Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Why I Am Not Going To Write About The Gospel Of John (3)

for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life
for God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world
but that the world through him might be saved.

When I mentioned Proverbs 13:34, you probably had to look it up. I know I did. But you almost certainly knew the chapter and verse of this passage. The Gospel According To Saint John, The Third Chapter, The Sixteenth Verse. 

For very many people of an evangelical bent Christianity is reducible to John's Gospel, and John's Gospel is reducible to its third chapter; and the third chapter is reducible to this verse. The Bible in a nutshell, they call it, very frequently. Some of them have it on teeshirts or tattooed on their arms. One American fellow used to show up at football matches with the reference -- not the quotation, just the reference -- on a placard. There's someone in Bristol right now fly-posting it on lamp-posts.

JOHN 3:16

Evangelicalism makes a very big deal out of the Bible. But in practice it all comes down to one Gospel, and one chapter of one Gospel and one verse of this one chapter. Advanced students probably added one verse of one chapter of one Epistle as well. But John 3:16 and Romans 3:23 is pretty much the whole kit and kaboodle. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.

The idea appeals to me very much. I like the idea of reducing complicated ideas to simple frames. The Hero's Journey. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. We hold these truths to be self-evident. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. Forty-two.

That's how we managed to convince ourselves that everything in the Old Testament was really about Jesus. Medieval exegetes thought that since loving God and loving your neighbour was the heart of the Law, it followed that any Old Testament passage could, by definition, be twisted so it either advocated Love or condemned Hate. They used a lot of allegory in this regard. We were equally sure that everything in the Bible pointed to John 3:16. Daniel rescued from the lions' den? That's to remind us that anyone who believes in Jesus will not perish but have eternal life. Noah and his family rescued from the big flood? People who believe in Jesus will not perish. Chapter after chapter of rules about Jewish temple ritual? It's there to remind us that God gave his only begotten son. The sheep and the goats are kind of like Jesus, in the same way that the metal snake is kind of like Jesus.

This was what my friend in the study group was thinking about, all those years ago when she wanted to abandon our study of Solomon and turn to John instead. John 3 was her faith. Proverbs 13, not so much. And in a way she wasn't wrong. God so loved the world that he gave his only son. If you believe that, why would you want to spend your study hour thinking about a three thousand year old Jewish King who thought that good people eat to their heart's content while the stomach of the wicked goes hungry? (Which is not, incidentally, true.) Why would you particularly care who rebelled against King David and what he did about it? Why, if it comes to it, would you need to listen to Paul going on and on about the miscellaneous shortcomings of the churches in Corinth and Rome and wherever it is that Colossians come from?

I think that the dividing line between evangelical -- or, if you prefer, born-again -- Christians and liberal or modernist Christians is very probably this verse. Do you see Jesus as a saviour, or is he a teacher, an example, and an all around good chap. Some hyper-modernist clergy -- the kind who write columns in the Guardian -- seem to think that "God so loved the world" was foisted on this quite admirable Jewish rabbi by nasty Roman Emperors and even nastier American radio hosts. My whole infatuation with Aslan, C.S Lewis and Jesus (in, I am very much afraid, that order) came about because the idea of a God who loved the world so much in such a way that he gave his only son is a central, mystical, intuitive, self-contradictory lens through which everything else seems to make sense. If you take away the nasty-Constantinian-death-cult aspect, you are not left with a liberal, reformed version of Christianity: you are left with a void. In a funny way, I am more inclined to defend the Bishop of Woolworths (as C.S Lewis called the author of Honest to God) than I am the modern historical-Jesus-hyper-liberals. He at least appeared to recognise that if you took out God So Loved The World out of Christianity, there wasn't really very much left. And he did see that as a problem. Reducing the Bible to one verse is a childish, simplistic, cliche. But in another way, it is blatantly obviously right. If that verse isn't the heart of the Bible, then what is?

And that's why I don't feel I can write about John: not in the way that I wrote about Mark. 

John is altogether too religious. When I hear the first chapter of Mark, I see a desert, and water, and a man in a rough loincloth, and another man walking through the desert to meet him. (There may, for all I know, also have been sand-worms and jawas.) When I hear the first chapter of John, I smell candle wax. I hear a piping choir boy singing Once In Royal David's City and a booming clergyman saying John Expoundeth The Mystery of the Incarnation.

