Apparently, nearly 9 out of 10 people in the United States say they believe in heaven, according to a recent ABC News poll. But what exactly do people think of when they think of an afterlife and what do they believe is required to get there?
Almost every culture has wrestled with the question of an afterlife, and most have come to a similar conclusion: the bad end up going to somewhere bad – hell, the good go to somewhere good – heaven. This doesn’t really help much though – it kind of begs the question, “ok, but what is heaven?” And then of course, there is another question – “how might our answer to that question change in light of a faith in Christ?”
I think it’s quite likely if we asked that same question – what is heaven? – of people in our community they would come up with a range of very different answers. These might include:
- Angels with harps sitting on a cloud
- A ‘higher place’
- A place of eternal bliss, whatever that means
- A place of peace and tranquility
- God’s home
- A promise made by God to be with him
- A place where people are more real, and to stay one has to give up one’s abiding sin
- A cross between a perfect beach and the Lake District – before tourism
- Same place as hell
- A place where people are happy, dancing in nice gowns, don’t have any problems and pains and can feel Gods neverending love and comfort.
- Nothing – there is no heaven – echoing John Lennon’s famous song Imagine in which he said “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try.”
I don’t know if you were aware that (according to the Wikipedia article) John Lennon was apparently inspired to write that song after reading a Christian prayer book. When asked about the song in one of his last interviews he said “The concept of positive prayer…If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion – not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing – then it can be true…the World Church called me once and asked, “Can we use the lyrics to ‘Imagine’ and just change it to ‘Imagine one religion’?” That showed [me] they didn’t understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea.” So although we may understand from this that he was challenging the division of religions, he wasn’t questioning religion per se. And if you take religion out of the equation, then it is hard to see how you can be left with any concept of heaven and what it might be like. In light of this, I don’t think it is easy at all to imagine there is no heaven!!!
Why is it that the majority of people – nearly 9 out of 10 – in that poll expressed a belief in heaven, even though fewer than 9 out of 10 people even professed a faith? Questions like “where are we going?”, “what happens next?”, “what happens to me when I die” are questions that everyone grapples with, whether consciously or subconsciously, whether professing a faith or no faith.
Does the Bible paint us a picture of heaven?
When we turn to the Bible, it does paint us a picture of heaven, but we have to scratch beneath the surface a bit to see. We do “see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now we know in part; but then shall we know even as also we are known” (1 Corinthians 13:12) and even if that picture was totally clear to see, I think it would completely blow us away and we wouldn’t have the capacity to fully understand or appreciate it.
In Ecclesiastes, we are told “Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). It is interesting in light of that to read about the God gene hypothesis which proposes that a specific gene (VMAT2) predisposes humans towards spiritual or mystic experiences. It looks like science sometimes takes a while to catch up with religion and theology!
In his great book ‘Surprised by Hope’, Bishop Tom Wright poses two questions “First, what is Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present? As long as we see Christian hope in terms of ‘going to heaven’, of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions appear as unrelated. But if the Christian hope for God’s new creation, for a ‘new heaven and a new earth’, and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to answer the two questions together.”
The point is as Christians we should not be confused about matters of eternity, about hope or about heaven; more rather as Christians we should be excited by hope, and the prospect of heaven. We need to live our life and faith shaped by eternity, not simply by the here and now. “Among the early Christians, there is complete uniformity about the hope that Christians confess – our hope is in God restoring creation, the new heaven and the new earth, not in God whisking us off to a disembodied eternity on a cloud somewhere!” I think it is all too easy for us to live our life and faith in ignorance of the astonishing consequences of the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ. “Jesus’ appearing will be, for those of us who have known and loved him here, like meeting, face to face someone we have only known by letter, or perhaps email.”
So when we consider our readings today, I want to first set the scene with our reading from the Book of Revelation before looking at the Gospel reading and see how they help us to grapple with these questions and matters of faith and reveal to us something of heaven and hope. Some points to consider:
- There will be a new heaven and a new earth.
This world that we live in is not a mistake – God does not make mistakes. There will be a coming together of heaven and earth. Tom Wright again – “The Bible does not teach that the end of the story is that Christians go off to heaven as naked souls. Rather the Bible teaches that the new heaven and the new earth come down to earth.” This world will be taken, transformed and redeemed – because that is what God does. That is the work that he began through his Son, our Lord, Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ. This is the work that he will take to completion, and is an integral part of his Kingdom having come, his Kingdom coming or breaking in now and his Kingdom fully coming in the future when Jesus Christ returns. It is like worlds colliding. It is where God takes this world and shakes the hell out of it.
