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A Glimpse of Heaven

Derek Caldwell

On a frigid January night in 2010, Indianapolis’s Hilbert Circle Theatre was bathed in the vibrant notes of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. That evening musical notation was lifted off the page, transcending the ink, traversing the cavernous hall and enlivening the hearts and minds of those in attendance, including yours truly. The music swooned to hauntingly melancholic lows and soared to beatific heights. That night, Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman turned his instrument of wood and strings into a prophet relaying the ineffable words of the divine.

There are many ways I could attempt to share with you the sublime beauty of this night with increasing success, from typing the words “dun DUN dun DUN duuUUUNNNnnn” to playing a recording of the concerto. With increasingly accurate glimpses, the beauty of the real thing becomes more and more vivid in the imagination. The ultimate fulfillment, then, is to hear—or rather, feel—Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto live in a theatre, where it was meant to be heard.

Peering Behind the Mundane Curtain

C. S. Lewis, that grand proponent of the imagination, was keen to note the value of grasping onto glimpses of transcendent beauty in an otherwise pitiless world. Gary Selby’s book, Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality: C. S. Lewis and Incarnational Faith,highlights this theme of clinging to the transcendent, numinous glimpses of heaven. He writes,

Lewis believed that our experiences of physical pleasure, of taste and sight, hearing and touch and smell, gave us avenues for cultivating a visceral sense of God’s presence around us and in us. But he also believed that they were our best hints of the nature of eternal life.[1]

It is incredible to me that the Christian imagination has been so emaciated that to even speak of heaven or eternal life brings the dread of perpetual boredom to mind. Do we think life in eternity, on the new earth amongst the new heaven, will be mundane and repetitious? Did God suddenly get boring on us? I don’t have any robust argumentation here, but I’ll just say that I have confidence in the creativity of the God who gave us the crab nebula and fainting goats. This is a God who relishes in giving us the joy of discovery and delight of playfulness. 

These penultimate glimpses of ultimate beauty can be sustaining moments in the depths of life’s devastations as well. The world in the 1930s and 40s was at the crescendo of a period (stretching back to World War I) that might deserve the title “dark ages” more than any other. German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote during this dark age in a Nazi prison cell that he was

restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness.[2]

And yet, even in this darkness, Bonhoeffer clung to the transcendent hope of Christ. “In me it is dark, but with you there is light,” he writes to God. “I am lonely, but you do not abandon me.”[3] A lifetime of journeying with God had fortified his soul against the surrounding darkness that sought to choke the light out of him.

In her diary, just a couple of weeks before her capture, Anne Frank also lamented the darkness of this age with similar sentiments: “I see the world gradually turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions.” But there was something about the numinous beauty of a clear sky that pointed beyond itself to some transcendent, living hope that governed the universe. “And yet,” Anne continued, “if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”[4]

Both of these beautiful souls seemed stricken with the spirit of Jeremiah who, though hemmed in by suffering and affliction that caused his soul to sink within him (Lamentations 3:20, NKJV), would call to mind and take hope in the fact that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (Lamentations 3:21-24, ESV).

Glimpses of Heaven as Reality

These glimpses of the transcendent we can rightly call “glimpses of heaven.” They are pregnant with biblical hope. Biblical hope is not cautious optimism but confident expectancy of what can happen now and what will happen then. These glimpses direct us to the eternal joy and delight found in our Lord, “enthroned in heavenly splendor.”[5] Yet they also produce a sustaining joy and contentment in all circumstances along with a vision that guides our good works here. It is not an escapism, but a realism that helps us to seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7).

The brokenness and darkness of disenchantment encroaching upon us is an illusion, a non-created negation, mere devilish smoke and mirrors. It is, as theologian David Bentley Hart called it, “a kind of ontological wasting disease.”[6] The pain is real, very real, but it is an intruder in God’s creation. What’s more, the lessons pain often teaches—that we are alone in the universe, that all of life is and will forever be pain, that eternity is just as meaningless as our earthly lives—are delusions. Justifiable perhaps, but delusions of the highest order, nonetheless.

In Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the experienced demonic tempter Screwtape talks of fostering this sort of delusion in humans. In essence, the job of the demonic is to instill in human “creatures” a confirmation bias towards evil. Anything evil is “real,” while anything lovely is a mere passing sentiment. Goodness, in this construct, is a psychological crutch and suffering is the only tangible and, therefore, genuine metaphysic. Humans, Screwtape writes to his nephew and junior tempter Wormwood, are always accusing each other of wanting to have their cake and eat it too; but by ingesting only the evil and pushing away the plate of hard-fought goodness, they are actually “more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it.”[7]

Just as attempts to recreate for you a moment in the Hilbert Circle Theatre might touch on something real of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, our glimpses of heaven are our glimpses of ultimate reality. Evil is like a scratch on a record of the concerto; it will affect the sound, but it is not itself an original part of the music or the record the music is imprinted on, and there is a reality quite apart from the record where the scratch does not exist at all. This sentiment may be why Lewis, even with all of the fantastical grandeur—and horror—of the Chronicles of Narnia series, ended the tale in this way:

All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.[8]

Rage and Defiant Hope

We are still in the midst of COVID-19, racial tensions, political vitriol, and so many other things asking, “How long, O Lord?” The answer to this is unknowable to us, but we know that we can at least say, “Not forever.” We must, in those famous words of Dylan Thomas, Rage, rage against the dying of the light,[9] not because we want to cling to this life, but because we know the dying of the light itself is not real. The light is eternal and cannot be overcome (John 1:4-5). The light, not the darkness, is truth and reality. This light is found in the presence of God Bonhoeffer sensed even in his dismal prison cell and in the heavens viewed from Anne Frank’s window. The darkness has not overcome it.

I write this amid the loss of a beloved friend, my parents’ dog, Molly. I rage against viewing the failure of her organs and the ceasing of her breaths as the definitive, true statement about the state of reality, or the ultimate telos of Molly. No, these deaths are delusions, distorted unrealities, the last desperate gasps of a demonic regime that has been hurled off the edge of a mountain and is plummeting to hell, but along the way has convinced itself that it is really flying. The reality was the playing, the jumping, the bouncing of Molly’s ears as she trotted along the vegetable bed in the front yard. My sweet girl. Molly filled our world with love, and so gave a glimpse of reality, for love is the ultimate “stuff” of reality since it was created by God, who is and always shall be love.

What I am describing, nay urging, is a defiant hope that contradicts and condemns the brokenness of the world and my broken view of it. Today I shall rage against death by going outside to breathe fresh air, smell a flower, and if I’m fortunate enough, maybe even pet a dog. Or maybe I’ll stay in and listen to a violin concerto. Either way, I will allow these glimpses of heaven to suffuse my imagination and my heart with the reality of God’s good creation and what He has in store for all those who love Him (1 Corinthians 2:9). I recommend you do the same. And let us allow this joy experienced among the immanent to fill us with a transcendent, confident, and life-saving hope; let us together celebrate the victory yet to be narrated.[10]  

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[1] Gary S. Selby, Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality: C. S. Lewis and Incarnational Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 175.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8 (Minnesota, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 459.

[3] Ibid, 194.

[4] Anne Frank, “This Cruelty Too Will End,” in Joel Marcus (ed.), Jesus and the Holocaust: Reflections on Suffering and Hope (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 48.

[5] George Hugh Bourne, “Lord, Enthroned in Heavenly Splendor,” Hymnary.org, accessed September 16, 2021, https://hymnary.org/text/lord_enthroned_in_heavenly_splendor.

[6] David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 73.

[7] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 169.

[8] Selby, 179.

[9] Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” 1951, Poets.org, https://poets.org/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night.

[10] I have borrowed this phrase from David Garland’s wonderful commentary on Luke where he writes of Zechariah, “He looks to the past to what God has done, and from that memory of God’s fidelity and power he celebrates a victory yet to be narrated.” David E. Garland, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 106.