When I think of John I think of big black Bibles. No, it's much worse than that. I am sorry to have to keep admitting this stuff, but what I really think of when I think of John is a glossy colour tract we used to give out in the Christian Union, called something like LIVING WATER FROM JOHN, with a little number before every verse, and photos of sunsets and doves and lambs on every page, to be given to the un-evangelised because it contained everything they needed to know to be Saved. (I think they had to be predestined to be saved first, but my theology on that point has always been rather shaky.) We also gave out one called LIVING WATER FROM ROMANS which must have baffled them even more.

When I began writing about Saint Mark, I tried to imagine a context. I pictured a man in a toga surrounded by eager children in sandals. "Well, since you ask me about Jesus of Nazareth, let me tell you what Peter told me..." As I read a bit more, that mental image changed. The idea that Mark's Gospel is literally the Memoirs of Peter -- or at any rate an unmediated account of a first century Galilean tradition -- is hopelessly romantic. Clearly what I was reading was stories; stories which follow an identifiable pattern. The technical word for that is Form Criticism. A lot of scholars think that the stories of Jesus circulated as oral tales before they were collected into gospels. They think that by studying the structures of these stories, and comparing them with what we know about other oral traditions, it is possible to make educated guesses about who first told them, and to whom, and why. I don't know anything about that. But it became much more useful to picture "Mark" going into taverns and market places and saying "Hey -- I've got a new Jesus story -- want to hear it?" than as a Homeric figure narrating a sacred saga from beginning to end.

How on earth am I to imagine John? A starry eye prophet, I suppose, on a rock, or by the beach, staring into the middle distance, chanting? The disciple who Jesus particularly loved; the one who the first Christians literally thought was going to live forever. Maybe the same fella who witnessed the end of the universe on Patmos. 

None of that really helps. One can only picture John as "the person who wrote the book of John". It is pure text without context. It is the book which is most easily thought of as "inspired scripture" in the naive sense. A book written by God, with some first century human as the conduit. I don't think that Muslims see Mohammed's personality going into the Koran: he is the favoured human who Allah chose to transmit it through.  

Mark begins with a man eating sticky insects with a bit of cloth to cover his modesty. John begins with cosmic light and platonic paradoxes. His first word is an allusion to the first word in the Bible. His second word is a piece of untranslatable jargon. Douglas Adams began the second volume of the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy thus: "The story so far: in the beginning the Universe was created...." One feels that John is doing the same thing. In the beginning was the word...

And there's the problem. Having pictured Mark as a story teller in a tavern or a market place I feel quite free to be frivolous. To pretend I think his Gospel is a bit like Star Wars. One can be frivolous, I hope, without being flippant; and one can be disrespectful without showing disrespect. At any rate one can disrespect the story without disrespecting the Story. But drawing an analogy between Saint John the Evangelist, Beloved Disciple; Lofty Eagle of the Apocalypse and a quite funny radio writer feels sacrilegious. Cheap. Even analysing John Three Sixteen with a solemn face on still feels like stabbing at the heart and essence of Christianity. Of the whole universe. L'amor che move I sole e 'lalre stelle. (I bet I got it right.)

There is an online film of David Suchet reading the whole of Mark's Gospel at St Pauls's Cathedral. (Suchet has actually done live readings of the whole Bible, poor chap.) The clergyman who introduces him says that Mark's gospel is the story of a "man who changed the world". And I think that that is what I expected before doing my walk through the text. Mark, the earliest Gospel, I thought, presented Jesus as a super-duper holy teacher-man; whereas John, the latest, re-invented him as a divine being. The holy preacher man who tells human beings about God becomes God working undercover in the body of a human being. The proclaimer, as a very wise man whose name currently escapes me said, becomes the proclaimed.

But this could hardly be wronger. 

As a matter of fact, I do think that Mark was probably an Adoptionist. He thinks -- or writes as if he thinks -- that Jesus had an ordinary birth and an ordinary human life but that he became God after he was baptised by John (the baptist). And he thinks -- or writes as if he thinks -- that Jesus was exalted to the highest point in the universe as a consequence of his crucifixion. And I do think that John (the gospel writer) believes -- or writes as if he believes -- in something much closer to what later became formalised as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Jesus had the quality of God-ish-ness before he was baptised; before he was born; before, indeed, the creation of the universe. In the BEGINNING was the word, and the WORD was with God and the Word WAS God. In the Authorised Version it rolls nicely off the tongue. The word BECAME flesh and camped out on earth, temporarily. Certainly, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in the voice of an outsider. "No-one's ever been up to heaven except the the person who came down from heaven -- and who was that? This guy: who's still in heaven right now."

