Jerry Walls: Heaven and the New Jerusalem

“The Alpha who created us for happiness,” states Jerry Walls, “is the Omega who is the fountain of happiness. This is the foundational truth that holds out the delicious prospect that the human story is destined for a glorious end that will surpass our wildest imaginations” (Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, p. 27). Contrary to Macbeth’s sober declaration that life is but a series of meaningless events, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” the gospel proclaims the wondrous fulfillment of humanity in the risen Christ. Whether we call it the beatific vision, the general resurrection, or “life after life after death” (N. T. Wright), we are speaking of the consummation of the cosmic drama in “unsurpassable beauty and goodness” (p. 39). Our thirst will be quenched, our hunger sated, our deepest longings realized in the ecstasy of love that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—not extinguishing desire but dynamically and progressively fulfilling it in nuptial joy.

Reflecting on the final three chapters of the Book of Revelation, Walls expounds upon seven truths of heaven—or perhaps we might speak of one truth elaborated under seven aspects: heaven as happiness; heaven as fulfillment; heaven as resurrection; heaven as liberation from death; heaven as reunion of truth, beauty, and goodness; heaven as celebration of human culture; heaven as homecoming. Whereas heaven is sometimes imagined as an escape to an ethereal, timeless realm, filled with souls but not bodies, it should be properly and biblically envisioned as the transfiguration of the world around the resurrected Jesus Christ. Scripture speaks of the arrival of the kingdom, the descent of the New Jerusalem, the wedding feast of the Lamb, a new heaven and a new earth. Nothing that is good and true and beautiful will be lost. “God’s final end,” writes Walls, “is accomplished not by undoing or destroying his originally good creation but by redeeming and renewing it” (p. 40).

Of course, the question we are all dying to know is … what about sex‽ Walls doesn’t shy away from the question, acknowledging that “sex certainly represents one of the deepest and most exciting pleasures of this life” (p. 28). Following upon Jesus’ lead in Matt. 22:23-32, Walls suspects that there will be no sex in heaven, but don’t worry—we won’t miss it. Erotic pleasure, he assures us, is but “a foretaste of even greater delights in the world to come” (pp. 28-29).

The chapter on heaven is the longest chapter in the book, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the hardest for Walls to write. How do we expound on that unknown of which we only have hints in this life? But I do wish to mention one omission from his reflections—the existential significance of freedom from the power of death. Walls discusses death at various points in his book but principally as a cause of grief and sadness. This cause will be absent in heaven. As the Seer declares: “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Rev 21:4). But what of the deep connection between death and sin? Death comes from sin, the Bible tells us, but is it not also the case that the fear of death drives us to sin? The Letter to the Hebrews certainly appears to link the two:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. (Heb 2:14-15)

On this passage St John Chrysostom comments: “he who fears death is a slave, and submits to all things rather than die” (Hom. Heb. 4.6). In his book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker explores the many destructive ways human beings seek to protect themselves from the one inescapable reality of human existence—their mortality. More recently Richard Beck has deliberated upon this theme from a Christian perspective in his book The Slavery of Death. He refers to the “tragic feedback loop of the human condition—in which sin produces death and death makes us vulnerable to sin.” The Orthodox practice of asceticism might well be described as liberation from the fear of death. Hence I missed a discussion by Walls on how freedom from death enables the love and holiness that is heaven.

As an Orthodox reader of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, I must note the absence of one element that must be included in a truly catholic vision of the Last Things—namely, the saints. Where is the Theotokos, St John the Baptist, and the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, whose icons, for example, are featured so prominently during the Divine Liturgy? Here the limitations of the author’s Protestant commitments become most apparent. How different the chapter might have been if it had been informed by the experience of heaven made available in the Divine Liturgy. But it would be unfair to press this point as a criticism. I only note it in passing.

I found Walls’s discussion of theodicy particularly helpful. Can there be heaven for those who have suffered unspeakable horror? Is it truly possible for God to wipe away every tear? Walls turns to Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan tells of the heart-wrenching abuse and torture of a five-year-old girl and protests the creation of a world in which innocent children suffer such terrible violence. These crimes are beyond forgiveness, Ivan insists. “Too high a price is asked for harmony” he tells his brother; “it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible.”

Yet as compelling and admirable as Ivan’s protest may be, Christians nonetheless dare to hope that the omnipotent love of God can and will redeem the irredeemable. “The beauty and goodness of God,” declares Walls, “is of such incomparable value that it will ‘overwhelmingly’ outweigh any evils we can experience” (p. 148). Horrors may so shatter and break us that we despair we can ever be made whole again; “but where imagination and resources fail, God’s infinite creative capacities do not” (p. 148). The Lord can bring meaning to the meaningless, restore the injured, make beautiful the mutilated and deformed. Ivan believes that he enjoys the high moral ground, but in truth he does not. “It is far better,” concludes Walls, “to hope that heaven is real and has the resources to overwhelm altogether whatever evils have been suffered in this life” (p. 149).

