Are There Really Streets of Gold? — C. S. Lewis on Believing in a Down-to-Earth Heaven

John saw the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. It included a street of pure gold (Revelation 21:21).

The question is, does the New Jerusalem look the same to everyone, or did God show it to John in a way that he could understand?

Was the golden street actually a symbol of something much greater, of a splendor and luxury that John could not have imagined, much less communicated?

Will it limit our imaginations to think of heaven in terms of earthly wealth, or will it help?

I once heard a minister preach that we could look forward to spending billions and billions of years in heaven. I asked him why he didn’t just say “forever.” He said that “billions and billions of years” is an easier concept to grasp than “forever” or “eternity.” Although “forever” is more accurate, it is also a lot more vague.

It’s the same with things like white clothes and feasts and streets of gold. They may be symbols of unimaginable comfort and abundance, but at least the symbols themselves aren’t unimaginable.

The symbols are imaginable, but just barely. And I thinks that’s how they help us. They stretch our imaginations right up to the breaking point without pushing us into abstract ideas and fuzzy notions.

Abstract ideas are not always as helpful as concrete images. Sometimes we spiritualize all symbolic imagery, thinking we will end up with spiritual reality. Instead, what we end up with vague abstractions. We trade a symbol we know well for an concept we’re barely acquainted with.

“There won’t really be food in heaven,” we may say, “but something better than food. There won’t really be clean clothes, but something better than clean clothes.”

Or, in my case, “I have to be careful not to eat too many cheeseburgers, but in heaven, I will be able to do something better than eating with something better than cheeseburgers.”

All that “something better” tends to get pretty vague.

C. S. Lewis said the result of this kind of thinking is that we know more about what heaven is not than what it is.

In a message called “Transposition” (in the book The Weight of Glory), Lewis described how the struggle for what he called a “philosophically respectable notion” of heaven leads to this mistake.

“We can hope only for what we can desire,” he said, “And the trouble is that any adult and philosophically respectable notion we can form of Heaven is forced to deny of that state most of the things our nature desires.”

As he went on to explain, it’s not that we can’t define heaven in a positive sense. It’s that our own definitions are really too good for us to imagine.

Hence our notion of Heaven involves perpetual negations: no food, no drink, no sex, no movement, no mirth, no events, no time, no art.

Against all these, to be sure, we set one positive: the vision and enjoyment of God. And since this is an infinite good, we hold (rightly) that it outweighs them all. That is, the reality of the Beatific Vision would or will outweigh, would infinitely outweigh, the reality of the negations.

But can our present notion of it outweigh our present notion of them? That is quite a different question. And for most of us at most times the answer is no.

How it may be for great saints and mystics I cannot tell. But for others the conception of that Vision is a difficult, precarious, and fugitive extrapolation from a very few and ambiguous moments in our earthly experience, while our idea of the negated natural goods is vivid and persistent, loaded with the memories of a lifetime, built into our nerves and muscles and therefore into our imaginations.

The question, then, is not whether we believe that the presence of God in heaven will outweigh the glory and enjoyment of earthly things. The question is, “Can our present notion of it outweigh our present notion of them?”

Streets of gold may symbolize a kind abundance that far outweighs actual golden streets. But can your present notion of the abundance of heaven outweigh your present notion of golden streets?

Does your notion of living forever far outweigh your notion of living for a billion years?

If so, you may be one of those “great saints and mystics” that Lewis referred to. Lewis himself was an Oxford professor, so he was more concerned about “philosophical respectability” than most people, including me.

I don’t know if there really are streets of gold in heaven. If there are, I won’t be disappointed. If it’s a symbol, it’s a symbol that God chose to use. If we think that the symbol is beneath us, it may be that we are overestimating the power of our imaginations.