When I was a little kid, I had a very specific and peculiar idea of the afterlife. Despite what various children’s Bibles and Christian storybooks taught me—all of which speculated that Heaven was some sort of futuristic castle in the clouds—I had a different picture in mind. And it was pretty weird.
In my imagination, heaven was an infinite, celestial hay maze. Towering walls of golden straw zigzagged off in every direction for eternity, the ground coated heavily like the floor of a barn, and a hazy, gold-flecked chaff swirled dramatically throughout the endless corridors. Within the maze, various figures of historical and biblical significance were stationed at random, awaiting discovery. As each new person passed on from this world and into the next, they were beamed up into the maze, where they were free to eagerly roam this spiritual museum, running into figures like Abraham Lincoln, Queen Esther, and of course, their own loved ones who’d passed before.
Like a never-ending adventure, I imagined traipsing around this holy labyrinth, running into school friends and grandparents, merging search parties and splitting off again as we sought out various characters of lore. Martin Luther King was around here somewhere, and so was Moses. There’d be a long line of inquisitors for Saint Peter when I stumbled across his chamber, so I’d set out to find Samson instead.
The pinnacle of the maze’s design, of course, was the fact that God Himself was in there too, waiting to be discovered in due time. How about that, eh? Seven-year-old me already had the same purgatorial instincts as Dante’s Divine Comedy or Lewis’ Last Battle. I’m only realizing this now and am feeling pretty smug about it.
There were a lot of things I hadn’t worked out. What level of fame determined who was a “seeker” and who was “sought” in this maze? My biblical and historical heroes—including God—were reduced to stationary exhibits in this depiction, and that didn’t sit right. Maybe if you were only kind of famous—say, the penitent thief who died next to Jesus, for example—perhaps you split your time between wandering free and scheduled exhibiting hours.
It didn’t take a lot of maturity to realize this was kind of a silly vision of the afterlife, but some of those relevant ponderings still troubled me. In a follow-up phase, the concept of eternity frightened me. I recall sitting in church on many occasions, my mind drifting away from the sermon and toward the notion of immortality. The simple way that adults had described the afterlife to me was this: Hell is the worst form of every possible emotion, pain, and circumstance all at once, all the time, forever; Heaven is better than the most blissful, euphoric joy and happiness you could ever imagine, ongoing, forever.
It was that keyword ‘forever’ that made me anxious. Multiply any number, no matter how grand or extravagant, by zero, and you still get zero. The number is irrelevant. Multiplying any number by infinity has the same effect—the extravagance of the number doesn’t matter anymore; infinity is infinity.
In other words, everything gets old, eventually. And if you’re around forever, well…
Think about the first time you ever saw the Grand Canyon. Then imagine never, ever, ever taking your eyes off it. Forever.
It was almost like the massive scale of eternity could effectively shrink Heaven down to the size of a one-bedroom apartment, over time. And what about the fact that Heaven was supposed to be perfect? I’m reminded of Pleasantville, where no one ever disagreed, fought, lost, or failed. It took Toby Maguire and Reese Witherspoon less than two hours to realize they couldn’t stay there. Can Heaven become boring?
As a devout Sunday-Schooler, there was shame and sacrilege in having these thoughts, but I couldn’t help feeling anxious. I pictured myself bumming around that hay maze for the next thousand lifetimes, and pretty soon Heaven started to look a lot like Hell. Did I mention that I’m allergic to hay?
With that mentality, winking out of existence altogether didn’t sound so bad after all.
My views on the afterlife have changed considerably since then, with one main revelation and one main speculation. The revelation, which I find relieving, is that Heaven is unknowable. No one can testify to how great or unlike expectation it is, because no one has ever been there and back again. No one has toured Heaven—or Hell, for that matter—and come back to give a convincing account.
Well, there are a few interesting cases out there. The Colton Burpo story, which inspired the bestseller Heaven is for Real, and also Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven give testimony to afterlife experiences that suggest God is willing to leak teaser trailers. Do I believe the accounts of these two individuals? If I did, it would be unfair to discredit anyone who’s ever claimed to see a UFO, ghost, or Bigfoot.
In all those cases, I’m rooting for the believer, by the way.
The speculation is that Heaven is a place for growth. Our time on earth may be done, but I have a feeling that true joy is experienced through continued spiritual, mental, and physical stimulation, even in the afterlife. Maybe Heaven looks a lot like Earth, complete with shifting tectonics, climate fluctuations, and orbital rotation. Maybe watching mountain ranges rise and fall will be the new sunrise/sunset—we have eternity to view these things, after all. We can tell our (great) x 1078th-grandkids that “those mountains were about yea big” when we got here.
And of course, all the little things would be here too. I’ll be damned if Heaven doesn’t have a brewery and a couple dozen navigable rivers to paddle near my house. (Like, literally, I’ll be damned…) Businesses will grow, thrive, change, and perhaps fail in place of new ventures. Friendships will be formed, grow together and apart, all for the ultimate best. Civilizations will rise and fall.
Of course, this is all speculation.
The question is, then, what makes Heaven different from today? Is it just… my life now, but happier? Is my job more rewarding, my annual leave infinite, and money no object? Am I churning out novels every other week because I never get distracted? And do people like them? Is every wanna-be writer successful? How does competition work? Is everybody from Adam to present-day on a level technological playing field? Does everyone approve of everything Heaven’s government does? Without diseases, war, genocide, or even death, how do we handle population growth?
It’s easy to get swept up in these speculations, and that’s why I have to remind myself of the revelation: We just don’t know. “We’re not meant to know the answers,” as Chris Stapleton sings, “They belong to the by and by.” I.e. in the fullness of time. The someday. The eventually.
There are a lot of mysteries about God, the Bible, and the Christian faith that I struggle to answer with confidence or reconciliation, but what I know with most surety (to tip the hat to Socrates) is that I don’t know the intricate certainties of hotly contested theological ponderings.
But I know someone who does, and He’ll be waiting for me with open arms in the center of that hay maze someday.
Nick Meekhof (’15) graduated with a major in writing and a minor in geography. A farmer for the first twenty-three years of his life, Nick currently works for the Michigan Department of Agriculture. When he’s not traversing the state conducting orchard inspections, he can be found exploring the rivers, forests, and small towns all throughout the Great Lakes State. His current goals include kayaking one hundred Michigan rivers, swimming in Lake Michigan during every month of the year, and visiting as many Michigan breweries as possible.