(Go to “Hell is a Hell of a Choice”)

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17 Responses to Jerry Walls: Heaven and the New Jerusalem

  1. AR says:

    I appreciate your comments on the fear of death, Father. My husband was in the Army National Guard for six years; freedom from the fear of death was the main thing he learned at basic training. As long as he was afraid he might die, his suffering was mentally unbearable. When he learned to say, in the Army phrase, “It is what it is,” he could put his body through grueling marches while still noticing the beauty of the forests around him.

    I notice that in most movies and tv, the moment someone produces a gun, all moral decisions cease to exist. No one wonders whether they should sacrifice life or limb or take any risks. The fear of death annihilates all higher considerations. I have come to resent this so strongly that I’ve sometimes thought I would rather die than allow someone to steal even my sunglasses at gun point. Where’s the dignity?

    Anyhow, it reminds me of this poem by a Romanian monk, called ‘The Migration of Saints’:

    …With those legs of light
    They lean like stags against
    That shore of sorrow
    And sip, for they cannot but so

    This is the part of all.

    You see them, night after night,
    Coming from all over

    Carrying their very bodies in their arms
    Then throw(ing) them away in waters
    With holy mirth
    Like flower wreaths
    Adorned for their Chosen…

    http://savatie.yoll.net/poezie.html

    It’s the ‘mirth’ that gets you. There is also the poetic side of The Lawgiver:

    “Jehovah, You have been our dwelling place
    in every generation…”

    Even before God’s people knew of “life after death” as a concept, they envisioned God, the home of his people.

    In Tolkien’s Silmarillion, he explains that his various races go to different places when they die, but Man is special in that he alone *must* return to his Creator after death. This idea of “God as Heaven” (more fundamental than “Paradise as Heaven”) has helped me to conceptualize a synthesis of Heaven and Hell in which God rejects no one, and therefore people’s rejection of God (if that happens) can never be anything but a delusion. Set against ultimate reality, delusion is weak; choice can no longer be seen as the issue standing between God and man. (Inclination, perhaps – but inclination can be healed without violation of creaturely constitution.)

    ***

    It’s true that human suffering staggers the mind. The greatest suffering is that people are not in Heaven on Earth – our minds don’t dwell in God and so we experience horror when we suffer.

    Our housemate is reading one of the currently popular NDE books – in this one, a woman gets trapped under a waterfall in her kayak for fifteen minutes and has to break her own knees to get free, but loses consciousness and has an NDE before she is brought back by her friends. She reports asking God for help, humbly and without demanding anything, and finding herself able to bear the unbearable.

    I know God doesn’t automatically do that kind of thing, (and I certainly don’t mean to blame people’s grief on a failure of prayer) but it does point to the extremely subjective or at least malleable character of human pain and the possibility of freedom from it, even if that freedom is only eventual. I suffer from flashbacks which I find literally unbearable in the sense that they take over my mental functions, and I can’t stop myself from blurting things that make people very uncomfortable. I’ve formed the habit of blurting “God” or “Jesus” first – even though I’m not really in control when I utter the prayer, I find that help always comes. Usually just enough to regain control and continue my struggle. Sometimes enough to feel happy.

    Having learned, through years of struggle, that the help does come – that is the fractal through which the light of “God With Us” has had to make rainbows, for me…

    I think freedom from fear of death is involved with “God with Us,” because that awareness frees us for that holy careless ‘mirth’ in which we find an urgent and glad sense of our own directionality, of our gravity, of what pulls the stream of our lives in one direction and not another. Then we realize that the only truly unthinkable tragedy would be not to be that stream, not to feel that gravity, not to tumble over these rocks, not to leap over this fall and plunge into the bosom of the infinite Ocean of Being.

    Not to be what we are and not to have had the adventure – that is the one unbearable thing. But we feel this only when we are momentarily complete, when we have found a way to reach our partner in bearing things, the “heart of our own heart.”Otherwise, everything eventually seems unbearable, even pleasure.

    ***

    Greetings and prayers for you and your readers this morning, Father. This blog has become my mind’s watering hole, when I have internet access.

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    • Connie says:

      Alana, this is a wonderful reflection. I am reminded of what CS Lewis said in A Grief Observed: “And, more than once, that impression which I can’t describe except by saying that it’s like the sound of a chuckle in the darkness. The sense that some shattering and disarming simplicity is the real answer.”

      Sometimes (well, really too often!) I have wished that our Orthodox iconography had a little more room for at least a hint of mirth. I saw that hint in an actual photograph of St John Maximovitch but sadly it doesn’t show up in his icon.

