How to think about the afterlife (hint: you can’t, because you live in Flatland)
I don’t spend much time trying to imagine heaven. To be honest, it always stresses me out. Every time I get a mental image that I like, I realize that something about it would get old if I had to deal with it for, you know, eternity.
The other day, Joe brought home some chocolate-frosted donuts as a special treat. The kids were evidently curious to see if it is in fact possible to have one food item contain over 10,000 calories, so they topped each donut with whipped cream. I took one bite, and it was everything I dreamed a chocolate-frosted, whipped-cream-topped donut could be. I could have eaten five. I really, really, really wanted to eat five. And as I forced myself to walk away from the box o’ temptation, I thought, “That must be what heaven is like. You get to eat donuts forever and can still fit into your favorite pair of jeans.”
It was a comforting thought to start my afternoon. The image came to mind again later, and I smiled again — though this time I noted that I might not want the donuts to be covered in chocolate if I were going to be eating them for a million years times infinity. I thought of the analogy again after dinner, and this time I barely smiled at all. I love whipped cream to a level that should probably be brought up in the confessional, but do I really want to eat it forever? By the time the “endless donuts with angels” image came up again late that night, I was just about ready to descend into the kind of panic attack where Joe would find me in the corner of the closet screaming that I don’t WANT to have to eat donuts forever.
The lesson here is: it’s hard to be me.
The other, more important lesson is: we should remember that none of us can imagine the afterlife. We cannot even come close. In fact, our entire paradigm for thinking about existence doesn’t really fit when you’re talking about the spiritual realm.
Some of the most interesting thoughts I’ve ever heard on this topic actually came from Joe. One of his favorite books is Flatland, a 19th-century mathematical novel (if that’s a genre) about squares that fall in love or something. (Obviously, I haven’t read it.) Anyway, the main characters in this book live in a two-dimensional world. Their entire frame of reference for understanding reality is limited to two dimensions: you can only move from side to side. There is no such thing as “thick” or “thin.” The universe, to their eyes, is perfectly flat.
“Imagine a square in Flatland trying to picture the Taj Mahal,” Joe said one day when I was doing some angsty musing about how none of my images of heaven were anything I could put up with for more than a year or so. “You could spend years describing every aspect of it in great detail. But the square would never really understand what you’re talking about, because he’d be thinking in a two-dimensional frame of mind.”
That’s like us trying to develop a clear understanding of heaven, he said. We can know a few things about it, but our point of reference is so limited that not only can we not fathom the details, but we’re probably thinking about it the wrong way — like if the square kept asking why the garden was on top of the Taj Mahal, because he couldn’t understand the concept of it being “in front of” it.
Joe pointed out that, given the grandeur of God, a more apt analogy might be a one-dimensional being — a little dot on a line, perhaps — wanting to fully understand Saturn. Trying to get Mr. Dot to really internalize what Saturn is like would be an exercise in futility. You could maybe explain the color, and say that it moves. But even roundness would be a foreign concept to the dot. At some point you’d have to just throw up your hands and say, “Trust me. It’s awesome.”
This analogy gives me great comfort when I feel stressed about not knowing the details about the afterlife. I’m a dot. I live in Flatland. And I need to chill out and just go with it when God tells me, “Trust me. It’s awesome.”
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