Each time I have watched a pet die, the experience has prompted me to ask questions about death, eternity, and God’s goodness. How can I love something so much and suddenly find that it no longer exists? My theological sophistication evaporates along with my detachment. I am shaken to the core. I ask the question that every child asks: Do dogs go to heaven? If not, why not? In this podcast, I reflect on grief, pets, and the nature of heaven.
A while back I got a call from someone who was starting an alternative school. They thought I might be a good candidate for their faculty. I thought it couldn’t hurt to hear their pitch but it turned out that they were expecting the pitch to come from me. Details about the project were a little vague. They seemed more interested in listening than in talking and I could tell that they wanted to ascertain whether I was a good “fit” before getting into the specifics.
“So tell me, what are you passionate about?” the interviewer asked. It had not been a stellar week and I wasn’t feeling passionate about much of anything. “Uhm…I like to write and I like to teach” I began, sensing that I wasn’t quite hitting the desired mark. I could soon tell that I was turning out to be a disappointment. I wasn’t that interested in changing jobs but I didn’t want to be rejected either. I floundered a bit more, trying in vain to think of something to say that would make an impression.
By the time the interviewer asked me about my career goals, I’d had enough. “To tell you the truth, I’ve reached that stage in my life where my next major career move is probably death” I replied. It made an impression. The interviewer’s eyebrows shot up. There was a long pause. “Well…let’s just let this sit for a while,” she said. “I’ll give you a call in a few weeks to see where we are at.” The call never came. Not that I was expecting it.
If there is a pithy lesson here, perhaps it is this, “Don’t go for a job interview when you are having a bad day.” Or maybe it is, “Don’t be such a smart aleck.” Still, while the interviewer was sincere, so was I. I meant what I said. At the time of our conversation, I really couldn’t see a rising vocational trajectory in my future. I still don’t. My career is in its descent phase not in ascent. Ecclesiastes 1:4 says, “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.” It is just the nature of things for careers to come to an end and for one generation to give way to another. Now that I am in my mid 60’s, I no longer have the same perspective that I did in my 20’s and 30’s when I believed that the possibilities before me were limitless. If it feels like I am running out of road, it is partly because I am.
Yet, if what the Bible says about eternity is true, this is also an optical illusion. My career may indeed be in descent but my life is in ascent. The bulk of my life till lies before me. It is only the details that are vague. 1 John 3:2 says, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
I had a dream about my boys the other night. They really aren’t boys anymore. My two sons are young men in their late 20’s and early 30’s. But when I dream about them, they almost always appear as little boys. I, on the other hand, am ageless in my dreams. Not so much when I wake up. Within seconds the weight of my years settles upon me and I feel as old as I am. When the dream was over, I lay in the dark listening to my wife’s quiet breathing, the ticking of the clock in the other room, and wondering if age is a characteristic of the soul.
My soul had a beginning but it has no end. There was a time when my soul did not exist. Now that it does, it will exist for eternity. Since the soul is the undying self, it seems that it must have a certain ageless quality to it. My soul exists in time but is not debilitated by it in the same way that the body is. Yet the soul does not seem to be static. If the soul is the essence of the true self and that self is subject to change, should not the soul change as well? My sons are not the boys they once were. They have changed with time and experience, as have I. To put it another way, does the soul mature?
Augustine once observed that just as the human body changes with the passing ages of life and is changed with the changes of place and time, so also does the soul. “It varies by countless changes and thoughts” Augustine said. “It is altered by countless pleasures. By how many desires is it cleaved apart and distended!” In her book Once Out of Nature: Augustine on Time and the Body, Andrea Nightingale explains that this statement reflects Augustine’s belief that when humanity fell into sin, we lost our sense of the divine presence. We also lost our sense of self-presence. As a result, we are distended in time, living in the present but ranging in our thinking from the past to the future. The present is not a dwelling place but a barely noted way station. We give it little regard because we are distracted by our memories or inflamed by our expectation of what is to come. Meanwhile the swiftly passing present is squandered.
Our basic problem is not really the passing away of the present. It is, as Augustine observes, an absence of the sense of God’s presence. Our awareness of God gives meaning to the present. His presence sanctifies our boredom and redeems our discomfort. As long as we are aware of God, the present is more than a staging ground for the future. It is a moment of fellowship.
Jesus said that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the dead but of the living (Luke 20:38). This makes Him the God of our past and our future as much as He is the God of our present. He is the guarantee of all He has promised to those he has called. His grace is the remedy for all our regret and His assurance is our hope for the future. Does the soul age? I do not think so. At least, I do not think it ages in the same way that the body does. But I do believe that the soul develops. We are not what we once were. We are not yet what we will be. But for now, we are children of the living God and that is enough.