No Social Distance in Heaven

My wife and I were watching a program on Netflix the other night (I won't say what it was; it's too embarrassing). I was struck by my own reaction, while watching the program, to the interaction between characters on the screen. I flinched every time two characters shook hands, or brushed shoulders, or stood in close proximity to one another. I kept looking at all the hard surfaces in the sets—for example, the President's desk in the Oval Office (have I given too much away?)—and wondering when they were last disinfected, especially when both President Kirkman and Vice President MacLeish were touching those surfaces.

It's incredible how quickly we as individuals and as a society adapt to new social norms, or disparage those who don't adapt quickly enough. It makes me wonder if the old norms for social interaction will ever return. I certainly hope they do; the current norms strike me as a triumph for the dualistic heresies of old that disparaged the human body and reduced every human being, in the final analysis, to some immaterial element that would eventually shed its corporeal cage and bask eternally in ethereal light.

I much prefer Christianity's teaching that our bodies are integral to our identity and, as such, are fundamentally good. After all, our bodies will be resurrected and glorified and exist forever. I likewise prefer the social interactions that flow from such an understanding, both in the secular and the sacred spheres. The holy hugs and handshakes that feature in our church's weekly passing of the peace are, admittedly, a bit tamer than the "holy kiss" the apostles encouraged believers to extend to one another (2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Pet. 5:14), but they still reflect our physical embodiment in a way that online prayer meetings, texts, and other socially distanced forms of communication and/or spiritual encouragement do not. 

Regardless, the new social norms have also, I've found, impacted my reading of Scripture. I've become more aware of instances of physical touch and proximity in Scripture than ever before. I've spent a fair bit of time in the book of Revelation recently in preparation for both a Sunday sermon and some teaching at the school where I (remotely) work. It strikes me that Scripture’s final canonical offering is bookended by instances of God Himself reaching out and physically touching His people in a tender, loving manner. In Revelation 1, the ascended and glorified Christ reaches out His hand and touches John in order to comfort him and allay his fear:

“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades’” (Rev. 1:17-18; italics mine).

The ascended Christ’s hand upon him is a detail that John might easily have omitted from his description of what he saw, heard, and felt in his first vision on Patmos. But John included that detail because, I think, it points to Christ's love for John and all His people — a love that takes embodied form, even after Christ's ascension.

In Revelation 21, at the other end of the book, John records a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem descending and God's people inheriting the new heaven and new earth. In that vision, God again reaches out a hand and touches His people in a gesture of tender affection:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4; italics mine).

God will wipe the tears from the eyes of His people. What a poignant picture, especially during this time of heightened sensitivity to physical touch, of God comforting his people and welcoming them into the eternal joy of His presence!

I think there are a few things we can take away from this. First, God is not socially distant from us, even when we remain (for the present) socially distant from each other. What's more, there will be no social distancing in eternity!

Finally, perhaps even pandemics can have some positive purchase. They can, for example, prompt us to look at Scripture from entirely new angles and see in it things that we might otherwise have overlooked.

Aaron Denlinger (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is the Department Head of Latin and Bible at Arma Dei Academy in Highlands Ranch, CO. He has written on church history and historical theology in various journals, collections, and other publications, including Reformation Theology (Crossway, 2017). 

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