Andy Peck believes this is a profound question for children and adults alike
I recall that satisfying feeling as a child when we came to the end of a story and there was the reassuring note: ‘and they all lived happily ever after’. I had enjoyed the story and on the whole was pretty pleased that things went well for them.
But one child was clearly a little puzzled when thinking of forever, and perhaps needed some reassurance. For her ‘forever’ seemed an awfully long time, hence this question to her mum.
Now of course ‘how long is forever’ may not necessarily be a ‘faith question’ but more about comprehending time as a child. But on this case there was a faith element and it was asked in the context of going to heaven forever.
It was theologian J I Packer who famously wrote that ‘human beings were built to last’. He took the view that all peoples will exist eternally, some in heaven and some in hell.
Others suggest that immortality is reserved for those who put their faith in God, and that those who die outside of Christ cease to exist. Such nuances are probably not for your child, but it is of course valuable to work out what you believe as you try and simplify things for your child.
I grew up hearing countless preachers urging us to put our trust in Jesus so that when we died we would go to heaven, and even as a child aged seven, this seemed like the very best option even if I was pretty clueless about what it might be like, and even if I now knowhere is an awful lot more to faith in Jesus.
So the first response to this question might be something along the lines of: “What a great question! What made you think of that?” It will give you context for what they are thinking about. Is this on the back of a story they have read, or a talk they have heard at Junior Church, or just them with an inquisitive mind?
It’s not just children that struggle with the concept, the notion of ‘forever’ is also a tough one for grown-ups too.
Lord Boothy has been quoted as saying: “The idea of a spiritual Boothby sitting on a cloud strumming a harp for ever and ever has, for me, limited appeal!”
Many people’s notions of heaven have been taken from artists’ impressions, and don’t exactly get the pulse racing.
Whereas Scripture writes of the new heaven and earth.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.’ (Rev 21:1) Then verse 3 and 4 reads: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Even allowing for the imagery in the book of Revelation, it does seem as if there is some continuity between this world and the next, but without the pain and suffering of sin.
So some of this can be fed into your child. They know what pain feels like and sadness and tears and you can explain that God is one day going to fix things. You might remind them of holidays they have enjoyed or games they have played where they have lost track of time. They are so focused on fun, time hasn’t seemed important.
As time based mortals such notions as eternity are hard to grasp: we struggle to imagine life next year, or in 10 yeas let alone ’forever’. But perhaps the ideas expressed by C.S. Lewis help. As he finishes The Last Battle, his last book in the Narnia Chronicles in which Aslan the lion was to that world, what Jesus is to us, he writes:
“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
God has the capacity to fill each day so full and with so much joy, that we will lose track of time too. You can assure your child that ‘forever ‘ is going to be ‘all right’ because God is in charge.
N.B. Bob Hartman has written of how God works things out in eternity in his book ‘Tapestry’