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.

flatland How to think about the afterlife (hint: you cant, because you live in Flatland)

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.”
.

(I’m posting every day this week! To check out other bloggers who are doing the same, see this list.)

New here? Take a moment to introduce yourself, or say hi on Twitter at @conversiondiary.



Enter the Conversation...

45 Responses to “How to think about the afterlife (hint: you can’t, because you live in Flatland)”
  1. All so true! One of the religion books we used once described what Jesus did akin to a human becoming a snail because he loved them so much. Then, as a snail, having to use snail language (and, you know, being an icky snail on top of it), he describes the wonder that is a chocolate chip cookie. The snails kinda get that it’s something pretty amazing, but they just don’t grasp it at all. “What do you mean, you pick it up in your hands and feel how nice and warm it is out of the oven? What are hands? What’s an oven? And we don’t like warm stuff, cuz we’re *snails!*”
    Christine Johnson recently posted..Lawn Chair Catechism: Session 9: Looking for Love

  2. Trish says:

    I like the way Peter Kreeft, professor of Philosophy at Boston College, talks about our incapacity to understand heaven. He compares it to a baby in the womb trying to imagine what being born into the bigger world will be like. And what is this thing called a “mother” ? A baby in utero can’t really imagine it, but aren’t mothers great? Kreeft also talks about the possibility we imagine of becoming bored in eternity. He says the one “thing” that never really can be boring is another person, another image of God. If we had all eternity to intimately discover another person, especially the three persons of God, we could never fully discover everything there is to know. Yay, no boredom in heaven!

  3. Sarah says:

    Yes! When I was a child I had a problem with the concept of an infinite eternal God. How did he get there…how did he get to where he is today…if he has no beginning how can he have a fixed point in time…how can he have ever reached the point where he decided to make us…and the biggest conundrum to me as a child: if God had a mum, who is his mum’s mum and his mum’s mum’s mum????

    I still struggle with the idea of infinity…I’ve got over the ‘who is God’s mother issue though.

    Haha Wibble.
    Sarah recently posted..Day 4 – the blogging challenge starts to take its toll

  4. I don’t think about Heaven a lot either, though I’ve never analyzed why. Thanks for spelling it out…and I’m going to have to look up that book. I’m quite sure Bob would love it too. (And I might too. Hard telling.)
    Sarah Reinhard recently posted..My 3 Go-To Meals (or, even a lazy mom can have clean-platers)

  5. Amelia says:

    For some reason, when I was a kid and couldn’t fall asleep, I used to contemplate eternity and think about how it went on and on and on and on and on and on and on. It used to boggle my mind (still does) but for some odd reason, this helped me fall asleep. Yeah…I was a weird kid. Maybe you should try that, when you suffer from insomnia. lol
    Amelia recently posted..3 Reasons + 2 More = 5 Favorites

  6. You crack me up! Personally, when I think about the afterlife, I tend to shift focus to the New Earth rather than Heaven. What amazing opportunities await us there (like eating some doughnuts and such)? The part I can’t fathom is how you make a sweet-awesome movie without conflict… or, how we’ll create dramatic tension without sin. Perhaps the complete focus will be on redemption, but I can’t imagine how that would work (but it would be so good).

    Yep. Eternity. Going to be awesome. I just can’t imagine how that’d be possible. The Greeks and Romans couldn’t either, which is why their gods were bored, mean, cruel, and found humans a tad enviable.

    ~Luke
    Luke Holzmann recently posted..The Best Response

  7. Megan says:

    Very interesting food for thought. I have a hard time with math so wrapping my head around those analogies is even about as tough as imagining the real thing for me. But I take tons of comfort in what I know heaven is NOT. Fear of scorpions? Gone! Piles of laundry? No more! When I hear the word ‘heaven,’ I know it’s not being exhausted because I threw out my back and couldn’t sleep. I know it’s not needy screaming kids who I yell right back at because I can’t give them the amount of love and patience they deserve. I know I’ll be free of the frustration with our culture of death moral relativity and suffering that is sometimes overwhelming to the point of despair. I know the questions that plague me in this life will be answered by divine knowledge and truth. So really, it’s the absence of these things, the escape from brokenness and evil, that makes eternity with God and his infinite goodness so tangible and attractive.
    Megan recently posted..NFP Awareness Week: Naturally Healthy

  8. Wanda says:

    I soooooo needed that today!

  9. Jen, I couldn’t imagine heaven either (and really wasn’t interested) till I read Michael Brown’s books “The Other Side” and “Afterlife” and Sigmund Richardson’s “My Time in Heaven.” Now I am fascinated by heaven and read and write about the eyewitness and visionary accounts! I hope reading those won’t stress you out… they all made me yearn for it more and work harder at holiness.

