heaven, so I asked Donald if we might address that subject. He seemed very eager, and opened by saying that “Jim has some questions about heaven that he would like the group to discuss.”
He passed the extra mic along to me and I asked, “Can anyone describe heaven for me? I am very curious about where people would like to spend eternity.” It seemed a reasonable question; heaven is the ultimate objective of every faith that claims there is an “afterlife”—paradise, nirvana, the happy hunting ground. Is it like the Muslim paradise with its rivers of wine, lakes of honey, and seventy-two virgins (what do Muslim women get, seventy-two hairdressers?). Jesus, what a cheap, bullshit conception, some Hugh Hefner heaven, laying around for eternity getting drunk and getting laid. But at least the Muslims came up withsomething! Sister Ignatius, my first grade teacher, must have made quite an impression on me; for six decades I have retained, though not accepted, her description of heaven as a place where we eternally “look into the face of God.” And so, I have this indelible image, formed a s six-year-old, of a sea of beatifically happy faces just staring at generic handsome gray-hair deity; not moving or doing anything else, just staring. I guess that, in heaven, you don’t have to go to the bathroom.
There were, it turned out, not real surprises in the notions of heaven that people had, and none of them were particularly exciting either. They ranged from the vague condition of “eternal peace” to “more like a state of mind” to a “place of re-unification with loved ones we have lost” to “where there would be no pain and suffering as what the flesh is heir to,” (a reasonable one, considering the age cohort of these people) to something like Sister Ignatius’s “being with the perfection of Jesus.” I wanted to ask if we would finally know what the Holy Spirit looked like, but the mic never got back around to me before the session was over.
Donald was happy with how the session had turned out. Nearly everyone had something to say on the subject, and heaven is a rather pleasant subject to consider. Curiously, the “other place” was not mentioned, even the fear of it. This was a group that seemed confident that they would get to meet again someday in a place they could not quite describe. Only one woman came up to me and asked me was “it true that I considered it a possibility that there was nothing on the other side of death, no hell, no heaven, just nothing—and that might be what we mean by ‘eternal peace’?” She just could not fathom that. Neither can I to some degree. Something in me wants a final reckoning. Something in me wants justice. Something in me does not want Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and their like to get a free pass to oblivion, more so than it is necessary for the good to be rewarded.
The natural thing is to see heaven in terms of paradise, the place where everything is perfect and there is endless love and happiness. But how much of those conditions are made up of the negations of their opposites, and of anticipation. By this, I mean, something like what I read about Japanese film, where it was explained that whereas westerners tend to like happy endings in their films the Japanese did not mind unhappy endings because they tended to see life’s fullness made up of the dualism of sadness as well as happiness. Indeed, one could not appreciate happiness without having known sadness, or love, say, without lost love. For that matter, much of art, certainly dramatic art, is drawn from such tensions between opposing conditions; it is what makes them interesting to us. If a story about endless, unthreatened happiness might be boring to us, then might also a paradise of endless happiness be, ultimately, boring as well? Is this what Shakespeare meant when he wrote that “parting is such sweetsadness”? The rather silly notion of people sitting around on clouds, presumably addressing nothing more interesting than, “Look, that cloud is shaped just like a giraffe; see, that long part there is like its neck, and . . .” Now that’s my idea of hell.
Perhaps every notion, or concept does contain, if only implicitly, it opposite. So heaven, would contain the notion of not heaven , though not necessarily hell. One would have to apply that as well to Donald’s rather interesting notion that heaven, or rather eternity, might not be in the concept of “forever and ever” but in the actual “cessation of time.” It would have been an interesting topic to proceed with, but I had had my say and didn’t want to monopolize. But, again, the concept of time contains the concept of non-time. I recall that Alfred North Whitehead had once written that “time is in Nature” as opposed to Nature being in time. So for time to stop, Nature must cease, and if Nature ceases what is there but nothingness, so there cannot be heaven either. Anyway, it raises the question of whether time is outside (independent of) God. The Bible starts with “In the beginning . . .” (if there is a beginning, then there must have been a before the beginning. Is this when the clock starts running? If so, once it starts running, then everything else is temporally measured from that first tick; creation (or big bang) plus one, two three, etc . . . so to speak. If time is like a clock—and maybe it isn’t—then even when you putatively stop time (or God does) it logically, irrefutably, becomesStop-time plus one, two, three, etc., does it not? If God created existence itself, once He has done so he cannot reverse the fact that it existed. God is trapped in Time. I guess he brought us into His trap so he wouldn’t be so lonely.
©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 2.20.2007)