The two century-old existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has given me much to think (and agonize) over in regards to eternity. I have always been drawn to his more personal writings, and there is something ironically cathartic for me as I read them. Kierkegaard’s life was one lived out in almost utter isolation, with a deep longing to be understood, and with a permanent inner melancholy he described as “the most faithful mistress he has ever known.” Kierkegaard was also haunted til his death for breaking off his engagement with his fiance and living out the rest of his life in singleness committed to his philosophical and prophetic pursuits.
These painful aspects of his life seem to provide a backdrop for why Kierkegaard revisited the idea of eternity within a Christian worldview with such frequency. With his life in mind, Kierkegaard seemed to robustly resonate with the Christian view of suffering in this life. Within his notes, I found one section particularly insightful:
“CHRISTIANITY WANTS TO MAKE ETERNITY EASY, BUT MAKES THIS LIFE HARD:
Christianity’s presupposition is that the concern that things go well for one in eternity is so great that, to find peace in this respect, people gladly go along with having this life made somewhat more, indeed infinitely more strenuous that when one does not involve oneself with Christianity. Having a genuine concern for one’s eternal salvation is in itself an enormous weight compared with the way of life which leaves the eternal in abeyance.”
In our culture that seems to do whatever it can to avoid any and all suffering, these words of Kierkegaard’s seem absurd. Yet Kierkegaard poses that we are either conscious of the eternal and thus suffering, or we attempt to avoid further suffering by ignoring the eternal. Kierkegaard’s own inner melancholy sheds some light on this as he even describes it as being a sort of prod which kept him mindful of eternity. Like Paul’s thorn in the flesh which kept him constantly looking to God for grace and strength, Kierkegaard’s melancholy he describes as such, “Since my earliest childhood a barb of sorrow has lodged in my heart. As long as it stays I am ironic if it is pulled out I shall die.” I can not say for certain what he means by this, but I assume if related to the previous passage, Kierkegaard’s melancholy was a means in which kept him conscious of the fact that he was living in the tension of living in the temporary and awaiting the eternal. To put it more succinctly, Kierkegaard’s melancholy kept him longing for a better country to come. Like the author of Hebrews says of the notable Biblical figures of faith,
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”
I would imagine that Kierkegaard would have understood that “better country” as synonymous with the eternal. As Kierkegaard in that passage above mentions, having some understanding of one’s eternal salvation will put a great weight upon that individual, but it is a weight that is necessary.
Imagine the Israelites. If they were not given the hope of “The Promised Land”, they would never have been able to compare their suffering in Egypt (or for that matter the desert) to anything. It is not to say that they would not have experienced suffering if they had not been promised a better country, but they would never have been able to compare their experience to something infinitely better. Remaining hopeful of that “infinitely better” destination requires us to carry the weight of not having arrived there. That’s why Kierkegaard says living in ignorance of the eternal is a far easier thing to do. Yet remaining ignorant of the eternal does not make it go away.
The Christian faith assumes that this life, the temporal, will be the hardest life we have to endure as Christians, yet the life to come will be of infinite joy. While for those who are not Christians, this life will be the best there is to be. Kierkegaard makes an alarming amount of sense to this. Kierkegaard says in a later note, “Christianity is suffering to the end – it is eternity’s consciousness.” It should be recognized that only the temporal has an end.
Amidst the turmoil of Kierkegaard’s life, I found it hard to believe as I read his notes and letters that he was able to endure the suffering of his life just off of some lofty ideas. That is why it was no surprise to have found that Kierkegaard’s eternal longings were rooted not just in the idea of the eternal but in the One in whom he would be joined to in eternity and who even holds us in the temporal:
“Father in heaven! Draw our hearts to you so that our longing may be where our treasure is supposed to be. Turn our minds and our thoughts to where our citizenship is – in your kingdom, so that when you finally call us away from here our leave-taking may not be a painful separation but a joyful union with you. We do not know the time and the place, perhaps a long road still lies before us, and when strength is taken away from us, when exhaustion fogs our eyes so that we peer out as into a dark night, and restless desires stir within us, wild, impatient longings, and the heart groans in fearful anticipation of what is coming, oh Lord God, fix in our hearts the conviction that also while we are living, we belong to you.”
Kierkegaard knew of God’s provision. He was captivated by the love of the only one who truly understood him to the depths. In his isolation and melancholy, he knew that one day he would experience intimacy and joy in his Beloved. His obsession over the eternal was, I believe, only because he knew how he would be spending eternity. His eternal longings were for an eternity with his Jesus.
“In a little while,
I shall have won,
The entire battle
Will at once be done.
Then I may rest
In halls of roses
Speak with my Jesus.”
– A hymn requested by Kierkegaard to be inscribed on his tombstone