(This is the final segment in a series written for the Lent/Easter season. Once again, I have borrowed my title for this article from Met. Ware’s book, “The Orthodox Way” – in which he named the epilogue, “God as Eternity”. Unless otherwise noted, the content is mine – so please do not blame this good man for my ramblings.)
What will it be like?
Are there any among us who have not wondered?
Certainly the question of what, if anything, follows death is endemic to our species. For we who believe the question extends even further – an eternity further.
What will heaven be like? Can we truly hope for everlasting life and love in the Presence of God?
Our Faith teaches us that we can. Yet believing this with the full depth of our being is far from easy. As St. Paul so eloquently described it:
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13: 12)
Our knowledge, our vision at this time is so incomplete that we cannot fathom what it is that God has in store for those who love Him. And it is hard for us to have firm faith in what we cannot imagine.
Have you ever secretly wondered if heaven might be, well… boring?
The thought has crossed my mind, I am ashamed to admit. But I think this is largely because attempts to describe an eternity with God often omit two essential elements – elements that Met. Ware brought to my attention.
(C. S. Lewis brought these same elements to my attention years ago – in the story form of “The Chronicles of Narnia”. However, I don’t think that I had words to describe what it was that I learned when I read this. I simply knew that I was attracted to it.)
Met. Ware indicated that we can be sure of these two things:
First, perfection is not uniform but diversified. Secondly, perfection is not static but dynamic.
Once we turn our attention to the perfection of heaven with this understanding, it no longer has the sound of one extremely long church service.
Instead of picturing God sitting on a throne, choirs of angels singing and the rest of us endlessly bowing down in worship, we can begin to imagine a living, growing relationship that encompasses both individuality and unity.
An eternity of life similar to the relationship within the Trinity…
Naturally I can only write this with fear and trembling. For who am I to imagine that I understand what is to come – or that I understand life within the Trinity?
Of course, I understand none of this. But what has been revealed to the Church by the grace of the Spirit certainly hints at such a life for us.
As noted earlier in this series, the Holy Trinity includes a diversity – a three-ness of Being. The Father is not the Son, the Spirit is not the Father and the Son is not the Spirit. There are three distinct Persons in our God.
While this is incomprehensible to our human reason, this diversity is necessary for God to be love.
If God were One and only One, God would not be love within Himself.
He could love Himself, the One and only, but that would be an egocentrism rather than a pouring out of life-giving love.
He could love us – but then He would need us in order to carry out His love. In that case, He would be loving, but He would not be love in His very Being.
This suggests to us that we will not cease to be individual persons when we share in the divine Life.
This may be quite appealing to any among us who fear complete annihilation or loss of self in a formless cloud of energy.
But there is another side to this invitation.
And I became particularly aware of it when traveling through airports on my way to visit my mother.
A busy airport is teeming with diversity. I look at the other people waiting in line with me as well as the others milling around me.
There are many sizes and shapes, colors and languages. Some people look pleasant, like I’d enjoy meeting them. Others appear (to my eyes) a bit unusual, puzzling or even threatening.
Despite their considerable differences, each and every one of them was created in the image and likeness of God.
And each and every one of them was created to share in the divine Life, whether they recognize this or not.
Am I ready for an eternity that would include all of them? Is there any person or group that I really don’t want to meet in heaven?
Maybe they are just a little too different for my taste. I can’t tell if that one is a male or a female. This other one has way too many tattoos. That one dressed in clergy garb? Surely a hypocrite…
Certainly God wouldn’t let them in, would He?
Or perhaps I think they don’t deserve to be there. They were simply too evil. They hurt me too much. They hurt the world too much.
Certainly God would not let them in, would He?
Yet I am assuming that He has let me in…despite my idiosyncrasies, sins and shattered soul.
He wants us all – whatever condition we are in – so that He can cleanse us, heal us, restore us.
And the diversity among us is no accident in His creation. It is, indeed, necessary in order for us to participate in a divine Life that continuously pours Itself out in love for other.
Of course, none of us will ever become love or become God in His essence.
We who are created can never become uncreated God.
But I do not believe that this limitation in any way represents a deprivation – i.e. a “Keep Out” sign that God has posted for any of us who want to get too close.
