“The Great Divorce” and Understanding Eschatology

C.S. Lewis is quite a good storyteller. Now, I know that statement is obvious to anyone who has read any of his fiction. Nonetheless, when we read fiction, we often have a tendency to say, “What a nice story,” and leave it at that. We forget that the metaphor speaks to something greater; there is a legitimate direction of truth in metaphor. It is why, in reading the gospels, one will often find Christ saying, “The kingdom of God is like….” He spoke in metaphors because a metaphor will illustrate the greater truth, reality, and concept behind the words themselves.

The main theme of The Great Divorce says that, often, there is some grain of good desire even at the heart of an act that appears evil; good, even the smallest amount, taken in a selfish direction will be misused and abused and turned into something horrible. But when taken in the right (‘right’ in and of itself is a word that needs to be unpacked in today’s post-modern world!) purpose, right defined here as being used for the purpose and intention of God’s design, that grain of good turns into something beautiful and amazing. Additionally, there are themes and metaphors of heaven, hell, and even purgatory (believe it or not – it is a doctrine that has its basis in some legitimacy!), as well as the examination of the depth of God’s love and victory. These are aspects of what is commonly called eschatology. It is looking at, well, the end. It is trying to understand the end of this age, bonded to death through sin, and the beginning of a new age, with freedom in God to love.

And it begs us to ask questions; some might even call them dangerous questions. What do we believe will happen at the end of this age? And the even more threatening question – what do we believe will happen when we die?

Oftentimes, the quick, easy answer we receive in western, non-Roman Catholic theological traditions (sorry – I don’t like the term ‘Protestant’ very much; I’m not really protesting Rome anymore!) is that you die and your soul goes to heaven or hell. And that’s the type of bottom line, hard and fast answer we receive. Simplistic and easy – but that is the exact problem with that answer. In truth, it’s neither a simplistic nor an easy answer! And it should not be treated as if it were a simplistic and easy answer!

There are all sorts of issues with this answer.

The first issue is that none of us has died and returned. That is, none of us except Jesus Christ. And apart from Christ’s death and resurrection, we do not exactly know what comes after death. Christ is our best guide to understanding life after death. What the resurrection points to, and in line with scripture, is a physical resurrection in a renewed body.

The second issue is the concept of a dualistic eternal soul and non-eternal body; it does not come from Christianity nor the Hebrew Bible. Remove Greek and Platonist influence and you have the unified psychosomatic concept of the person as a whole; body and mind are together. It is the way God designed us to be as people; he did not design us to have a partially separated non-physical ‘soul’ for all of eternity – the person would be incomplete! I encourage you to take a journey through both the Old and New Testaments and explore this on your own.

The third issue is that it does not take into account the physical resurrection of the person, and all people, at the end of this age; again, this is in line with scripture; again, I encourage you to explore the Old and New Testaments. Moreover, in saying that someone will immediately descend into hell upon death turns God into an unjust judge. Scripture is clear that there will be both a day of physical resurrection and a day of judgment; neither has happened yet. It will be at the end of this age. God is not going to condemn a person to eternal damnation before the day of judgment! C.S. Lewis makes a great point here in The Great Divorce – ultimately, it won’t be God’s rejection of the person; rather, it will be the person’s rejection of God and his beautiful love that brings despair.

It should be known that on that day of judgment in the future, it will be God, and God alone, who is truly able to judge the person’s heart. This is not a responsibility that we, as Christians, ignorant of a totality of information, should take on for ourselves; we cannot claim to be God. However, it should make all of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, want to seriously examine the condition of our own hearts and our receptiveness towards God’s grace.

Finally, it downplays the significance and the beauty of a new creation! As I mentioned before, God created us as physical beings, originally designed for good, beauty, life, and love; however we have been corrupted by sin and its effects through death. God did not create us to be an eternal, non-physical soul, yearning to escape a physical realm; that is the heresy of gnosticism. But in living in a new and beautiful creation, it will be a remade, physical world! There will be eternal, physical life available, with freedom in love and freedom from evil. One will not have to worry about needs or wants; there will be no pain or tears of sadness.