But it is entirely misleading to talk in terms of High Christologies and Low Christologies and much more misleading to say that what Mark is describing is simply a very influential man. In a sense, Mark's Jesus is God in a more straightforward sense than John's. Because what Mark gives us is mythology. The sky rips open. God flaps down to earth in the form of a pigeon and perches on Jesus. The founders of Judaism come down from heaven and chat with him. God joins them on the mountaintop. The guy from the obscure village has God inside him. To all intents and purposes, he is God. And we go forward on that assumption. God is sleeping in the fisherman's spare room; God is giving orders to Satan; God is telling the weather to stop being naughty. Everyone in the town, the country and eventually the world is magnetically drawn to wherever God happens to be at that moment.

What if God were one us us? What would he be like? (A stroppy, pedantic rabbi.) Who would his friends be? (Sinners. Collaborators. Fishermen.) Who would he not get on with? (Religious people. Obviously.) What would happen if he went to the place where God is supposed to live? (He'd start smashing it up. Obviously.) What would happen in the end? (The Jews and the Pagans would have a temporary truce and do away with him.) Would that be the end...?

John seems to be struggling to fit all that into a philosophical formula. How can we describe a God-Bloke without it sounding like nonsense? How can we talk about it without resorting to holes in the sky and magic birds? Well... God's teaching was always there. And God's teaching is God. So what if God's teaching turned into a person and stayed on earth for bit?

What if God were one of us? Well, he'd been a mysterious, other-worldly sage, who spoke elliptically about the great truth that God has become one of us...

I am confused and exasperated and puzzled by Mark's Jesus. I think that is because Mark intends him to be confusing and exasperating and puzzling. I think Mark intends you to wrestle with his Jesus: to chew on the parables and think "What did he mean by that?" Wrestling with God is a good thing to do. (I have Kirby's drawing of Jacob and the Angel above my writing desk. The Angel looks like a Celestial, as you would expect.) You can't wrestle with John's Jesus. You can't argue with him, and it would would be the height of lèse-majesté to find him exasperating. Asking what he means is beside the point. The only thing you can do is sit at his feet.

Mark's parables engage our brain. John's mysticism washes over us. Mark gives us teaching. John sometimes feels like spiritual mood-music.

At times, I almost want to abandon the idea that John's Jesus is a person. 

We are told that when John says "in the beginning was the logos" he is talking about some difficult, neo-Platonic concept. (The neo-Platonists had mostly read John.) Well, maybe. But so far as I can see, the New Testament mostly uses logos in a straightforward, non philosophical sense. It can mean report ("this logos was widely circulated among the Jews to this day.") It can mean statement ("let your logos be yes, yes, or no, no.) It can mean language or speech. ("Don't use harmful logos, but helpful logos.") It can mean news or tidings ("the logos about them reached the ears of the Church in Jerusalem.") The one thing it practically never means is "word" in a grammatical sense. But most often it means preaching or teaching: the Word of God. The sower in Mark's parable sows the logos; when the disciples gather around Jesus in Peter's house, he speaks the logos to them.

So "the Word became flesh" needs to be taken at some level at face value. God's teaching wrapped itself in a human form. 

Luke begins his story of Jesus' ministry by saying that in such-and-such a year "the Word of God came to John [the baptist] in the Wilderness." Can we entertain the possibility that John is using a literary device -- allegory, personification -- to show us that occurrence?

Perhaps when John talks about The Light he means enlightenment and goodness. Perhaps when he says that people hate the Light and run away from the Light he means that people prefer ignorance to knowledge and wickedness to virtue. But he personifies that as the rejection of a character called Jesus. He describes the Judeans turning against Jesus; but he means that religious people reject virtue and truth. He shows Nicodemus failing to understand Jesus: that's to show that the Pharisees don't understand the word of God. Perhaps he is not presenting a person who, in a metaphysical sense is the incarnation of the divine teaching: perhaps he is pretending that the divine teaching is a person for literary and didactic effect. Perhaps, in fact, he is doing the same kind of thing that Solomon did when he imagined Wisdom as a person in the market place. No-one supposes that Solomon was going to point to some actual lady at the vegetable stall and say "Look, there's that Wisdom person I was talking about -- follow her!" 

