Two months after beginning my first pastoral charge, I found myself in an ambulance racing towards London’s University hospital. Beside me lay a ten-year-old girl, Janine, kept alive with machinery so that her organs could be transplanted to waiting donors. Janine and her mother had both died in a car accident that morning. I held Janine’s warm yet lifeless hand in mine the whole way. And I remembered wondering what really happens when we die.
As a minister I’ve sat at the bedside of many people who breathed their last: an old sailor who kept his identity as a gay man secret once he retired; a known child molester; a man with leukemia who allowed his young daughter to visit only on days he had a blood transfusion, so she wouldn’t realize he was dying. And beside each bed, I wondered what happens when we die.
The traditional answer is often sung as the last verse of Amazing Grace.
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first began.” Sound good? This song actually plays up what is still popular culture’s image of life after death—harp and halos, clouds and choirs. Ironically, though I love listening to our choir, I don’t really enjoy singing myself. So this picture of heaven strikes me as pretty boring. What really happens when we die?
Before about 300 BC, Jews generally didn’t hold to a belief in anything we’d recognize as heaven. At best, there is some suggestion, in the Old Testament, that upon death people would go to Sheol, a place of shadows, spirits, and specters—but not real, vital life. Not a very nice place.
However, by Jesus’ day, many Jews had changed their minds. The idea of eternal reward or punishment probably entered Judaism from Zoroastrianism and other Middle Eastern religions that Jews encountered while living in exile, or who remained in the diaspora after. From there those same ideas made their way into Christianity. But what really happens when we die?
Most orthodox Christians now believe that even if we do go to heaven up above, it will only be for a short time. Heaven is a temporary resting place for the soul, until Jesus returns to earth and our bodies are resurrected. After that humans will live on a new earth, to which heaven has come down, as in the passage we read this morning. On this new earth, with mountains and lakes, cities and forests, we’ll pick up the task that Adam and Eve gave up when they sinned and were forced to leave paradise. A new Garden of Eden opportunity.
But in fact, this image of heaven on earth is actually constructed from the New Testament’s many conflicting images of heaven. In the Bible, sometimes heaven looks like choirs of strange creatures singing round God’s throne, as in Revelation 4. In the Gospel of John Jesus says we will receive mansions in heaven, with no mention of a new earth. He adds, in Mark, that there will be no marriage in heaven, but that we will be like angels—what ever that means, though they certainly don’t have bodies anything like ours.
And again, in today's scripture heaven is described as a New Jerusalem where there will be no more tears, no more death, no mourning, and no pain.
Further on in the same passage, beyond what we read this morning, we’re told that New Jerusalem has great, high walls with twelve gates where angels are posted. A river of life flows out of the city, bright as crystal. A tree of life grows there, with twelve kinds of fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations. “And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they—that’s us—will reign forever and ever.” It’s a fantastic picture, completely mythical, like the Garden of Eden is mythical. So I wonder what will really happen when we die.
One of the most salient realities about heaven is that in popular culture it is mostly thought of as a reward for living a good life. This turns Christianity into a set of requirements or tests that you have to pass in order to be “good enough” to merit heaven. Heaven as reward turns life into a legalistic moral maze that you have to pass through to win. Though most Protestants are supposed to believe we are saved by grace, rather than good works, the truth is most people go through life thinking either, “I’ve lived a good life, so God will invite me to heaven,” or not. Heaven is a problematic belief in this respect, historically, because this picture divides the world into two camps, an “in group” and an “out group,” the saved and the damned, Christian and Muslim, or Christian and unbeliever. And, of course, if you’re not in my camp, you can go to hell. It is not a doctrine that, as popularly understood, has made for good neighbors; it is actually a doctrine that has fueled Christian crusades and pogroms for hundreds of years.
Finally, a focus on heaven – especially among conservative Christians who think this planet will be destroyed to make way for the New Jerusalem when Jesus returns—a focus on heaven is problematic because these Christians don’t really care about this world, or care for today’s mountains and lakes, for this climate or our Lake Ontario. They think that we can use this world up and throw it away, exploit it mercilessly, because ultimately Jesus is going to make all things new. But I wonder what will really happen when we die.
