On Sunday I listened to my friend Eugene talk to a gathering of believers about the question: “What happens when we die?” He talked about how he believes in a heaven and a hell, but admitted that there really isn’t very much detailed in Scripture about either. Nor does God seem to be big on giving us a lot of details in the Bible about what death looks like or feels like. It’s kind of like, you have to be there–to experience it–to know what it is. (Of course, once we cross that threshold, most of us don’t come back.)
Interestingly, when Jesus was about to die, He was pretty vague with His disciples about what to expect on the other side, as well. They wanted specifics, details, and He basically said, “Trust Me.” Here’s a snippet of the conversation in John 14:
“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.”
Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.”
As Eugene was talking about all this, I was thinking about the whole thing about heaven and hell, and how some Christians even question the existence of hell because they can’t get their mind around a God of love allowing eternal punishment; and I thought about the different ones who claim they’ve seen heaven and/or hell, and wrote books about them. I understand why the debate goes on. I look at my own background, and I realize I have a whole heaven/hell framework in my mind, almost like a detailed model of the solar system, that has been informed by the evangelical mindset: heaven is here, hell is down there, heaven will one day come to earth and hell will be somewhere else…and where we spend eternity is based on whether we said the prayer and were issued a pass. (That’s a bit sarcastic, but you get the point.) But so much of this model, honestly, I realize is loosely based on a few Scriptures. The Bible isn’t explicit that this is the way it is; we have just connected the dots in a way that makes sense to our minds.
I’m not saying I no longer believe it this way, because I pretty much do (except I had my tongue in my cheek when I was talking about the hall pass thing). I’m just saying I understand why people rationalize it the other way, because there really isn’t much conclusive detail in Scripture either way. We each just take the tack that makes the most sense to us, but more of it is speculation than anyone wants to admit.
And pondering all this (when I probably should have been listening to Eugene), I realized something: maybe all this speculation about heaven and hell, and what each is like, and how we wind up in one place or the other–maybe we’re missing the point about it. If the Bible is so vague about it, why do we spend so much time on it? Maybe we’re not asking the right questions here. And maybe Jesus’ words ought to give us a clue:
“In my Fathers’ house are many dwelling places…I go to prepare a place for you…that where I am, there you may be also…I AM THE WAY…”
We focus so much attention on a place we go after we die, when Jesus seems more concerned with Who we are with. Maybe we’d do better with this discussion if we focused on what Jesus seemed to think was important. When people tried to pin Him down on the details of the afterlife, He just kept pointing back to Himself and the Father.
Looking at the Scriptures this way, I can see that maybe the early church actually followed this cue. Paul talked about death this way: “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Again–more about being with God than “going to heaven”. Heaven and hell were discussed, but remain a bit veiled in the New Testament; in fact, Paul claimed to have seen heaven in a spiritual experience, but said he heard “inexpressible things” it wasn’t permissible for him to speak of! (Didn’t he know he was supposed to write a book about it?–sorry, tongue in my cheek again.)
I guess what I’m saying is…maybe the important thing about death is whether or not we are with Jesus. Maybe that’s what makes it heaven, and that’s what makes the alternative hell. Jesus said He goes to prepare a place for us–so obviously there is a “place”–but the whole point of the place Jesus is preparing is that so we might be where He is. We focus on the place, while God has always been about the relationship–gathering the family to Himself. We have created these detailed doctrines (both liberal and conservative) based on connecting the dots, when maybe God wanted us to keep it simple.
So if any of my evangelical friends reading this are concerned that I’m losing my salvation…or if my liberal friends are celebrating that I’m finally “coming around”…let me just say that both of you are still missing the point. 🙂 The whole reason those reactions would come up is because we have been asking the wrong questions in the first place. I see enough in Scripture about heaven and hell to recognize that it’s foolish to discount either of them; but I also am far more aware of how much the Scriptures do not say about them. I just know that I want to follow Jesus where He leads, and when I one day pass into the afterlife, I want to be with Him. Because whatever it looks like, or wherever it is…the alternative would be hell.
One other thing before I go–and this is a point Eugene also made–Jesus lived and taught on earth as though heaven were already accessible. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” I think one huge reason why the afterlife is not deeply addressed in the Bible is that the Bible is not for the afterlife. It is about how we live here on earth. We would do well not to be lost in speculation about a realm our human minds could never understand, and instead begin experiencing heaven here on earth. We do not have to wait until we die to be with Jesus.