I’ve had a number of requests for this sermon on Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife. Apparently one of the things that drives people away from the Christian faith is the idea of God’s judgment and the notion that God could or would send people to Hell. But is that what God does? Read on.
This is the last sermon in a series called “Christianity 101,” and, appropriately enough, it is about “last things.” The technical term is eschatology, from a Greek word that means “last” or “end.” Eschatology is the study of what comes at the end of human life and the end of human history. It seeks to answer the question that is the title of today’s sermon:
“What comes next?”
Back in 2011 I did a Wednesday night series called “Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife,” and I began by talking about bodies and souls. There seems to be a common assumption that while bodies die, souls do not; that our bodies are buried in the ground while our souls fly off to heaven. Maybe that’s what you’ve always believed, but it is not the biblical view. As Frederick Buechner puts it, “the biblical understanding of human beings is not that they have bodies, but that they are bodies. When God made Adam he did it by slapping some mud together to make a body and then breathing some breath into it to make a living soul. Thus the body and soul which make up human beings are as inextricably part of parcel of each other as the leaves and flames that make up a bonfire. When you kick the bucket, you kick it one hundred percent.”
I realize this may come as a shock to some of you. You may have taken it for granted that when your mortal body dies your immortal soul will float off to heaven. You may be wondering, “If I am an inseparable combination of body and soul, then what’s going to happen to me when that combination no longer exists?” Let me be blunt: someday (unless Jesus comes back first) you’re going to die. As Tony Campolo’s old pastor used to say to young people, “One of these days they’re going to take you out to the cemetery, drop your body in a hole, and go back to the church and eat fried chicken.” All the more reason then to put your life into God’s hands now and trust him—not with the immortality of your soul (an idea that comes from Greek philosophy), but with the resurrection of your body (a truth that comes from Holy Scripture).
Think about it: the only person who has ever come back from the dead to tell us what it’s like is Jesus, and he came back because God raised him up. He had a resurrection body that was enough like his old body for people to recognize him. In the garden Mary says, “Rabbouni!” In the boat John says, “It is the Lord!” At first his disciples thought he was a ghost, but he wasn’t. In Luke 24 he invites them, “touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bone as you see that I have.” He ate a piece of broiled fish in their presence. His resurrection body was physical, tangible, and yet he was able to enter a room through locked doors (John 20) and to disappear from his disciples’ sight (Luke 24). Whatever a resurrection body is like, it isn’t exactly like this earthly body. Paul says it’s as different as a flower is from the dry, brown seed you plant in the ground (1 Cor. 15). The Bible tells us that Jesus was raised from the dead and it promises us that someday, “on that great gettin’ up morning,” we will be raised from the dead, too.
Sometimes, when I talk like this, someone will get a troubled look on his face. He’ll say, “But if our souls don’t go to heaven right away then what becomes of us in the meantime? I mean…where’s my saintly grandmother right now? Is she in a hole in the ground, or in heaven with Jesus?” That’s a fair question, and here’s what I usually say in response: “Because she put her life in God’s hands, because she put her faith and trust in Christ, I believe that God has already raised her from the dead, and that she is with him now, looking as young and beautiful as she did on her wedding day.” “But she was cremated,” he adds. “How can God raise up a pile of ashes?” “Listen,” I say, “God made the first man from a handful of dust. Ashes are not a problem!” And you can see the relief on his face. “So, tell me,” he asks, “what does her mansion look like? Are the streets really gold? Is there a crystal sea? Is heaven ‘up there’ somewhere? What about the ‘other place’? Did Grandpa make it? Are there any dogs there?” And that’s when I laugh and say, “Whoa! Easy there, big fellah! Let’s talk about how to ask the right questions.” First of all:
1. We must not want to know too much. Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “It is unwise for Christians to claim any knowledge of either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” The biblical writers do not and cannot tell us everything we would like to know. On most things, our best response is to say, “We don’t know and we don’t need to know.”
2. Biblical language about the future is metaphorical or symbolic. Over and over again, Jesus said “the Kingdom of Heaven is like so and so.” He was trying to help his hearers imagine something they had never seen or experienced. It’s the same with all talk about heaven and hell in the Bible. In Revelation John says, “The one seated on the throne looked like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald” (Rev. 4:3). The biblical writers didn’t have enough words or enough of the right kind of words to describe such things. The best they could do is point and stammer.
3. Scripture offers us not one but several hopes for the future. In the Old Testament, it is the hope of a perfect earthly kingdom, like the Golden Age of King David. Near the end of the OT, it is a cosmic battle that will end in resurrection of the dead—some to eternal life, others to eternal shame. In the New Testament it is the good news that “the Kingdom of the world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” So, which one of these is right? Shirley Guthrie says, “The many different biblical visions of the future agree that God stands at the end of history in general and at the end of the life of every individual person. The New Testament insists that he does all this in and through Christ Jesus. In the final analysis, that is all we know and all we need to know.”
4. The best insight we have into what God will do is found by looking into what God has done. If that’s true, then the future-oriented book of Revelation may not be our best source. When we look back through the acts of God in the past we find that he has been working constantly to redeem us and the world he loves so much. I believe that’s what he will do in the future (these four principles are derived from Shirley Guthrie’s theology textbook: Christian Doctrine).