  10. the other Becky says:

    I used to think of Heaven as satisfying desires, and I think that we are encouraged by Scripture to start our thinking of Heaven in that way. However, as I grew older I noticed of course, as all parents do, how often my children would consider that their entire possibility of happiness resided in some really trivial thing, something that they would outgrow before they knew it. Now I think of Heaven more in terms of a perfection of desire. The problem is not whether you can eat all the doughnuts you want. The problem is that in a very real way you can never eat all the doughnuts you want on Earth. As you eat them your desire decreases, your enjoyment decreases, revulsion sets in. The problem is the imbalance between your desire for the pleasure that doughnuts can give you with the pleasure you receive from indulging that desire. I have enjoyed many wonderful things of this Earth that other people did not enjoy, even felt distaste for, because I had the desire to enjoy them. I now think that our desires will not diminish, or be fewer, but rather will grow greater and more compelling, because in Heaven we will desire the right things.

  11. Janet says:

    I’ve noticed that many people think of Heaven as a place where you can finally indulge all your weaknesses (like cravings for fabulous donuts) without any of the bad consequences. But actually, the Christian teaching is quite different: Heaven is a place where you’re no longer tempted to do things that are bad for you, your body is fully subservient to your will, and you no longer have any weaknesses that can be exploited by your enemies (nor will you even have enemies). So that means any vices or imperfections (minor or not) remaining in us at death will be destroyed in great suffering before we can enter Heaven. (This process is called Purgatory.) We will still act and still have the consequences of our actions in Heaven. We are, literally, “consequential” beings by divine decree.

  12. Karie says:

    I occasionally contemplate what Heaven will be like. One of the things hard to grasp is the concept of ‘eternity’ which is _outside_ of time. Rather than feel the passing of time, we will be suspended in a moment but that never ends (still trying to wrap my head around that one). So when we reach Heaven it will be the pure bliss of that first moment of pleasure that never ends. Love at first sight – never ending, that first sweet bite – never ending, that first sip, etc…

    Mind boggling.

  13. Sometimes, I think about heaven, but trying to imagine eternity ultimately ends up feeling like my mind is a bowl spilling over with too much water. Occasionally, I’ll wonder if it wouldn’t just be nicer to go to sleep and simply cease to be when I die. I wouldn’t be aware of my non-existence because I simply wouldn’t *be*.

    When I would get all angsty about trying to figure out how heaven works, my friend used to tell me, “You’re still thinking about heaven as a place instead of as a relationship or state of being.” That made me consider that we might be able to begin living in heaven now, though no matter how pure your heart or desires become in this life, you still have to put up with the crap of living in a fallen world, which sucks big time.

    Additionally, I’ve sometimes wondered why the Church places so much emphasis on this life when she promises some pie-in-the-sky better one to come as soon as you die. I mean, why stick around or protect human life here? Shouldn’t the goal be to get on to the next one as quickly as possible? Unless… there isn’t really any “this life, and the next one” and instead, what seems like two existences is actually just one along a continuum.

    I’d better stop now because my brain is starting to do somersaults trying to figure any of this out.

    • Jeni says:

      So many good points you mention. My bowl of water sloshes around way too often for me to make too much sense, but to answer your musing in the last paragraph,

      I think the Church encourages us to help protect human life here to make sure more people get to Heaven. All comes down to love. Love of God and love of neighbor; trying to keep others from sinning is the ultimate way to love them because that will get them to their ultimate destiny.
      Jeni recently posted..This is How I know God Exists

  14. Josie says:

    “The End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life” by Father Charles Arminjon is another book on my shelf I mean to read (your blog keeps reminding me of books I mean to read this week!;)..was one of St. Therese’s favorite books particularly because it describes the joys of Heaven, if I remember the story correctly. And I so mean to read it because it greatly encouraged her sanctity, but I got stuck in the first half about the times of the Antichrist and had to put it down for a while! I’m gonna skip to the Heaven part.:)

  15. lisa says:

    Have you read “Theology and Sanity” by Frank Sheed? He stresses the importance of strengthening and engaging the intellect in apprehending the reality of the world (which is the order of Creation and the realities of God and His mysteries) and the difficulty that our imaginations create since the fall has caused it to overshadow/step into the arenas that are rightly the work of the intellect (which has been clouded and is weak as a result of the fall). Anyway, it was and is a very helpful book for me regarding these mysteries. As a side note, I have only been able to read it when my babies have been older and I’m not living in the baby brain fog of the first year. Maybe your brain can handle it better than mine, though. ALways shocking to me that it’s hard for me to read since I was, once upon a time in a world far, far away, a philosophy major at

  16. Erica says:

    I love that book! Readers should be warned that the author is rather chauvinist in his treatment of women, but it is totally worth reading, both for better grasping and teaching geometry (as a fourth grade teacher, I reference the premise of Flatland every year) AND for grasping several spiritual concepts.

