The Bible has very little to say about the actuality of heaven, so I can’t help wondering if the expectations of Billy Graham, the American evangelist who died this week, were met. I mean no disrespect by this. Sometimes, when things aren’t carefully articulated, the full implication or meaning is not apparent until it’s too late, we only have to look at Brexit to see that's true.
I saw Billy Graham preach in Norwich, UK, when I was 17 years old. The football stadium, Carrow Road, was packed with about 20,000 people and that didn’t include the thousand or so in the choir. I was curious, attending at the behest of my first proper girlfriend, a cute self-described hippy who was also, at the time, a born again Christian. She bestowed on me my ongoing love for Bob Dylan, much to the chagrin of pretty much every single partner I’ve had since.
I remember after the event (I’m not sure what to call it, religious service seems too solemn, circus, though more accurate, seems a little discourteous) we had a blazing row, as I, in my rebellious young man phase, full of righteous left-wing certainty, declaimed the horrors of this, as I saw it, right-wing American zealot. All I can recall now was his charisma, which he certainly had, and that burning certainty, like so many Americans, that both Heaven and Hell are real.
Although “Heaven” the place is mentioned a number of times in the Bible, the descriptions are sparse. Jesus mentions that “In my Father's house are many rooms.” (John 14:2) But then, so does a Holiday Inn. I hope Mr. Graham’s room is not next to the Ice Maker or the elevator.
The other big descriptions of heaven are in Revelations:
“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; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Revelations 22: 1-5).
Which strikes me less as a description of heaven and more like the stage directions for a late period Michael Jackson video, when he was going through his difficult messianic period, and no one could say “No”.
I’m not sure my idea of heaven would be so busy. For me, it would probably be something more akin to the gentle splendour of Hanalei Bay in Kauai.
So, Heaven is a convenience. It can be whatever we want to project onto the concept. A destination that promises untold bounty without specificity. Vague terms and promises that are used to entice the unsure towards the tent and reel them in. Of course, with heaven we won’t have any certainty about whether it exists, or if we get to go there, until it’s too late. Also, once there, it might not be to our taste. If you look at the great depictions of hell by Hieronymus Bosch in either of his masterpieces “The Harrowing of Hell” or the Hell Panel from “The Garden of Earthly Delights” you see demons and devils partaking in much innovative and adventurous torture, all with rapturous smiles. They look like they are in their own idea of heaven, a place that is certainly not mine.
Heaven (or death itself), “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” as Shakespeare intoned, is unknown. With Brexit, on the other hand, we may have the opportunity to see the likely result before we have to go there for eternity. We may also be able to change our minds.
Over the last few days and weeks various UK ministers have spoken about “The Road to Brexit”, a roadshow which culminated in Theresa May’s speech on March 2nd. Hours of platitudes have been spoken but, in the midst of all the talk of hope, no one has suggested that life after we leave will be much better (probably because the evidence is it won’t). In fact there was more than a touch of the "fair is fair", “stiff upper lip”, “grin and bear it”, Great British Attitude ™ about all the speeches. I almost expected May to start invoking the Blitz or Dunkirk. Both of which the UK survived. Both of which became part of the founding myth of modern Britain, but, if we look back honestly, both of which were horrendous, disastrous experiences. Hundreds of thousands of people were injured or died, huge amounts of homes and property destroyed and, to this day, we are still digging up the bombs.
What is still not apparent is how Brexit will work: The trade deals; the access to the various regulatory bodies; the protection for the financial services which the country depends on? May suggested that none of the current models: Norway, Canada South Korea or even Switzerland will truly meet the UK’s needs.
Let’s face it, the UK was sold free access to the Single Market and Customs Union without obligation. Now we see that the vague heavenly promise of the Leave campaign cannot be reconciled with the actuality of a hard Brexit. At the Leavers behest we may set sail, solo into the world, just as a new trade war appears to be starting.
Luckily, the UK Parliament will have a chance to examine the forthcoming paradise and judge whether it is somewhere we want to go. We know what would work: Continued access to the Single Market; Continued access to the Customs Union. (As the leavers suggested during the campaign). The best place to keep that access? Inside the EU where we can have a say in the rules. As the 80’s icon Belinda Carlisle, noted: “Heaven is a place on earth.” In other words, we may be, without realizing it, already there.