“The enjoyment of God is the substance”

September 29, 2012

While reading a reflection on resurrection by Christian apologist Alister McGrath, I stumbled upon this eloquent statement from Jonathan Edwards about our future life in the resurrection, which (as people back then were wont to do) he calls “heaven,” but be sure he isn’t talking about disembodied angels floating on clouds and playing harps:

To go to heaven fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows. But the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the fountain. These are but drops, but God is the ocean.

I’m thinking about the scripture I’m preaching on tomorrow, Acts 4:1-22. Peter and John have been arrested and put on trial before the Sanhedrin. This was the same group, including the high priest Caiaphas, who had put Jesus on trial not too long before. What accounts for the drastic change that has overcome Peter and John between Jesus’ trial and now? How do they stand before this hostile group and speak with such boldness, bearing witness for Christ while hardly giving a thought to their own safety or welfare?

By all means, they have the Holy Spirit working through them in a way they didn’t before. But don’t you imagine that their lives had been transformed by a new understanding of resurrection, the same understanding that Edwards (and McGrath) describes? What would happen if we let the truth of resurrection permeate our lives in the same way?

I love the public radio program This American Life. I’ve blogged about it several times. Although the show’s host, Ira Glass, is either agnostic or atheist (he’s described himself in both ways over the years), he’s hardly belligerent about religion. In fact, I admire him for handling religious people and topics with a great deal of respect. Nevertheless, one recently broadcast episode, from 2008, featured an appalling absence of religion.

The theme of this episode was sleep—more specifically, people who are afraid of sleep for any number of reasons, including bedbugs, recurring nightmares, and sleepwalking. Glass described a sleep-related fear that kept him awake at night: sleep reminded him of death. He’s not alone. In fact, his only comfort is that other people have this same fear.

What a relief that in this modern age—in which our hippest and coolest skeptics have supposedly outgrown religion—people are still afraid of dying! I’m afraid of dying—at least a little. I’m not yet at the point that Paul was at, in Philippians 1:21, when he said that “living is Christ and dying is gain.” I hope to be some day.

Still, when I listened to Glass and others describe their fear of death, I thought, “Wow! My mild fear is nothing compared to theirs! Is that the difference that Jesus makes in my life? I think so.” Listen for yourself and see… The discussion occurs toward the end of the episode, in Act 5.

Would it have been too much to ask to interview a Christian about how faith in Christ and hope for resurrection helps us cope with that fear? After all, the church has an impressive legacy of Christians’ scorning death—just as Peter and John do in Acts 4. I pray that my hope for resurrection continues to inspire me and give me courage to face the future without fear.

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