Monday, July 21, 2008

What Does Human Flourishing Look Like in the New Jerusalem?

I have always believed that in the New Jerusalem or the New Earth, human beings will realize the end for which they were created. I still do. I have believed that in that consummated kingdom, there will be healing and wholeness, that crooked spines will be made straight, that the lame will walk and the blind see. I have believed that anything that impoverishes human beings--mentally, physically, spiritually--will impoverish no more. That there and then all will be made well, and that human beings and all of creation will flourish. I still believe this.

But what, exactly, counts as flourishing and what as impoverishment? Will we all have the same IQ in heaven, or will there be a range such that anyone within that range is flourishing? Will we all have 20-20 vision? But what about those like my brother whose vision is 10-15? Is that flourishing and 20-20 not? Again, will there be a range and a threshold such that everyone will be above the threshold but some higher than others? Suppose someone is born color-blind. Is that an impoverishment? Or suppose someone is mentally handicapped. Will their being made well mean that in the New Jerusalem they will me? Am I the standard of flourishing? Are you?

This subject came up a couple of weeks ago at our subversive little group In Vino Theologica (in wine there is theology). One of our new members asked about one of their children who has special needs. (I'm not certain what her diagnosis actually is.) The idea that this member was struggling with was that perhaps what we have labeled a defect or ab-normal may be part and parcel to who their daughter is. Why think that what we have labeled a defect actually is? Maybe in the consummated kingdom there are ways that we will be more like her than her like us.

What do you think? What does human flourishing look like? Granted that all that impoverishes will be no more in the New Jerusalem, how do we tell what truly impoverishes? Will all that we label "handicaps" or "defects" be done away with or is it possible that in some cases we've mislabeled? And how can we tell? Here and now?


Ted M. Gossard said...

Interesting and intriguing post.

Of course we've heard of amazing things "handicapped" or "challenged" people pick up that are beyond normal capacities of the rest of us. Maybe in the New Jerusalem, those will come out as something that is marked and outstanding in them. I also think of Henri Nouwen and his experience in Toronto with such people in the L'Arche community of Daybreak.

I do think there is surely one thing for certain: with God there will be surprises there. What we judge as so high and mighty now, will be of little significance then, and what we see as low and hardly noticeable, will be highlighted in boldness and glory then. Across the board, surely. And surely as we go on here and now, we begin to get a small glimpses of this at times.

Kevin Corcoran said...


Amen and amen! Praise God, for the glimpses. I just wonder, though. I'm inclined to think that, for example, a mentally retarded human being will, in the New Jerusalem, be healed and made whole. That, of course, implies that they are now dis-eased and broken. But parents of such a child might say, "what you see as disease and brokenness I see as essential to who my child is. So maybe there will be a redeemed, restored sort of mental retardation."

Having worked with people w/mental retardation of various degrees of severity, I have pretty strong intuitions here. One thing is for certain: Ours is a God of surprises, here and now. I expect the NJ to be equally surprising in the sense of surpassing our wildest imaginings!


KH said...

I really enjoyed this post. I think the episode in John 5 pertains to this question. Jesus asks the lame man sitting by the pool if he "would be made well." I think this is intentionally ambiguous (Jesus isn't referring solely to the man's lameness), but the man interprets Jesus' question as referring to the healing of his legs. Would Jesus have been able to make this man well if the man had decided that he would prefer to remain in the culture he had become accustomed to for the 38 years preceding his encounter with Jesus? I believe so. I think the shape of our flourishing in the NJ may be determined to a certain extent by our choices of how we'd like to live. God can help us flourish in a myriad of ways, and I find it incredibly beautiful that God allows us to craft our lives alongside Him.

Now, the question may arise, what of those who cannot make a meaningful decision on the matter (such as those persons who die as infants or severely mentally retarded folks)? Will God advance their intellect to a point at which they can make decisions on the shape of their flourishing in the NJ?

SFMatheson said...

Nice post, and it's a great question. Speaking biologically, it's impossible to imagine a New World in which everyone (and everything) is made "perfect" in the sense that each individual person or object becomes optimized. Biologically speaking, this would erase diversity, which is something obviously valuable both to Christian aesthetes and to species hoping to avoid extinction.

