God's Magnificent Metaphor
We westerners, with our Greek heritage, tend to view every event as related to three time-frames---past, present, and future. We view our own personal existence that way.
As to our past, a geneticist recently announced that she has found that we all carry the genes of a single female (whom most of us know as “Eve”). For starters, then, you and I have much more personal history than we often recognize, stretching back thousands of years.
The second section of our lives, our “now” (whatever the meaning) is long or short, depending solely on our perspective. It is longer than that of a housefly, which lives three days, and a bit shorter than a certain Australian sponge that lives over 1500 years.
And then here is our future. One of the “human universals” is that most of us, up to 99.99%, we are told, are betting on a sequel of some sort, another episode following the life we now enjoy.
Let us assume that the vast majority of humans is right. All religions believe (though some individuals do not) that man’s spirit it eternal. The Bible, for instance, often states, explicitly, that there is life beyond this one, for everybody, and that it lasts forever.
The idea of eternality is so profound that the Greeks did not even have a word for the concept and used various periphrastic (or “round-about”) expressions to get at the meaning. We simply have no frame of reference for infinity. At the least, however, it means you and I are going to spend much more time in the future than we have anywhere else. That, and much else, is what makes the subject so intriguing. And so important.
It is impossible for humans to communicate without using similes, metaphors, allegories, and the like. We do that because subjects exist which, both conceptually and linguistically, are simply beyond us. That would especially be true of a subject as elusive as eternity.
I suggest an analogy, a metaphor, which might let in a bit of light as to the meaning of “eternal life.”
Let us say that just previous to your physical birth, an angel (the Hebrews believed each of us has one, and called them “the angel of the Presence”---see Matthew 18:10) announces to you that you need to prepare for “a little commotion.” Being perfectly content, you really don’t want any commotion. You have not a single worry. Maybe you have never worried at all. Comfortable, happy, well-nourished, safe, warm, with something thumping just above your head telling you with every thump that you are loved. All is well in your entire universe.
Slowly, however, you begin to feel uncomfortable. Cramped. Hedged-in. And then you feel the very same muscles which have held you so delicately and lovingly and securely pushing on you. With increasing pressure, they shove you downwards, squeezing you so tightly that you become more than uncomfortable; you are in serious pain. And then terror, as you find yourself being crushed into a narrow tube or canal of sorts.
After perhaps hours of this comes a truly stunning shock. You find yourself in a frightfully alien place. Your lungs expand---for the very first time---and you feel as if you are drawing glass shards into of your body. You open your eyes, and searing light pierces your eyes. Your head is bursting with the sound of your own voice, which you are hearing for the first time, as it shrieks at your “little commotion.” What you want desperately to communicate but cannot is “Take me back where I came from! Immediately!” You wouldn’t have used the verbiage, of course, but you would have had to sense that this must surely be the end of your existence.
It isn’t long, however, until the sights and sounds and other physical sensations which so stunned you begin to turn pleasant. You are surrounded by affection, and your least whim is obeyed immediately. You don’t know the word “king,” but you are experiencing the privileges of an oriental despot. As if highly magnetized, you draw admiring stares from everyone who enters your room. You own the place.
At an early point, you learn that your room, much more capacious than your former quarters, is, however, not the entire picture. In fact, in the next sixty or eighty years, you continue to learn---to get a better perspective---on the size of your new environment, and you are rather astonished at it all.
At some point, you discover that you are walking about on a vast ball of matter and water called earth, and that it is so expansive, if you lived a thousand years, you could never see all of it. That, in fact, no one ever has in all human history. You learn that much of it has never felt a single human foot or been seen by a single human eye.
Then comes the real shock: you learn that the huge ball called earth is but one of countless such balls, “planets” they are called. Billions of them, many of which are monstrously larger than earth. It hurts your head to be told, for instance, that the sun that you see is four hundred times as large as your earth. That one planet called Jupiter, which you can hardly see with the naked eye, has over one thousand times (actually something like 1,320 times) as much volume as does your earth-home. And then you hear that, from one side of the cosmos---the starry realm---to the other is in the range of 13 billion (BILLION!) light years! (For context, remember that you learned in the fifth grade that light travels about 186,000 miles per second.) Further, you are told by the cosmologists, that the universe is continually expanding, has been doing so since its beginning (likely with a “Big Bang”), and will continue doing so into the unimaginably expansive future. And, as a footnote, you feel as if you’re standing or sitting still, but actually, you are traveling something like 350,000 miles per hour with the rotation of your ball of matter.
