Do you want to die? When?
I clearly remember being puzzled as a young Christian. So many things didn’t make sense. One of them was to do with the promise of the future hope. My logic was simple enough and it went like this. I have been saved by Jesus. I’ve got the ticket to eternal life. So then, when I die I go to heaven in the sky. So then, why can’t I go now? I don’t much like this world, I got the ticket and I want my ride out of it right now.
Why once we are saved can’t we get out of here straight away?
Well, it’s got a bit clearer to me and now I realise that being a Christian isn’t about heaven after you die. It’s not an escape pod from earth. Being a Christian is very much about the realisation of God’s dreams for his creation here on earth, and for his children here on earth. Jesus said heaven was at hand, here on earth.
Our focus then is on heaven here and now.
But that doesn’t change the fact that one day we shall leave this mortal existence to take up residence in an eternal spiritual existence. So it’s only right that we should still be able to think about heaven after we die.
So let’s start by asking, What do you mean when you say the word ‘heaven’?
One of the ways we use the word is to refer to a place where God is experienced in a special way. We all know God is present everywhere but still we talk about being in his presence in a localised way. And we have a sense of heaven being a place full of joy and peace where God is experienced fully and all are glad to do his will. This is a sense that resonates with the Lord’s prayer when it says ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Heaven is a ‘where’.
Another way we use the word is to refer to a time. Heaven is a ‘when’ as well as a ‘where’. Especially maybe that time after we have physically died. ‘In heaven’ functions like the phrase ‘in the summer’. In addition to phrases like ‘in Jinju’.
A third way we might use the word ‘heaven’ is to refer to a state or a condition. It is a ‘how’. It suggests the condition of having no body, or of being ethereal. A disembodied spirit.
These days when we use the word ‘heaven’ we normally use a fusion of all three meanings. So we talk about being with God after death in our spirits.
That’s what people today normally mean by heaven.
But what did normal people two thousand years ago in Israel mean by the word?
When Jesus and his disciples used the word, what did it mean?
You won’t be surprised to learn that many of them didn’t see it the way we do, they didn’t have hope in a disembodied existence for all eternity somewhere away from the earth. Instead many of them anticipated resurrection, an embodied state here in a new era on earth when all wrongs had been made right. If ancient Jews did think of a disembodied state, it would probably have been a state between death and resurrection. Sort of like a waiting room in a hospital until we get our body back.
What do Jesus and today’s Scripture have to say about this?
You want to hear details, don’t you. You want to be told that there will be no pain, you will be surrounded a bright light as you float down a tunnel, you will feel overwhelming peace and meet loved relatives who have passed on before you. Your entire life will play in front of you. … That’s the sort of answer most people are looking for.
Jesus talks in Matthew 25 about a time of judgement for all the nations. He often used harvest as a metaphor. You reap what you sow, you will be judged by your fruit, not by the beauty of your flowers or the quantity of your leaves. He spoke in ways that reinforced the idea of responsibility for our lives, he spoke of accountability, he suggested that there are consequences for our actions and our thoughts.
The Sadducees did not believe in life after death. They taught that it all ended when you died. And so this life was very important to the Sadducees, and they cherished status and possessions. Play it safe, this life is your only one.
The Pharisees did believe in resurrection. They taught that the righteous would rise from their graves to enjoy the new world brought about by God’s Messiah when he transformed the current world. Sadly, this new world could not come while there was so much sin in the old world. They didn’t much like all of the sinners who were delaying the arrival of the Messiah and the new world.
The Hellenists had mixed ideas from Greek philosophy (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others) into their Judaism. They did believe that after death their spirits or souls would be united with God. So they saw death as the great escape, much as I did when I first became a Christian. I didn’t realise at the time how much Greek thinking there was in my Christianity. And you probably don’t know how much there is in your thinking right now. They didn’t much like the idea of resurrection. Returning to a physical body seemed like a step down, so they didn’t really talk about it.
The Zealots, what of the crazy zealots? Well they held views fairly similar to today’s Islamic terrorists. Messiah would remake the world, but only people of courage with a true heart would be part of it, so you had to be ready and willing to help Messiah by killing lots of sinners. And you had to be ready to die for your beliefs.
Jesus agreed with the Zealots in being ready to die for God and expecting resurrection, but rejected violence and called instead for sacrificial love. He disagreed with the Pharisees that resurrection is for a select few. He agreed with the Sadducees that the here and now is important, but he says death is not the end.
Jesus never feared death, but he didn’t want to escape this world for the next. Jesus had a radical confidence that pervaded his life and teaching, a certainty that this life is not all that there is. There is more, much more, on the other side of death.
Jesus has defeated death. Jesus has been resurrected.
What we come to with Jesus is not a neat prescription of how after death we are going to be floating on clouds and playing harps, or walking in verdant valleys and eating ripe fruit year round from overladen trees.
We come instead to a place of faith, where we realise it is not the details of heaven that matter. The details would be a distraction for more important things. We trust in Jesus’ promises. We live according to his directions.
We have the awesome hope that the relationship we are building now will last over death and continue. We are building eternity with every prayer, every act of love, every gesture of compassion. Never mind the details, I want to seek first the kingdom of God. I want to passionately desire a closer relationship with him. I want to be more obedient. I want to fit in with his plans better. I want his heart and his mind. I trust him that the rest will be the best because he created it for me out of a love that passes all understanding.
With God, the future is glorious.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:58 that nothing will be wasted. None of the seeds that Jesus talks about, none of our efforts, will be wasted. In the end, whatever form that takes, we shall find that life goes on.
But Jesus keeps pointing us back to the way we live today, the way we grow and bear fruit in this world. He keeps reminding us of the importance of seeking God today, of seeking to please God, of seeking a deeper relationship with God.
Don’t get so carried away with tomorrow that you lose sight of today.
To be loved by God is the greatest thing.