Imagining God's City

Rick Ritchie
Monday, July 16th 2007
Jan/Feb 1999

A compelling imaginative portrayal of humanity’s final state can soften Christianity’s most hostile critics. We often make the mistake of thinking that the most hard-boiled atheist’s arguments against Christianity are all exclusively intellectual. Or we rush to accuse the non-believer of avoiding Christianity for moral reasons. While we cannot ignore these aspects of the question, we often neglect another side. Has Christianity been presented so that it represents hope? What if the unbeliever never gave Christianity a chance because it looked hopeless? The unbeliever hears of doom and gloom from us, yet sees a hopeful immediate future for him or herself, and decides that Christianity is too bad to be true. This is the real possibility that we forget to consider. Yet thankfully there are examples of Christians who have managed to communicate the historic Christian teaching of the end of the age in such a way that they won a hearing even from the greatest skeptics. We can learn from them.

When Aslan Knocked on Carl Sagan’s Door

One striking example of a Christian gaining a hearing from a notorious unbeliever can be seen in C. S. Lewis’ influence on Carl Sagan. Sagan was the greatest popularizer of science in our time, and his hostility to religion was famous. Yet in his novel Contact, there are several points of “contact” with Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Contact was Sagan’s fictional portrayal of the destiny of man. Yet this avowed agnostic saw fit to borrow from Lewis’ Christian symbolism. The most explicit connection is found where Sagan names a space shuttle Narnia. A more subtle parallel can be found in the journey of Dr. Arroway (played by Jodi Foster in the movie) to another galaxy, which seems to take hours, yet occupies only moments of earth time. Nobody believes her story when she returns. She is accused of fabricating her whole account. This is just like Lucy’s journey in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Lucy spends hours in Narnia and pops out of the wardrobe back into England without any earth time having passed. Nobody believes her but a wise old professor. The most intriguing parallel between Sagan and Lewis, however, is a doorway which appears on the otherworldly beach to which Dr. Arroway travels. This doorway appears to lead nowhere, but when walked through leads to another dimension where people’s deepest longings are satisfied. This resembles the stable door through which all pass at the end of time in Lewis’ book The Last Battle. In this work, the final judgment happens as all creation passes through the door, and all and sundry must look into the face of Aslan, the Christ figure. Those who look with fear and hatred are lost. Those who look with fear and love pass into eternal life.

Carl Sagan himself stepped into eternity recently. We can wonder what his reaction was as he walked through the door. Surprise was a major element, no doubt. Yet whatever Sagan’s confession at the end of his life, is it not amazing that Lewis’ approach to presenting Christian truth was enough to gain a hearing from an avowed skeptic? Lewis must have created something extraordinary to fire the imagination of a man like Sagan. For one of Sagan’s chief arguments against religion had been that it stifled wonder and curiosity, impulses which he believed to be the mark of a scientist.

When I first read the Chronicles of Narnia, I was a nine-year-old boy on the verge of jettisoning Christianity. It wasn’t that I hated the rules, or that people at church were mean. I had the problem that I didn’t know if I would ever believe solidly enough to be allowed into heaven. (Some well-meaning Vacation Bible School teacher had said something about how when you become a Christian doubts go away. But I still had some.) I almost decided against reading the series because the author was a Christian. The blurb on the back proved too inviting, however. What nine-year-old could resist the words: “Here is your passport to a most extraordinary excursion into magical lands and enchanted happenings. If you’ve never been to Narnia, you can enter it for the first time with any of the books below … but once you start, you’ll want to read every one of The Chronicles of Narnia“? I could see the analogies between Narnia and Christianity. The grandness of the vision overpowered me. My sense of creation deepened. I could trust a God whose character matched that of Aslan. And I knew Aslan was based on Christ. Perhaps I still had some doubts. But I now trusted God more than I feared my doubts. Lewis also inoculated me against trivial views of God that made him the ruler of some boring Sunday school realm, while “Science” created interesting things like dinosaurs and the law of gravity. A compartmentalized reality would never again be an option, if it ever had been before. I don’t know if Sagan could see all of this in Lewis’ writing, but some of it surely rubbed off. His world shows the influence of Lewis. The only thing missing is Aslan. But Narnia is only a doorway away.

Vain Imaginations?