      Your life fascinates me. ”Having learned, through years of struggle, that the help does come – that is the fractal through which the light of “God With Us” has had to make rainbows, for me…” Whatever your struggles have been, Alana, they certainly have borne fruit for the rest of us. 🙂

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      • AR says:

        Thanks for your kind words, Connie. It’s always nice to hear from you.

        Well, I feel a little silly as I don’t have a tragic life story at all. My struggle is mainly myself at this point. 🙂 Although that would be enough to overwhelm me I think if it weren’t for someone praying for me.

        Love the Lewis quote; he is endlessly fecund.

        That’s interesting about Maximovitch. I had never thought about painting mirth into an icon. I see someone has done a mirthful icon of St. Porphyrios, but it appears to be taken from a photograph so I am not sure if it is “official.” Not that I care very much about official.

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        • Connie says:

          Alana, “if it weren’t for someone praying for me.” I understand completely. I think perhaps we are all utterly dependent on others’ prayers for our growth. Another quote from Lewis: “It [is] the rule of the universe that others can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves and one can paddle every canoe except one’s own. That is why Christ’s suffering for us is not a mere theological dodge but the supreme case of the law that governs the whole world: and when they mocked him by saying, ‘He saved others, himself he cannot save, they were really uttering, little as they knew, the ultimate law of the spiritual world.’ “

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          • AR says:

            You are the Queen of quotes.

            If what Lewis says is true it’s really different than I thought. The hard part is reciprocating, when one has no way of knowing whether one’s own prayers are doing good or harm.

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          • Connie says:

            Alana, could you explain what you mean? I can’t imagine how it could do harm to reach down to that “love poured into our hearts” (Rom. 5:5) and from there pray a simple “Lord have mercy,” or “Thy will be done” for someone. And if one is led to pray for something more specific, doesn’t there need to be a trust that God would correct our own ignorances? Of course, translating the meaning of that quote into actions and philanthropy could certainly do much harm if we aren’t grounded in God first. (This is dealt with superbly in George MacDonald’s book, Lilith, btw.) This is where I get confused and most often any actions on my part have to more or less fall into my lap before I know (or think) it is the right thing to do — if that makes any sense.

            It is our interconnectedness that keeps striking me as the essential issue, and I am convinced that other people’s prayers are what keeps me going. I include this in my daily prayers: “Heal my infirmities and bring me into good order by the means You know and prescribe, through the prayers of those whom You call to pray, that I may stay balanced, live in the present moment, see splendor in the ordinary, and receive life abundantly.” I have no idea who might be praying for me (saints, people, friends), and those for whom I pray probably don’t know either. But it is the way of things, somehow. I wish I had your eloquence. You could say this so much better.

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  2. 407kwac says:

    I had a nervous breakdown precipitated by anxiety-induced insomnia (twice within a one year period). The anxiety was induced in large part by the spiritual crisis that led me to Orthodoxy (that crisis, in a nutshell, being that I could not bear the thought of people being in hell)–a flash of insight that the suffering of Gehenna was simply what coming into the presence of the God in whom we “live and move and have our being” and who is “a consuming fire” is like for those who do not have faith in Him was quite literally mind blowing for me. In the throes of the first breakdown, I was in a manic state and had written all over a legal pad of paper the reasons why no one would ultimately be lost, one of the key ones being that the suffering and deprivation of our fallen state would capacitate everyone with the humility (as knowing our need of God) to accept rescue. A few weeks later, I discovered Kalomiros’ “The River of Fire” online. What was even more surreal was that in between these two (mercifully, short-lived) breakdowns of my mind, there was a shooting at my husband’s workplace in his dept. in which four of his coworkers were killed and four others injured (I attended 3 of the 4 funerals with him), and seven months later terrorists flew two commercial jets into the Twin Towers in NYC. Death, it seems, can be really in your face! Yet this is when God is also most showing Himself to us, even if we cannot see it at the time.

    AR, your beautiful comment here brought to mind for me Isaiah 61 — He gives beauty for ashes. . . .

    Karen

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    • AR says:

      Karen, yes, that’s a lovely scripture. Thank you for the reminder. And thanks for your story. So you have been a Universalist or something like it, all along? It has been a much more limping approach for me, even after my conversion. I’ve been afraid that Universalism was heretical, even though I felt that same unbearable pain at the thought of people in Hell, even as a child, and have had several “aha” moments about how it must all be different than I was taught, somehow. Now I find that so many ordinary Christians are quiet (or not so quiet) Universalists.

