Confused about heaven?
Let’s face it, most of us are. Even within the Christian tradition, there are a wide variety of beliefs about what happens when we die. As I looked round our congregation this morning, I suspected that if you asked each person what they believed about heaven, you would receive as many different answers! There’s plenty of choice of interpretations of heaven in the hymns that we sing, the talks that inspire us, the funerals that we attend and the meaningful quotes we read on social media.
Our beliefs about death may well change over time. When we lose someone we love, our views about where they have gone and what has happened to them may change in the light (shadow) of our grief. We may then draw comfort from the idea that they are watching over us, that we can still talk to them, that they are close and can send a sign like a feather to remind us of their presence with us. Maybe we don’t hold these views but others close to us do and given that they are in a fragile state of sorrow, we do not see it as our place to question what brings them solace.
I have never imagined my mum or dad watching over me from heaven. I’ve always said – half jokingly – that I hope that they have better things to do with eternity than to be watching over me! I do see how a part of them lives on in me and my siblings, our children and grandchildren – that in that sense, none of us are ever erased from this life at the point of death. I was brought up to believe that as Christians, we should not fear death and I get that, but death in itself and the process of dying are scary and unknown and often painful and no one is ever ready to leave behind everything of this life, it seems to me. That’s entirely natural and should not be denied. Death is frightening and death has been personified as a terrifying grim reaper, creeping around in the shadows waiting to pounce on unsuspecting souls…but death has also been defeated, we should never forget that. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Death does not have the final word. Maybe if we could grasp the truth of the power of the resurrection, then our fears could be faced with greater courage.
In the last section of the Apostles Creed that we repeat aloud and in unison with confidence, we assert that we believe in the resurrection of the body –
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
But do we really? Do we understand what that means? Ask around and I think you’ll find that many Christians do not actually believe in the resurrection of the body at all! Much of what we have come to believe about heaven and hell is not grounded in the Bible texts at all. Cultural and artistic interpretations and images (folk wisdom) became the norm and a part of core belief without us ever realising that that is where they come from. The Bible speaks much less about the heaven and hell that are so widely accepted than you might think! The book I am currently reading – Tom Wright’s ‘Surprised by Hope’ – ,which has prompted these reflections (read the second chapter if you want to see the source of my thoughts!), suggests that the language of heaven in the Gospels and the Book of Revelation is something else entirely, much more about how to live in this present reality.
Heaven, in the Bible, is regularly not a future destiny, but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life – God’s dimension, if you like. Tom Wright, page 26
I’m getting excited now. This is not something I should keep putting off because it feels like a distant reality. This is about my life in this world today. I have a feeling Tom Wright is going to challenge conventional traditionally held Christian beliefs about the afterlife in this book and I welcome that. I’m not sure I’m going to end up agreeing with everything he says, but I trust his depth of research and knowledge that will always far outstrip mine, so let’s wait and see. It’s a journey like every step of this process has been a journey.