    Honestly, it’s helped me with the Trinity a great deal. I never considered applying it to heaven before, but it works there too. Thanks!

  17. Ruth says:

    http://www.amazon.com/Flatland-romance-many-dimensions-ebook/dp/B0083ZRQR4/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1374768893&sr=1-1&keywords=flatland

    Flatland is for free via Amazon. I imagine it is the same with Barnes and Noble….

    Loving the daily posts by the way, as well as participating. Thanks for inviting us to play along!
    Ruth recently posted..Hair, Hairy, and Harried

  18. Emily Davis says:

    When I think of Heaven, I think of the most beautiful/peaceful place on earth. Walking on clouds or something… the Garden of Eden.
    Is it weird that I don’t stress about it?

    Love your post.
    As usual… it’s great.
    Blessings,
    Emily
    Emily Davis recently posted..Day 4 – You Are Blessed !

  19. Randy Alcorn’s book Heaven may put you some at ease, and I think NT Wright has similar thoughts on how the afterlife probably won’t be quite so dull as we’ve been led to believe by certain cartoons over the years. That it may be more down to earth than we think as well.
    Scissortail Art Center recently posted..Going after it: Scissortail207

  20. This is great! I have such a hard time getting excited about the “heavenly” images of floating around on clouds, and no, even wings don’t get me excited. I totally get your stress about it, and I agree with the above recommendation for Randy Alcorn’s Heaven. For me, every time I have to say goodbye to someone I love (which is often because I’m married to a Navy pilot), and it feels like my heart just can’t take any more, it’s so comforting to remember that here will be no goodbyes in Heaven. But I really just love the last sentence of this post — so true!
    Joy @ Caspara recently posted..Hawaiian Baking: Green Mango Pie

  21. Colleen says:

    @The Other Becky: I think you’ve nailed it. Excellent description. Written in a way that would have taken me fourteen paragraphs to attempt.

    @Jennifer: A high school teacher made us read “Flatland.” At the time, I thought it merely math/science-geek lit, but Truth is truth, regardless if genre… so it applies very well to the spiritual dimension, as well.

  22. Jeni says:

    I was JUST thinking about this last night when I read this post from The Oatmeal and got to the part about the color spectrum available to us:

    http://theoatmeal.com/comics/mantis_shrimp

    Very mind-blowing.

    When I was a little kid, I thought heaven was a roller coaster that never ended and was entirely thrilling without any scary moments. :)

    Also, thanks for the email!! Very cool you take the time to say hi :)
    Jeni recently posted..This is How I know God Exists

  23. Catherine says:

    I don’t think about heaven much, but my children ask me questions about it all the time and definitely hope it will be one big whipped cream donut eating party (especially my child who can’t eat sugar!). It will be the fulfillment of all our desires, but at that point–post-purgatory–all our desires will be in line with God’s. So I let them think that for now. :)
    Catherine recently posted..What We’re Reading Wednesday

  24. Karyn says:

    Being assigned to read Flatland was the one and only time I enjoyed a math class in school. I’ll have to check it out again. But this post really rang true for me – it’s hard to keep your eye on the “prize” of heaven when the idea of heaven is somewhat anxiety-provoking. I just keep trusting that we can’t truly know but since Jesus said it’s wonderful, it must be.

  25. Jessica says:

    Flatland is the perfect analogy. I have to say when you suggested this whole 7 days of posts thing I pictured myself rambling on everyday about whatever but just to do it 7 days in a row since I’ve been dragging behind the blogging. So either you are putting a lot of work into this and must be exhausted or we can all be very impressed with the content level of your ramblings! I imagine when you and Joe actually have time to sit and talk (rare I’m sure, but still, whenever you do) that you have real, adult, interesting conversations most of the time! We used to be like that… but now… unfortunately for my poor husband he gets me sloppy seconds that can barely follow a philosophical suggestion after 7:30pm.

  26. I love this, Jennifer. Going to share it!
    Dana@DeathbyGreatWall recently posted..Day 25: The Post I Wish I Didn’t Have to Write

  27. My husband is convinced that he’ll HAVE to like Gregorian chant and the like in heaven, because he’ll be rightly ordered and all that jazz. He’s not happy about it though and he keeps joking about how he’ll try to sneak the David Crowder Band in nonetheless. Which of course means, he’ll have to go back to Purgatory, because he’s still not rightly ordered….

