“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
An Air Force chaplain I worked for a long time ago made these words his credo.
“I feel thrilled every time I read them,” Chaplain Harland Getts often said at Wednesday night bible studies in the chapel at RAF Woodbridge in England.
But the chaplain never attempted to define what Peter was thinking about when he said “eternal life.”
“People come to me,” Billy Graham said in many sermons, “and say, ‘Billy, I don’t want to live forever.’ I tell them, ‘You have no choice. But you do have a choice where you spend forever.’”
Where? And what is eternal life?
Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th century Dutch artist who spent much of his life imagining the afterlife, depicted an upwardly spiraling light as a pathway to heaven for the redeemed.
Bosch’s “Ascent of the Blessed,” painted in 1490, looks a lot like the shaft of light persons describe after near-death experiences. The painting is one of four panels of a larger work entitled Visions of the Hereafter. Other visions are “Terrestrial Paradise,” “Fall of the Damned,” and “Hell.”
None of the visions portray an afterlife you’d want to visit for very long.
Cartoonists in The New Yorker and other publications draw eternity as a cloud occupied by deceased persons who wear wings, white gowns and halos. I remember one cartoon showing two bored guys who have obviously been sitting on the cloud too long. One says to the other, “Wish I’d brought a magazine.”
Of course there is no scriptural evidence that this is what eternal life is like. Thank God for that.
Then again, most of our images of heaven and hell are metaphorical.
The afore mentioned Chaplain Getts was Southern Baptist. His nemesis was a short, pot-bellied, flat-topped Southern Methodist chaplain named Lou Evans. Chaplain Getts was a courtly Virginian with Old Dominion manners. Chaplain Evans was an unpolished Mississippi farm boy. The two didn’t exactly hate each other, but both were convinced the other was doomed to hell for lack of a coherent theology.
One night when the chapel staff gathered for dinner, Chaplain Getts told a story replete with passive aggression and simplistic allegory.
“I had a dream last night,” the chaplain said with a straight face. “It must have been a nightmare because in the dream I had died. Even worse, I was sent to the gateway of hell.”
Chaplain Getts described a long, dark stairway that descended deep into bowels of the earth. The further one descended, of course, the hotter it got.
“I was given a box of chalk,” Chaplain Getts said. “And I was told to write down one of my sins on each of the descending steps. When I got to the point where I had no more sins to write down, on that step I would stay forever.”
The chaplain described the intensifying heat as he got lower and lower into hell. Miraculously, he had no trouble remembering any of his sins. Each time he stepped down he remembered another sin, and the temperature was getting intolerable.
“I was in the process of writing down my last sin when I heard footsteps below me,” Chaplain Getts said. “Someone was running up the stairs. I turned, and there was Chaplain Evans, about to run past me.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked, very much annoyed. ‘Are they letting you out?’
‘Naw,’ Chaplain Evans said. ‘I’m going up for more chalk.’”
I must have found the story amusing because I’ve remembered and repeated it for many years. But it is not a useful description of eternal life.
Perhaps most of us think of eternal life as a permanent extension of the life we have now, but free of pain and the infirmities of age.
But even if we are convinced that our lives are good, could we actually endure them forever?
In Thornton Wilder’s three act play, “Our Town,” we get a chilling glimpse at the quality of our lives in Act III.
As the act begins, we see the village cemetery of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, where the drama has been unfolding. The graves are represented by folding chairs arranged in neat rows. Actors representing the dead sit silently on the chairs.
Emily Webb, the main character of the play, has died in childbirth. A subdued funeral procession escorts her to her chair where she takes her place. There, she is welcomed by her late mother-in-law, Mrs. Gibbs, who tells her it is best to sit quietly and forget about her earthly life.
But Emily is determined to go back, to re-live at least one day of her short, happy life. Ignoring warnings by Mrs. Gibbs and others in the cemetery, Emily chooses one of her happiest days, the day she turned 12.
But the experience is devastating. Emily is at first thrilled to be reunited with her loved ones, but she quickly realizes that the people around her – her mother, her father, her younger brother, the boy next door – are so preoccupied with minutia that they barely notice one another.
Desperately, Emily tries to get her mother to look at her, but her mother is absorbed with other insignificant things.
This is not living, Emily concludes, and she can no longer stand the pain. Life, she realizes, should be lived intensely “every, every minute.” But the loved ones she re-encounters on her twelfth birthday are scarcely alive. On her way back to the cemetery, Emily asks the Stage Manager if any one is ever able to live life to the fullest.
“No,” the Stage Manager replies. “The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.”
Emily returns to her chair. Her husband, George, kneels in front of the grave and weeps inconsolably, but Emily watches him vacantly, without emotion.