I don't think this reading, Jesus-as-symbol works. Not consistently, in any case. In a disconcerting way there are passages where John is much more naturalistic than Mark. But it conveys something of my difficulty. Mark's Jesus is a person. John's Jesus is an idea. Mark says "This is what God would be like if he were a man". John says "This is what God is like." 

Perhaps he was influenced by those gnaughty gnostics, who resolved the difficulty of God walking around in the body of a carpenter by dropping the "in the body" part altogether. Their Jesus is a force-ghost whose feet never touch the ground; a symbol of the secret knowledge but not in any sense a guy. But John goes to some lengths to make it clear that that's not what he believes.

Mark's Jesus is more dangerous than John's. More shocking. John's Jesus is very much what we would expect the Son of God to be like. Mark's decidedly isn't. 

Mark's Jesus fits into my headspace. Granted a flat earth with heaven upstairs and hell downstairs and the sky in the middle, I know what it means to say that God crashed through a hole in the sky and came down to earth in the form of a Holy Dove. I don't know what it means to say that God was God's teaching and God's teaching was God and that God's teaching was turned into meat and set up a tent on earth. I can affirm it, but I can't imagine it. Except in some banal way: "Jesus lived such a jolly good life and he was such a jolly good example of all the things that God approves of that Jesus' life itself is better than any number of sermons." And that clearly isn't what John is saying. It would be a very circuitous rout to get to "Jesus is a very good example of how to live." And in any case, he isn't. Not particularly. John's Jesus doesn't do works of charity in the conventional sense. Mostly he talks about himself. The Logos incarnates to tell us the glad tidings that the Logos has incarnated.

We don't believe in three tier universes and sky-domes any more. Not even in Texas. But we can imagine them. John's version we can't imagine. We just have to piously attend to it. God was the Word. The Word was God. The Word became flesh. Perhaps, if we just say John Three Sixteen, John Three Sixteen over and over again the phos and the logos and the gnosis will kind of seep into us. Perhaps that's what being born of water and air means. Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare. 

I am not trying to set Mark up above John. I am not trying to say that we should read Mark instead of John. I am not saying that Mark has it right and John has it wrong. I am not saying that Mark has, as the scholars say, priority. The aforementioned Bishop of Woolworths thought John was the more historical of the two. I am saying that Mark is telling a story. And I know how to talk about stories. And what John seems offer is an exposition of Mark's story. And when you have expounded it, it ceases to be a story. If I try to talk about John I am at worst expounding an exposition; and at best, setting my exposition up against the one the Church canonised. Which feels rude. And that pushes me into a style of writing that I don't feel comfortable with. I am just not sure that I can do it. I am not sure that I ought to. 


Scurra said...

Possibly the best thing you've ever (not) written.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Thank you.

(That always seems to happen when I say "well, I've been editing this thing for days, it's not very good and it's never going to be right but I'd better just publish the unfinished version to be rid of it.)

Achille Talon said...

This was, indeed, very good! I've been going through your backlog of essays about religion lately, and it was a very nice surprise to see a new one appear just as I was reaching the end of the aforementioned backlog.

I do believe your essays, and this one not least, have helped me better understand — well, the New Testament for a start, but more generally what a religious mindset can be, as expressed in a man who is not a bigot, a madman, or — as is, in my experience, most common — who refuses to explain in detail what he believes and why he believes it, even, or especially, to himself.

This is not an easy thing to achieve for an atheist like myself! Not that I've ever been a sneering Dawkinsite, but on the whole, what might be going on in the minds of rational Christians has in the past always been a bit of a black box to me. Some mysterious factors make otherwise-unobjectionable people say they "believe" in all manner of mystical things, in a way which seems obviously distinct from the way they believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, but which they loudly insist is also different from the game-of-pretend way children "believe" in Santa Claus. Thanks to you that box now seems rather less obscure to me, and that's no small thing.

Not that there aren't corners of your thinking that still elude me, including one which I may as well lay out, as it seems in the vicinity of some of the points you touched upon in the post above.

It is this: I still do not grasp this equation of God and the Son of God.

