It seems pretty clear to me that most, if not all, of us, whatever conception our ideas about “heaven,” would agree on at least one thing: in heaven, disability will not exist. “In the Kingdom,” there will be “no tears”… and no reason for them, just as was the case originally in creation as God designed it and declared it “good.” The impact of the Good News is that God is restoring His fallen creation in all its facets and dimensions.
Some have taken this to believe that all the impairments that currently have a disabling effect will be “cured.” This could make sense insofar as “things that are broken” will not “need fixing” any more. However, the more we’ve reflected upon “disability,” the more we grasp that it is NOT a function of “broken” bodies or brains, but the disabling attitudes and practices of society that marginalize certain forms of difference. We are hard pressed to come up with a “disability” that – in some “alternative world” that we might imagine – would NOT be “disabling.” And heaven is far beyond our imagination!
Therefore, the possibility bears considering that the absence of disability “in the Kingdom” might as well (if not better) be grasped not as a “cure,” but as “healing” – as full and total restoration of the “normal” relationship between the embodied person and their community and environment, the healing of the fracture of “shalom” that shapes the existence of those in our day who are marked as disabled.
Let me share a story that illustrates this. Very close friends of mine had given birth to a child with Down Syndrome. As is “normal,” this was a time which left them, to say the least, rather vulnerable and needing of blessing, encouragement and affirmation. We had them over to our place, along with a good number of mutual friends, for just that purpose… as well as giving them a place to just “be themselves.” One friend in particular had taken it very much to heart that he needed to be both encouraging and theologically relevant, so he said, “Well, at least there’s some comfort in knowing that, in heaven, your child will be…. Well, normal.” To which the young father replied, “Oh… you mean she’ll be like us?” The friend nodded a little less confidently while the father continued, “What makes you so sure that in heaven we won’t be like her? Wouldn’t that actually be more like paradise?”
In terms of heaven not being a place of “disablement,” I’ve often wondered about Jesus’ eternal presence in heaven after his ascension. After conquering death and appearing in resurrected, transformed form, the wounds of Jesus were still visible. Why were they not removed or “healed” after his torture? Recall that, among other horrors, His feet had multiple fractures from the process of crucifixion. It would seem quite possible that, having such wounds, that he might well have walked with a limp. Regardless of that speculation, such wounds and scars are signs of disablement… which will remain eternally, even though our Lord will most certain not be a “Person with disability” in any meaningful sense of the term.
Disability is NOT a simple marker of biology. It’s not even a particularly fixed category. As we’ve noticed, without eyeglasses, many more people in our population would be considered disabled that are absolutely “normal.” Similarly, technology has made it possible for people missing limbs to walk and climb and run and dance. Much of what is often seen as disability could just as easily be called a difference that society is unwilling to accommodate. Maybe we don’t need to fix broken people as much as we need to expand our definition of who belongs.
As we envision heaven as the ultimate realization of God’s reign, the fullness of the Kingdom, we must grasp the essence of the Church as, in Newbigin’s words, “the sign, instrument and foretaste” of that Kingdom. And the Church BEING that, is the Church I dream about…
The church, in its proper form – as the body of Christ, where all members have a place, a role, a function, where the “parts that seem the weakest are the most indispensable” – the church as God sees it, therefore, HAS NO DISABLED PEOPLE. It is open to all, embraces all who come to the table for who they are, affirms and facilitates their desire to “live in the kingdom.” All have needs, all have limitations, all are unique, but differences do not serve to “brand,” define or categorize… they simply make it clear in what ways we need to serve each other to be the One Body God desires us to be.
People who give birth to a baby with special needs in many places in which I’ve served are told in no uncertain terms, “You don’t have to keep this baby… “There are places for babies like that.”
Insofar as we live out the Kingdom – live IN the Kingdom – we opt out of the attitudes and practices that disable others. We become “conformed to the image” of Jesus. We pursue His likeness, and experience the power of the Holy Spirit changing, transforming us, individually and collectively, to be that which we could otherwise never become. This is called sanctification, the pursuit of holiness. When we cease to participate in the marginalizing nature of this world of ours, “disability” melts away and there is only “difference.” And in THIS body, difference is valued, because we all – every blessed one of us – has meaning, purpose, significance, value. And because the body is held together by Jesus as its source of life, even those – no, ESPECIALLY those, who seem weakest are the most indispensable.
If we allow the Spirit to rule and transform us, if we hold fast to Jesus, the author and forerunner of faith… we can truly be that sign and foretaste – in the here and now – of that blessed, peaceable Kingdom.
Then, it might truly be said to the weakest, most vulnerable among us: There is “a place for people like that” – and it’s here, with us, in the Church, the family of God, around the banquet table of the party to which the Kingdom of Heaven is compared.