While I certainly do not know enough to enter the theological controversies surrounding the notion of God’s essence and His energies, I will offer a simple comment or two.
First, God is not divided into two parts, the energies which we can know and the essence that we cannot know. God is undivided unity of three Persons.
Second, the essence – energy distinction may be helpful to us in our effort to understand what we cannot understand. The distinction is one made for human minds, made of human words.
Our concepts, our words, can never adequately explain or describe God. But they can sometimes guide us away from error.
For example, the well-known words of Church father, St. Athanasius (ca 298–373), “God became man that man might become God”.
To avoid heresy, we must recognize that this statement is both true and false.
Truly we are invited to share fully in the divine Life. If we were not, for what purpose did our Savior die and rise?
At the same time, it would be a grave error to imagine that, in our dying and rising with Him, we become God in the sense that God is God. Or that the Trinity would keep growing in number to include all of us.
It is paradox to our minds. It is mystery.
It is all mystery.
As we follow the mystery and consider perfection as dynamic and not static, we may, for an instant, think we have found something we can more readily comprehend.
Of course, God is alive and active. He who creates and sustains all living beings could not be otherwise.
But haven’t we all been taught that God is unchanging?
And haven’t I written as much myself, when pointing out that God does not have changing emotional states (The impassibility of God)? And that neither our sins nor our prayers “change” God?
Can God be both dynamic and unchanging?
To our minds, this may seem impossible. But that is only because our direct experience of living beings is that they change. Whether we are observing ourselves or the creatures around us, there is not a one that fails to change as it passes through the stages of its time-bound existence.
But the life of God is necessarily different in at least one very important way.
God’s revelation of His name to Moses, “I AM”, tells us that God is not like us, a created being passing through stages. He is not in the process of “becoming” a better or more perfect being. He is and always has been perfect Being.
His life, His “activity”, does not need to change. His perfection is complete and fully alive.
But how then can we know that He is indeed dynamic? Is it not possible that He created everything and is now detached, disinterested, so to speak?
This is where the notion of God’s “energies” becomes helpful to our struggling human minds.
We know that God is dynamic, alive and active because we are surrounded by evidence of this. Creation is not over but continuously manifesting itself – every time a bud blossoms, every time a baby is born.
To again quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God…”
If we keep our eyes and hearts open, we see an endless “Theophany”, not only in creation, but in the day-to-day movements of our lives.
How could I even write, stumped as I am by my own questions, if the Spirit were not actively moving in me, unworthy instrument that I am?
The dynamic nature of God’s Being manifests itself not in Him changing, but in how the “energies” of His Being change us.
The astute reader will note that I began writing about heaven, eternity and what comes next, but have centered most of this article on God and His perfection.
This, of course, is no coincidence. What comes next, I believe, is God.
Heaven is God and God is heaven.
Heaven is not a place (at least not as we conceive of places) but it is life in God, in His presence. It is union with Him and His creation, a union that allows us to be distinctly ourselves while fully in communion with other/Other.
It is a state of divine perfection, diverse and dynamic.
It cannot be boring because God in His Being is infinite, ever unfolding and made manifest.
To try to imagine this (which certainly we cannot), we might begin with the estimated 400,000 species of flowering plants on earth. Suppose, at my leisure, I could watch each and every one bloom?
And then suppose we move on to the butterflies on earth. With about 15,000 species of butterflies, I might discover each one as it hatches from its egg, feeds as a larva, spins its cocoon and emerges with its uniquely beautiful wings.
I think you get the picture. But of course I have only listed a few of the known created things on one planet in the estimated trillions of galaxies of the universe.
And, rather than discovering these temporary little created lives, I am writing of the infinite unfolding of the One who creates them all.
Contemplation of the boundless beauty and creative love of God overwhelms the human mind.
Our little brains, temporarily tools of our souls, cannot fathom such Being. Nor can I as an individual fathom that this glorious life is intended for me personally.
But He made us for Himself. He made us for an eternity of life and beauty and love unfolding.
Let us rejoice and be glad in Him who gave Himself up that we might share in this life.
Praise and glory and honor to Him forever.