What I mean is this: I quite understand that one might believe that God Himself became incarnate and died to redeem His creation, and find that poignant and worth believing. I can also, separately, see how one might find equally poignant the idea that God gave "His only begotten Son" for the same purpose. And I can even grasp the broad shape of the idea that God might consist of three eternal, intertwined Aspects, one of which is in some conceptual sense Son-like and the other Father-like, even though neither begat the other temporally.

But I simply don't grok how the very real, raw, aesthetic and emotional power of the second idea — the "sacrifice His son" idea — that you and indeed C.S. Lewis describe so eloquently, avoids being entirely lost once you go back and add an asterisk that says "Welllll, by Son of God, we actually mean an eternal entity who existed as an aspect of God well before it became incarnate, and is in most important senses the same guy as God; as opposed to meaning anything that any human beings have meant by the word 'son'".

Achille Talon said...

Since you set the precedent of using science-fiction we like for analogies, I will say something further: there is a *kind* of understanding of the Incarnation that would make emotional sense to me: if it worked a little like the fob-watched Doctor did in “Human Nature”, a comparison which Paul Cornell must surely have intended. It would go like this:

“God transferred his essence, but not, initially, His memories, into a human form, so that the amnesiac divine soul developed a human personhood and individuality: the resultant being was therefore, in some senses, a man in his own right, created by God, and in others, God in human form. Over time the God-turned-human recovered knowledge, instincts and ability of the being he was moulded from, and did His work on Earth, before the time came to sacrifice himself. Thereafter, God in His full divinity remembers having been the man, and can pass off as him, and in a very real sense *is* what ultimately became of the man, albeit changed in a deep and important sense.”

All of this I could follow. I still don't in fact believe in it on a factual level — that's another kettle of fish with which I won't burden this comment section — but putting myself in the shoes of someone who did believe in it, I could see how such a story would make all the gab about God incarnate *and* begotten Sons “ring true”. The rub, though, is that I am informed that the above is widely considered heretical and wrongheaded; that the proper understanding is, to all mainstream Christians, that the "Jesus" persona existed as a part of God prior to becoming incarnate, and indeed, precisely as it was after the incarnation; that Jesus throughout the Gospels was fully God and fully aware of it. Which brings me back to Square 1.

I don't know. How *do* you think about this? How *do* you hold in your mind "Jesus was an eternal aspect of God the whole time" and "God sacrificed his Son, how viscerally real-feeling is *that*!" at the same time? I'm not demanding that you humour me on all of this, but who else am I going to ask? And what harm is there in asking? (Apologies if there was in fact harm in asking.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Er...good questions.

I'll get back to you. (In about 2,000 years.)

Mike Taylor said...

I am loving this series. I really hope it's not ending here.

Andrew, you ask: How on earth am I to imagine John? A starry eye prophet, I suppose, on a rock, or by the beach, staring into the middle distance, chanting? The disciple who Jesus particularly loved; the one who the first Christians literally thought was going to live forever. Maybe the same fella who witnessed the end of the universe on Patmos.

One way to think of him would be as a very very old man who witnessed Jesus in the flesh 60 or 70 years earlier, and has spent the intervening time turning it all over in his mind, now writing down "... so that's what it meant". (I'm not saying that's the right way, only that it's a way.)

Mike Taylor said...

Achille Talon, your questions as fascinating and invigorating!

I am informed that the above is widely considered heretical and wrongheaded; that the proper understanding is, to all mainstream Christians, that the "Jesus" persona existed as a part of God prior to becoming incarnate, and indeed, precisely as it was after the incarnation; that Jesus throughout the Gospels was fully God and fully aware of it.

I don't think that's quite right. The first half is: in John's Gospel (chapter 17, verse 5) Jesus himself lays it out pretty clearly when he prays "Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began." But I've not heard it argued that Jesus knew this all through his life. And if we believe in the incarnation in any meaningful sense, we can't really say that as a baby he knew anything at all.

On your more substantive question, I am going to offer an answer that I think you will find unsatisfying: indeed, as a scientist, I find it unsatisfying, but as an artist I embrace it. The idea is that the way things are on Earth is a shadow of the way things are in Heaven, not the other way around. So if we try to think about what it means that Jesus-who-is-God is the son of The-Father-Who-Is-God in terms of human parenthood, we're going to run into walls because the reality just doesn't fit into our limited three-dimensions-plus-time minds. The way to think about it may be instead that human parenthood is a shadow of the true parenthood that exists within the Trinity.