Thornton Wilder forces his audience to face a daunting question: if we don’t live life to the fullest now, why would we want to live it eternally?
Tony Campolo, who I knew before he was Tony Campolo – when he was just a charismatic young sociology professor at a small Christian college – used to try to define eternal life to the pre-lobed evangelical kids who flocked to his classes.
He described it as existential, a word guaranteed to fog the eyes of most freshmen. When one is born again, Tony explained, one experiences God’s presence with an existential energy that never fades. Those special moments accumulate and intensify until they form a chain of ecstatic existence, and in the last microseconds of our physical lives we dwell rapturously and forever in our own existential memories.
Unless I misunderstood Tony.
As a born again Central New Yorker with New England roots, I’m not sure I’m wired for the existential ecstasy required for the experience. It’s not that we un-emotive white folks aren’t pleased by the words of eternal life; it’s just that we respond to them differently.
“Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”
Whether that qualifies as an eternally charged existential moment is open to analysis.
As Thornton Wilder, who grew up in Maple Bluff, Wis., understood, it takes a lot of concentration to live each moment with an intensity that justifies being alive. We don’t spend a lot of time in each moment. There is always the preceding moment and the following moment to worry about. Now is not around long enough for us to get emotionally involved with it.
The John F. Kennedy library has posted online hundreds of high definition photographs, many of them in living color, of the 35th President. They appear in slow succession as a screen saver on my laptop.
There in uncanny digital detail is a young man at the top of his form and near the end of his life. My favorite is a picture of JFK seated in straight-back chair against the wall of the Oval Office, his arm around a little girl wearing a red dress and leg braces. The President’s bad back would not enable him to pick the child up, so he sat down to greet her. It’s a photo-op of the highest order, but the President is not looking at the camera; he’s looking into the child’s eyes, reflecting her shy smile.
It’s a high quality, perhaps even existential moment, frozen in time. I don’t know what else was on the President’s agenda that day, but this moment strikes me as having a special quality. It could be one of those rare, fleeting moments when the lives of two persons had the intensity Emily Webb missed so much when she re-lived her twelfth birthday.
I like to think it’s a quality moment that both the little girl and the young president would define as an example of life at its best – a reason to look forward to eternal life. But the moment was gone soon enough. The moment may a dimming memory for the girl who, if she lives, would be in her fifties today. I doubt the laconic president ever commented on it.
Our lives are full of passing moments that bring pleasure and pain. All of us have memories too unbearable to recall, and we all have had moments of bliss we wanted to preserve forever.
When Peter talked about Jesus’ words of eternal life, he was certainly thinking about the good times.
Peter did, after all, understand the nature and authority of the one who was making eternal life possible. “Lord, to whom can we go?” Peter asked. “You have the words of eternal life.” Then Peter added an important postscript:
“We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
No one knows the details of all the moments Peter and the other disciples spent with Jesus. No doubt they were not all moments of existential quality. There were moments of pain, moments when they were rained on, moments when the sun blistered their feet, moments when they argued among themselves, even moments when they were frustrated and angry at Jesus. Jesus could, at times, leave them confused and perplexed, so that the disciples complained among themselves, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?”
All of which suggests that eternal life is not based on existentially intense experiences in the presence of Jesus.
As most Christians have discovered, every day with Jesus is not necessarily sweeter than the day before.
Nor, as Thornton Wilder suggested, is eternal life dependent on the quality of the moments of our lives, requiring is to live “every, every minute” with an intensity that reminds us of life’s value. Those who live that intensely are candles in the wind, flames that flare brightly and all too briefly.
But Peter sensed that Jesus, “the holy one of God,” was not sent to make eternal life difficult to attain, nor was the eternal life of which he spoke a mere extension of the often mundane lives we live on earth.
At the heart of Jesus’ message is God’s love for all God’s creatures, and Jesus made it clear that whatever eternal life held for believers, it was good.
Like a New Yorker cartoonist, Jesus drew metaphorical images of heaven that were not literally likely but easy to comprehend: a golden and happy kingdom, and the ultimate high rise apartment building.
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” Jesus told his fretful followers, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32).
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus said. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:1-2).
Both of these heavenly images are as far-fetched as Pearly Gates, and Jesus knew it. Like artists and poets and scholars across the centuries, Jesus was trying to build an emotional impression about a state of being no living person can comprehend: not a mere place one goes to sit around forever, but a perfect reunion with the God of love – the God who was, is, and evermore shall be – the God who is the Great I Am and indescribable through the paltry grammatical devices we use to measure the passage of time.
What does all that mean exactly?
Nor will any of us know until it’s our turn to experience what Peter simplistically termed “eternal life.”
But we can be sure of this: eternal life will be measured by its quality, not its quantity.
And Jesus assures us: whatever it looks and feels like, it will be good. Very good.