WHAT will the next world be like? How can we picture its surroundings? Will it be like this world, or unlike it? Is there any resemblance that can be traced between the two?
In any case, it is certain that, if we cannot describe the other world in terms of this world, it is unknowable; for those are the only terms we know by which to describe it. If it is not permissible for us to argue from the known to the unknown in this matter; if this world is not analogous to the other world, and in some real sense a type or figure of it--then all hope of knowledge concerning it is at an end.
And not only so, but it must cease to be an object of ingelligent interest to us. We can take no interest in a condition or locality concerning which we know nothing, except simply the fact that it cannot be known.
Moreover, if this world has nothing in common with the next world, then it is out of analogy with the rest of things, and GOD has deceived us. For, as far as we can observe, there are traits which are common to the whole of the material creation. The natural elements, for instance, appear to pervade the univere. Is there, then, nothing in common between the world of matter and the world of spirit? Is the spiritual world so different from the material world that we must expect to find everything constituted differently because it is spiritual, and all things altogether new because no longer material?
Our SAVIOUR speaks of a "FATHER'S house," of "many mansions." He tells us He goes to "prepare a place for us," making use of some of the most familiar terms of earth. In the Book of Revelation we read of the "New Jerusalem," a city built on twelve foundations, with streets of gold and gates of pearl! We speak of "Paradise"; and "Paradise" suggests to us surroundings both new and old, blissful yet familiar;--it calls up visions of mountains, of rivers, of trees, of the sunshine, of the dewdrops, and all that eternal loveliness which, even in this world, pervades the handiwork of GOD. Are these, then, mere phrases and nothing more--terms without a meaning? Or do they bespeak realities which, in truth, are largely beyond our comprehension, but of whose ultimate truth and actuality we cannot doubt? Milton asks:
- "What if earth
- Be but the shadow of heaven, and things therein
- Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?"
And the answer would seem to be that earth IS the shadow of heaven, is the language which describes it, is the type which foreshadows it, and is the natural and only presentiment under which it can be known. We may well believe that the faithful departed do not launch forth into the unknown, into the strange, much less into the terrifying, but into scenes that have already, in part, been known and loved by them--scenes that are new and glorious, yet not altogether unfamiliar--into the "house of many mansions"; into the "city which hath foundations"; into the peace and blessedness of "the Paradise of GOD."
Nor need we change our environment in order to enter on this "other world." Analogy suggests that a change in our powers of perception would effect a far greater change, and bring about a far greater revelation, than any mere change of place or scene. To the fish this world offers an entirely different presentiment from that which it offers to the bird or beast. Man, on the other hand, perceives much that cannot be perceived even by the highest animal. He possesses the capacity to be thrilled by a sunset, by a landscape, or even by a picture or a work of art; and, being capable of higher thoughts, he can also experience higher joys than any lower creature. At the other end of the scale there is the vegetable. This lacks consciousness; and, by lacking consciousness, it lacks the key to all man's experiences; and though possessed of a form of life is dead compared with him.
No creature can see more than it possesses power to see. Some men are born blind, some are born deaf, and what a world of experiences is closed to them in consequence! Much exists of which our unaided senses take no cognizance--the waves by which the wireless message passes through the atmosphere, the scales on the butterfly's wing, the symmetry of the snow crystal: who can perceive them?
Indeed, our present senses have their obvious limitations. Man perceives but a fraction, and a very small fraction, of that which "is" in this present world, both here and now. Therefore it is not difficult to realize that, with a change in man's powers of perception, the whole world would become changed to him. He merely needs--not, indeed, a change in himself, but a change in his capacities, and, behold, a new realm of experience bursts in upon his raptured consciousness! In fact, there is no limit that we can place to this possible "infinite." There is no glory that we can imagine, nor joy that we can conceive, that is not possible, were GOD even now, on this side death, to give us eyes wherewith to see, and ears wherewith to hear.
We speak of Paradise, and we speak of Heaven. At times they seem far off and distant to us. But there is no need for us to change our place, or even planet, in order to enter on these regions. We only need that, when we put off these our bodies, we put off also our present limitations; and thus, in accordance which He has apportioned for us, we enter on those good things He "hath prepared."
"The Shadow of Heaven" is reprinted from Thoughts on Love and Death. Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1918.