That, my friends, sounds absolutely amazing. Imagine the beautiful, remade beings of The Great Divorce. That could be our remade body one day. Imagine the rivers and the mountains, the grass, the apples, and the leaves that Lewis described in his story. Consider, at the very least, the abounding love that conquers all.

Think of hiking through a beautiful mountain path, living in conjunction with God’s Spirit and praising the Father for his works, all the while thanking the Son for making your participation in it possible through his work in this present age. Think of sitting on the most beautiful beach that God has ever made, while enjoying loving fellowship with others. Think of an awe-inspiring sunset or sunrise. Think of entering through the gates of the incredible city of God that John describes in Revelation. Think of walking with Christ, our King but also our friend, and embracing the love that is his very existence.

It will one day be a physical and true reality. It will be God’s beloved world, remade.

Do you see how the answer of saying that one will go to heaven or hell after one dies and that’s the bottom line is not only simplistic and easy, but a bit misleading? This fall-back and default answer, especially when there is a much better, truthful, and scripturally accurate answer, can even be damaging!

This gives us a fairly good picture of the future and where God is taking the world; the incredibly beautiful thing is that God invites each of us to participate in this awesome story! If that is not an expression of love, I am not quite sure what is.

Nor is it the promotion of a selfish ticket to heaven, but an invitation for us and an opportunity to participate in and perpetuate God’s amazing, redemptive love to the world; we continue in the work of demonstrating this kingdom as we respond to God today!

Nonetheless, we still ask the question of what will immediately happen after one dies. The short answer, and probably the best and most honest answer, is we don’t know.

There are a few possibilities, but we can’t talk about it with nearly as much certainty and scriptural accuracy as we can of the new creation.

The first is that one simply dies and then is raised again at the resurrection. At first this might come as a shock and the question is inevitably asked, “What? No heaven?” Well, if you’re really honest with yourself, it’s not that big of a deal. You’ll be dead; and the good thing about being dead is that you won’t know you’re dead! So the time between death and resurrection will fly by in the blink of an eye. It could be a possible reason why, in Luke 23, Jesus told the man next to him on the cross that, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

Or, if one absolutely insists on keeping the Platonic idea of an eternal soul not subject to death, then upon death, a soul could go to a type of Hades or Sheol to await the day of reunification with a physical body at the resurrection, when God will examine the person’s heart to bring them into eternal life in the new creation or damnation and eternal death (by the way, this opens a whole new can of worms as to what exactly damnation and eternal death means, which I won’t go into in this article). I explore this idea in one of my stories out of my new book, An Intertwined Reality: Short Stories for the Already but Not Yet. This is perhaps a more accurate understanding of an idea similar to purgatory. The grey town in The Great Divorce could be an illustration of this concept. At any rate, this idea could potentially explain a phenomenon of ghosts; still, supernatural forces that do not come from God are not to be trifled (there’s a good word!) with.

The last possibility is that by Jesus saying, “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” he means that the person’s soul who is in relationship with God will indeed wait in heaven for the day of reunification with a physical body to live in the new creation. Nonetheless, living in the redeemed physical body in the new creation is still the goal! In going with this idea, it does not mean that one who is not in relationship with God will go to hell; the day of judgment has not yet happened! They may either simply die or their soul waits in a type of Hades or Sheol.

Nonetheless, these are not known certainties. They are only ideas and theories. Like I said before, we don’t know! Moreover, we have such a lack of understanding between the concepts of time and space in eternity as opposed to the concepts of space and time as constructs that God has given us in his creation. We only know what we know through Christ, the physically resurrected Savior, a sign of the general resurrection and renewal yet to come!

But does it really matter what may or not happen immediately upon death? Again, if you’re really honest with yourself – no! Because ultimately we have the promise that there will be life again in the paradise of a new creation with God!

Moreover, I pray that we as the Church do not rely on simplistic, easy, or misleading theology. We should faithfully be ready to wrestle and struggle with our challenges, our questions, and even our doubts.

And sometimes, a good story can help offer a better explanation than one might initially think.

