“Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.” 1 Thessalonians 4:17
Our final word of our Lent series of hard words is “eternity.” We declare our faith in eternal life each time we say the Creeds; we sing about eternity in our hymns, but what do we mean by the word eternity, and what is understood by people when they hear the church talking about eternal things?
Eternity is not something that comes up very often in conversation among Church of Ireland people; eternal life and heaven are not often the foremost of the concerns in most parishes. But if we do not believe in eternal things, then what do we believe?
Judy Esway, a Roman Catholic writer on spirituality, captures beautifully what it means if we have a church that does not think about eternity.
“As a child I had a beautiful, simple faith. But it faded as I got older. There is one especially vivid memory I have of a time when I was still young. I must have been in third or fourth grade. I was sitting in church during Mass, and something struck me as being strange. I looked around at all the people. They had the most serious, deadpan looks on their faces, yet the words they were speaking were so full of power. In drab, monotone voices they were saying,
“And he will come again.”
I looked around thinking, who’s going to come again? Are they talking about Jesus?
“And we will see him face to face.” I started to get a bit excited. We’re going to see Jesus face to face?
“And the dead will rise.” The dead will rise? You mean we won’t have to stay dead? This was good news. This was fantastic news. Why weren’t these people smiling? Why weren’t they happy?
Finally I heard them say, “And we will live forever.” Well, this was really the clincher. We’re going to live forever? Why weren’t they dancing in the aisles? Why weren’t they clapping and shouting if they were going to live forever? On that sad day it dawned on me: these people must not believe what they are saying. And so I stopped believing it too.”
Judy Esway remembers what it was like to be young. Young people will ask questions that perhaps we are afraid to ask, questions that perhaps we have not even considered.
One day in the National School, I was taking the RE class and we were looking at the Psalms. Psalm 137 was among those we read. The class was not interested in the rivers of Babylon, nor in the dashing of babies’ heads against the rocks, what intrigued them was the idea that the harp would not be played again until Zion was reached, “Reverend Ian, what will it be like in heaven?” asked one of them
It wasn’t the first time facing the question. A good lady of profound faith whom I knew very well died in her late 90s. One question that caused her thought from time to time was what age we would be in eternity. Death held no fears, heaven was a certainty, anxiety stemmed from a fear that in heaven she might be the little old lady she had become. “What will we be like in heaven?” It was not a question I could answer; all I could say was that I believed we would be at our best
I could not answer the question of what we would be like in heaven for a couple who lost their little son at 21 months old in the little rural parish where I worked for seven years. It was important for them to believe their little boy would grow into a fine young man, and, if eternity is really a perfect place, wasn’t their hope justified?
In school, I asked the class “What do you think we will be like?” There was no answer.
“Will we see our friends again?” one asked.
“That’s what we are told”.
Isn’t this what we teach in church about the life of the world to come? Isn’t this the eternity envisaged by Saint Paul in the First Letter to the Thessalonians Chapter 4? Doesn’t a joyful reunion in heaven mean seeing friends again? It can be a reassuring thought, but it can also be a worrying thought. More than one widow I have met has expressed profound and sincere relief at the demise of their erstwhile partner. Are we saying that having got rid of an abusive husband, that they have to face the prospect of an eternity with him?
On the other hand, I was always troubled by Jesus’ response to the Sadducees in Saint Luke Chapter 20 when he said there would be no marriage in heaven. What about the majority of married people who grieve greatly at the loss of their partner? Or, even more complicatedly, what about people who married the wrong person, do they not get a second chance to be married to the right one? Is there a conflict between belief in a joyful reunion in heaven and Jesus’ teaching that there is no marriage there?
Eternity is a hard word; questions about it come with no easy answers. If the questions could be answered, then it would not be eternity, for something we understand could not be eternal and infinite; and things that are eternal and infinite must necessarily be beyond all our comprehension and imagination.
Eternity is something that can only be glimpsed in brief moments of imagination. Eternity is forever, and perhaps it is also a single moment of bliss that never ends. A conversation I once heard in the North captures a sense of a glimpse of the peace and contentment and joy of the world to come.
“What’s heaven like?”
“Heaven?” said the pastor, “Heaven for for me will be standing with my dog on a bridge in one of the glens of Antrim; just standing there looking down the glen. And someone will come up and say, “What are you doing?”
And I’ll say, “I’m just standing here enjoying the view.”
And they’ll say, “Are you standing here long?”
And I’ll say, “Ach, no, not more than ten thousand years.”
When we declare our faith in the life everlasting, we should ask ourselves, “what does eternity mean to me?”