“The world is made up of four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. This is a fact well known…it’s also wrong. There’s a fifth element, and generally it’s called Surprise.
This is a story about the strangest dream I’ve ever had. And it’s not one of those dreams where I’m Windy from the song “Windy” and being chased by bad guys as I fly among tenement buildings in a New York borough. Those dreams are merely weird, and I’ve had plenty of them. This dream was eerie and haunting and frightening in a completely different way altogether.
After my sister died I prayed to dream about her. A few people had told me they’d had visions of her dancing in heaven with painted toenails and the like, and I was envious. I wanted to see her again so badly, but I am apparently not awesome at receiving visions from the beyond. For months I closed my eyes every night hoping that I would get the chance to be with Laura and to say all the things I wanted to say to her and to reassure myself that she was okay. Even if none of it was real, I was ready and willing to be deluded.
Then–finally–it happened. My memory of the dream is pretty disjointed, as memories of dreams tend to be, but here is what I remember of it: I was at a school or a church when I saw her. I don’t know what I was doing there, but in the dream I knew that she had died, and I was very excited to see her. I ran up and hugged her, bouncing about like a hyperactive chihuahua, which isn’t much like me. Laura, in contrast, was very wooden and unemotional, which wasn’t much like her. I didn’t pay any attention to that in the dream, though, and instead began asking her a barrage of questions. “How are you? What happened to you? Is it wonderful?”
Laura just looked at me and then suddenly I was transported to a grassy hillside. On it were dozens of people lying down like they were sleeping, and walking among them were beings with heads that reminded me of the knights in chess. Every once in a while, as they walked, the beings would bend down to touch one of the sleeping humans. At once the person would wake up, and he/she would be directed to stand in one of two giant lines. At the apex of the lines was a glowing something, and I understood that the glowing something was Jesus, and the people in the lines were waiting to meet Him.
“Did you meet Him?” I whispered to Laura in awe. “Did you meet the lamb?” (I don’t know why I called Him that. Dream me is an odd duck.) “I did,” Laura admitted slowly. “And?” Laura paused as though she were having trouble putting the experience into words. “And being touched by Him was like the pain of dying again.”
And that’s all I remember.
Needless to say, I was pretty freaked out. No matter how many people assured me that I had just imagined it or, more frighteningly, that the devil had sent me the dream to scare me, I couldn’t shake the sense that the whole encounter was in some way real. I felt like I had learned something, and what I had learned was horrifying.
In my faith tradition I had been taught that I would go to heaven when I died. Instantaneously. I had learned a bit about reincarnation and purgatory, but as a good Protestant I rejected those ideas out of hand. Death was the end. When death came for you, you were either perfected and sent on to glory or damned and sent straight to hell. There was no need for a middle earth to bridge the space between.
After having that dream, however, I began to re-think my idea of the afterlife. Whatever that dream meant–whether or not it meant anything at all–it sparked in me an intuition that death is not indeed the end of anything. There were too many questions that my old beliefs just couldn’t answer. How was Laura at 17 ready to spend eternity with God? Even if I were to live 80 more years, I don’t imagine that I will be ready for such a thing. I won’t be holy enough for heaven or depraved enough to be consigned as a hell-bound lost cause.
One of the things I’ve long believed about our eternal existence is that heaven is such a place that, in order for it to truly be heaven, one must be completely in love with God, who will be all in all. An Orthodox believer once explained that she believed heaven and hell are really the same place, but for those who have made Christ their king basking in God’s love will feel like paradise. For those who have rejected Him, God’s love will burn like fire. This resonates with me. The work of religion, I think, is to prepare us and temper us to be embraced and encompassed by the all-consuming presence of God. Only now I wonder how a few measly decades on earth could achieve such a great task as that.
“But we’ll be made perfect!” some might declare. As I mulled over this problem in my head, that explanation satisfied me less and less. Even before Laura’s death I wrestled a lot with the problem of suffering, and I came to believe, as C. S. Lewis did, that suffering teaches us things we can learn in no other way. Suffering is thus valuable and indispensable. Yet…if I can be made perfect with the snap of God’s heavenly fingers, what in the world is all this pain for? If God is able and willing to superimpose perfection upon us, doesn’t suffering lose its meaning? Doesn’t it become pointless and cruel?
That is beyond my ability to accept. All the grief and the tears and the loneliness that so many of us endure–it has to be worth something. It has to be worth everything, or how else can it be redeemed? It must be necessary, but if it is necessary–and this is the freaky part–then there is no reason to think all suffering ends in death. Perhaps when we’ve died we don’t experience either perfect bliss or perfect terror. Maybe new challenges await to further refine us into whoever we are going to turn out to be. Maybe earth is just step 1 in a long process of learning and growing and changing.
This isn’t really a biblical idea, I know. It’s intuitive and sort of vaguely philosophical, but still I think there’s more to the story than what we’ve been told. The ancient Hebrews, I’ve read, had no definite concept of the afterlife. Some of the books of the Hebrew Bible intimate that we all become worm food, and that’s the end of it. Others refer to a shadowy place called Sheol, but the Christian concept of heaven, hell, and judgment didn’t exist. The New Testament’s afterlife theology is slightly more clear, but not really by much. If the Bible is truly God’s Word to us, it seems that communicating what exactly will happen to us when we die is not a terribly high priority for Him. I shouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that things will turn out differently than we think.
Are we talking purgatory? Karma cycles? Some new and inconceivable horror? I have no clue, so this isn’t exactly comforting, is it? I just happen to believe that God won’t be done with us any time soon. Thus far, it seems to me that God has gone to great lengths to protect our free will and to ensure that our exercise of it is uncoerced. I’m not certain what makes us think death will make Him dispense with it altogether. If retaining our freedom is important to Him, then our journey toward theosis might be much longer and harder than we think.
That might be a depressing thought, but epic stories are a bit depressing. Until they turn awesome, that is. Just think of it. We are all Frodo Baggins. (Except that I am actually Gandalf the Grey. I am beardly on the inside, where it counts.) We’ve fashioned a small story for ourselves, but it may be that God has a grander narrative prepared for us. We don’t get to know what’s in store, but if all of this life is preparation for the next phase to come, then it’s sure to be…weird. I don’t know what else it is, but it’s certain to be really, really weird.