Eschatology – it can at first be an intimidating theological word, but it is a word we should be ready to explore. C.S. Lewis, in his imagination, helps us do that in his storytelling. His works of fiction are not simply stories to say, “What a nice story,” and leave it that, but stories to open our imagination to metaphors and illustrations of truth we find in scripture. The Great Divorce is one of those excellent works of fiction.

*A lot of what I discussed in this article can be found in N.T. Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope. He goes into all of the issues I summarized on a much deeper level. Check out the book!

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Unlocking ‘Inception’ (and a reference to 1999)

“You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”

Eames states these words in a conversation with Cobb as the two discuss the idea of inception – successfully planting an idea in a subject’s mind.   The characters, played by Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio, respectively, unlock the key to Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie, Inception, with this sentence.   The movie, unfortunately to some puzzling and not worth the time to figure out, is both complicated with its plot layers, yet at the same time more simple than we first realize.   Therein lies the beauty of the story.

In a way, it reminds me of the story of God and his creation: complicated layers of depth and meaning in its plot, yet very simple to understand in the theme that unlocks it.   But, just as in Inception, the simplicity needs the complexity and the complexity needs the simplicity in order to tell the story in the best way possible.   It is the only way to grasp the full and nuanced detail yet focused truth.

Granted, I finally saw the movie almost three years after it first came out; therefore this post might be a little late.   Oh well!   However, Inception is perhaps one of the best and most original stories out there.   The greatness of Inception is that the film does just that – inception – to the viewer’s mind, especially in light of the final scene.

There are two possibilities to explain the movie.   The first is that there was indeed a level of reality evidenced by Arthur, Ariadne, Eames, Saito, Yusuf, etc.   From this level of reality, the crew progressed into dreams in order to work in Fischer’s subconscious.   This understanding is more clear cut and easier to handle.   However, the problem with this idea is that, considered against the second possibility, this explanation renders the movie flat and without an extremely rich layer of storytelling, depth, and meaning.   If you are one who is happy and content with this idea, read no further.

The other possibility is that the only layer of reality was the relationship between Cobb and his wife, Mal.   Therefore, what we viewed throughout the entire movie was Cobb’s dream – a dream that ended up being at least five layers deep.   But here are the inevitable questions: why? and so what was the point of the movie then?   I point you to Eames’ words: “You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”   In a single word – inception.   The point of the movie: planting an idea in Cobbs’ mind. But even more masterful and genius in Nolan’s storytelling: planting an idea in the viewer’s mind.

In addition to other negative emotions from his wife’s death, Cobb was overcome by guilt, shame, anger, and depression.   Forgiveness – again, think of Eames’ statement – was being planted into Cobb’s mind so that healing could finally occur in his life.   The movie was not about Fischer and his father at all, but solely about Cobb’s healing.   This “simplest version of the idea” is present in the movie’s themes: forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.

In the story of God and his creation, of which humanity is a critical part, there is a word that encompasses forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.   It is the theme present throughout of all scripture.   It is both the “simplest version of the idea” and the key to unlocking scripture’s complexities and nuanced detail in order to find its focused truth.   This word is love.   More specifically, it is God’s love.   It is holy love.

The themes in Inception are demonstrated clearly with the forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing between Fischer and his father; however, this storyline is meant to illustrate and label these ideas so that we can apply them to what the story is actually about, Cobb’s overcoming of his own pain, anguish, and guilt.   Forgiveness and reconciliation are shown to Cobb – ‘incepted’ to Cobb if you will – so that he can finally see and apply these ideas as his own, and therefore be able to finally heal from his own trauma.

With this idea, the rest of the characters are projections of his own subconscious; his children, too, would be projections meant to symbolize the hope of healing in the story and the act of healing itself when he finally sees their faces.   It is a possibility that some of the characters, such as his father, could be the ones performing inception, though it is not critical to know who.    Moreover, the viewers see just how far his guilt is buried in his own being; he must go five layers deep in order to finally come face to face with his guilt and forgive himself. We also see the elaborate systems of protection that his subconscious has created in order to bury his source of pain, rather than confront it.

