Last Summer, my six year old daughter’s profound love of Peter Pan prompted her to write a letter to him. I suggested she put the letter under her Gigi the Snail night light, and when she slept, I collected her letter and wrote her back as Peter Pan. I discussed Neverland, Tinkerbell, the Lost Boys, and asked her about her life. I signed it “Your friend, Peter Pan.” In the morning she excitedly showed me the letter, and then she asked, “Did you write this? It looks like your handwriting.” I said, “Why don’t you write Peter Pan another letter and ask him if he wrote it?” She did, and I responded with more discussion of Neverland, Tinkerbell, and so forth, and then in closing wrote:
I heard that you wonder if I, Peter Pan, am actually writing these letters or if your father is writing them. You were clever to notice they are in his handwriting. So am I writing the letters? Yes and no. How can I write them until I become real? I will become real at the end of time, but until then, your father is helping me become real.
Again, I signed the letter “Your friend, Peter Pan.” After that, she no longer questioned the letters, but simply kept writing and happily showing me the responses she received. It was as though she accepted something like a doctrine of dual authorship as concerned the letters. They were written by her father and Peter.
After telling a few students about the letters, they asked for some kind of justification of the idea that fictional characters would become real at the end of time. I suppose I have reasons that are both acrobaticly philosophical, and reasons which seem quite practical. If you get lost during the first, feel free to skip to the second.
The Acrobatically Philosophical Justification. At the conclusion of The Divine Comedy, Dante finally receives the Beatific Vision and he gazes with complete freedom into the uncreated light of God’s goodness. The author Dante elsewhere taught that all the cosmos was a reflection of God’s love; things of lesser glory, like stones and pillows, reflected God’s love to a lesser degree, while things of greater glory, like men and mountains, reflected God’s love to a greater degree. In the same way that my name, Joshua, relates to me, the incarnate person, so the incarnate Joshua relates to God, albeit in the most minor of ways. All created objects are texts, signs, for which God is the ultimate reality. All of creation is the wedding ring, God is the marriage symbolized in the ring. Therefore, to gaze into the uncreated light is to see the signified thing which stands behind and shoots through all created things; to receive the Beatific Vision is to perceive all things which are truly possible – to taste every good taste, to smell every good smell, to hear every good sound, to sense every good feeling, to see every good thing, to undergo every good experience.
All things are good insofar as they exist; existence and being are good, while sin is a movement away from existence and being. The perfectly sanctified man, the man who is “pure in heart” as Christ teaches in St. Matthew’s gospel, will “see God.” In heaven, then, when Christ is “all in all” we will be able to see all things for what they truly are; the wickedness of my soul will be purged away and I will perfectly reflect and reveal the goodness of God insofar as I am able. So, too, my wife will perfectly reflect and reveal the goodness of God insofar as she is able. I am not my sin; my sin is non-existence, and I cannot be “not being.” My sin is a corruption of my being, not a revelation of my being. So, too, sin has corrupted man’s ability to perceive things as they truly are; in sin, we lose a sense of what our bodies are for, what nature is for, what companionship is for. Sanctification restores man and restores man’s corrupted vision; in sanctification, man regains a right view of all things. In sanctification, man is able to see the goodness of God revealed in all things.
Given this, fictional characters might be said to exist insofar as they reveal the goodness of God. Fictional characters exist insofar as any thing “exists”; to have existence is to make God known. If a thing makes God known, it exists. If a thing covers over the knowledge of God, it is sin and has no existence. While fictional characters do not have materiality, materiality is not necessary for existence. There is a great difference between claiming “Psyche is not a living human being” and “Psyche does not exist.” Psyche does exist. I can tell you all about her and tell you about how she makes God known to me.
When we recognize God’s being as the ultimate underwriting of existence, there is a sense in which “greater and lesser existence” becomes an uncertain way of speaking, perhaps akin to saying “greater and lesser degrees of absolutely soaked.” Because existence and being are simple, just as God is simple and has no parts, but is rather perfect, to experience existence directly from the source of existence is to transcend material revelations of God and so to move mysteriously and mystically towards God without creation playing a priestly role in the slightest. When being is approached as such, the self is transcended and true union with God is possible; right now, our Fallen distance from God only allows us to perceive “the self” at union with God, “the self” being an edited character we create of ourselves in order to understand ourselves. In truth, there is no place where we can stand outside of ourselves such that we can look at ourselves; instead, we can but guess who we are, sketch together what we think we look like.
