Earlier this week, an excellent video on “Disability in Heaven” was shared by the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame. You will find the video posted below. In it, philosopher and author Kevin Timpe wrestles through some of the questions around whether people will carry their disabilities into heaven. A range of views is presented. I appreciate that this short film does not claim to give definitive answers, but instead opens us to the possibility of a heaven where disabilities may be present as integral to people’s identity, yet in a community where people do not experience disabling effects. The example of American Sign Language (ASL) is given. If in heaven, as in the book of Acts, people are able to understand other languages, why would this not include ASL?
Here’s why this question is important:
Ultimately, our beliefs about heaven say more about us and our ability to love one another and be open to the mysterious working of God than they say about the nature of heaven itself.
Heaven and the mystery of identity
Many of the concerns surrounding whether there will be disabilities in heaven revolve around identity. We presume that in the afterlife we will “be ourselves,” and yet the question becomes “Who am I?” Not such a simple question. Is disability an essential or “accidental” (inessential) aspect of our identity? I have friends who would answer this question both ways.
In the Christian tradition, we depend on Christ for our identity. In other words, there is a strong emphasis on trust that carries us beyond our own self-assessment. Paul writes,
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above… Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col 3:1-4, NIV)
If ultimately our lives are “hidden with Christ,” then it is no wonder that we have difficulty grappling with the question of who we are and who we might be in the afterlife. The same faith that Christ has risen from the dead is the faith that sustains us with Christ. In Becoming Friends of Time, John Swinton reflects on Paul’s words:
We are alive in Christ but in a mysterious way, hidden from ourselves. Who we are is real and present but at the same time inaccessible to us.
To build on Swinton’s passing use of “inaccessible” here, the accessibility of our identity is hidden with Christ in God.
Resurrection and the mystery of wholeness
The “hiddenness” of our identity and its dependence on trust (faith) is one of the reasons why this video is important.
We must each be open to questions and disruption of existing beliefs about the afterlife. When we simply carry with us unquestioned certainty about heaven, it is only certain that we have not apprehended the mystery of our identity.
Self-assured confidence may be safe and comfortable in our own experience, yet when it comes to projecting these beliefs onto others our posture can quickly become at worst toxic and malignant, at best implicitly ableist. We subconsciously project our beliefs about what it means to be “fit for heaven,” a “whole” human being onto others and find them wanting.
Earlier this year, a conference on Youth Ministry & Disability was hosted by Princeton Theological Seminary. (You can read my reflections on it and find links to audio here.) One of the fundamental questions being asked was what “health” and “wholeness” look like for young people and, ultimately, for all people. My small contribution was presenting a paper titled “Healing through rebirth: Resurrected communities with youth with disabilities.” In it, I contrast the often self-assured nature of our ideas on “health,” which carries with it unspoken presuppositions about wholeness, with the theology of resurrection and Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead. I write,
Christ’s healing is so deep that it changes the nature of “wholeness”
from which we are constituted. Our ecclesial imaginations must be born out of a radically new – and shockingly ancient – revelation of what it means to be the Body of Christ in the world today.
Where we may look for medical interventions to restore us to a state of “wholeness,” Christ is looking to give us new life; to raise us from the dead. The possibilities of who we are and who we will be lie beyond the limits of our imagination. The potential of our identity must be revealed. It must come from outside of ourselves.
In his book Unleashing the Scripture, Stanley Hauerwas considers the disciples heading back to Emmaus in Luke 24. When Jesus joins them on their journey, Hauerwas notes “it is remarkable that they do not recognize who he is.” When we think of identity and who our loved ones are and will be in their resurrected bodies or in heaven, we presume that their appearance will immediately recognizable. Hauerwas observes,
No matter how hard we try, it is difficult to shake the picture that the resurrection is the resuscitation of a corpse that we would recognize if confronted by it. Of course that is exactly what the resurrection is not… Resurrection is the reconfiguration of all we know, have known, and will know. It is that which forces a redescription of all history as well as the movement of the planets. Resurrection is Kingdom come in the person and work of this man Jesus. (p. 52)
It is through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ that the Christian learns to encounter those around her. The universe becomes charged with possibilities and potential in the revelation of incomprehensible love. As Paul writes,
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. (1 Cor 13:12, NASB)
We journey in this mystery together. We travel not as those who fear the hazy lines of our reflections, but as people who eagerly anticipate the ongoing discovery of who we are, who our neighbour is, and who God is calling us to be.
In the following video, perhaps the line that stands out to me the most is when Barb Newman of CLC Network tells of her friend Sandra getting to heaven. Sandra has autism and, sensory-wise, does not recognize people by sight but by smell. Barb recounts Sandra’s words,
“I know all of you are looking forward to seeing Jesus in heaven, but I can’t wait to smell him.”
May we be those who carry the “scent of Christ” with us, open to the resurrection power at work in the lives of people around us. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ (2 Cor 2:15). In turn, we may find that we begin to experience the heavenly beauty of others more tangibly in the world around us – starting today.
For further resources on how churches can live into this heavenly-vision of accessible community today, visit www.christian-horizons.org/churches