Short answer is, “We don’t know.” A slightly longer answer is, “We don’t know much.” Most people in North America would still like to think they go on to somewhere better, but why? In England I hear stories of people who never believed in God being placed with the stars, the angels, or with Jesus when they die. Why should they go to be with a God they never knew? In the common psyche, it seems to be God’s job. He is to remain at a safe distance while we live, but He’ll scoop me up and bring me to heaven when I die. It seems like He is at our whim. He seems small in this retelling. Why not be more consistent and be done with God altogether? Why not join the growing band of atheists who see no point in God in this life and no role for God in the afterlife? Nietzsche proclaimed God was dead – we had killed Him in the 19th century. However, the crippled and impotent God of middle America today is more horrific and insipid than the mighty God of the 18th century cathedrals whom they killed. I believe we lack courage to kill off God, in middle America, because we are afraid. Who wants to walk into the night without hope? Who wants to travel across Styx just to find the ferryman drops us off the edge of reality and into a unexpected abyss?
Some say heaven was invented to allay mankind’s fears of death. We have a modified strategy to deal with our fears today. We don’t want to think about death. We shun people who do and call them ‘morbid.’ We move faster and faster – mindlessly – in this life, so that death will come in an instant. Suddenly we will be gone. If our story ends at death, so be it. We don’t want to see the car before it hits us. Let our death be like a band-aid ripped off swiftly – a bullet to the head – and then, hopefully, the end.
But the ancient Greeks thought an afterlife was necessary to complete justice (Plato). Ancient eastern peoples completed justice with a karma rebirth tailored to repay each previous life. Ancient Jewish people wrote about Sheol and Abaddon. They declared that no-one praised God from the grave (Psalm 115:17; Isaiah 38:18). From their own observation, the wise people of ancient Israel encouraged us to enjoy the spouse, the house, and food (I was tempted to write grouse) that God has given (Ecclesiastes 9:9). But the Jewish philosopher watched a dog die and watched a person die and saw no difference (Ecclesiastes 3:19).
Many today believe their eternal destiny rests in the balance. The scales tip one way or the other based on whether they have been good enough in this life. The ancient Egyptians weighed the heart against a feather to decide the course of the journey into death. This thinking has slipped into the common psyche, but is it Christian? Is it the way of the Bible?
The Bible says that the dead will rise again at the coming of Jesus. It says that all people will be raised up on The Last Day. It says after that comes the judgement (Hebrews 9:27,28). Then it says that all have sinned and have fallen short of God’s standards. The scales, according to the New Testament, weigh every person and find they fall short. God allows a substitution. He allows Jesus to pay the price for the unrighteousness of each life. This is a free gift, but like any free gift it must be received. In this life, the gift of eternal life is offered. It is not a life of vacation by the pool – it is a life of fellowship with Jesus and his followers. It starts when a person becomes a disciple in this life – and it never ends. A loving God does not force people to come to His party. A loving God does not make people dwell in His house forever. He allows an alternative. We call that alternative Hell or Hades. It is the eternal dwelling place of those who do not believe in God, who have no love for Jesus, and who wish to follow their own path. Of course, this path leads eternally to frustration and torment. Some Christians want God’s mercy to annihilate those who do not walk with him. The Bible doesn’t really allow for that option. The language the Bible uses for Hell, is that of a fiery pit whose smoke rises forever (Revelation 14:11).
On the surface it is comforting to think of an alienated God who reveals himself at death and brings you home to his bosom. But what if that loving God is repulsive to you? What if the company in the eternal resting place is unbearably obnoxious? Wouldn’t you long to escape? Wouldn’t you long for Hell? On the surface, belief in a judgement where we are all basically good is something to be looked forward to. However, the anxiety, the shame and the guilt we carry in our hearts may be a sign that the ending will not match our optimism. In these cases the sudden ending of the atheist would certainly be preferable. The atheist embodies the strength of being able to embrace the pointlessness of life. They are beyond good or evil. There is no judgement. There are choices and consequences in this life – perhaps. In the end the slate is wiped clean – the candle goes out. Shakespeare shows the draw of such thinking in Hamlet’s soliloquy. That sleep of death, from which no man returns, provides a consummation devoutly to be wished. But then he acknowledges that no man has returned to tell us of whether the dreams of death are pleasant or horrific.
The assumption, in this modern age, is that no-one has returned from death (Except in the T.V. show Arrow where people return from death with annoying frequency). There are flatliners who are dead for moments, but truly dead people do not come back to life. And this solid assumption causes people to reject the narrative of scripture where people like Lazarus, the widow of Nain’s son, and Jesus himself come back from the dead. Our unbelief causes us to dismiss these stories as myths and fairy-tales. But what if the accounts in the Bible have had so much enduring power because they are true? What if they gained so much traction because eye-witnesses saw the risen Lazarus and then the risen Jesus? What would that require of us? We would have to ask what made these people different? With what beliefs and truths did they align? How did they live? How did they die? Then we would have to consider whether our stories needed to be stories of a life lived for God rather than self. A life so-lived would give us reason to expect the fate promised of believers in the Bible. In that case Heaven would not be tedious and obnoxious. In that case, when death came, heaven would be the easy step into the arms of the one for whom we had lived.
These thoughts are written after reflection upon 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:11.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.