  28. William OKC says:

    Great topic! You should buy the “Heaven” DVD series from EWTN’s catalog website. It is a series of 7 Mother Angelica Live shows from 1986 which she devotes completely to heaven. It is the old format of the show, a teaching format, which I much prefer to the later formats. One of the points she makes is that heaven will be a dynamic, not a static place. So for example we will learn something new about God every day. And we will be able to share what we learn with others. And everyone we interact within heaven will interact with us with all the love and trust of a best friend. AND (lol) we will also WORK in heaven, intercede for those we love on earth, and even perhaps those we never knew. It is worth it and heaven is something we should all think about often as it helps us along the way. As another poster said (and another point Mother Angelica makes in this series), we actually begin our afterlife right here in this life, by the choices we make each day.

  29. Bonnie says:

    I too have a tough time even thinking about heaven. I really can’t even go as far as imagining being able to eat all the donuts I want. I do look forward to the aspect that anything and everything I ever wanted to understand will be clear to me (relativity? black holes? worm holes? electricity?…), and I won’t feel that terrible unsettled feeling of not understanding. But the other day I was on the phone with my first cousin who lives in another state, and who I don’t talk to as often as I wish, and realized the combination of knowing each other as family since we were kids, knowing all the same players in our family life dramas, knowing events that shaped us each, and having grown in faith independently of each other but to agreement as to our dependence on God, after we got off the phone I thought, “that’s what heaven will be like: a deeply emotionally satisfying knowing and being known, and loving each other; but with everybody, like everything forever is filled with old friends and family without conflict or division, loving and being loved. Oh, that’s a place I’d love to be.

    • MelanieB says:

      Bonnie, That’s how I see it too. All the relationships I don’t have enough time for I will finally be able to enjoy to their absolute fullest. Plus getting to know all the people who have ever lived before me and who will live after me. All the fascinating people alive today who I will never meet. There will be time in heaven to know them. Not just a brief meeting, but to know all of them with a soul-satisfying depth that I don’t even have now with my parents, my siblings, my husband, my children…. Knowing and being known. Loving and being loved. Forever!
      MelanieB recently posted..To Love with an Undivided Heart

  30. I am pretty sure that there will be chocolate involved. And, no, I don’t think I could get sick of it :)
    Jenna@CallHerHappy recently posted..I’ll follow the rules tomorrow…

  31. Allison says:

    #1, I’m a dot.
    #2, I’m looking up Flatland for my 18 year old who thinks calculus is easy.
    #3, Great post!
    Allison recently posted..CF Adventuring Looks Like …

  32. MelanieB says:

    My husband says like you he finds the concept of eternity frightening after a while. I’ve never found it to be scary or intimidating, but exhilarating. Bring it on! Seriously, I can’t imagine ever getting bored of talking to all the people who ever lived, reading all the books ever written, not having to stop a conversation because you are tired or hungry or have something else to do. All the libraries ever ever ever are at your disposal… and we haven’t even begun to think about GOD. I seriously can’t wait and I know my imagination pales in comparison with what it will truly be.

    – See more at: http://www.thewinedarksea.com/index.php#sthash.OhJhLgY8.dpuf
    MelanieB recently posted..To Love with an Undivided Heart

  33. edifying you could look here

  34. Ouiz says:

    First, I have to agree with your husband on FLATLAND. I read it in college, I believe, and I thought it was great. I bought it for my oldest to read it this year. Second, my personal favorite in the “books about Heaven category” would have to be A TRAVEL GUIDE TO HEAVEN by Anthony DeStephano. “Heaven” sounds all ethereal and… white and… spiritual. We… or at least I… tend to forget that the final destination, as it were, is our resurrection, and a new heaven/new earth. Once I caught a glimpse of the new earth, with all the wonderful things associated with life here on earth, such as seasons, rain, sunshine, crisp fall mornings, etc, I was blown away.
    Ouiz recently posted..Another book review

  35. Tara says:

    Love this explanation – so very helpful!

  36. CarolHS says:

    I’ve often wondered if there are more colors in Heaven that what we can currently see. I like to think so.

  37. Mark says:

    Hi,

    I believe we can never grasp the true dimension of the afterlife in it’s entirety – until we get there ourselves – but one book gave me an authentic view of how we might live and exist there…

    ‘The Edwardian Afterlife Diary of Emma Holden’ is the true account of one family’s communications with their mother in the afterlife, from her arrival there, to her ultimate progression through the dimensions…

    A specific view – but anything is better than nothing !

    Thanks
    M