I don’t think often about what the afterlife will be like. Jesus said he was going to prepare a place for us, and I trust him to make it a good place. Meanwhile, there’s lots to experience in this present life, enough to keep me busy learning and discovering for another couple of hundred years.
However, we’ve had a number of funerals recently, and this has made me suspect that I may not be around for “another couple of hundred years.” At one of the funerals, Pastor Connie read one of the Bible’s most graphic portrayals of what the afterlife may be like. The author of the Book of Revelation describes a vision he had experienced in terms of a spiritual city, the “New Jerusalem,” in which God’s throne is at the center and the lives of the inhabitants revolve around him (Revelation 21 and 22). Much of the imagery is hard for me to connect with: a walled city that is as high as it is wide and long (essentially a cube), twelve gates named after the twelve tribes of Israel, streets paved with gold, gates of pearl and precious stones all over the place. But when Pastor Connie read about the green space, the park-like sections within the city, I responded with more interest:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 22:1-5)
What intrigued me most was the idea that the tree of life had “twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month.” Now, you could read this as meaning that all twelve kinds of fruit popped out on various branches at the same time, but I think it’s more natural to understand it as saying that a different fruit emerged as a crop each month — a kind of spiritual “fruit-of-the-month-club.” In fact, my mind carried this even farther. I imagined that after the twelfth month, the tree would not return to the first month’s fruit and cycle through the same twelve again, but would introduce a totally new fruit every month, forever and ever.
You see, for me this was God’s way of promising that the life beyond this one will never be boring. There will always be something new to experience, some deeper level of understanding, some Aha! moment of enlightenment.
I look at a sixteenth century painting of a young man reading a book by candlelight in a sparse room, and I feel that his life was very limited and claustrophobic. And yet, that may be a book of poetry which draws him in to a whole storehouse of shared human thoughts and emotions. And then he may walk outside and look up to the stars, imagining that there are a fantastic array of other intelligent life forms scattered throughout the universe. He has a thirst to find out all there is to know about the meaning of the reality he’s part of.
Here I am, five hundred years later. In place of his candle and one book, I have electric lights, 50 television channels, the worldwide web on my computer and potential instant access to everywhere on my smart phone. I’ve traveled by car, train, plane, and ship. People in my generation have journeyed to the moon, and visits to other planets are on NASA’s drawing boards. At 78, I may know marginally more than the young man in the drawing, but I still have the feeling that there are potential discoveries that could take me “another couple of hundred years” to investigate.
So now I hear that in the place the Lord has prepared for me there is a tree with a new kind of fruit each month for me to chew on and that I may be making new taste discoveries forever and ever. Forget about the streets of gold and the pearly gates; I’m going straight to the river where the eternal fruit tree grows to start noshing on whatever the fruit-of-the-month is.
— Pastor George Van Alstine