And while this understanding is a much richer understanding of both the complexity and simplicity of the story, the final scene is the pinnacle of Inception; the final scene is inception.   I asked myself – why would Nolan leave the end open in such a way that we do not know if the final scene was reality or a dream, with the top spinning in such a way where it could be either one?   The answer to this question shapes whether my first or second explanation is more plausible.

The answer is that it does not matter.   It is not supposed to matter.   Remember Eames’ words: “You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”   The simplest version of the idea is forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.   Although in my second explanation they are revealed in a much deeper and more profound way, these are themes that are present in both understandings!   So whether the movie ends in a dream or reality, Nolan’s point hinges on neither – “the simplest version of the idea” remains the same.

Herein lies the brilliance of Inception, a movie, where similar to our dreams, we thought we were going to escape for a few hours: Nolan is able to perform inception on those who viewed the movie.   The viewers ask the question of whether it was a dream or reality, eventually coming to a conclusion on what really happened, while the “simplest idea” of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing is planted within the viewers mind.

He quite literally spells out the answer to the last scene as soon as the movie is over.   Was it a dream or reality?   It does not matter; it is Inception.   It is incredible and genius storytelling.

However, the idea of inception existed long before Christopher Nolan was even born; it is an idea evident in God and his relationship to humanity, although not necessarily so subversive.   God gives us a choice in the matter.   Humanity was originally created to be together with God, operating in a perfect union with him and bound together in holy love to experience true life.   “The simplest version of the idea” was, and still is, love.   It was what gives people life, goodness, and an opportunity to participate in the kingdom and work of God.   In sinfulness and selfishness, though, humanity separated itself from a true understanding of life and love; as a result, we have death and all of its consequences.   We unfortunately see the effects of death all too often in our world.

But God is still there, calling to us everyday, attempting to plant a seed within us that there is something more to life than what appears on the surface; he is working to bring us back toward him.   For some, that seed takes hold and grows naturally; others might deny that seed.   But no matter who we are and whether or not we have denied the idea before, God is still calling to us with this “simplest version of the idea”: love.   It is up to us to accept it; in accepting it, we realize the forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing that Cobb experienced, but on a much deeper and cosmic level.   It does not matter how deep our guilt, shame, or depression is buried, or what walls we’ve built around it, God can and will break through if we allow him so that we may experience true life and love in God.   In communion with God, we return to the way we were created to be.

There was another movie released in 1999 which suggested ideas of a dreamworld and a harsh reality.   In The Matrix (yes – it’s already been 14 years!), when a person was unplugged, one realized the truth of what was happening; but the truth of reality was not as easy as living in the Matrix.   This may serve as a good warning to us: in choosing life in God, there will be times of difficulty when our faith will be stretched.   Christ warns us of this multiple times; nonetheless, there is truth, hope, and love in God.   We are no longer under the bondage and delusions that sin offers.   The truth is ultimately better than living in the Matrix.

God is calling us, each and every human being living on the planet, back to him.   His Spirit is planting seeds even in the most unknowing mind that might one day grow and mature.   God has extended grace to all the creation, evidenced by the work of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; it is a reality offered to each one of us with life in God through the Spirit and Christ.   It is an opportunity for true life and love and an opportunity to begin to break free from the constraints of sin and death.

It was not only the first inception, but it is the continuing inception at work in all people.   I pray that this “simplest version of the idea” might begin to take hold in each of us today!

Sexuality: Calling for an Authentic Conversation

by Ben Cremer

I have been mulling over several of Walter Bruggemann’s essays as of late. His exposition on our contemporary culture brings forward several needed elements that are essential for an authentic dialogue over the topic of human sexuality. In our mainstream culture, a cloud of ambiguity surrounds this topic; and the culture as a whole seems bent on keeping it that way.

