Sunday, December 13, 2009

"A new heaven and a new earth": (Late) reflection on All Saints Day

"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. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away."

This All Saints' Day (Nov 1), I had the pleasure of hearing the beautiful reading from the Apocalypse of John, 21: 1-7.

This is one of my favorite scriptural passages, and one that I find myself coming back to over and over again. It's used (sometimes) on All Saints Day, and also on the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec 28). The interesting thing, of course, is that the Feast of the Holy Innocents isn't fundamentally a feast about heaven: its subject is something quite different. Death- more specifically, "murther most vile". But a consideration of death leads us naturally into a consideration of what comes after death, and in this passage we are shown an arresting, striking, brilliantly realized and hauntingly mystical vision of what comes after death, and of the victory over death that Christ procured for us.

Let's take a close look at the multifarious images that St. John gives us, in this vision that he received on Patmos sometime in the late first century.

"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and earth had passed away, and the sea was no more". In this single verse is implied the core of Christian teaching about nature, and about the physical world. And in it we see the refutation of many deep and dangerous errors that people fall into when they consider nature. It refutes all those who would hold either that the physical world and nature are inherently good or inherently evil, as well as those who would hold that the natural world is merely a plastic thing to be used and reshaped as we see fit, and those who would hold that the natural world is congruent with God. All these errors- Gnosticism, materialism, the modern technological cult of progress, pantheism- have been serious intellectual threats to Christianity in their time, and at some level they can't be refuted purely intellectually, they can be refuted only experientially.

The Manichaeans, and their medieval successors the Cathars, had at the very least a certain compelling logic and superficial attractiveness to their arguments, for any sensitive and thoughtful person, looking at this world, can see it is quite an evil and corrupt place, in which good is seldom rewarded and evil is often triumphant. But the Manichaean heresy fundamentally faded away, at least in part, because it foundered on the rocks of a challenge that wasn't intellectual but existential and experiential. If this world was created by the devil, then how can there be good in it? And if we are prepared to say that there is no good in the physical world, then what do we say to our spirit when it thrills to the strains of a beautiful piece of music, or to the sight of a songbird flying through the sky, or to the reddening rays of the sunset?

Ultimately we know at an experiential level that this world isn't purely evil, that it contains a lot of goodness, truth, and beauty, and that there is good in the physical things of this universe as well as in the spiritual things. And that is exactly why, at the end of all things, God will restore to us a new physical earth, better than the old one, and a new heaven too: and, too, why in eternity we can expect to be not disembodied souls, but full persons, with risen and glorified physical bodies. "It is sown corruptible, it is raised incorreptible" said St. Paul, and no doubt he had the same vision of the end of time as was given to St. John.

But if the world isn't evil, neither (anymore) is it inherently good, for it has been corrupted down to its core. This is a world in which living beings evolve through the brutal process of natural selection, in which the strong prey upon the weak, in which things inevitably decay and wind down. That is why St. John doesn't promise an 'improvement' of this old world: he promises not reform but revolution, and renewal. The world contains so much good that we know that it can't be the work of the devil, but it contains so much evil that we know that in its present state, it is deeply and permanently corrupt. Only the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, which contain all the promise of the old world and none of its corruptions, can satisfy our thirst for goodness, truth and beauty. Ultimately we are not going to achieve a perfect world, until Christ comes again: neither technological progress nor social change can overcome the realities of pain, suffering, and death. The world is good enough to rise again, but is fallen enough and bad enough that it can't rise again unless it is buried, and here we see that the materialist is as wrong as the Manichaean. "In this world ye shall have tribulation", Christ tells us: but he also promises us, through the vision entrusted to the Beloved Disciple, that we shall have a new and better world.

St. John says little specifically about heaven: as we all know, it's easier to describe evil than to describe good. The medieval and patristic period saw plenty of literature describing visions of hell in graphic detail, but descriptions of heaven were metaphorical and unconvincing, and as we all know Dante's Inferno and Purgatorio were greater works of art (though not necessarily better works of theology) than his Paradiso. And the reason is not far to seek: heaven, and perfection, are simply beyond our understanding. As St. Augustine says frankly, the peace of God passeth all understanding but His own. One way in which John does suggest its beauty and perfection is by describing it in negative terms. Heaven is a place where "there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away".

In this beautiful passage, St. John sums up some of the worst, most painful aspects of the world, and promises us, in luminary words, that the new heaven and the new earth will be without them. Death will be no more, because we will live for ever. Sorrow will be no more, for what can we be sorrowful about? Pain and crying have their place in our world, and it's a spiritually dead person that never feels either, but in the world to come neither pain nor crying shall have any place: "for the former things have passed away."

We can't fully understand what heaven is like, but we can understand it by contrast. Similarly, we can often only understand good by contrast with evil as well. We can't fully understand the peace of God, for it passes all understanding, but we can look at the horrors of war and know that God and Heaven are the antidote. We can do the same with sickness, hunger, and oppression. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."


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