Adding a dimension

I was asked again this week: what will our life look like after death?

I had just explained (again) to a group of young people that the plan of God is not to take them to heaven, at least as they likely understood the phrase. Rather, it is to bring heaven to earth. To re-create and perfect this world. And that those in Christ are part of a new humanity to inhabit and rule, with Christ, over this new earth.

So the question naturally occurs: what will this look like? What kind of bodies will we have? What kind of work will we do? What will our relationships look like (to God, to our families, to others)?

How would you answer that type of question?

This was how I tried to answer it: We will likely not really understand that kind of life, that kind of existence, until we actually experience it. Therefore the Bible does not really try to explain it, for to explain something we cannot understand will only lead to more confusion.

The analogy I used was this. I held up a piece of paper and asked them to imagine living life in a two-dimensional world (to use Edwin Abbot’s term, this is “Flatland”).  In this world, they would understand a square, but not a cube. They would understand a circle, but not a sphere. In fact, if they could even imagine a square or a cube they would likely think these things to be impossible, a flight of fancy.

This would be true even if a cube or sphere actually appeared and interacted with their world. Imagine, I told the students, if a tennis ball descending into and then through this two dimensional world they lived in. How would they see it? First as a point. Then as a line that grew larger and larger, and then smaller and smaller. And then as a point. And then nothing. Living in a two-dimensional world necessitates that they experience a three dimensional object in this way. In fact, they would experience pretty much the same thing not matter if the object passing through it was a sphere, a cube or a pyramid.

This video illustrates this well:

I had two points in this.

First, why should we think that, by the simple fact that we experience reality in three dimensions (plus time), that those three dimensions are the sum total of reality in itself?  Perhaps the main difference between the new heaven and earth, compared to what we now experience, is just this: we will experience new dimensions of reality. If so, then we should not expect to be able to understand these things yet. Even if the new heaven and earth is not an opening of new dimensions to us, the analogy can help us understand why scripture gives us so little information about life in the afterlife. We can’t understand what we have no experience of. The best we can do is gain a glimpse by analogy, which is what most of the imagery of the after-life in the scripture is.

Second, this analogy helps us a bit to understand how something can be beyond our physical senses to understand, and therefore beyond our ability to measure or analyze it, and yet still be physical. A cube is not less physical than the square. But to a flatlander, the cube will seem mysterious and ethereal. Persons living in three dimensions are not less physical than flatlanders;  if anything, they are more physical. But any interaction a 3d person has with those in two dimensions will seem (to the flatlanders) to come from an  invisible realm, and will be viewed as mystical, magical or miraculous.

Interestingly enough, this analogy may also remove some of our cognitive dissonance we experience when looking at the paradoxes of the Bible. How can God be three but also one. How can God know the future if our future choices are really free? How can God be everywhere and yet never localized in one place? I don’t have time to explore these here, but you are welcome to give your thoughts in the comments.

 

A few years ago one of the most popular songs on Christian radio was, I Can Only Imagine.  But really, we can’t.  We literally cannot imagine the new heavens and earth. And we’re going to have to live with that for a while.

36 thoughts on “Adding a dimension

  1. I’ve noticed that the Christian view of ‘Heaven’ differs rather markedly from the Jewish view.
    In Judaism, the concern is not so much over an ‘ethereal other’ as Heaven, but rather how good ,and yes how much better this current life on this current Earth can be.

    Judaism teaches that it is incumbent on all humans to take care of what’s already given in the here and now rather than pining for something over the rainbow.

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  2. Stephen, i really wouldn’t take that description literally, or the part about %”no more night” (which alarms me!)

    I think that imagery is there for a reason, but pretty much nothing in Revelation is what it seems to be (imo, at least).
    Apocalyptic literat7re is very, very strange stuff.

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  3. Perhaps the main difference between the new heaven and earth, compared to what we now experience, is just this: we will experience new dimensions of reality. If so, then we should not expect to be able to understand these things yet.

    I came to the same conclusion before I was indoctrinated in “The Plain Reading of SCRIPTURE(TM)”.