We live in a culture that endlessly advocates and calls for freedom; specifically in this case, sexual freedom. What causes me to be apprehensive is that, as many people are demanding freedom in our mainstream culture, not many seem to explicitly contemplate over the ‘kind’ of freedom being demanded, or more importantly, in what is our mainstream culture’s understanding of freedom rooted? When I bring up the topic of philosophy in a conversation with acquaintances, it is generally met with a look of fatigue, disregard, or even an eye-roll. This seems to be the norm of how philosophy is perceived in mainstream culture – philosophy just doesn’t bear authority over how we understand reality. I think this general disdain towards philosophy is in defense of a deeply ingrained belief: the belief that we as individuals determine our own reality. Brueggemann helps us by showing how this belief and our culture’s understanding of freedom were shaped through a particular… philosophy!

Brueggemann rightly portrays our mainstream notion of freedom as comprised of several strong philosophical ideas. In summation: Descartes’s establishment of the human doubter as the norm of truth, Locke’s presentation of the human person as a rational, free decider, and Kant’s framing of the human as the autonomous actor and the one who shapes functional reality. He then writes, “This Enlightenment ideology has received its popular form in a Freudian theory of repression in which human maturation is the process of emancipation from communal authority that is extrinsic to the individual person and therefore fundamentally alien to mature humanness. Thus the human goal is movement beyond any restraints that come under the category of repression.”

Naturally, in our culture of freedom, we despise anything that calls for unquestioned and thoughtless allegiance. Yet, as good children of the Enlightenment, we have given our unquestioned allegiance to this fantasy of unfettered freedom – that we should be held accountable to no one. This idea shows itself in how our mainstream culture regards and expresses the nature of human desire. All that seems to be presented in mainstream culture is that humans have desires, individuals have a right to express those desires as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others, and anything that hampers this right of expression should not be tolerated. Consequently, this unquestioned allegiance to the Enlightenment’s fantasy of unfettered freedom presupposes our unquestioned allegiance to the whims of our individual desires.

This talk of human desire is necessary because of how much it plays into our mainstream culture’s understanding of sexuality. Much of how we define sexuality is framed within the context of feeling or desire. Much of what is determined about one’s sexual orientation begins, at least basely, at how a person feels towards the opposite, same, or both sexes. In mainstream culture, no serious questions are being asked on where our desires come from, how they are formed, of what are they comprised, how do they manifest themselves, how are they to be managed or, heaven forbid, can we be deceived by them? No, our conversation begins and ends with the individual’s right to determine and maintain a sexual identity. People will cheer the exercise of this ‘right’ as a sexual freedom not seeing it for what it really is, isolation. Sexuality at its core is an interactive expression – a way of communicating the self to and with the outside world. So, when we leave the deciphering of sexual identity completely up to individual desire through the lens of the individual experience, all that can really be accomplished is eloquent terms of sexual preference. Because the fantasy of the Enlightenment relegates individuals solely to silent experimentation within society by denying ambiguous thoughts and questions and a robust sexuality demands robust and open communication.

This isolationism is one of the reasons we have the puzzling argument in mainstream culture over being “born this way” and the idea that it is by “individual choice” that one’s sexual identity is formed. As if the two can really be separated and set against each other! Everything about who we are regarding how we relate to and identify ourselves within the outside world from the moment of birth is a conglomeration of genetics, brain chemistry, culture, physicality, biology, point in history, and choice. Individual choice has no say over the aforementioned human building blocks. Simultaneously however, one cannot live without making a choice somewhere along the way to participate or not to participate in a particular way of being in the world. Thus, attempting to make a distinction between choice and birth is reductionistic and harmful. The former denies free will while the latter denies the nature of growth. The irony of this fantasy of unfettered individual freedom is that enacting within it causes a legalistic relationship between our true self and our desires. For to make our unique, irreducible, unrepeatable identity known, we force our selves to pigeon-hole, reduce, and endlessly repeat a declaration of self to the outside world to maintain integrity and a place within it that isn’t subjugated to an authority. How often must we relearn Icarus’ lesson? That the freedom given to us through the wax wings of individualism, however intense, powerful, and passionate the flight may be, will always melt away in the heat of reality, leaving us in a shocking freefall alone. Our lives were brought forth through community, and for us to decipherer an authentic identity of self, including our sexuality, must be through an honest engagement within a loving and challenging community.

