What does Life after Death mean?

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

Revelation 21:1-4 – NRSV

A story is told of a goose and a dog discussing heaven. ‘It’ll be wonderful’ says the dog, ‘Heaven will include everything that your heart ever desired.’ The goose thinks for a moment and says ‘Will there be slugs, in this heaven of yours?’ ‘Slugs!’ spits out the dog. ‘Of course not! Horrid slimy things, slugs.’ ‘I’m not sure I like the idea of your heaven’ says the goose. ‘I’m never happier than when I’m eating slugs.’

A silly story, but it underlines the difficulty of picturing what life after death would be like; a challenge that hits us whenever we consider our own mortality, which perhaps many are doing at this very moment. We’re all different, and our thoughts are coloured by whether we’re a dog, or a goose, or even a slug.

Revelation, Chapter 21, is often used at funerals. Maybe one of the reasons that it’s chosen is because actually there are very few passages in the Bible that even touch on life after death. This, surely, is very odd, as we’re members of a Church that very firmly believes in life after death; in fact, you could almost say that it’s one of our principal beliefs. Although the Bible’s packed with teaching about how we should live our lives, there’s not much about what happens to us or our loved ones when we die.  We tend to think about the passage from Revelation as a vision, albeit not a very full one, of what heaven will be like. It says that God will wipe every tear from our eyes and death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more. I, and millions of others like me, have found these words comforting when mourning the deaths of people that I’ve loved, and yet is this passage actually describing an afterlife? What it seems to say is that the home of God is to be among mortals; he will dwell with them and they will be his peoples. This sounds more like God coming to earth than us going to heaven.

If you listen to many critics of the Christian Church, a common accusation is that we don’t teach ‘biblical standards’ any more. ‘If only the Church knew what it stood for, and defended that vision’, they say, ‘it might just manage to avert the slide into terminal decline that’s otherwise inevitable.’ But the vision that those who argue this view put forward, is a poor reflection of the grand sweeping vision of the new heaven and new earth in Revelation and of Christ’s preaching about the coming of God’s kingdom here on earth ‘as in heaven’.

We all carry around with us, a picture of the nature of the God that we worship. There’s a story of an elderly Roman Catholic priest being asked what was the most common problem that he met, when hearing confession. He answered: ‘God. The misconception of God. The inability, for whatever reason, to see God as a God of love, forgiveness, tenderness, mercy and compassion.’

It’s probably fair to say that in our churches, whatever takes us nearer to that loving vision of God, however mysterious, is helpful. But if we believed, as I read recently from one minister, that the current COVID pandemic is God’s way of punishing us for our way of life, how would that change our view of God? If it has the effect of turning God into a vengeful, intolerant, judgmental and spiteful figure, is that helpful, or is it us judging God by our own dreadful human standards?

There’s a story of a family who brought their brand new baby son home from hospital for the first time, and were surprised and slightly alarmed when their three year old daughter kept nagging them to be left alone with her tiny brother in his room. After some soul-searching, they decided that they could safely agree to this, if they kept a close ear to the baby monitor in the neighbouring room. And when they listened in, they heard their daughter say to her new-born brother: ‘Please tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.’

It’s such a touching story because it reminds us that we’re born with a natural instinct for God’s love for us, and a natural sense of trust in him. Unfortunately, as we progress through life, so we’re taught to mistrust the world around us. And as we do so, so we find it more difficult to trust God and thus to believe that we’re loved, not despite who we are, but because of who we are and we’re loved in death as in life.

As Christians, we aren’t taught to consider ourselves to be better than the rest of the world, despite the fact that the media likes to portray us that way. The best we can say is that we’re perhaps more aware of a need for God in our lives, but this doesn’t automatically make us better people.

Whatever our view of life after death, the vision that comes to us in Revelation, affords us a glimpse of a new heaven, merged with a new earth. It’s a vision calling us to live life in a new relationship with God; one that promises to be true to his vision of us as the people that he had always intended us to be, ever since the start of Creation.

It’s a vision that cries out for our thoughtful reflection, particularly at this time when so many of us are terrified of COVID and of our own possible deaths.

Heavenly Father, give us a sense of hope that life on this earth is not all that there is, so that we may learn to love you better, fear death less and hold in our hearts the belief that we will meet you and our loved ones again after our lives on this earth are over. Amen

4 thoughts on “What does Life after Death mean?

  1. Thank you James, I’ve found that very helpful. There are two things I’ve been pondering this week as I’ve been mulling the Road to Emmaus reading I was asked to preach on for today. The first is that the disciples (& the Jews as whole) concentrated much more on the parts of the OT that spoke of God gaining victory for his people through the Messiah – and ignoring the bits that talked about how it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer. I’m aware that much of my preaching centres on God’s love, and I wonder if I’ve become a bit monochrome (i.e. I’m a goose, seeing life as a goose, preaching as a goose, to people that I expect to be geese like me), so although the goose/dog/slug illustration is simple it chimes with what I’ve been pondering.
    The second part of pondering relates to Covid as God’s ‘punishment’ (and my tendency to preach on God’s love rather too much) – I find it hard to think that God might punish people this way (and I don’t think I could ever preach from that stance – anymore than I could say earthquakes / erupting volcanoes are God’s way of punishing us). However, I would class it a wake-up call from nature – a ‘Malthusean check’ it was called when I was at school…. and I think we need to sit up and take notice (if we weren’t already) of what humankind are doing in terms of mistreating the earth.

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    • Thanks Rachel for a really thoughtful comment. I was reminded that when some years ago I said to my incumbent that I felt my preaching was in a rut, he said ‘Maybe, but it’s a good rut’. We have to portray God as we see Him, surely the most important thing we do, even if sometimes we think we’re being repetitive. And as for ‘Malthusian check’, absolutely! These events are not created by a loving God, but we are very definitely called on to theologically reflect on what has happened. And if we believe (as some do) that this virus came to be in a wildlife market, then surely we have an absolute duty to treat all God’s creatures with respect. And thanks, Pat, for building on this aspect of Rachel’s comment. And thanks to you both for continuing to read the blog!

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      • Hi James and Rachel
        I remember in our training being told that ultimately we would all one thing that comes into every sermon and what could be better than a celebration of God’s love? So bravo!
        I also think this is a wake up call. As Richard Rohr puts it we are living in a liminal space poised between two worlds. This is a chance for transition, even transformation (why not think big?) within ourselves and how we treat God’s creation.

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  2. Dear James. Thanks for this. As ever, you hit the nail on the head. I do think, like Rachel, that the spread of this virus and our response is a bit of a wakeup call to value the beauty of humanity and all of creation. So much of modern life takes us away from each other and the reality of life and the consequences of what we do. I have no doubt that God is with us in this and wiping eyes and giving strength but I have hopes that heaven is that place where we dwell forever in his unimaginable love.

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