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.