Have you ever wondered why the Old Testament isn’t more explicit about the afterlife? I’ll admit it’s something that has always confused me. Ideas of heaven and hell seem absent, or vague at best, in the pages of Hebrew scripture. C. S. Lewis in his book Reflections on the Psalms has an interesting thought on this. He says:
It is…very possible that when God began to reveal Himself to men, to show them that He and nothing else is their true goal and the satisfaction of their needs, and that He has a claim upon them simply by being what He is, quite apart from anything He can bestow or deny, it may have been absolutely necessary that this revelation should not begin with any hint of future Beatitude or Perdition. These are not the right point to begin at. An effective belief in them, coming too soon, may even render almost impossible the development of (so to call it) the appetite for God…from Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis
This idea reminded me of the educational maxim “what we draw them with, we draw them to” meaning that when we motivate our students with rewards, it’s the rewards they end up hungry for and not the knowledge itself. This is precisely why I try to avoid rewards in our homeschool. I want my children to develop a true appreciation for the beauty and wonder of math itself, for example, not to grow in their love of Skittles!
Lewis proposes that thoughts of the afterlife can be a wrong motivator and lead to a self-centred hope instead of true worship. I’m beginning to wonder the same about inordinate preoccupation with spiritual things in general. Can that develop into another form of the same self-centredness? When all that concerns us and occupies our thoughts is our spiritual existence, does it allow us to escape from our duty to our earthly neighbour or give us an “out” from our calling and involvement in bringing God’s kingdom to earth? God had some pretty harsh words for Israel’s “shepherds” in Ezekiel 34 who were only concerned with feeding themselves.
With our New Testament revelation of the afterlife and knowledge of the spirit realm, are we in danger of forgetting that God cares about life here and now? He cares about physical needs and bodily suffering, and we should too. Are we liable, as the saying goes, to become “so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good”? Is it news to us that God even wants us to be of earthly good?
I was an adult before I realized God had redemptive intentions for the physical realm. I didn’t even know the Bible talked about a new heaven AND a new earth. I just always thought we were going to Heaven when we die. Period. End of story. But surely God didn’t crown His creation with these amazing creatures called humans just to turn them into angels in the end. As we age and our bodies stop cooperating with us, don’t we like to joke about how much we’re looking forward to our new BODIES someday? Incorruptible ones, yes, but still bodies!
Maybe we just don’t have the ability to comprehend a physical reality free from the effects of sin. We can’t imagine it so we don’t even try! But I think it’s a wondrous hope! A hope that we can tap into right here, right now as we catch glimpses of God’s goodness and beauty in creation. This is still our Father’s world! Let’s not forget that! And let’s remember that peculiar and most glorious distinctive of our faith — the miracle of the Incarnation, God with us!
Our imaginations may not be able to fathom a physical existence without sin. But, thankfully, God knew that. In Jesus, we have a tangible example of this beautiful blending of heaven and earth that God has always intended for His children.
This harmony of the physical and spiritual is a theme that keeps confronting me at every turn these days. I think it’s a balance that God wants to restore in my life and might be something I will continue to write about a lot. It’s intricately wound around my personal journey, and I sense that the vulnerability required could prove difficult; but I trust that what God has been saying to me could be something He wants others to hear too.
For today, I’ll leave you with a poem and a hymn. I am no poet, but sometimes I like to narrate ideas like this that I have been chewing on. It’s a good test of comprehension when I can boil it down into such a concise form. It’s untitled, for now, and probably a work in progress as I still have numerous couplets dancing around in my head. Who knows? Maybe it will eventually find its final expression in musical form.
This tightrope walk will never do. Righteous, loveless, aim at truth Sounds heavenly, leaves the rest of me NO ROOM. Suddenly You’re blending plans, Breathing life. Your artist hands Are smudging lines into some new kind OF FREE. At the end of my rope, Your table is there. How patient You are! How long You’ve prepared. A feast for my spirit, but more. I can hear it. A feast for my body as I learn to live near it. A child of the heavens, made to soar high, Is still child of the earth to walk under the sky. To breathe in the spirit and play in the dirt To remember the mystery of God come to earth.