    During my time in-country, I ran across the spiritual brag about “When I’m Raptured into Heaven, the first thing I’ll do is…” My reaction was always “No. You’re going to be SO DISOIRENTED by non-linear Time and multiple Dimensions you’ll take (subjective) YEARS to sort it out enough to be functional.”

    Humans can only perceive Time as linear; even when exercising the frontal lobes about non-linear time or “outside of time”, we still visualize it as Past/Present/Future Linear Time.

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  4. Oh, and I just learned that the strongest character I’ve ever created is this character, the one is able to look the schmuck who cratered her heart in the eye and say, “I forgive you.”

    Even the schmuck recognizes the bravery, the courage, the strength required to do that.

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  5. This story began dark and then had this lovely thing appear out of nowhere. Then suddenly the story became about this horrible darkness cratering this really lovely thing that had formed by itself.

    Powerfully profound as it developed and took shape. And then I’m like, but I need to figure out how to redeem people from the carnage. Oh, man… many, many tears spilt over these fictional characters, trying to fix the brokenness at the end of the story. And I discovered that what that redemption takes is one character saying, “I forgive you.”
    Sounds a bit Biblical, eh? Lol.

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  6. I’ve had a couple stories burst into my head like that, DEMANDING to be written.
    Problem is, the ones that do are usually Dark.
    But another writer told me long ago that it’s often the Dark and Strong emotions that empower the story.

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  7. From Jepsen’s article up-top:

    “A few years ago one of the most popular songs on Christian radio was, I Can Only Imagine. But really, we can’t. We literally cannot imagine the new heavens and earth. And we’re going to have to live with that for a while.”

    Oh I don’t know about that.

    I can imagine quite a lot.
    Like for instance, my genome no longer passing corrupted information along the helix, which is probably why I am aging and have a date with death.

    Or maybe even finding an alternative to the old Newtonian-Einsteinian propulsion mechanics by which vast distances can be transited in a twinkling…

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  8. When things like this happen, I get glimpses of what it feels like to be God, and what He feels. In fact, this OTHER THING that popped up in my story put me so much in God’s shoes that I was left weeping at what my characters were going through–the fact that my main character’s actions later would eventually totally crater and devastate this NEW character who had popped up.

    I was left weeping for the one who would be cratered, and for the one who would do the cratering. My thought was: “Don’t you realize I want better for you than what you are about to cause, both to yourself and this other innocent person?”

    Jesus wept. And so did I… LOL.

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  9. Great stuff! That happens in song writing too. Distinctly some sort of dialogue as opposed to a monologue.

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  10. That happened a lot to Tolkien as he set out to write a small sequel to The Hobbit. Almost 15 years after he started, he apologized to the publisher as submitted to them a 500,000 word monster of a manuscript… which we nowadays know as The Lord of the Rings.

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  11. I had a very profound moment in writing a story recently that is this comment to the max. Something popped up in the middle of the story, completely unrelated, then suddenly IT was the whole purpose of the story. Now I’m shaping what was written prior to this thing so that the story becomes centered around this thing.

    And I’m like… Where in the heck did this come from, this thing I wasn’t consciously thinking of at all, but suddenly became the entire purpose?!?!?

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  12. You know I often speak of imagination as one of our greatest treasures. Seeing the unseen. It’s not so much making up something, though that’s certainly part of it, as it is opening a door to something that is perhaps knocking. It’s a happy cooperation.

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  13. The only time I had a possible vision (“Thirty Seconds over Narnia”), I didn’t “see things” like in the movies or Testimonies. It manifested as an Extremely Vivid Mental Image. I was completely conscious of my physical surroundings (my cubicle and screen) the entire time, but this mental image was just so Vivid.

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  14. According to Slackfivist, Left Behind: Volume 13 took that literally. The New Earth is one continuous American Mythical Midwest, dotted with Mayberries and Pleasantvilles and Springfields (from Father Knows Best, not The Simpsons) behind white picket fences. And all everyone does (from Volume 16) is “tell each other about Jesus”. Forever.

