April 1, 1999
 Eternally
Distinctive

Will We Be
Individuals in Heaven?
    
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"April is the cruelest month," says T. S. Eliot.

Statistics bear him out. More people take their lives during this month than any other.

What makes April a depressing time for so many? I think it has to do with the high expectations that we bring to the month. After a long winter we look to April for the advent of spring, with its beauty, warmth and relief. In reality it is often a cold, drizzly month that chills both the bones and the spirit. In the climate where I live, it's usually not until May that the most welcome signs of spring arrive.

For college students, too, April is reality month. Suddenly you're faced with deadlines for papers you haven't even begun, and finals are just around the corner.

For the Christian, though, April should sound a different note. It hosts the event that is the greatest celebration of our faith. The news that Christ rose from the dead brings with it the triumphant reminder that we who believe in him will rise also. We will live forever in eternity with him. This is far and away the single greatest hope which the Christian life offers.

Yet the prospect of eternity, like April itself, is an ambivalent hope for many. While we realize that on one level eternity will be an incalculable blessing, we know it will require a sacrifice almost too great to imagine--life as we now know it. Journalist Ellen Goodman has remarked that we greet change of any sort with the enthusiasm of a child welcoming a new sitter.* Regardless of the joys in store for us in heaven, the thought of giving up our present experience of life terrifies us.

How Expectations Differ

Occasionally, though, I've met those rare souls who are thoroughly entranced with the prospect of eternal life. In the small island community where I've often gone to write, I spoke with Sherry, a woman whose father had recently died. He was genuinely excited about the prospect of heaven, she said. When a flood was forecast and the islanders urged to evacuate, he decided not to bother. Such predictions had never been right before. But if this one was, he had a better place to go, so why delay it?

The flood never came, but several weeks later he died unexpectedly from a heart attack. Sherry was mortified at losing her dad and on the verge of tears as she talked with me. But as she spoke of his hope of heaven, her composure changed completely, and her eyes shone with hope. "On the way home from the funeral," she said, "it suddenly dawned on me that he's ecstatic right now. Why are we all so miserable? If it's anything like they say it is, he's having a ball! He's with his mom, whom he hasn't seen in over thirty years, and old friends are greeting him."

This same perspective on heaven which ignited Sherry's father's faith fuels her own as well, and gave her the strength to get through a terribly difficult period. When I look at what gives this view its motivating appeal, it boils down to this: In heaven we continue to be individuals enjoying the same benefits of this present life, only to a much greater degree. Heaven is not a radical change so much as an improvement in our present condition. The best of life as we now know it is given back to us in unlimited measure.

Such a view, we might say, is common among folk such as these islanders, who have never been to college, never taken a philosophy course or learned to think in terms of high theology. Yet to us it smacks of anthropomorphism. We are not comfortable thinking of heaven in terms of life as we now experience it. Eternal life is the experience of endless nirvana. In heaven we become part of a vast cosmic spiritual force. We loose all sense of distinctiveness as we float blissfully around eternity as aimless souls.

But while such a view tickles our intellect, it does little to excite us about the possibility of leaving this life. It's small wonder so many Christians have an April feeling about eternity.

Keeping Our Identity

Will heaven bring with it the chance to reunite with Uncle Jed, cousin Sally and long forgotten childhood friends? Scripture is less than explicit on the question and leaves some room for mystery about the nature of relationships in eternity. Jesus did say that there will be no marriage in heaven (Matt 22:30). In some sense relationships will be different there.

Yet I'm certain that the view of Sherry and her dad is much closer to a biblical picture of heaven than that held by many Christians. Scripture is clear on this point: In heaven we will continue have the experience of being individuals. Jesus, for instance, declared that God is presently Lord of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matt. 22:32). He meant that they are alive as distinctive people in eternity with him. I suspect that this means they have the experience of relating to each other, and that others in heaven do as well. Jesus hinted at this when he spoke about Lazarus resting in Abraham's bosom (Luke 16:23).

Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15 that we will have a body in eternity. It will be a spiritual body, different in some respects from the one we now have, but similar enough that it can still be termed a body. Remember that after his resurrection Jesus was still in a body. His appearance was different enough that friends didn't immediately recognize him, yet similar enough that when he identified himself they did.

John notes in Revelation 2:17 that in eternity we will each be given a new name. There will be something beautifully new to our identity. Yet to the Hebrews the idea of a name implied everything distinctive about a person. To receive a name is to become an individual. C. S. Lewis, commenting on this verse, predicts that in heaven we will each forever praise an aspect of God's being which no one else will be able to praise.*

The best part of April is that Easter draws our thoughts to the miracle of resurrection and the glories of the life to come. May the inspiration Easter gives us to focus on the blessings of eternity continue with us and strengthen our faith. But let us remember that eternity will bring with it not the annulment of our individuality but the completion of it. We will have the most thoroughgoing experience possible of being a special, distinctive person. Such a thought should not only energize our hope of the life to come but give renewed meaning to our life here and now. It reminds us that God has a distinctive purpose for each of us on earth which no one else can fulfill.

Take joy that God has made you a one-of-a-kind creation, for now--and throughout eternity.

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