Christians in our culture have a pretty odd default view of life after death. We call it “heaven” and tell the world they ought to make sure they get to go there, but we portray it as frankly boring. You know the schtick: sitting forever on a cloud holding a harp you don’t know how to play.
Today the churches of the Anglican communion commemorate St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395). There’s a guy who had a great way to think about heaven.
He is the least commonly known of the “Three Great Cappadocians,” the others being his brother St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. If you want a first dip into the wonders of fourth century theology, I recommend Gregory of Nyssa’s book Life of Moses (readily available in the wonderful Paulist Press “Classics of Western Spirituality” series).
Gregory looks at the Bible’s narrative of Moses’ life and takes it a model for the process of growing in the love and knowledge of God.
The crucial bit is where Moses goes up the mountain to meet with God face to face and receive the Ten Commandments. There is no denying that this is a story of someone growing closer to God. The higher he goes, the closer he gets, until he is right there in a powerful, transforming, intimate encounter with the creator of heaven and earth.
But Gregory points out something crucial: The closer Moses gets to the presence of God, the less he sees and knows. On the top of the mountain, face to face with God, Moses is completely surrounded by clouds.
That’s right: being in the presence of God is like being lost in a fog bank.
Quite a contrast from Christians today who think being with God is all clarity and light and happiness.
That is a matter for another post. Or a bunch of posts. (Actually you can read more about this point of view in my chapter on The Cloud of Unknowing in Kneeling with Giants.)
Gregory shows us that this life, in the midst of foggy confusion, is actually about coming closer to God.
And it has consequences for our living: Moses gets the Ten Commandments, after all, telling us what life as God’s people is supposed to look like.
It is not just about behavior though. Being in the presence of God is about transformation — in the Bible, when Moses came back down the mountain he actually glowed in the dark. Had to wear a veil so he wouldn’t scare the rest of the people.
And all of this leads up to the question of heaven.
This life is about drawing closer to God, and being transformed to be like God — renewed in the image of God, made to be more like Jesus, however you want to put it.
The next life, life in heaven, is about that same process.
We continue to draw close to God. Closer and closer.
We continue to be more like God. More and more like God.
Here’s Gregory’s really helpful insight: We are finite people. God is infinite. The journey of transformation will never come to an end.
No matter how close we draw to God, we can always draw infinitely closer.
No matter how much we are transformed to be like God, we can always be infinitely further transformed.
That is heaven, my friends — ever closer to God, ever more like God, in a never-ending journey of life.
Or as Paul put it, “transformed from glory into glory.”
Or as C.S. Lewis put it, “Further up! Further in!”
I’d quote Gregory himself, but I’m doing this from memory on my first day home from some arduous travels.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: What do you think about heaven?