Even if we're all optimized but still "diverse" in, say, hair color or pizza-topping preference, we would be unable to learn from each other or to help each other or to complement each other, to say nothing of playing basketball against each other. (I'm assuming that pick-up basketball games will be common in the New Jerusalem; if I'm wrong, I hope that my request for a transfer to the New Tucson will be honored expeditiously.) It's hard for me to imagine a game of any kind in which all of the players are completely optimized.

But more to the heart of the question... I like the previous comments a lot, and would just add this thought. I think it could be that the perfection in the New Jerusalem is much less a function of optimization of individuals than it is optimization of the whole thing: the Body of Christ, as described in I Corinthians 12, functioning beautifully and perfectly.

Kevin Corcoran said...


Excellent (perceptive) comments and good question!


Right; I can't imagine diversity in skills, aptitudes, abilities, etc. will be absent from the NJ, for precisely the reasons you suggest.

Here's my puzzle, though. You say:

I think it could be that the perfection in the New Jerusalem is much less a function of optimization of individuals than it is optimization of the whole thing: the Body of Christ, as described in I Corinthians 12, functioning beautifully and perfectly.

I think something like this must surely be correct. And yet. And yet while perfection in the NJ may be less a function of optimization of individuals than that of the whole body of Christ I wonder just how much it is a function of the optimization of individuals.

I myself simply can't imagine
that some of the folks I've worked with in the past, whose bodies are bent and gnarled and whose brains are so severely damaged that their life consists in grotesque diminishment, will be found in the NJ likewise bent and broken. I'm talking here about individuals who are multiply handicapped, who spend their days in painful, physical contortions in a wheelchair, unable to speak, unable to feed themselves, unable to bathe themselves or to use a toilet. I have in mind people who engage in self-injurious behaviors of various and sundry sorts, unaware and unconcerned for the harm they do. I just can't imagine that the optimization of the whole could require that they appear in the NJ in similar physical and mental circumstances.


Ted M. Gossard said...

Good point, Kevin. I like it. Certainly a God of surprises, for sure!


Anonymous said...


I like the analogy that Wright uses in his most recent book, although I'm not sure it has a scriptural basis. I'll paraphrase:

In the same way as an aged person, or a person who has suffered a long sickness is called a shadow of their former selves, we now are shadows of our future selves as we will be in the New Jerusalem.

I think this is an interesting way of thinking about it; rather than in terms of sickness and health, it's in terms of humanity, intensity, physicality - we are be shadows compared to what we will be.

How does this apply to the handicapped? I'm not sure. But I certainly think that the 'shadow' analogy addresses the diversity of skills that was discussed in the comments.

Kevin Corcoran said...


I'll own upfront that what I'm about to say probably has more to do w/hang ups I have than anything else. (-:

But....I don't like the shadow analogy, for the following reason. It seems to me to, in a sense, devalue our present selves, to evacuate the lives we are now living of substance.

Shadows are unreal, wispy sorts of things. The things themselves, the shadow-casters, they are what's real. No one in his or her right mind would or should prefer a shadow to the thing casting the shadow. So, I'm a little uncomfortable with the analogy when used to relate the here and now (and various of its facets and features) with the there and then of the NJ.

Interestingly, a couple of weeks ago in In Vino we read and discussed an article by Peter Kreeft on whether there will be sex in heaven. And I kind of felt like he spent the first half of the article valuing the physical and sex in particular, only to take it all back in the end when he tells us "it's [sex]just a shadow. When in heaven we get "the real thing" we'll no longer have any interest in it." Something like that.

Anyway, in the context of physical reality in general and the NJ, I prefer the C.S. Lewis metaphor of "higher up and further in" as it doesn't seem to me to devalue the present reality but instead imagines it in the NJ intensified, fully developed, completely unfurled, in full flower, so to speak.

Not sure exactly how to relate that to the present discussion of "handicaps," but I want to relate it.

As I said, this may say more about me than anything else.