Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Don't Put Heaven in a Box
What happens to us when we die?
Is that it? Finito? Kaput? When we die, does life cease? As my brother used to joke, "Thank you for being on our show!"
Or, is there a soul in each of us that continues onward, somewhere else?
These are questions, of course, that have daunted and haunted mankind for millennia. Skeptics say religion exists to help us figure out answers to these questions. We need some sort of belief system to answer such staggering ponderables, to provide some sort of incentive to continue on our life's journey, and to reward people for behaving in their current circumstances. Good people then go to good places like Heaven, while bad people go to bad places like Hell.
Alternatively, the traditional evangelical theology of Heaven holds that God has not designed Eternity for "good" people per-say. Heaven is for people who believe that Jesus is His Son, and He died on the cross of Calvary to pay the guilt of our sins. Alternatively, Hell isn't for bad people; it's where people go who spend their life on Earth without truly confessing faith in Jesus Christ. This means that plenty of "good" people end up in Hell, while plenty of "bad" people end up in Heaven.
In fact, the Bible teaches that apart from Christ's salvation of the souls of believers, we're all bad. Goodness is only a matter of our opinion, not God's. God is sovereign and all-knowing. He doesn't have opinions. He is truth. Shucks, He's truth's Creator, and truth's Teacher, through the power of His Holy Spirit.
You can re-read that if you need to. You've got time. I'll wait! And yes, as a born-again follower of Christ, I believe all of this. To people who don't consider themselves evangelical Christians, it's all a bunch of fables and sanctimonious rhetoric. But at least the things I believe about why we exist, and what happens to us when we die, are consistently taught throughout the Bible's 66 unique books.
So I believe that people like my father, and my aunt, both of whom recently passed away within this past year, are right now in Heaven, since both of them each personally professed faith in Jesus Christ as their holy Savior. I'm not quite sure what they're specifically doing at this very moment, like I'm sure of what I'm doing. I'm typing out a blog essay. And right now, you're reading it. However, if you have loved ones in Heaven, you're probably like me: Not as sure of what they're doing right now.
Generally speaking, based on those passages of the Bible that discuss Heaven and the death of Christ-followers, we can be confident that our loved ones who "die in Christ," as the saying goes, are literally in the presence of God and Jesus Christ, in Heaven. I believe that's where my Dad is, and my aunt. And their mother. And hopefully, loved ones you've recently lost. And hundreds and thousands and ten thousands of other saints from around the world, throughout human history, who have believed what God has told us about Himself and His Son.
It's mind-boggling, isn't it?
Yet still, what are they DOING? Are they milling about, like at a reception of some sort, sipping coffee and munching on hors d'oeuvres until the rest of us show up? Are they chatting with friends who've been there much longer, like a drawn-out family reunion, or maybe standing in lines to meet the Bible's famous heroic personalities, like some autograph session, as everybody bides their time before Eternity officially begins?
Many of us like to anthropomorphize those who've gone on to Heaven before us. We like to imagine that they're still watching us here on Earth. We presume they're still interested in our comings and goings, our love lives, how our jobs are going, who's giving birth, who's graduating college, who's making a stunning play for their football team. Somewhere up there, Heaven has celestial floor-to-ceiling windows, or maybe scuff-proof glass panes in Heaven's floor, through which saints can view us down here, despite the clouds somehow... Or maybe God installed closed-circuit TV or WiFi in Heaven with supernatural 24/7 coverage and 100% uptime reliability.
It's comforting to imagine that our loved ones remain connected somehow to us here on this planet. But is it Biblical to think that way? The only time the Bible ever mentions somebody in the Hereafter watching those they left behind on Earth is Luke 16's account of the wealthy man in Hell, who looked over to Heaven and asked Abraham to send Lazarus over with some water. Which, of course, is not a literal account of something that ever actually happened. This is an allegorical parable Jesus told in order to convey the idea that faith in Him, and not faith in money, is the key to Heaven.
Other than that, there's not much of anything in the Bible to give us proof that people in the Afterlife are living the same type of limited, sin-tainted reality that we have here on Earth.
We do know that there's no marriage in Heaven, at least among ourselves (perhaps for some of us, that's a strong endorsement right there for Eternity with God). Figuratively, we will be the "Bride of Christ," but what that will look like in a practical sense is something for theologians to debate. We know there will be work for us to do, but it will not be laborious. We won't be sick, or get tired, or sad.
It's all hard to imagine, since life for us right now is so full of good things that have been deeply corrupted by sin.
Some people - even faithful Christ-followers - tend to succumb to the impossibility of appreciating the fullness of Heaven's glory, especially when a loved one dies. Indeed, grief can provoke distortions of reality - especially Heavenly reality. There are some who say they receive visions of their dearly-departed from Heaven, and they've been able to maintain a continued relationship of sorts even after death. Yet while I sympathize with those who grieve, I don't believe our loved ones sending us anything - prayers, love, good wishes, emotional connections, verbal communications - from their new Heavenly home.
Because they're in God's holy presence! Everybody who dies in Christ is immediately embraced by God's divine being. The Bible says so. "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord."
And considering how utterly magnificent it must be to find oneself in God's presence, won't mortal concerns pale in comparison? We might fancifully imagine that our loved ones continue following along with us on our Earthly trek, even after they die in Christ. But that's a deeply self-centered idea for us to have, isn't it?
Can you see the fallacy?
"Um... OK, I'm up here three mansions away from the Pearly Gates... I've got Jesus Christ over there, just beyond the Apostle Paul and my late brother-in-law... Oops - I guess I'm "late" too, or are the rest of the saints still on Earth the ones who are actually late? Hmm... I wonder what's happening where I used to live? I can look through the Celestial WiFi at something going on down there, even though it's where sin abounds... Although, frankly, I can't even look upon sin anymore, now that I've seen God..."
Yeah; about that sin thing: Are there blips in the Celestial WiFi so your loved ones can't experience your sinful thoughts? Is there, like, a three-second delay on the transmission for Heaven's audio/visual tech angels to delete what your lustful eyes see? Sure, we may think lots of parts of this Earthly life are pretty pure, but in light of Heaven, aren't most of our lives corrupted by sin? Pollution? Crime? Speeding traffic? Selfish thoughts?
Pining for loved ones who've passed into Glory isn't exactly selfishness. But figuring they're still with you, and transmitting good vibes and lovely well-wishes from Heaven gets us pretty close to the very definition of selfishness, doesn't it? Not that there's anything sinful about fantasizing how our dead relatives might be reacting up in Heaven to something that happens to us here. But let's not start believing that our mortal lives hold more interest to folks in God's presence than, well, God's presence does.
After all, this faith we believe, including this Heaven place? It's all based on God's glory, isn't it? And if, when we die, God's glory isn't enough to distract us from what we used to have on Earth, than how magnificent is God's glory?
If Christ-followers go to Heaven when we die, being with God is our eternal reward. Being released from the bindings and trappings of Earth - there's a reason they're called "trappings"! - is part of our eternal reward.
Right now, you and I can't adequately express what Heaven is like. Or what our loved ones up there are doing right now.
We know what God is doing: He's rejoicing over us, and He's singing as He's doing it. But our loved ones who've died in Christ? All we know for sure is that they're worshipping their Savior in person.
I'm thinking that's something consuming all of their attention at this point. And frankly, wouldn't that be far better than whatever we're doing right now?