It had been some time since I last visited the offices of the Trans-European Division in St. Albans. This week I flew across the North Sea for a short visit—to have some talks about a project of which I have been a part. Possibly I was more focussed when I looked around than I had been on previous visits over the last ten years or so. I concluded that it is still very much the same office as when I left in 2001 after having worked in this building for some seven years. The lobby, the offices, the meeting rooms had all remained the same. The kitchen looked the same and the toilets were still in the same location. Alan Collin’s sculpture of the three angels of Revelation 14 still guards the front of the building. But almost all people I used to work with have gone and there are many I do not know. It appeared that a number of protocols in the office have changed. Somehow the place breathes a different atmosphere. In other words: I experienced both a strong degree of continuity and of discontinuity.
Recently I was made aware of another striking example of the combination of continuity and discontinuity. If I were to step into the Rhine river today, I would step into the very same river as was used by the Batavians two millennia ago, when they entered the Low Countries. It has remained the same body of water that follows roughly the same track through the Netherlands as it did two thousand years ago. But I do not touch the same water as the Batavians did. The water has been continuously ‘refreshed’. The river is a remarkable example of continuity and discontinuity.
As believers we expect a life after this life: a new existence that replaces our current one. We look for a new world to replace this old world. What will this new world be like? If there were no continuity between what is now and what is to come, the concept of the hereafter would lose all its meaning for us. We expect to become a part of the new world and we presume that we will then somehow be able to know that we have existed before and that now, after a short interruption, we have received a totally new lease on life. Admittedly, it is a completely new mode of being, since it is perfect. But there must be something that will remind us of our previous imperfect existence. There must be a fair degree of continuity. For would it not be fully unsatisfactory to think that ‘I’ would become part of the world of the hereafter without any awareness of the fact that I did exist before?
However, there must also be a fair degree of discontinuity. Things must not change just a little, but must change drastically. There must be a much greater measure of discontinuity as we see in institutions and organizations. The hereafter must differ in many more ways from my current life than the division office of 2014 differs from the building I left in 2001. Perhaps the discontinuity between our life today and our future existence is more like the river. But then, this is also an imperfect metaphor. For the river continues to run the same course, albeit with other water. And, perhaps, when we compare our current existence with the life to come, it is not like a river that continues to run approximately the same course, while the water keeps changing. No, it would be more like the same (purified) water that now runs along a very different track.
Well, I don’t know. But it would seem to me that we should not try to imagine a hereafter with so much discontinuity with our life in this world, that it no longer makes sense to long for it. If, having arrived in the hereafter, we do not recognize anything that once was, and we even do not know that we are redeemed beings who once lived in a very imperfect world, belief in a life hereafter would no longer make sense. Yet, at the same time, we should not put so much stress on the aspect of continuity that the hereafter becomes almost simply more of what we are now accustomed to—with the difference that will always go on. And what reason would we have to be eager for that?
For the time being we look into a ‘glass darkly’ and are left with our many questions. But that is, in fact, what it means to have hope. It is possessing an inner certainty of a glorious future, but without having any visible proof. Yet, that should be enough.