The Last Days must be imagined anew. As Reformation Christians, we must be at the forefront of offering hope to the world. Our theology is a happy theology. It doesn’t belong in yellowing books announcing the arrival of the Antichrist in now-dated (and false) scenarios. When I say that our imagination of the End Times is insufficient, I don’t mean this in a merely whimsical sense. How we picture the world to ourselves must have a deep rationality to it, or we will have no sure map by which to live. Yet the Bible uses word pictures to convey deep truths. Every eschatological picture is a picture of blessings and curses, or to put it in Reformation terms, Law and Gospel. Our own use of the pictures can grow stale and fall into patterns that are unsupported by the text. We read the curses as if they were only deserved by a small class of really bad people, and not all people by nature, or as if they were to fall indiscriminately on the unrighteous and those who are righteous by faith. Or we invent unrealistic promises of what God will do for us in this life, forgetting all that he has truly promised in this life and the next. When we have imagined a vain thing, and it is challenged, we must be prepared to imagine something new.

The Purpose of the Book of Revelation

When we study Revelation, there are two things we must not forget. The first is that the book cannot be understood without an awareness of the Old Testament imagery. The second is the original audience of the book. Revelation was given to the Church to present a philosophy and a psychology of history, and especially of suffering, for Christians. The Early Church saw intense persecutions which caused many to doubt that God was in control of history. Using images, the book of Revelation shows how Christ is Lord of History in spite of persecution.

The book is a dose of reality for a suffering Church. If someone is being persecuted for the sake of Christ, the knowledge that his enemies are going to be stomped under Christ’s feet at the end may be just what is needed to make things bearable. Consider a faithful Christian under the Nazi regime. He or she may pray for the salvation of the prison guards. (Corrie Ten Boom reportedly did.) Yet some who have been faithful might derive benefit from considering the end of those who do not repent. Revelation was written for such people. I am convinced that it was written for us as well, but much that they could read profitably will harm us if we read it in the same way.

It is the nature of the modern age to try to read everything that is written in a timeless manner, as if all words applied equally to all people at all times. Yet the promise of 2 Timothy that all Scripture is profitable must be taken in light of the temptation of Jesus where even true insights from Scripture can be spoken at the wrong time or to the wrong audience. Much of our reading of the book of Revelation is right doctrine spoken in an unprofitable manner. When we read the book of Revelation to the culture in a way that causes hopelessness, I think we have misread the intent. If Jesus lived his life healing people and giving the outcasts hope, are we not going against the grain of Scripture to teach the end of the age in a way that leads exclusively to despair?

Revelation is one of the biblical books where the primary intent is not to inform people of things they do not know, as much as to show them what they already knew from a different angle. A great deal of Old Testament literature and Christological doctrine must be understood before the reader even approaches this book. The story of the woman delivering the child in Revelation chapter 12 will only make sense to us if we already know something of Christ’s birth. We cannot learn of that birth from this passage the same way we can learn of it in Luke chapter 2. It is the significance of the birth for us that Revelation teaches. But if we are standing on the wrong side of persecution, some of the significance will not pertain to us. The doctrine remains, but we will learn that better from Luke.

Much of the book tells us of God’s vengeance upon an unbelieving world. In one sense, this is a fact. It is a fact which we could learn about from many places in the Gospels. But in the Gospels this fact is presented through warnings to individuals to be prepared for the coming end of the age. The warnings have a future focus. The Revelation, in contrast, is a comfort to those already threatened with, or even currently suffering persecution in their own time. Its focus is on present faithfulness. The fate of the ungodly is comforting because it gives meaning to today’s suffering. Christians are not harmed without God being angered. If unbelievers do not repent of the harm they have done, they must pay for their crimes.

We read about the vengeance on the unbelieving world less profitably when we are not facing real persecution. Often, our problems with the world are a general result of the fallenness of the age. It is the thistles and thorns of the curse which frustrate us, not persecutions by the ungodly. Living in one of the more affluent regions of the fallen world, our attempts to create easy, comfortable lives are sometimes rewarded and sometimes thwarted. We rush to blame others. It is the unbelievers who make our lives difficult, we decide. Or perhaps, more darkly, we fear that God will judge our nation if the unbelievers are allowed to sin with impunity. And that judgment will strike us unless we work for legislation to curb sin.

Revelation is to be read after we have read the Gospels, and our stance toward the world is first learned from the Gospels. If we succeed so well in being salt and light that we bring real persecution upon ourselves, we might begin to profit from the book of Revelation. When we begin from Revelation, though, we begin with the wrong stance. Vengeance is not a first principle. If we are walking into life with a sense of being at war with the world, this may have more to do with original sin than with the cost of discipleship. If after being sons of the heavenly father, our good is repaid with evil, it might be time to ask how long God will delay judgment. In the book of Revelation, the souls who ask this question are those who have already died. In life they did good to those who persecuted them. Even St. Paul wished good for King Agrippa when he stood before him on trial (Acts 26:29).