It may help that John in particular seems to embrace this way of thinking, happily accepting that the divine reality is beyond our full grasp -- hence much of what is perceived as mysticism in his gospel -- and indeed in Revelation, which is so crammed with different images that I am quite certain his intention was that we would arrive at a complex aggregate impression of what saw rather than an analytical understanding. (I think a great deal of damage has been done by people trying to tie individual parts of John's Revelation to specific world events, and that doing so it not just error-prone but an error in itself.)

I have no idea if any of this is helpful or interesting.

Achille Talon said...

Certainly it is interesting, and I appreciate the effort!

I'm afraid I am not personally very compelled by the idea that existence in Heaven would be radically different from existence on Earth to the degree of our concept of linear time not really applying. I can nod along to it, in the sense that it feels like a plausible characteristic of Heaven if it existed, as a philosophical proposition; but it is not a Heaven that I feel particularly drawn to.

Naive as they perhaps are, visions of silvery cloud-cities where souls live out a recognisably linear immortal life, free of pain and other evils, are much closer to what I would hope to exist, even if I can't bring myself to believe in them. Some sort of higher-dimensional enlightened transfiguration falls more in line, for me, with the likes of reincarnation — potential afterlives which I would, I suppose, choose over oblivion or some other actively unpleasant fate, but where I have trouble conceptualising the entity on the other side of the threshold as still being "me" to a degree that I actually care about.

In John's Gospel (chapter 17, verse 5) Jesus himself lays it out pretty clearly when he prays "Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began."

Does he? This seems, to me, not necessarily incompatible with the idea that God was not divided yet prior to Jesus's incarnation. Suppose we think of God as "duplicating" his consciousness upon the moment of incarnation, putting one version of himself into the physical world as Jesus while, of course, another version goes on as before.

Jesus would then be aware that his Father has gone on existing in Heaven in parallel with his earthly existence, thinking of him as, therefore, a temporarily separate being from himself (hence addressing him in the second person) — but he would also be able to remember what it was *like* to be God-the-not-yet-Father prior to their division; to be one with him. "The glory I had with you" would not seem an unreasonable way of putting this in human words. I think perhaps it is forcing a particularly literal interpretation onto the text to take this as necessarily saying that Jesus and the Father *must* have hung out together, as different people, in the pre-creation times. It could mean that; I am hardly going to tell an appreciable percentage of the population of Earth who structure their lives around believing that it does, that it absolutely cannot mean that. But I don't think it has to.

(I really must apologise again for clogging up this comment section with hypothetical heresies that I don't even have the decency of actually believing…)

Mike Taylor said...

Well, please don't apologise to me, this is fascinating!

I concede your point on John 17:5. I think the plain meaning of the words indicates the Father and Son as distinct persons before the world began, but "the plain meaning of the words" can be a trap when we're dealing with transcendent concepts expressed in a language that neither of us knows and translated only imperfectly into English.

As to your not feeling drawn to the idea of a heaven very different from this existence: I think that's very common, hence the ubiquity of imagery involving clouds and harps and marble cities. But I think there's more to be said on this. Since you followed the precedent of using science-fiction we like for analogies, let me go with Douglas Adams:

These creatures you call mice, you see, they are not quite as they appear. They are merely the protrusion into our dimension of vast hyperintelligent pandimensional beings.

Arthur Dent can't understand what the mice really are, because he is limited to our three-dimensions-plus-time physical universe, but the reality of them is something far deeper. You could, stretching a point, say that the man Jesus of Nazareth was merely the protrusion into our dimension of a vast hyperintelligent pandimensional God. The Christian belief(*) of Heaven is rather like that: we know that the true reality of it doesn't fit into our minds, but because of the goodness of God we trust that it's better than any of the images we can make up for it. That doesn't make the images worthless, any more than two-dimensional drawing of a three-dimensional scene is worthless. But while the images might sometimes be the truth, they can never be the whole truth.

Maybe the real point here is that the spiritual life as we understand it is not less real than our physical life now, as though we entered a ghost existence, but more real. If you're interested in this idea, C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce is a fine fictional perspective on it, which you might enjoy. It won't persuade you to believe anything, but it show you why believing these things is desirable.

(*) At least, this is the Christian belief when I am preaching. I'm sure you could easily find other Christians would disagree with me.