Besides no more tears, no more death, no more mourning, our scripture reading also promises, in verse one, that there shall be “no more sea.” Why did the Jews and early Christians think that there would be no more sea in heaven? Well, this hope is rooted in the way that ancient Jews feared the sea. Water was hell to the Jews.
For example, according to Psalm 74, God had to break the heads of the dragons in the waters under the earth—crush the heads of Leviathan—in order to make room on planet earth for the dry land on which we now live. Jews thought of the sea as a place where the monster Tiamat lived, Lord of dark and chaos. No wonder that when King Solomon built a fleet of ships to trade for far-away Ophir's gold, he hired foreign men to sail those boats. Jews feared the sea because it was the realm of evil.
Likewise, when Jonah fled from God, he ended up in the belly of a sea monster—he was swallowed up by hell. When Jesus cast demons out of the Gaderine demoniac, Jesus sent them into a herd of pigs who immediately went home, to hell, in the sea, taking the pigs with them into the dark. Heaven, according to today’s scripture, on the other hand, is a place where there is no more sea—no monsters, no demons, no evil left to fear.
In this context, the words “no more sea,” suggest to me, at the very least, that scripture doesn’t want Christians to fear death. In spite of the many conflicting images concerning what exactly happens when we die, one constant is present in scripture. For Christians death is not a place of chaos monsters and demons. In death, there is no more sea, and no worries of the sort that hell inspires in literalists. The one thing that unifies all of the New Testament’s many differing descriptions of life after death is a sense of hopefulness and promise. Unlike the depths of the sea, which are terrible—hell really—in life after death, there is no more sea.
Now, in such Biblical descriptions of heaven, I strongly resist the implicit idea that heaven is for Christians only and hell is its necessary complement. As I’ve said before, I just can’t buy the notion of hell. It seems ludicrous to me that a God who redeems the universe would not redeem those people who didn’t know about him, didn’t believe the right things about him, or people who messed up in average ways. We all mess up, after all.
I leave it to you to decide whether you agree with me on that. I understand that a complete rejection of hell requires a deeper study of our and other religious traditions. I’ve don that on other Sundays. But in this message, I don’t want to focus on that—I’d rather reflect on the larger picture of hopefulness and promise suggested by “no more sea” and other Biblical passages that describe the afterlife.
Why? Well, in part it is wistful, wishful thinking on my part. I admit it. The idea of heaven is—well—just appealing in a completely subjective way. I also cling to the notion of a life beyond death because I have read many books that describe near death experiences—you know, where people who almost die see tunnels of light, are met by a beautiful and kind figure at the end of the tunnel, and then are told that their time has not yet come. These accounts are very suggestive. Perhaps they fill you with hope too.
I also cling to the hope for some kind of life after death not just because of scripture’s evocative hints, but also on account of the near universal suggestion found in many religions that this life is not all there is.
But finally, the bottom line for me is that I’m not sure about heaven. I doubt that those who wrote scripture, and perhaps especially the book of Revelation, were authorities on the matter. It is the very nature of faith that there are no guarantees.
Look. I’d love nothing more than to be able to stand here this morning and promise you endless delight in an amazing paradise. But I wouldn’t be honest with you if I did so promise. Personally, I’ve come to terms with the notion that if there is no heaven, at worst, death will add up to the deepest, most peaceful sleep I’ve ever had. On the other hand, I also choose to dream of an amazing surprise when I die. The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther once said of life after death that we can know as little about it as a baby knows of this life as it enters the birth canal. Touché. Who knows what lies beyond—but either way, I refuse to live in fear today. Instead, I choose to seize the gift of life, treasure it, and follow Jesus with it. Whatever may come to pass in the by and by, I choose to give others as much by way of life and love here and now as I can. In fact, I think of that path as a life to die for.