    There’s a story about a Pastor and a Rabbi. The pastor had a dream of the Rabbi’s heaven — a big city teeming with people working, eating, travelling, generally living their lives. And it disturbed him as being too Earthly.

    So he related this to the Rabbi. The Rabbi replied “Funny. I had a dream of your Heaven — a small town with houses behind white picket fences.” (i.e. the eternal Pleasantville of Left Behind‘s New Earth/Heaven.)

    The pastor asked “What were the people there like?”

    The rabbi answered “What people?”

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  15. I’m inclined to believe that we glimpse the other dimensions in yearnings, intuitions, dreams and extra sensory experiences (see endless list in Bible) both visual and auditory. Eli knew that in those days when “the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions,” that Samuel was hearing God speak in a human sounding voice like that of Eli himself. These days we live in are also marked by a similar rarity of hearing or seeing the other dimensions but if we minister to the Lord in the temple of our lives like Samuel was doing, with a keen eye, a discerning ear and an open door…stranger things have happened. “Is that you Lord?”

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  16. *blinks*

    Ladies and gentlemen, please turn your attention to the right of the vehicle! We have been privileged to witness the first sighting of the long-thought extinct *E. trollus* in several years! Pictures only please, we do not wish to spook the fellow!

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  17. ‘story’ is buried deep in our human DNA

    ‘memories of ancient days’ that haunt us give rise to images ‘imagined’ but somehow still ‘recalled’ , the myths, the sagas, all are a part of us still, left over from time immemorial

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  18. “And there’s another country I’ve heard of long ago,
    most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
    we may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
    her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
    and soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
    and her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.”
    (C. Spring-Rice ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’)

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  19. True that! Most folks are familiar with the idea that 3D objects often cannot be represented in a putative 2D world but the reverse is true as well. We can imagine 2D things that cannot be represented in our 3D world: witness M. C. Escher’s “Ascending and Descending Stairs” for example.

    sorry for the nerd excursion… 🙂

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  20. Yes!

    I went to a talk she gave, what, 15 years back, and I was very impressed. She helped develop adaptive optics in the infrared (to correct for atmospheric twinkling effects) and then used it to track individual stars orbiting the central object of our galaxy.

    It’s one of the most memorable lectures of my career as an astronomer.

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  21. Along similar lines, I’m pretty sure that where the Bible as currently translated uses “dog” as an insult, it actually meant “cat”. 😛

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  22. The most depressing prospect for the afterlife is revealed in Revelation 21:1.

    “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.”

    No more sea? I realize that for ancient Jewish thinkers the sea represented the forces of primordial chaos populated by such monsters as leviathan and behemoth, but speaking as one who has always loved the ocean, are you telling me there won’t even be one lousy beach or one lousy ship? Very disappointing.

    I submit there must have been a corrupted text here and what it really said originally was –

    “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more seasickness.”

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  23. Speaking of dimensions, a shout out to Prof. Andrea Ghez out in Cali, for claiming her share of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on supermassive black holes.

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  24. Perish the thought (pun intended).

    “If for this life only do we have hope in Christ, then we are the most pitiable people of all.” – Paul, I Cor 15

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  25. There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into… the Resurrection Zone.

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  26. It’s a good analogy, but for this: the piece of paper is three dimensional, not only two dimensional. We experience nothing that exists in only two dimensions, and we have no idea how or if a world of only two dimension could be experienced.

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  27. “How can God be three but also one. How can God know the future if our future choices are really free? How can God be everywhere and yet never localized in one place?”

    so ‘the bible clearly says’ doesn’t unlock all mysteries, but we knew that, and somehow that is ‘okay’

    ” si enim comprehendis non est Deus”

    “. . . The sages have a hundred maps to give
    That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
    They rattle reason out through many a sieve
    That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
    And all these things are less than dust to me
    Because my name is Lazarus and I live.”
    – G. K. Chesterton

    “. . . I don’t care how many angels can
    dance on the head of a pin. It’s
    enough to know that for some people
    they exist, and that they dance.”
    – Mary Oliver

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