Sunday, July 17, 2011

Thoughts On Heaven – Inspired by Christianity Today’s Interview with Kevin Kelly

So what does heaven look like? And what will life in heaven be like? I just read, on the Christianity Today Website, an intriguing interview with Kevin Kelly, editor at large of Wired magazine. Kelly, an Evangelical Christian, has some stimulating ideas about the future of technology, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. He imagines a time – not too far in the future – when man may have the ability to create robots who possess free will. The theological implications of that are both frightening and, as Kelly describes them, heart-warming. The frightening aspect, of course, is the old Frankenstein scenario, of a non-human creature run amuck. But the heart-warming aspect, as presented by Kelly, is that mankind will then be put into the position that God is in, having a created a being, capable of good or evil, and needing to provide moral guidance to that creature. Kelly imagines a time when man’s created being might come to him and say, “I am a child of God, may I join your church?” Kelly would admit him.

Such possibilities would have seemed too far-fetched to even consider a few years ago but now one is reluctant to deny that they might someday exist. I can think of Biblical and theological arguments in opposition to Kelly’s suggestions but, at the very least, he is raising questions that permit humans to put themselves in God’s shoes, so to speak, and understand the dilemma of a Creator with a fallen creature whose redemption might depend upon the intervention of its creator.

I found Kelly’s suggestions about heaven of particular interest. He speculates that heaven will be timeless and immaterial. The notion of immateriality seems not to agree with Paul’s description of the resurrected body in I Corinthians. And even the Apostle John who, in The Revelation, quotes the angel as declaring that “time will be no more,” finds that he cannot abandon time-laden descriptors such as “forever and forever,” either for heaven or for hell. But Kelly’s speculation that heaven will be a place where goodness can evolve into better goodness; where perfection will not be a static state, but where it can become more perfect, is an idea that addresses a question often raised about the moral agency of the redeemed after their arrival in heaven. Kelly’s concept suggests a solution to the paradox of a heaven in which perfected beings nonetheless retain free will. What purpose would free will serve for those rendered, through static perfection, incapable of using it?

The vast majority of Christians seem content to live and die without wondering, too deeply, about the things that Kelly is occupied with. For most Christian believers, if heaven’s streets are made of gold, and if eternity is one long reunion banquet, that is sufficient to keep them striving to get there. Besides, the alternative alone is enough to prod one toward heaven, even if, in the end, it consists only of a never ending church service.

The experience of man has taught him that life at its fullest is one in which choices determine destiny. There is something in the heart of man that longs for life to be eternal, free, and abundant. The good news of the Gospel is that “because Jesus rose from the dead, we too have hope for life everlasting. But, to merely be zapped into some kind of static perfection upon leaving this life, and entering the next as a robotic praise machine, is a cold comfort to one who longs to be eternally capable of relationship with his or her creator and savior; who longs to be knowingly reunited with loved ones whom Christ has redeemed. The hope of the Church consists of more than being transformed into “ten thousand times ten thousand” Victorolas, spinning out the doxology through endless (timeless?) ages.

Kelly’s idea, of a perfection that moves on to greater perfection, makes sense given what Scripture tells us about God; that He is infinitely unknowable but nonetheless always seeking to make Himself known to, and through, His creation. If heaven consists of one eternal church service, as some have portrayed it to be, it will not be because we are simply spinning out rote praises to God. It will be because we are continually learning more and more of God’s Glory and praising him for it. But perhaps, rather than sitting in rows chanting “holy, holy, holy,” we will be praising God by striving to be like Him; becoming, as we observe and extol His perfection, more and more perfect ourselves. To what degree we will ever be completely like Him is an open question, but we are told that, to some degree we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as he is.

Jesus told his critics that the miracles he performed came from his imitation of the Father; that he did nothing that he did not see his Father doing. That may be a good description of what life “in heaven” will be like; watching the Father at work, learning more and more what He is like, and then imitating Him in our thoughts, and words, and behaviors. It works in this life; why wouldn’t it work in eternity?

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