But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
– C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle
The ending words of The Last Battle, the concluding book in The Chronicles of Narnia, liken the life everlasting to a story in a book. In this analogy, the present life serves merely as front matter to the main narrative.
In the paratext to the world to come, much of our literature could epigraphically allude to the meaning of the Great Story that follows. Our conceptions of heaven are, of course, the result of accumulated literature and its interpretations. Many come from the Bible: Isaiah, Daniel, Revelation, 1 Corinthians 15, and other passages are full of images that witness to the reality the new heaven and new earth. Dante’s Commedia is another important example.
But what if one had to choose a single literary epigraph for this Great Story?
The passage opening this post would do. I love the book metaphor because it affirms the continuity of the present world with the world to come while also acknowledging (but not giving away) the particular delights of that future story. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face.”
Taken together, Lewis’ The Last Battle, The Great Divorce, Mere Christianity, and The Problem of Pain have been more intellectually formative of how I think about heaven than any other book, except perhaps N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Wright shows that the Bible isn’t really concerned with “life after death” or a place where people go “when they die.” Rather, the proper Christian concern is with the bodily resurrection of dead (“life after life after death”) and God’s putting to rights and making new of this earth. Both Lewis and Wright argue that humans are called to participate in God’s building of God’s kingdom and that all our work for God’s kingdom will not be fruitless but will be fully realized in God’s kingdom upon Christ’s return.
Lewis and Wright emphasize that images of heaven in the Bible or Dante shouldn’t be interpreted literally. Literary metaphors that convey Truth will, when misread as history, yield falsehoods like the rapture or that heaven is in the sky.
I particularly appreciate some of the criticisms that nineteenth-century U.S. writers such as Henry Thoreau and Emily Dickinson had of the way of thinking that posits a secular world cut off from a sacred heaven.
“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads,” Thoreau says in Walden, emphasizing the sacredness of the earth. “Talk of heaven! ye disgrace earth.”
Dickinson wrote hundreds of poems about heaven, eternity, and immortality, often vacillating between ecstatic affirmation and gnawing doubt. She, too, emphasizes the continuity of this life and the next.
“So instead of getting to Heaven, at last – / I’m going, all along.”
“Who has not found the Heaven – below – / Will fail of it above -”.
“And with what body do they come”?
Then they do come, Rejoice!
What Door – what Hour – Run – run – My Soul!
Illuminate the House!
“Body”! Then real – a Face – and Eyes –
To know that it is them! –
Paul knew the Man that knew the News –
He passed through Bethlehem –
However, an epigraph for heaven should also take into account the radical difference of the New Earth. The original creation was and is not perfect and complete; the new one will be. Scientists posit that the universe will fizzle entirely out after trillions of years, and this is the forever that many believe in (and indeed may experience). I believe there will a resurrection to follow. The first lines of Wallace Stevens’ “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard” suggest this. “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends,” However, the poem goes on to deconstruct the affirmation of “one thing remaining, infallible” and ends with a resounding “never.”
Tom Stoppard’s wonderful Arcadia contains lines that suggest, to me, a future after the end. Thomasina, a precocious girl who is a mathematical genius, is trying to convince her tutor Septimus to dance with her while he tries to understand the ramifications of her theory of how time will end and the universe will burn itself out.
SEPTIMUS: When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.
THOMASINA: Then we will dance.
In the context of the play, death asserts itself. But the play, and especially the beautiful final scene from which these lines are taken, affirms truth that transcend time even if it can only be incompletely known. After the final death, the Great Dance continues.
An epigraph for the resurrected world to come must also be an epitaph for the old creation and “the cosmic powers over this present darkness [and] the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” One poem that points to the mending of the injustice and injuries of this world is “Calvinist Farming” by Sietze Buning. The speaker reflects that Calvinist farmers used to farm in ways that accorded with Biblical, Calvinist principles but which resulted in the erosion of the topsoil and fields turning to clay. What was spiritually beneficial became environmentally destructive. The speaker insists with the old Calvinists “that the only hope for the unbrokenness between the ways / of God and the ways of farmers is God.”
Just wait, some dark night God will ride over the rises on his chariot-
corn planter. It will be too dark to tell his crown from a straw hat,
to dark to tell his apocalyptic horses from our buckskin horses or
from unicorns. No matter, just so the wheels of that chariot-corn
planter, dropping fatness, churn up all those clay-brown rises
and turn them all black, just as the old Calvinists predicted.
Lord Jesus, come quickly.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”