The Music of Heaven
At the central London CU events week last week, theologian and speaker Don Carson was asked in one of the Q&A sessions, “What is so great about eternity?”, which he began answering by pointing out that we can imagine eternity to be boring (1) if we imagine it to be an extension of this current life, or (2) if we imagine it to be an unvaried existence of playing harps on clouds. Don joked that whilst harps are lovely – and who could argue with that? – if there were only harps and that was all we did for eternity, then, yes, eternity wouldn’t be so great!
Don continued: “But let me give some reasons why eternity will be far far more fantastic than we can ever imagine. Firstly, talking of harps…”
Now as you can imagine, my ears pricked up a little! Never had I actually imagined that harps would be mentioned by a leading evangelical theologian as to the glory of the new creation! What was he going to say?
Don went on to point out that harps, in the Bible, were instruments of joy. It’s one reason why harps are so often invoked in our images: because one element of the new creation we can expect to be totally different from our current existence will be the experience of unceasing glorious joy, a kind and quality of joy that, frankly, we can’t really even begin to imagine now. That begun to get me excited for the new creation.
The similarity and the difference of the new creation
I’ve also just finished reading C.S.Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and the description of the new creation at the end of the final book The Last Battle is truly astounding. Lewis cleverly conveys both the familiar nature of the new creation - in that it will be a physical place where we live in all our physicality, and a place which is our true home (after all, “our citizenship is in heaven” says Paul, Philippians 3:20) – as well as the difference in quality of the new creation – in that it will be totally and utterly without the brokenness and decay that sin has wrought upon the natural creation of this world. As Eustace says, when he’s seeing only the difference and not the familiarity:
“I bet there isn’t a country like this anywhere in our world. Look at the colours! You couldn’t get a blue like the blue on those mountains in our world.”
Eventually, they see the familiarity between this world and Narnia:
“Like?” cried Edmund after a moment’s silence. “Why, they’re exactly like!” …
“And yet they’re not like,” said Lucy. “They’re different. They have more colours on them and they look further away than I remembered and they’re more… more… oh, I don’t know…”
“More like the real thing,” said the Lord Digory softly.
And later the Lord Digory explains more fully:
“And of course it’s different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.”
Now think what that means for music! We all know how absolutely mind-bogglingly stunningly beautiful music can be – think of the second movement of Shostakovich’s second piano concerto (simply, gorgeously, hauntingly beautiful), Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending (I don’t care if it’s overplayed…), Dona Nobis Pacem by Peteris Vasks (check that out!) – we all have our favourites. The beauty of music is one of the reasons why we’ve chosen to pursue it at least at uni, if not professionally. We also know how wonderfully joyful music can be – the Latin American repertoire of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra that you can’t help but smile at and dance to! The point is this: the way in which music can affect us viscerally, bodily, emotionally – the way it can seem to transport us out of the seeming mundanity of this life – that almost indescribable quality it possesses which is the reason we devote so much of our lives to it, is but a shadow of the music of heaven. Let me say that again: the music of this earth, with all its ineffable beauty, is but a shadow of the music of heaven.
It's something that Don Carson alluded to when later on in his answer he asked us to imagine Handel’s Messiah being sung magnificently and gloriously “by ten thousand upon ten thousand”. That got me even more excited for the new creation!
Further questions about music in heaven
Now there are several things that we could ask here:
Firstly, will we recognise music? I think the answer must be yes. Since music is part of the physical nature of this creation, so too in the physical nature of the new creation we can expect God’s good gift of music to be present, and in such a way that it will be instantly recognisable. It won’t be an altogether new experience, to hear music. And yet, it will be different, “as different as a real thing is from the shadow or as waking life is from a dream”. Think how wonderfully real and immersive the experience of listening to music can be on this earth. And know that that experience is but a shadow of the real experience of listening to the music of heaven. It will be indescribably beautiful.
Secondly, will music composed in this earth also pass through to the new creation? i.e. was Don Carson right even to suggest that we will be singing Handel’s Messiah in the new creation? The answer, really, is that we don’t really know. There is a verse in Revelation which, according to some theologians, implies that some music will pass through to the new creation. Chapter 21 verse 26 says “The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.” Since it’s not totally explicit as to what “the glory and honour of the nations” consists of, it’s hard to be sure. The following verse gives us the flip side: “nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.…” At the very least, this verse implies that the “glory and honour of the nations” cannot simply consist of people, since a distinction is made between “nothing impure” and “anyone who does what is shameful”, so perhaps it will include some music.
If it does, we could then ask, which music will make it? Will it only be music that was composed specifically to the glory of God? Or perhaps more broadly, which has been used to glorify God by His people even if it was not composed with such intentions… (In either case, much of the beautiful music we so love here in this earth must be excluded…) Or will it be music that glorifies God in the broadest sense of being the products of His common grace of creative genius shown even to unbelieving composers? The short answer is that we just don’t know! And I think we do well to be cautious of statements that state unequivocally either way.
After all, it could be that, as the old hymn says, “Hark! How the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own!” It could be that no music will pass through, even if it was composed or performed to God’s glory.
The Music of Heaven
But here’s what we do know: in the new creation, we won’t mind. If no music from this earth makes it, we simply will not care. Why? Because (1) the music will be so gloriously beautiful, and (2) we will be too busy giving Jesus all the glory to worry about whether we’re doing it through Handel’s Messiah (or whichever other piece of “worship music” you wish were there!) or through a heavenly piece composed by the angels of God, or God Himself (though that would be pretty breath-taking!)
We know that there will be music in heaven, because the Lord revealed such to John in the Revelation. But we won’t glorify the music. We’ll glorify the maker of music. He is what will capture our hearts for all eternity, and He – our beautiful Saviour, the Lamb who was slain for us - is the reason we can have any hope of eternity in the first place.
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!”