When we take conflict with the world as a first principle, we become a greater evil than the world itself. C. S. Lewis spoke of how the hard sayings of having to hate mother and father for the sake of the Gospel are beneficial only to those who find them hard sayings. He cites a fictional account of the Gospels written by an atheist where Judas hears the saying, and marvels that the disciples are offended. Judas has no problem hating his family. That one was easy! Likewise, we are first to love our neighbors and identify with them as sinners. We only take comfort in the coming judgment as they condemn Christ. We do not start with the sense of ourselves as righteous and “them” as wicked. Rather, we start with a sense of our common wickedness, and we cry out to Christ, the only hope to Christian and non-Christian alike.

Revealing Christ to the World

This hopefulness should transform us, and this is where we have something to learn from writers like C. S. Lewis, who was able to soften the hearts of skeptics through his presentation of the end of the age. You might object that you are not the author of award-winning children’s literature with a degree from Oxford University. Nonetheless, there is still something for all of us to emulate. Each of us carries around with us a deeply held sense of the nature of life as a whole. This is often expressed in temperamental terms. Some people are said to be optimists, and some pessimists. Some come from happy households, some from despairing ones. Some have easy lives, some struggle daily. Christianity ought to have an impact on our overall sense of where we are headed. That sense must have an impact on how we speak about the future.

The law tells us what we already know about the nature of righteousness. There is a standard to which we do not live up, and there is a judgment ahead. The Gospel then breaks in and proclaims to us something we do not know. The standard has been met by another, and there are unearned rewards up ahead. This is the good news. Let us not forget, though, that law alone is not good news. It is the Gospel-it is what Christ has done, is doing, and will yet do-that is the good news! The law makes us aware of our need, but it is not the answer! We must offer hope, we must offer Christ.

When we offer law alone, or the terrors of Revelation alone, the world is right to ignore or reject us. Now, there will of course be a class of people who dismiss us as soon as we disagree with them on moral standards-that is, as soon as we assert any law at all. They will believe that unless we agree with their lax standards we pose a threat. These are the “fundamentalist” liberal types. Yet most people are more pluralistic and open than that.

So, in addition to evenhanded speaking of the Law-that is, applying it to all humanity, rather than merely to non-Christians-we should also be known for lavish speaking of the Gospel. C. S. Lewis’ depiction of Narnia won me as a child partly because he made heaven sound interesting. I have heard many people since childhood say that they don’t care about going to heaven because it sounds boring. When you unpack what they mean, they are thinking of a never-ending church service, or a bunch of angels with harps, or something equally dull. Modern life, despite its troubles, at least offers variety. I had been inoculated against such paltry thoughts of the afterlife. Matters were helped by the fact that I read the books during a family vacation in Vancouver. I still believe on some level that when I die I will find myself in the heavenly British Columbia: ocean, green forests, waterfalls, and all. What I really mean is that heaven must be even better than that. One thing that may help people would be to slip some gritty materiality into their conceptions of the afterlife. This will involve some imagination on your own part.

Spend some time pondering the possibilities of eternity. To be sure, we will never imagine anything so good as the reality. All our thoughts will be dim speculations. Yet not all speculations are equal. The boring heavens that many imagine are a form of heretical Gnostic theology. They suggest that the Redeemer is someone other than the Creator. How could it be that heaven would be worse than earth if both are created by the same Creator, and he claims that earth is fallen, and heaven unimaginably better? To believe in a boring heaven, we must imagine it was created by someone other than the Creator of earth. If we reject this Gnostic outlook, then one look at earth will disprove such small-minded conceptions of heaven. Our speculations should involve considering what is best on earth, and realizing that heaven must be at least that good. Like my images of British Columbia, you should hold your own speculation with a loose grip. Neither of us has imagined the real thing. Yet these speculations might do a lot to prevent us from imagining something smaller. When you speak to friends or coworkers, you might mention your speculations. Create vivid images of beauty and vitality, of an expansive time in which you would need an eternity to begin to scratch the surface of the possibilities. Then admit that you aren’t sure just what is up ahead, but that it will be at least as good as what you have described. You may find that people are intrigued that you aren’t holding to the “harps and clouds” or “never-ending church service” visions that they have had stuck in their minds.

