Social Distancing is No Heaven

I was never much one to believe in the angel focused movies and stories, you know “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Touched By An Angel,” that paint heaven as a formless place where we are headed forever while earth is a separate and dirty corporeal realm that these angelic beings come to visit. Of course, I was an atheist at the time these shows were introduced to my life, so beyond the fairy tale aspect of the stories, they also just seamed overly vague about this place we are supposed to hope for called “heaven.” I had a more grim view; in the unlikely case that a soul was a real thing and persisted beyond the body, I rationalized, it must be some wraith-like existence at best. More like the belief of Houdini, I figured the vast majority of any vain attempts to contact the supernatural would eventually be exposed as a hoax. Then I took seriously the study of the one man who credibly survived going from that supernatural “afterlife” world and returning again – Jesus.

While my conversion story is not the point, one thing that became clear to me very early in my walk with Christ its that most Christ followers have no clue what the Bible actually says about heaven, the earth, and life after the physical body dies. My guess, though I cannot say it for sure, is that if you polled the American population you would likely find most casual Christians say “yes” to the question “do saints get to become angels and ‘get their wings’ when they die and go to heaven?” (Hint: the answer is “no” actually, as angels are different kinds of creatures entirely, but I digress). I have had a longstanding belief in the eternal idea that God will make the earth new and not simply transform us into celestial light bulbs in the end. This was made even more vivid to me as I grew in my Christian walk by the writings of C.S. Lewis, “…further up, further in…” and so forth, where he espoused the idea that our current world is but a dim reflection of the reality awaiting us in eternity. Then, once someone shows you in plain language accessible to you what was always there, you see it everywhere – in the scriptures and in the broken reality around us.

What on earth does that have to do with COVID-19 and the global pandemic that has people isolated and quarantined? First of all, it is much closer to hell that we might realize. The daily onslaught of news is draining, everything is “coronavirus this” and “shutdown that” to the point where you are both distant and overwhelmed. I have occasionally commented on Hell being an eternal isolation from God, which also means isolation from others and a form of utter aloneness and expressionless existence without any sensory input. Like being in a dark padded room where you cannot see, hear, smell, or touch anyone or anything – forever. Well, ironically, many people think of heaven as something similar, but at least there is some kind of light and you can still talk to people in some way, perhaps (if you are lucky enough to become an angel) you can even sneak out back to earth to get a hug and a milkshake. I suppose this leaves many people feeling like one of the villains of the Matrix who enjoyed the imaginary steak over the real and cold world beyond the machines. The incarnation of Christ says one very powerful thing about this idea – the fact that God became flesh and dwelt amongst this ragged people was necessary precisely because we are corporeal beings, spirit and body!

Don’t get me wrong, for those who can work remotely during the shutdown cultural season of 2020 there are many benefits of this time of social distancing. Family dinners. Slower pace of travel. Mental reset. For some it has been a positive and eye opening experience. For others, it has been a horrifying glimpse at hell due to loss of income, total isolation due to a lack of family to have dinner with, constant fear, and severe limits on movement. For thousands who became infected, regardless of their distance from the “third world” and their relative health and wealth, all of that came in a rush and then death itself became their shepherd. It is far from an even mix. How does one make sense of the odd disparity between the positive and negative impacts?

The first thing that God said was “not good” is for man to be alone. Since the advent of ideas about the afterlife, there has always been a debate about what you might “do” when you have all the time there is to “do” whatever. While I do not agree with all of the writings of C.S. Lewis on the idea of “forever” being largely an extension of our human progression, I can see the point that learning new things does not simply cease to be important in the afterlife. I like to say that I am a mediocre guitar player now because I have not really had a 100 years of dedicated study, which I hope to share with Segovia and Nunno, amongst others, to perfect that skill. And that is just one of many skills I could spend a century with others learning. But I don’t want to spend even a year, much less decades of decades, learning such skills on my own. Sure, I can see people on video chat and I am in teleconferences with meetings all the time – and that is still far better than being actually alone. Granted, some people prefer a bit more distance and are doing better than others right now, but even the most severe case of introversion needs regular interaction with close social connections. No, I do not actually think being an introvert is an illness, but some self-proclaimed introverts do masque illnesses such as social anxiety disorder. Since we were designed for social action, and since it takes an abnormal situation like a disease to keep us isolated, we should know that whatever the afterlife is like it should not be lonely.