It seems reasonable, then, that in such an approach to the divine, Joshua Gibbs is no more or less real than Orual or Psyche or any other fictitious character, insofar as any fictional character has existence and reveals God. Granted, Joshua Gibbs is flawed and does not reveal God perfectly at the moment, and neither does Psyche; however, the eschaton is the perfection of all things, and as I may expect to change- and you should hope to see me far different in the next life- so, too, I imagine Psyche will be different than Lewis conceived her. If I have revealed God to you, and Psyche has revealed God to you, then both will perfectly reveal God to you in the life to come; however, insomuch as Dante is correct, and heaven means (whatever, however) gazing directly into the uncreated light of God, then both I and Psyche will transcend our creaturely quality, even while paradoxically remaining distinct from God. In such a transcendence, temporal distinctions between “fictional” and “historical” are swallowed up in Goodness.
The Practical Justification. Granted, all of this is situated at the very far end of speculation, and I would prefer to be held to none of it. However, I do find this account of the Beatific Vision satisfies the vexing question of what God will do with the past— especially the wicked and painful and shameful past— once we arrive in Glory. To put it succinctly, when we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, will a man still recall the time he flipped through a copy of Playboy when he was fifteen? Dante suggests that all those who enter Heaven first pass through the River Lethe, a baptism which relieves a man of the guilt, shame, ersatz pleasure, and pain associated with past sins. All those in Glory can recall their sins, but their sin seems reduced to a kind of mere historical, literal, sub-intellectual fact incapable of calling forth dark emotion.
I don’t like disagreeing with Dante, although I’ll confess this seems a rather shallow and unsatisfying way of dealing with the complexities of a painful memory. Other theologians (annihilationists in particular) offer the even more unnerving suggestion that memories of sin, as well as memories of unrepentant sinners, will simply be stricken from our memories altogether— meaning Judas Iscariot’s mother might recall being pregnant, recall giving birth, and then recall nothing of her child after that. This position comes rather quickly to a host of unsolvable metaphysical problems, the foremost being a God Who is either not omnipotent or Who finally and eternally withholds certain aspects of his Personhood from His Body. Augustine is similarly cavalier on the point when he alleges that we don’t pray for demons to convert because their damnation is sure; because no man’s damnation is sure (in this life), it is fitting to pray for all men, however, once in hell, a man possesses no greater emotional appeal to his mother or father than that of a justly punished demon.
In Revelation 21, St. John writes:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
Texts which concern the Eschaton are notoriously challenging to interpret, and this passage from the most erudite of all theologians, is profoundly suggestive, but nonetheless ambiguous. However, a few things seem striking here… First, the “dwelling place of God is with man,” and God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes.” I find it hard to believe the people of God are weeping as the new Jerusalem descends from Heaven, but that “every tear” is both every reason for tears and every historical tear. God is wiping away the tears I wept years ago, and He is doing so in the moment I wept them, even though no one was there to wipe them away at the time.
Earthly justice offers recompense for wrongs, meaning a man replaces a pitcher he breaks with a new pitcher, however, the broken pitcher remains broken. Heavenly justice does not simply offer payment for wrongs, but makes “death…no more.” God, Who is not bound by time, is not limited to drying the tears from our eyes in the present. God can wipe away the tears from our eyes in the past just as easily. When God makes “all things new,” He is not bound to take things as they appear in what man considers to be “the present.” Rather, God is free to survey all of time and make things new in the past. The things that God makes “new” are not simply the things that God finds at the time He returns. God is making “all things” new, including things that were previously located in the past and then ceased to be long before today.
This does not constitute a revoking of man’s freedom, and the meaning of the past is not lost because it is changeable. Rather, in the Eschaton, God reveals Himself as that Infinite Goodness which fills in all the nothingness of the past. Only when God rectifies the past is the past full, complete, real. The unredeemed past, in which tears were never dried, is less real as it stands now in memory— broken and dilapidated. In the Eschaton, all things become real, full, and enlivened which were fractured, subject to corruption, or simply of a lesser fullness of being. The death, mourning, sadness and pain of the past are filled in, including the death, mourning, sadness and pain we have encountered in books, film, sculpture and art.
The ancient funerary prayer, “May her memory be eternal”, depends on the belief that every human being is a distinct, unique, irreplaceable revelation of God’s being— and that God’s being cannot be known or encountered in the same fashion through another human being. If “her memory” is lost, something of the Divine Nature is lost with her which will never be recovered. But whatever makes “her memory” a distinct revelation of God seems comparably true of distinct, unique, irreplaceable fictional revelations of God’s being, as well.
So may Hamlet’s memory be eternal. And Orual’s, too. And Hank Schrader.