Having said all that, let’s turn our attention away from ourselves and toward others, and the world, and especially on a day when the world is still reeling from the attacks in Paris. Will it always be like it is now, with every day’s newspaper full of bad news? Will we human beings continue to disobey God, hate one another, and destroy the planet? No! We Christians believe that one day God in Christ will “judge the living and the dead,” and “create a new heaven and a new earth.” What does that mean? Let’s look at both of those things, beginning with God’s judgment:
When I did that Wednesday night series back in 2011 I showed a slide of a 15th century painting where Jesus is sitting on a rainbow, separating the righteous from the unrighteous like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The righteous were being ushered into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, while the unrighteous were being dragged into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. It was a frightening picture, and it was meant to be. There were demons with leathery wings flying around, snatching up victims in their claws, while others with pitchforks prodded naked sinners closer and closer to the fire. It asked in the most vivid way imaginable, “Where will you spend eternity?” But is that really the way it’s going to be? The great theologian Karl Barth once said, “In the biblical world of thought the judge is not primarily the one who rewards some and punishes others; [but the one] who creates order and restores what has been destroyed.”
Let’s pause right there for a moment. If order could be created in this crazy world, if what has been destroyed could be restored, wouldn’t that be good news? Friends, it is good news! Shirley Guthrie (one of my favorite theologians) reminds us that, in the end, the biblical view of judgment is this: “Evil will be condemned and rooted out of God’s good creation once and for all!” That’s good news, but there’s more: the judge is Jesus! He is the only one who can be trusted with the job of judging the world, the only one who knows what it truly means to “make things right.” He is the one who was sent because God loved the sinful world so much, and who died for us while we were yet sinners. He judges us not out of anger, but out of love, and if there is any penalty to be paid, he willingly offers to take it on himself. This is good news, not bad, and if this is what God’s judgment looks like then I say bring it on!
But when will it happen? When will the Judgment Day come? Aristotle said that every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. God’s good story had a beginning, it has a middle, and some day it will have an end. We don’t know when that day will come, but we do know that someday our own story will come to an end. It came to an end for some people in Paris on Friday night. There they were, sitting in a concert hall when terrorists opened fire and killed them. They died—body and soul. But, here’s what I believe: I believe that we live our earthly lives on the time line, with one second ticking into the next relentlessly. We can’t stop time, hard as we try. We can’t go back and correct our mistakes. We are bound by time until…the moment of our death. Then we are set free. We step off the time line into eternity, into the realm of God, because God is bigger than time. If the only thing separating the day of our death from the day of our resurrection is time, then when time drops out of the equation those two come together—our last breath on earth is followed by our next breath in heaven—and there we stand, shaking the dirt off our grave clothes, wondering what comes next.
What does come next?
The New Testament teaches there are two kinds of future life: life in heaven and life in hell. But remember: 1) We must not want to know too much, and 2) The clearest clue to what is going to happen in the future is what God has been doing in the past. So, what is heaven? According to Shirley Guthrie it is “Not a place located somewhere in outer space where we will escape from our humanity to become angels or disembodied spirits. Heaven is an eternal life of genuine, completely free realization of our humanity in a new heaven and a new earth. It is the life we were made for.” And what is hell? Dr. Guthrie says, “It is not a fiery or dark place of eternal torment located somewhere underground between the United States and China. It is living apart from or in hostility toward God and other people, and therefore denying one’s own true humanity—forever. It is not eternal life, but eternal death.”
Now, you are free to accept or reject Dr. Guthrie’s definitions. Maybe you think of heaven and hell in a different way, and if you do, that’s OK. There is only so much we can know; most of this is speculation. So, can I tell you what I’ve been thinking lately? This is not the word of God; these are just the words of Jim. But I love that biblical vision of a new heaven and a new earth. I love it because it suggests that the world is not going to be destroyed, but made new again. Can you imagine? This beautiful blue-green planet as pure and pristine as it was on the day of creation, so you could scoop up a bucket of water from the East River in New York and drink out of it? I love that, because I love the world God made the first time.
And I love that vision of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. Imagine it settling down somewhere on that new earth, maybe where the Garden of Eden was. And then imagine everybody who has ever lived standing there, watching it come down, and hearing a voice that says, “Now the dwelling of God is with people. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning, and crying, and pain will be no more,” and watching as those pearly gates swing open and we are invited in.
But then imagine this: that some people don’t want to go in, that if that’s where God is then it’s the last place on this new earth they want to be. So instead of streaming forward toward the New Jerusalem they skulk off in the other direction, away from it, as far away from it and the presence of God as they can get. So, there’s heaven, which is wanting to stand in the presence of God and feel him wipe the tears from your eyes, and there’s hell, which is wanting to be as far away from God as possible. The difference between the two may have much more to do with how things stand with you and God than where the two are located.
So, how do things stand with you and God? Where will you spend eternity? And where would you want to spend it: with God, or without him? Your answer to that question may be the best indication of whether or not you are headed in the right direction, and if you are not this may be your best opportunity to change your course, to step out of your pew, to walk down the aisle, as if you were walking toward the wide-open gates of the New Jerusalem.
—Jim Somerville ©2015