Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are on the bridge of the Enterprise, musing as they often do on the events of the preceding episode. They have just left a paradise behind and Kirk says,
Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise. Maybe we were meant to fight our way through. Struggle, claw our way up, scratch for every inch of the way.
(“This Side of Paradise”)
Such a rejection of paradise comes easy from the mouth of Kirk because it is an idea which sits comfortably in the mind of the developed modern world (paradoxically alongside bottomless utopian ambition).
I was reminded of this fictional conversation when reading a recent post on Reddit in which an individual was asking Christians how heaven could possibly appeal to us. Wouldn’t endless paradise become monotonous? What good is reward without the struggle to attain it?
After all, if you have the leisure to be reading this post, then you’ve probably had the experience of pleasures growing dim. Many of us remember long summers in childhood in which there were no responsibilities and more time to play than we knew what to do with. These times would often begin blissfully, but in time boredom and restlessness would set in. A favorite dessert had on a rare occasion can become bland and commonplace in abundance. Familiarity breeds contempt, as the saying goes.
I definitely resonate with this experience. Give me too much space to simply relax and I will readily settle into it, but before too long I will find myself overcome not only with boredom but with a sense of waste. Give me an overabundance of a thing I love and it will earn my contempt. Even my favorite people can grow vexing with too much exposure.
These experiences certainly have something to say against any earthly attempt to create paradise. Yet, the thought that they serve to critique the Christian idea of heaven rests on a misunderstanding both of the experience itself and the Christian doctrine of heaven.
Several years ago, I went on a trip up the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia with some friends.. Along the way, we pulled off the road for a break. We’d stopped along the edge of the ocean, the island of Nanaimo in distance, just as the sun was setting. In that moment, the sea was in perfect calm and the setting sun made the sea and sky into an endless expanse of beaten silver. It was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. I felt my soul raised by the sight into an ecstasy my body could barely contain. The moment passed, of course, the sun set, the sea became normal, and the photo I took did not begin to capture the moment.
Yet, though the experience faded and the joy of that moment passed, it highlighted something important. It would be utterly absurd to think that the experience of joy I had in that moment could ever grow old or monotonous. Nobody grows tired of the joy brought on by material beauty, or the delight of witnessing an act of moral courage, or the elevation stirred up by new understanding of truth. Even the simple pleasure brought about by good food is not something one tires of. Joy does not grow tiresome, rather the repeated experience of the material reality that once gave you joy stops doing so.
It is the Christian conviction that God, in making the world, put into it a likeness of his own transcendental truth, goodness, and beauty. Like fire heating up an iron so that it becomes like the fire, God allowed material reality in limited and passing ways to participate in his own surpassing and infinite life. Every experience of rest and delight, when not mired by sin, is a taste of the Creator. Especially those moments like the one I had on the shore of the Sunshine Coast are echoes of eternity.
Heaven, in Christian understanding, is not an infinite lazy paradise of mai tais on the beach. Heaven is when we shall see God face to face—by which we mean that we will finally have an experience of God’s own truth, goodness, and beauty undimmed. The fire that we now glimpse in passing ways in the iron of material creation will itself warm us. Those in heaven shall not “need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light” (Revelation 22:5).
God is infinite, and his riches are infinite. In heaven, our capacity to encounter God face to face will grow, we shall pass infinitely from “glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). In the words of C.S. Lewis, we will ever be bidden to “Come further up, come further in!” (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle). This is not to say that the material realities will pass away, for we believe in the resurrection of the body and the new creation, but that all will be seen wholly in the light of God, who will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).
All eternity will be a love affair with the one who is love himself. That is heaven—the endless, ever expanding encounter with God, which will never tire nor grow old. It is that goal which lies deep in the heart of every human person and which, by the grace of God, we may attain to in Christ Jesus.