Last night I was reading through Charles D’Ambrosio’s (quite brilliant!) new collection of essays, Loitering, and came to a sentence that disturbed me. I read the sentence over a few more times in hopes of shrugging off the implicit hopelessness that reverberated out from it, but came up with nothing. The sentence, in its entirety, reads:
In fact the fog’s so dense and obliterating, this predawn offers a prospect as hopeless and unappealing as waking in Heaven would after about the third day into eternity.
It constricted my heart, this sentence, like a finger was pointing at something that had been bothering me for years, but I’d been able to somehow deflect, the way a young child might hover around a half-truth with a mumble or a look at the floor when called out. The truth is, I’ve been proselytizing about Heaven for years: It’s perfect, it’s great, you’ll be with Jesus, there will be no sorrow, etc.
As a kid I was terrified of eternity. It was a concept that I couldn’t grasp. It didn’t bother me in a mathematical sense; infinity wasn’t an issue because infinity was about numbers, which arguably don’t exist, at least not in the way that a life exists, a human being, someone who must experience it. Eternity to me meant days without end, never coming to a destination, the horizon sloping downward so that just as you imagine you will see the goal you’re walking toward, it disintegrates to nothing.
After all, this is Biblical, right? Days without end, eternal life… the concept of eternity comes straight out of scripture. It’s there to encourage us, and as far as I can tell, for most people, it does. Isn’t this why some choose to become Christians? Or Muslims, or follow any number of religions for that matter? They are promised eternal life, and they want it to be a good one: perfection, light, happiness, virgins, whatever our little pea-brains can come up with that sounds good enough to do forever.
The truth is, I don’t want to do anything forever. Even hang out with Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, it blows my mind with wonder to think that I will be with him, but forever?
I’ve had bouts of depression for years, and I don’t mean the weepy kind, where you eat a lot of ice cream and watch T.V. My bouts with the monster have rendered me immovable at times, paralyzed with despondency. If I’m able to cry it’s with great relief. If I could find joy in a brownie I would eat a pan of them, but I can’t. There is no Ben and Jerry’s or Chunky Monkey. Nothing has taste. Nothing has meaning.
But then a certain morning comes along and I wake up and find that I’m okay again. I go about my days in a normal, engaged way, trying to avoid ice cream because I don’t want to gain weight. I don’t know why I experience these depressions, but I do know that they have everything to do with the state I’m in and nothing to do with circumstance or environment.
It’s been these periods of darkness that have taught me the most about eternity and eased my fear. I’ve come to understand that Heaven, like those days that I wake up and (behold!) I’m me again, will not be endless in the way that I comprehend endless now. I will be different. Like coming out of a depression, where I find myself able to feel, and love, and eat the way I was created to, with interest and even joy, Heaven will be good—and eternal—in a way that I’m just not able to comprehend yet.
The reality is, none of us have a clue. We don’t have a clue about time; our physical minds and emotions are not able to comprehend a place without time. The concept of eternity, if you think about it, is probably the closest match to communicate timelessness. My son once said that the Bible is like a children’s book. I agree. Love, a thing that we sort of get in a limited way, is stretched out across the Bible like a national flag, but I think most Christians understand that we’re limited in our ability to love and receive love. As with eternity, it’s incomprehensible in our present state.
D’Ambrosio’s unappealing Heaven is rooted in a misunderstanding of eternity. I know it’s just a sentence, and a very good one, in an essay about other things, but it tripped me up because I agree with it. Given what I understand right now, I don’t want to go anywhere forever. But one “day” I will be able to comprehend differently because he will transform stuff (Philippians 3:21), like my brain, and my mind, whatever that is, and because of this, as with so much in the Christian life, I look forward to it by faith.