Further, you learn that your earth (indeed, the entire cosmos) is not only huge, but incredibly complex, beginning with what the scientists call an “atom,” a word that literally means “uncuttable” and which refers to the smallest piece of matter. But then you learn that it betrays its name and turns out to be an entire microscopic galaxy comprised of at least eighteen known “sub-atomic” particles, with others expected to be found. So, whether you use the most advanced microscope to see the smallest things known, or the telescope to see the largest things known, you realize that you know very, very little about your world. One man, a world-famous scientist named Einstein, openly admitted that “We don’t know a millionth part of anything.”
It is commonly confessed by the most learned among us, that we still don’t really know how much we don’t know. New worlds of truth are forever on the horizon, beckoning us to learn, but, alas, due to the reality of our own mortality, we can never know it all. The last “polymath,” a person who was believed to have mastered the then-known facts about the various disciplines of study, is said to be Gottfried Leibnitz, who died in 1716!
Here, then, is the question: why did God give you and me so much material to study in the context of such obvious limitations? Why these microscopic worlds beneath our microscope and these telescopic worlds beyond our telescopes? And why so little time, with so much to learn in both worlds which the smartest among us are still guessing about, our best efforts to learn having accumulated relatively so few facts?
I suggest it is all a splendidly enlightening parable. God’s magnificent metaphor.
That “little commotion” which we experienced at birth sending us into the vastness of the physical universe will serve us well in preparation for entrance into the third section of our life’s timeline---eternity.
How better to get a fix on that experience? Perhaps our angel, at some point, gently suggests we prepare for another “little commotion,” that is, the event of our physical death. In approaching it, we find ourselves thinking much as we did before.
We are hesitant about leaving the comfort of our love-cradle called “life.” We hear ourselves saying, “I am really going to miss the children, and their children, and their children. Birthdays and graduations and Easters and Thanksgivings and Christmases and New Year Eves and spring-time Bluebonnets and fall football games. And our favorite vacation spots and our home and neighbors and friends. And food and music and poetry and art. And et cetera! I just can’t imagine the loss of all that. I am really not ready to leave just yet.”
“You will remember,” the angel says, “how we had this conversation once before. And you will remember how, once becoming aware of the richness of your life outside your mother’s body, you would have resolutely refused to have retreated into that tiny, cramped space again. In fact, it is impossible to imagine it, isn’t it? So now, on to our next ‘little commotion’ in a bit.”
Of course, the angel knows, but we don’t! Hear this: what he knows, we don’t know. But he knows, we do know. And if we are sufficiently prescient, if we get the message: our first “little commotion” has prepared us for the second one. What better way for our Creator to prepare us to face eternity---whatever it is!---but by the metaphor of our physical birth ushering us into another new and unimaginably delightful experience?
We may, therefore, in our current state, expect to be able to understand heaven as we might expect to have understood Euclidean geometry before our physical birth. Or to have fathomed Platonic epistemology six months after our conception. Or to put the Pacific in a tea-cup, the Sahara in a sand-box, or the Alps in a shoe-box. There are some magnitudes that defy miniaturization.
Nobody in heaven, before arriving, had anything but the slightest adumbration of its glory, but nobody there is asking to return to earth. Nobody!
Our chief business, then, is to walk with the keenest anticipation of our future in that final-but-never-ending “segment” of our lives. Add to that our obvious benefit over our first “little commotion;” we didn’t know it was coming, but we do know the second one will.
A serious caveat must be stated here: eternity will not be pleasant for everybody. No world religion believes that. And no rational person, religious or not, believes that.
J. S. Whale put it this way:
It is illogical to tell men that they must do the will of God and accept his gospel of grace, and that nothing ultimately depends on it. The curious modern heresy that everything is bound to come right in the end is so frivolous that I will not insult you by refuting it.
C. S. Lewis put it this way:
If the game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender, but himself and he may refuse.…Everybody who goes to hell does so by his or her personal choice.
George MacDonald says:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell.
Jesus Christ, who spoke much more about hell than heaven, put it this way:
Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.
John 5:28 KJV
What if there is no painful eternity? Blaise Pascal, a serious Christian and world-class scientist famously answered the question this way. If there is but one chance in ten thousand that such an eternity exists, he said, it is still a bad gamble---given the danger--- to bet against it. If I am wrong, he said, I suffer no great loss; if I am right, the loss is incalculable.
Thus, to be unprepared for our first “little commotion” is perfectly understandable; to be unprepared for our second one is the only truly unforgivable act of which any human is capable.