      Our housemate whom I mentioned above, refuses to go to church anymore, even though he had a remarkable conversion experience in church, simply because he hasn’t been able to find a pastor who he sees as being honest about the Biblical teaching about Heaven. He is looking for one who would admit that God might allow someone into Heaven on the basis of self-sacrifice, even if they weren’t professing Christians. This housemate is also a convinced Universalist. He wasn’t raised in church and has had little religious teaching. He has personally met Jesus in a dream.

      It’s odd how so much religious teaching has the effect of binding people’s consciences on this point, and shutting down their compassionate responses. It almost makes me afraid that we have come nearly full circle and are living among Pharisees again.

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      • 407kwac says:

        Well, alas, Alana, no I have not always been a Universalist. When I got some sleep and regained my rational faculties, I began reading about the “smoke of their torment going up (from the Lake of Fire) forever and ever,” I believed I had been in delusion (and I was, though I believe there was a deeper intuition and insight as to the implications of the love of God revealed to me at that time that was, and is, completely sound, underlying the delusional specifics). But the insight that so overwhelmed me it precipitated that break, and which was confirmed in the “The River of Fire” weeks later, was the beginning of the end of a view of God and ultimate things that required a reading of Scripture as teaching a *deterministic* binary destination in the Eschaton for two forever-unreconcilable classes of human beings. And, so, with all the rest here, I have been on a journey of discovery (and rediscovery) that has immensely deepened my faith in the love and power of God revealed in Jesus Christ and in the Mystery of Christ in His Church, found most fully expressed in our Orthodox Saints (like St. Silouan in the story of the encounter with the hermit).

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        • AR says:

          I understand.

          The River of Fire was important for me, too – after reading, it’s impossible to see God as the Heavenly Executioner holding a blowtorch anymore.

          I’m not really satisfied, either devotionally or doctrinally, with where Kalormiros leaves it, though. God as he describes Him is too passive. A substance that sits there and lets other substances react to it in some inevitable way. Where is the envisioned Heroic Lord who rides forth with a fiery sword issuing from his mouth, and ends oppression and evil?

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          • Karen says:

            Totally with you on all that, too. As you note, “The River of Fire” is a paradigm shift–one that, for me, makes the rest of that holy vision and hope plausible. I find it impossible to envision anyone who retains even a speck of their original created human nature not having that speck utterly transfigured by contact with the Divine substance, though the Consuming Fire may have to cut through a lot of dross first to reach that speck (hence the smoke going up). As for the image of smoke, it occurs to me if dross was not being consumed and a transfiguration not thus in progress, neither would there be any smoke. Where there are fire and smoke, there must also be ashes. Ashes are a symbol of repentance. Have we not been given the promise of beauty in exchange for these?

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          • AR says:

            It’s a profound thought, but not one I’m totally convinced of yet. As Father Kimel noted somewhere, is it really loving of God to force himself on someone totally if his presence will cause them such shock and terror and pain? Because we’re not just talking about people coming face to face with Jesus in his righteousness and being afraid. We’re talking about unready souls being plunged into the substance of the Divine Nature. What if such souls could be led along a more gentle path to salvation? I do think that in some sense it is human nature to return to God at death but I don’t know if it’s like being put directly into a furnace, you know?

            So for me a big question unanswered still is this: is the fire of Hell Uncreated? Or is it perhaps the same sense of torment we now feel when we do wrong, as James indicates when he talks about the tongue being “set on fire by hell?”

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    • Connie says:

      Karen, I “met” you three years ago when I made some comments on Fr Damick’s blog on his post “Salvation for Everyone.” Out of timidity I posted under Ann, my middle name (the first and only time I used a pseudonym). I deeply appreciated your comments to me back then and later was delighted to see you commenting here also. I so appreciate your heart.

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      • 407kwac says:

        Thank you for the kind words, Connie. Ann is my given middle name, too (and my patron Saint)–unlike Anne of Avonlea, without the “e” like yours. 😊

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  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I cannot tell you how proud and pleased I am that here at Eclectic Orthodoxy we enjoy both intelligent discourse (at least when I’m not involved) and honest personal sharing. Thank you, everyone.

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    • AR says:

      Father, one day I woke up convulsed with longing and I asked myself what it was I wanted, and the answer that rose was, “I am looking for a more humane Christianity.” That’s when I found this blog, where doctrinal pursuits are not divorced from the human conditions out of which doctrinal questioning arises. Thank you.

      I know how humbling and joyful it can be to see the light in other people’s intellect, and find it different from (or taller than) one’s own. I’m not long on learning myself so I don’t know how much my opinion counts for, but I can’t imagine anyone here finds your intellect lacking.

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      • brian says:

        I would like to echo Alana’s thoughts.
        EO has been an oasis in the desert for me.
        I’ve always been impressed with your voice and the quality of your thoughts, Alana, btw.

        Liked by 1 person

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