Our mainstream culture is made up of many separations of our own making. We have scripture separated from history and thus from the Church; the Church separated from Christ; spirituality separated from religion; information technology has helped us separate labor from learning; and we have the identity of the individual separate from community. These separations are neither loving nor challenging but deceitful; for they all detach the object from its context. Freud understood that sexuality is a sphere of endless inscrutability, the arena of our true selves and the place in our life for deepest deception and pathology. If we continue to operate under the assumption that the Enlightenment’s fantasy of unfettered freedom is the best atmosphere for the individual, endlessly praising the burden and isolation of self-determination, then we will continue to not ask hard questions of ourselves and others regarding sexuality. If we continue to deny that human desires can be self-deceptive we will continue choking on the idea that authentic sexuality is based on the ‘theory’ that unfettered human desire manifests pure truth. This illusion will only ever leave us with lifeless sexual ethics. We will continue to have raging disputes between equality and condemnation among individuals who think they are debating over sexual identity but are actually only debating over their differing understanding of how the unfettered human desire should be interpreted and expressed. Our culture is bent on producing autonomous individuals rather than fostering authentic persons.

If this continues, it will not matter how many governmental legislations are passed or not passed. Individuals will still be left secluded and alone left to forge out the ambiguity of sexuality on their own. This recipe will not only suppress an authentic understanding and expression of sexuality based on examined desires but will maintain coercive behavior that crushes and often misdirects true desire and cuts people off from authentic community. Many so-called religious folk have done great work in carrying out this coercive behavior under the banner of their fidelity to God. But Brueggemann tempers this condemning behavior with this corrective of enacting an authentic fidelity to God regarding sexuality. He writes, “such a perspective requires much more than embracing traditional mores, because fidelity means something quite different from “abstaining” or “staying married” or “being straight”. It means rather being in a relation that is genuinely life-giving and life-receiving, where the work of neighbor regard is practiced. And covenantal freedom means finding modes of fidelity congruent with one’s true self and the capacity to be emancipated from “legal” relationships that are in fact destructive and hopelessly demeaning.”

A word to we Christians: Humanity is made in the image of God: three holy persons, not Enlightenment individuals. No person of the Trinity is exploited, reduced, or oppressed by another person of the Trinity. But rather each person of the Trinity pours themselves out for the other—an authentic community. We, as human beings, were hardwired to reflect an image. If we choose our own way apart from God, we won’t stop reflecting an image; we’ll simply begin reflecting something else. Just as Adam and Eve found out in the garden, this type of “freedom from authority” will always lead to oppression and exploitation of others as well as ourselves. Apart from God, we do not know what nature to reflect and grow in to. Thus, ambiguity will then be our nature and ambiguity is what we’ll grow in to. We cannot be free to express or know our true self, including our sexuality, unless we are “dead to Christ” (emphases on WE). The unfettered freedom of the Enlightenment keeps us shackled to the haphazard whims of our human desires, even giving us ‘rights’ to do so, offering only a dismal cycle of perpetual ambiguity leading to oppression for ourselves and from ourselves to others. We must no longer accept these lifeless ethics of sex but make space available through humble service for us all to express our true self, no matter how we understand our self to be at the given point when it engages authentic community. Our mainstream culture’s unfettered freedom does not offer hope because it does not offer authentic change but rather smothers it. We have hope in Christ, because we are changed by Christ. In the midst of the authentic love of Christ in his body the Church, through humble body-to-body service of neighbor, we as both servant and neighbor are able to, as Keirkegaard wrote, “face the facts of being what we are, for that is what changes what we are.”

*Ben Cremer is the College Ministries Pastor at Kansas City First Church of the Nazarene and blogs at Constant Investigations. Ben is a graduate of Northwest Nazarene University where he earned a B.A. in Christian Ministries and a M.A. in Spiritual Formation. He is also a graduate of Nazarene Theological Seminary where he earned a M.A.T.S. with an emphasis on Church History and Christian Thought.