2. We will be God’s people and God will dwell with us.
This speaks of relationship, fellowship, unity, restoration, love, and intimacy. It has undertones of the bringing in of peace – the Shalom – wholeness, completeness, rightness that Jewish people speak of; but also of justice and fairness.
3. He will wipe every tear from our eyes
There are times when we encounter the brokenness of this world that we feel like crying a river of tears. If we feel like this, imagine how God must feel? The Bible speaks of God as the Comforter. This is brought out so well in the songwriter Michael Card’s beautiful song called the Job Suite in which he sings the story of Job:
“Lord, send a Comforter now to my door,
So that this terror will frighten no more:
A Counsellor between us, to come hear my oath;
Someone who could lay a hand on us both.”
We are created in God’s image and likeness; in some small measure, I believe we can empathise with God in those times when we are closest to him. It is good to share one another’s burdens and comfort one another, as God seeks to comfort us by his presence. In having that empathy, we are reminded that God has searched us and knows us. He knows “when we sit down and when we rise up; he discerns our thoughts from far away. He searches out our paths and our lying down, and is acquainted with all our ways.” (Psalm 139:1-3)
Our very tears are precious to God. I have come to understand that as my children grew up; you know, those times when they wept and I kissed away their tears and told them it would all be ok – and it was? In the Psalms we are told: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” (Psalm 56:8). God doesn’t forget. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.” (Isaiah 49:15-16)
4. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away
One of the most powerful statements I think that Jesus ever made was “It is finished” (John 19:30). As a result of what Jesus did for us on the cross, he conquered sin and death. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. We must live our lives in the knowledge of that truth. There WILL come a time when in God’s grace we fully embrace that reality.
5. I am making everything new!
I like to think of this in this way…everything that is broken and wrong will be fixed. Hallelujah! And let’s be clear, it used that fully inclusive word, EVERYTHING. In God’s economy nothing is wasted. He can take, transform and redeem everything – even the most broken, most desperate and bleakest situations and things.
6. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life
We are powerfully reminded here about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman – the woman at the well – “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”” (John 4:13-15). Are you world-weary, and feeling spiritually impoverished? If you are, drink and drink deeply so that your thirst might truly be quenched.
In light of these thoughts on that incredible passage from the book of Revelation, we look at our Gospel reading – perhaps with fresh eyes:
- Mary had had an encounter with death and was heartbroken – she was utterly and doubly devastated – not only because of losing her brother, but also because deep down she knew that Jesus could have prevented it – had he been there. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
- Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. We must never think that God is unaffected by suffering, injustice and the wrongs of this world. Jesus wept, we are told, and continued to be deeply moved.
- Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Can you hear his voice now saying the same thing to you? He also says “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1). God has made promises to us…if we believe and trust in him – and unlike us, he ALWAYS delivers and comes through.
- Lazarus was not resurrected at that time; instead he was raised from the dead. There is a huge difference between being raised from the dead and resurrection. When Lazarus was raised from the dead, he was stood there alive as he always had been. When Lazarus later died, in coming to the resurrection he would have a resurrection body – recognisably him, but different. We must get away from the unhelpful picture of a soul – and bear in mind that we are flesh and blood – we are embodied, as well as spiritual beings. That is precisely why we have the capacity to love God with all our heart (emotions), soul (spirit), mind (intellect, mental capacity) and strength (physicality). But what we see here is Jesus’ not so subtle clue that he really did come to conquer sin and death.
There are circumstances in life that cause us to lose hope, to lose sight of eternity and lose that connection with God. It may be that we have lost loved ones, and are keenly aware of their absence. It may be that we encounter grief for many other reasons – unfulfilled hopes and dreams, relationships that have not worked out or the many challenges in life. As a consequence, we may feel like we are dead inside, almost as if we have given up and lost hope. It is into these situations that Jesus comes and commands that the grave clothes are taken off and we are set free – to be all that we are called to be in him. That is a people deeply loved by God, in close friendship with him, a people who believe and trust in him – a people not destined for death, brokenness and pain but a people who one day will see life in all its glory like 3D HD Technicolor compared to B&W.
“Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try.” Is it? Is it really that easy? I think not. Amen