My pastor decided to pull a vacation surprise on his four children. "We're going to Junction City, Kansas," Peter told them. "It's where my dad used to pastor a church, and we can have lots of fun there." Meanwhile he made secret plans to spend one afternoon in Junction City, then drive on to enjoy the glories of Disney World.
Ever trusting, his children bragged to skeptical friends, "We're going to Kansas for vacation. It's great!" All during the long drive from Denver to Junction City, Peter kept up morale by describing the wonders awaiting them: playgrounds, a swimming pool, an ice cream stand, maybe even a bowling alley.
After touring Granddad's old church, the kids were ready to check into a motel and go swimming when their dad dropped the bombshell. "You know something, it's kind of boring here in Kansas. Why don't we just drive to DISNEY WORLD!" Mom reached in a bag and pulled out four custom-made Mickey Mouse hats.
Peter expected his kids to jump up and down in delight. Instead, they complained: "Ah, who wants to get back in the van?" "What about the swimming pool? You promised!" "I thought we were going to go bowling!"
The great surprise had backfired. For the next few hours Peter sat behind the steering wheel and smoldered as his children expanded on all the advantages of Junction City over Disney World.
Never one to miss a homiletical opportunity, Peter turned this fiasco into a fine sermon illustration, quoting C. S. Lewis: "We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea." In a letter to his friend Malcolm, Lewis added that "the hills and valleys of Heaven will be to those you now experience not as a copy is to an original, nor as a substitute to the genuine article, but as the flower to the root, or the diamond to the coal."
Yes, Peter said, our desires are too small. We stamp our feet and insist on a merry-go-round in Junction City when Disney World's Space Mountain lies just down the road.
This year is the one-hundredth anniversary of C. S. Lewis's birth, and among his many accomplishments was restoring heaven to a place of intellectual respectability. Before him, heaven was an embarrassment, a holdover of primitive wish-fulfillment, and Christians who took heaven seriously were accused of a "pie in the sky" mentality. Lewis himself admits to the nagging "fear that I was bribed —that I was lured into Christianity by the hope of everlasting life." Yet he went on to stress the sheer moral necessity of heaven and to paint a wonderfully imaginative portrait of it in The Great Divorce.
Historically, every age before the modern assumed an afterlife—a good thing, since much of what we know about ancient civilizations comes from what they stashed in their tombs—disagreeing only on the particulars of how best to prepare. "I am the tadpole of an archangel," wrote Victor Hugo. Nowadays, we get much advice on becoming the best possible tadpoles, but little on how to prepare for metamorphosis.
Philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard tells the story of a woman who refused to talk about life beyond death because, she said, she didn't want her children to be disappointed if it turned out no afterlife existed. As Willard points out, if no afterlife exists, no one will have any consciousness with which to feel disappointment! On the other hand, if there is an afterlife, whoever enters that next life unprepared may experience far more than mere disappointment.
I have a theory that heaven will offer faithful Christians whatever they sacrificed on earth for Jesus' sake. My mountain-climbing friend who intentionally lives in a slum area of Chicago will have Yosemite Valleys all to himself. A missionary doctor in the parched land of Sudan will have her own private rain forest to explore. (Could this be why the New Testament commends poverty while portraying heaven in such sumptuous terms?)
Joy Davidman, wife of C. S. Lewis, came to agree with Saint Paul that if we are wrong about resurrection, "'Then we Christians are of all men the most miserable.' Because then, you see, the only real good would be the good things of this world—which Christians must often give up."
Lewis and Davidman spent only four years together before Joy died of cancer. I have no doubt that Lewis's own views of heaven were both tested and strengthened as he watched his wife's agonizing battle. The longing she had answered in him, he hoped, was but a foretaste of a time when all his longings would be fulfilled. The pain that wracked her body, he fervently believed, was like the pain of childbirth, a last loud announcement of new life aborning. Lewis saw belief in heaven not as wishful thinking, but as thoughtful wishing.
The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once tried out his theory of belief in God, but no heaven, on a rather simple-minded peasant. The peasant thought a minute and then replied, "So what is this God for?"
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