What will Heaven be like? When I ask my middle school students this question, their responses are predictable: “there will be TVs everywhere; I’ll get to play soccer all day; I’ll get as many cookies as I like.” If I ask them whether everyone wants an eternity of soccer and cookies, they usually say, “everyone’s Heaven will be different.” They think that whatever you most desire is what you will get. Heaven will be cookies, for some, dirt biking for others, and time with friends for others. Heaven will cater to our appetites; Heaven transforms to suit us.
Many Christians think this way, myself included. We expect Heaven to be pleasant, and we expect it to be easy. If life is nasty, brutish, and short, Heaven will be pleasant, easy, and eternal.
C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce makes little sense with this mindset, and so it is a good book for correcting us. In the book, we travel from “the grey town,” which we learn to be Hell, to “the hilly country,” which we learn to be Heaven. A bus runs from place to place, and so the citizens of Hell are free to move to Heaven whenever they like. We’d expect Hell to be empty, but Hell is enormous. Through the narrator, we see person after person turn away from Heaven. A painter leaves because there are no paintbrushes; an academic leaves because there are no journals to review his papers; a scientist leaves because there is no research to be done. It is Hell, not Heaven, that caters to their desires. Heaven seems bland, so they leave.
I ask my students: “Is it ridiculous to imagine Heaven seeming bland? Can we imagine ourselves choosing Hell? Heaven is eternal joy, we have been told: how could it be so boring?”
But students and I share experiences that make this intelligible. I give them an example like the following. One day after school, I say, I lay down on my bed. I’m tired. I’ve been thinking all day, and I had to deal with several behavior issues. I want to be entertained for a while. So, I grab my phone. I know YouTube is always within reach, and I want to watch some funny videos. I click on one. I watch it, and I laugh. When the three-minute video is over, I look on the sidebar and see more videos like it. I click on one. I watch for half of the video. I like it, but I’m wondering what else I could watch. I click another video, ending the one I was watching. I watch this third video for ten seconds, and I click on another one. After twenty minutes of this, I am not even really watching the videos I click; I am only looking at thumbnails and wondering what to click next. An hour goes by and I have “watched” no more than ten minutes of any videos. I’ve really spent 50 minutes scrolling through menus.
At this moment, a housemate comes by. “I have found the funniest movie I’ve seen in years,” he tells me. “Watch it with me—you’ll love it!”
I think about this. “How long?” I ask.
“That’s too much. No thanks. I’m too tired.”
“Really? I thought you were looking for something comical.”
“I am. I’m watching YouTube.”
“I swear this is a good movie. It’s so witty. You’ll really like it.”
“Witty sounds tiring. I’m good with YouTube.”
“Do you even watch any of those videos? It seems like you’re just scrolling through menus.”
“But I like scrolling through the menus. It’s easy. A long witty movie sounds hard.”
“Don’t you want good comedy? I thought that’s why you got on YouTube. And those 10-second videos aren’t even that funny, are they? You were just telling me the other day about how they’re just a time suck, not even that entertaining, except for the repeated tiny thrill of getting to load something new.”
“Yeah, I know…just give me five or ten minutes. I’ll think about it.”
Here I have forgotten what I want. YouTube was for the sake of comedy, but I’ve used it in such a way that I don’t actually find any comedy. I get so used to this disordered use of YouTube that I’m unwilling to accept actual comedy when someone offers it.
In The Great Divorce, the painter who leaves heaven has done the same thing. In his youth, he painted for the sake of glimpsing Eternity, if only partially. After death, he can at last see Eternity in its fullness; yet on learning that Heaven has no paint brushes (not yet, anyway), he returns to Hell. His soul has been weighed down, mistaking the means for the end. He no longer desires Eternity, nor God, and so Heaven seems uninteresting. As he is, he would prefer Hell. Heaven would be a kind of suffering, and Heaven will not force him to stay.
An Eastern proverb says, “Heaven will be Hell, for some.” Heaven offers us God alone, but if we do not want God, we will not want Heaven, even if Heaven is good for us. By nature, the human person wants to be united to Christ, and yet, we reject Christ for the sake of smaller pleasures. If I am vicious, I do not take pleasure in Christ, and being given Christ alone would be a form of suffering. Heaven may be painful for new arrivals, because so few of us really desire Goodness more than pleasure. What we want by nature is not what we want by habit. We are disordered: we must become ordered to want what we really want.
That is the struggle between vice and virtue. It is the struggle between misery and joy. It is not easy to choose joy. Most of us choose pleasures over Goodness, and so we forget how to enjoy what we are for. To remember, we have to fast from our pleasures. This hurts, so we must endure suffering to reach Joy. But it is Joy. There is no Joy outside of Joy. We may not be virtuous enough to want Real Joy, as we are. And God will not force us to be happy. That is the terrible burden on this life. We must learn to desire our own Joy, and we must suffer through the transformation.
I do not suspect I will like Heaven, if I get there. Not at first. I hope I will be wise enough to stay anyway: to suffer through the loss of what seems good so I can learn to love what truly is good.