The Gospel offers to us a promise that fulfills the deepest longings of our age. Expansive possibility is open before us. Yet the modern age makes a similar promise to people, and offers to fulfill the promise now. All around us, we see examples of people who are hoping for this condition, or working for it, or envying the apparent success of others in achieving it, or living in the wreckage of a false and costly illusion of such possibilities. The man who leaves his family in mid-life for a younger woman only to be dumped by her later and has to pay double alimony discovers how false some of life’s promises can be. The opposite natural condition from expansive possibility is a predictable security. Many see the dangers of the one condition and assume that the other is automatically more Christian. Yet do we remember the rich young ruler, or the parable of the man who built the barns? As natural propensities, a desire for predictable security and a desire for expansive possibility are neither virtuous nor sinful as such. In this life they present trade-offs. Extreme failure in these realms yields either a suffocating lack of vitality or a flightiness that never accomplishes anything.

An individual’s preferences for security or for openness may be excessive in either direction, but what I fear is the simplistic identification of security with Christianity and expansive possibility with decadence. When this happens, a pastor will point to those whose lives have been wrecked when they abandoned their responsibilities to chase a dream and were disappointed. The answer given is to return to a dull life that will never harm you in such a way. Whether or not this turns out to be reasonable advice in a given case, it is not the Gospel. Many would rather suffer the pains of their damnation than accept such a Gospel. It is not the Gospel they have rejected. We must not put people in the position of thinking that it is.

Yet we often justify our own staid starting points, especially against adventurous dreamers like Sagan, by believing that our disposition is the biblical one. But consider two of the “expansive” images in the book of Revelation that we tend to read past since we do not know what to do with them. Perhaps we have taken Revelation so literally that we have imagined it as a travelogue. St. John is inserting naturalistic detail and telling us what he saw without regard to its significance. This is an improper reading. Yet some of the significance is easy to miss, even if it is also easy to understand once explained.

  • 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 (Rev. 21:1).
  • And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof (Rev. 21:23).

If we are ocean-lovers, we might be tempted to be downcast by the idea of no more sea. The Revelation is not meant to be read as a Fodor’s guide to the final state. In Hebrew thought, the sea was a place of chaos. The Babylonians had a creation story that spoke of sea monsters. It has been suggested that the biblical story sets the record of creation straight by emphasizing God’s power over the sea itself (Psalm 24:1-2) and its creatures. Such power is mentioned elsewhere (Job 41:11, Psalm 104:26, Isaiah 27:1). The most impressive display of God’s power over the water is seen in the Great Flood. Here, not just power, but judgment is involved. In the New Testament, the sea is a place where Jesus proves his ability to rule over the powers that threaten to destroy life (Mark 4:36-41). Jesus can set a limit to a power that means death for us. For the sea to vanish in the New Creation means that there is no more chaos. The curse is no longer. Jesus has borne the whole curse in our place. The powers of the new creation are all to our good. Nobody will again set out on a journey during which they will lose their life. No part of creation will be inhospitable to humankind. We will be able to go anywhere. Whether or not there is an ocean, there will be no sea of the threatening kind known on the first earth. The new earth, whether or not it contains bodies of water, will contain no threat by which we might perish.

The second passage I quoted mentions a city illumined always by Christ. The primary meaning here is that Christ is the light of the world. The implication is that we will never be in darkness. Together these images suggest expansiveness. Many opportunities of the modern world are the result of the age of discovery, when the sea was no longer too dangerous to cross, and the light bulb, which allowed people to pursue their dreams even when the sun wasn’t shining. Yet in our world the new technologies often have a darker side. Think of the Titanic, where a well-lit ship sunk into icy water ending the expansive dreams of many. Heaven will have all of the expansive promise of the modern world but without the dark side. Jesus is the one whose power makes all the places in the New Creation safe for us. And Jesus is the one whose presence will destroy any limits to life within that Creation. He is no added technology which allows us a more comfortable adjustment in a fallen creation, but the Creator himself who abolished the limits of human life by freely surrendering to those limits in his own divine Person.

Such thoughts ought to fill us with hope! And such hopes ought to make us wary of any presentations of Christianity which offer a narrow vision of the future. In our present-oriented world, we must take the time to remind ourselves that our present circumstances, and even our present lives, are not the entire horizon of our existence. Yet beyond that, we must remember that whatever is up ahead is not only beyond what we have experienced, but beyond what we have imagined. Good imaginative portrayals of the end of the age can remind us of just how much we have failed to imagine ourselves. In The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis portrays characters who fight passionately to the end for the good that they have known. They are in battle even on the Last Day, and they are so without knowing that it was the last day. Up to the very end they are attempting to persuade others to join them in Aslan’s Country. May we live like this. May our journey through the door take us unexpectedly, yet prepared all the same. At a surprising moment, may we be surrounded by innumerable redeemed, many of whom we would never have expected to see, and be thankful to the Prince of Life for allowing us entry into his city.

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Rick Ritchie
Rick Ritchie is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He blogs at www.1517legacy. com.
Monday, July 16th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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