It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which — if you saw it now — you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. —C.S. Lewis
When I’ve read or heard these words over the years, I’ve typically thought of strangers. “It’s a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses” — standing at the bus stop, waiting in line at the grocery store, walking by on the street (all the people I’m tempted to see but never notice). We’re surrounded by immortal souls, all the time — but we’re often tempted to treat them like houseplants. Like nice houseplants, beautiful even, but not like humans — not like eternal souls who will stand before the living God and be ushered into a perpetual, untouchable paradise or a terrifying home of never-ending torment.
Wake up! Lewis says. You’ve never met a mere mortal. Those strangers walking by are not houseplants; they’re wonders wrapped in flesh and blood and need. That’s a good application. Every “random” person you encounter is an eternal marvel — a miracle in the making, or a nightmare, an immortal life worthy of your attention, concern, respect, love.
The quote took on even more meaning, though, when I realized that Lewis doesn’t limit the point to strangers.
No Ordinary Spouses
Keep reading, and the spectacular reality comes uncomfortably close to home:
All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another — all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. (The Weight of Glory, 45–46)
“All friendships, all loves . . .” he says. “It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry . . . immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” Eternal miracles or nightmares. What dawned on me is that I’m not only tempted to overlook the spiritual potential and destiny of strangers; I’m tempted to do so even with my closest relationships — my friends, my family, my bride, my kids.
Sometimes it’s the people we know the best that we most struggle to see in the light of spiritual reality. They’re almost too familiar, too predictable — too, well, ordinary. But there are no ordinary friends. There are no ordinary classmates or roommates. There are no ordinary students or teachers. There are no ordinary boyfriends or girlfriends, husbands or wives. It is a serious thing to live beside immortals.
Miracles in the Making
Where would Lewis get an idea like everlasting splendors? From verses like Romans 8:16–17:
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
If the Spirit dwells in you, by faith, then you are a child of God. And if you’re a child of God, you will be glorified with God. Have you realized that? You will be like him. God will glorify “ordinary” people like you and me — to the glory of God.
“Sometimes it’s the people we know the best that we most struggle to see in the light of spiritual reality.”
Next verses, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for —” For what? For the appearing of Christ? For the new heavens and new earth? That’s not what Paul mentions here. “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:18–19). The creation wants to see us — what we will become. Are you hearing Lewis yet? And we won’t be God-like splendors for mere centuries or millennia, but forever. “I give them eternal life,” Jesus says, “and they will never perish” (John 10:28).
We are miracles in the making. The oceans, mountains, and stars are lined up outside to get a glimpse of what we’ll become. If you love and follow Jesus, that’s true of you. And here’s the critical turn that Lewis takes: if the dull, uninteresting, ordinary persons you live with (or work with, or coach soccer with, or go to church with) love and follow Jesus, it’ll be true of them too. If you could see what they will be in 150 years, you would see them differently. You would treat them differently. Wouldn’t you?
Nightmares in the Making
Lewis didn’t only say everlasting splendors, though — everlasting splendors or immortal horrors, future miracles or nightmares. Have you reckoned recently with the never-ending destiny of those in your life who will not love Jesus?
For as little as we might think about the blinding glory coming to those who believe, we might think even less about the awful terror awaiting those who don’t. “As for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” — that is, those who won’t bow and follow Jesus — “their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8). One purpose of the vivid imagination and visions of Revelation is to make the depths of hell feel more real. They force us to imagine real people in fire and sulfur and torture, because people we know will really suffer like that, and worse, forever.
Even among those who currently profess faith, we can’t take their future splendor for granted. Hebrews 3:12–13 warns us, “Take care, brothers” — he’s writing to the church, to those who claim to love Jesus now —
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Part of being awake to one another’s immortality is to remember that any of us could be deceived and hardened and destroyed by sin. And if we let sin have its way in us, it will mutilate us. It will make us hideous — “a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.” If we could see what sin does to a person — for now, on the inside, but one day, for all to see — we would pursue and exhort one another more than we do. We’d exhort one another every day.
How to Love Immortals
The truth is that Lewis exposes us. We often live and work and study and play and date functionally oblivious to both heaven and hell — as if we didn’t know that everyone we meet, everyone we love, will spend eternity in one or the other. But there’s no “spiritual Midwest” lying out there between paradise and agony, between the everlasting splendors and the immortal horrors — just heaven and hell, forever.
So, what might all of this mean for our closest relationships? What might this mean for a home, like mine, with a wife and three small kids? First, and perhaps most humbling, it reminds us to pray. Their immortality reminds us how painfully little we control in our relationships. All the things we want most for our spouse, our children, our extended family and friends are things God must do. That doesn’t mean, as we often assume, that there’s nothing we can do. There’s just nothing we can do without God.
Having first prayed, though, what else can we do? We could use more of our interactions to remind loved ones of their immortality. For those who do not yet believe in Jesus, these will likely be unnatural and awkward conversations. How they feel about the conversation doesn’t change the truth. One day soon, they will be an everlasting splendor or an immortal horror. Immortality is worth an enormous amount of awkwardness and friction.
“Christians who sense the reality and urgency of eternity don’t tolerate patterns of sinfulness in one another.”
Even those who do believe in Jesus, though, still need regular, sometimes forceful reminders of their immortality. “Exhort one another every day.” Christians who sense the reality and urgency of eternity don’t tolerate patterns of sinfulness in one another. The love of Christ controls them, so they speak up when others wouldn’t. They seek the sweet and lasting fruit of some relational discomfort. They’re also often unusually faithful encouragers. They know when to warn the wayward, and they know when to lift and strengthen and focus the weary. Every everlasting splendor is the product of consistent, meaningful encouragement.
Perhaps the simplest way, then, to apply the prospect of these two mouth-stopping eternities — future miracles and future nightmares — would be to seek to be (and stay) uncomfortably Christian. Modern life, at least in America, resists this kind of Godwardness. We quietly agree to keep our conversations to what we can see and hear and touch, but everything we can now see and hear and touch will pass away. And when it does, you and everyone you know will become the wonder or horror you will forever be.