But what of progress? For one thing, we need to understand that the fall of mankind included an anomaly that we all feel – we need to earn our living from a world that fights back with thorns, thus justifying our provision from the ground. The odd thing is that when God gave the children of Israel free food in the form of manna in the wilderness, it was just too routine for them to go on without complaint. Funny, I feed my dog the same exact food every day and he is just as excited every time I say the word “dinner!” (…yes, he very definitely knows that word). The curse of this time has been not only an unsettled social life, but the uncertainty of how we will provide for ourselves and our family. It is a little better for knowledge workers, but my wife runs a cafe where we have been forced to lay off staff – including my daughter who works for us. Ok, so the Christian idea of heaven is different from pandemic-induced self isolation in at least one powerful way – no more anxiety about getting sick. Have we considered the other important way? No more anxiety about provision, or earning “a living” and thus justifying our existence in terms of money.

If you have infinite control over your time and less pressures on how you spend it, more freedom over where you perform tasks, and limitless ability to connect with people regardless of distance then is that not more like the old idea of heaven? Perhaps a more polished life on this promised new earth without broken relationships, environments, and political systems is a gift from God and not something we can earn or make with our hands. Something else is different, too – something a little more tangible. Some of the cultural ideas of heaven that Christians borrowed from other world religions hold an often unspoken idea that heaven is not physical, that life after death is will more wraith-like, and that bodies are somehow a bad thing. The old Greek expression held the idea of “Soma Sema“, the body is a tomb. And thus we see the flaw – heaven might be another realm, but Jesus came to earth and promised life to the fullest. He promised to have dinner with us. Instead of complaining about manna in the desert, we will get to experience kingly feasts and guiltless dessert forever! Maybe he was just being metaphorical, but he did meet Peter on the beach and have breakfast to restore a relationship and not just prove a point; Jesus did not simply rise from the grave as a spiritual being, but a new man that ate with his friends to feed their hearts and not just their mouths.

Right now we can contrast isolation and gathering in terms of risk. Heaven is not just about personal freedoms, but about togetherness. We are given analogies of a city where we can gather, of a feast with all the guests celebrating. Sounds pretty good right about now. I don’t know about you, but when we had a regular routine, be at work after a breakfast meeting or to have lunch with people for another meeting, things that we wanted to do at night or on the weekends “with our personal time” held a bit more glamour than they do these days. We may even think being in control of our schedules could reduce some anxiety, yet the opposite is actually happening due to the effects of isolation. The weekend is just another Groundhog Day right now, perhaps with a little less production pressure. Well, at least I have a small yard to mow on the weekends. I know people that have been stuck in apartments with no balcony or yard for months; that sounds more like luxury solitary confinement!

Long term space-travel professionals and those in the arctic circle need to prepare for a special kind of routine that overcomes the changeless environment and lack of outside personal contact. The need to have a pattern for the long haul is critical to the emotional health of such workers – those that help them prepare invest significant research and they all spend lots of time preparing for this abnormal situation. Because it is abnormal, it is not what we were designed for. All in one moment {*poof*} the whole world was on an earth-ship, relegated to their own dwelling for several months. Consider it an experiment in deep space colonization! It should also tell us something about what we should be hoping for at the end of the journey. We all want the earth-ship to land so we can get out and stretch our legs, hug our friends, and have a feast together. We can and should learn from those relegated to real isolation about keeping up mental health, building a routine, and getting regular exercise. However, beyond that, we should use this season to rethink eternity and get it into a proper social context now. After all, we do not need to wait to exercise this divine relationship with God and with one another.

The final disease to be removed will be that very hidden one, the one most of us do not realize is actually killing us all, which keeps us alone and isolated from God. Yes, for the Christ-follower, this life is as close to hell as you will experience. Let that soak in when you read about how we share in the sufferings of Christ, who actually took on the hell of being fully isolated from God on your behalf. Right now, we might be struggling with a new morning routine and socially distant connections, even frustrated at not having more intimacy with God; yet, somehow I don’t think that will be a problem when the Kingdom of God is manifest on earth.

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