Heaven Can Wait, So Why Can’t We?
Everything we know about what happens when a person dies.
According to John Price, a blogger for CNN, I don’t talk to you enough about Heaven. I should be telling you everything I can about the life that is to come after each of us dies. Will there be streets paved with literal gold? Will there be actual pearly gates? Will we have wings? Will we meet the great-granddad we never knew? These, it seems, are the topics I should be covering in my homilies. I therefore now resolve to tell you all I know about life after death.
So here goes:
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)
That’s it. That’s my sermon and I’m sticking to it.
Which is to say: the life to come is something not known, not yet revealed to human beings. It has been this way since Saint Paul’s time and remains so until now.
We know little or nothing about the time between death and the Resurrection (the so-called “intermediate state”) when we exist somehow without our human bodies. Likewise, we have been told almost nothing about the recreated world after the Resurrection in which we will live on the New Earth in God’s presence. To be sure, many theologians have speculated wildly about these two situations, but there is no real data available to us at this time. I say, let the cobbler stick to his last.
As Orthodox, we like to express our beliefs Scripturally, so we do not even speak of folks “going to Heaven” when they die. The Bible never once says that people go to Heaven. It speaks of Sheol, of Hades, of Paradise (which is our Orthodox term for the repose of the intermediate state for God’s people), but in Biblical terminology, these are distinct from Heaven. (More precisely, Paradise is distinct from any of the three levels of Heaven in Jewish thought.)
Heaven has had a few human visitors, albeit temporarily. Saint Paul told the Corinthians that he knew a man (i.e., himself) who had been caught up in a vision both to the Third Heaven (the highest level) and, on a separate trip, to Paradise. Whatever he learned in these places, he was forbidden to talk about (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). Saint John was called up to heaven in a vision, but what he witnessed had everything to do with God’s administration of affairs on earth, and nothing with the condition of regular folks who lived a long, pious life and died. (And, I hasten to point out, Saint John’s mystical vision was of Heaven, not Paradise.)
So I am an Afterlife Agnostic. I think we do not know what is in store, and I think that’s the way it was meant to be. I consider this to be the mainstream Orthodox approach to the matter. Any time I see an Orthodox priest with more to say, I smell on his breath either Protestant Pietism or folk mythology in the guise of church tradition.
But … but … but … what about these people who died and came back to life and have wondrous tales to tell of life beyond the Pearly Gates?!? They met Jesus, they saw dead relatives, they can accurately describe people they never knew existed. What do you make of that???
The very same thing I make of the Near-Death Experiences from around the world: the ones where Hindus meet Vishnu, Nepalis meet Buddha, Muslims meet their seventy virgins. I cannot tell you where such experiences originate: whether they are the final dreams of an oxygen-starved brain, or flights of fancy into some realm of ideas not usually accessible to us. But I will not stake any credence in these stories as experiences of an objective reality. If they were, why all the discrepancies? Even among the Christian Near-Death Experiences that are the subject of recent books, the “facts” don’t line up with each other.
I do not deny that human consciousness can at times function apart from the body, and that people have genuinely witnessed themselves lying lifeless on the operating table or their family members grieving in the next room. I am simply saying that the line between objective reality and subjective impressions is easily crossed, as anyone knows who has awoken from a dream about thunder and lightning, only to realize that there’s a storm outside. More than once I have “seen” things in a dream—things I never knew about before—and later in waking life discovered that the dream was correct. I don’t consider this to be supernatural; I think it’s just the natural way our unconscious minds work and connect below the surface of normal awareness.
Jesus Christ gave us the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. It is not meant to be a snapshot of the afterlife; it is simply a story told in terms familiar to a first-century Jew. (Much like I might tell a story about a person dying and being brought by the Grim Reaper to meet St. Peter at the Pearly Gates: the point of the story is in the moral, not the vivid details.) In that Parable, Christ has the Rich Man begging Father Abraham to send Lazarus back to his kinfolk to warn them not to be careless about their eternal destiny. The reply that Christ puts into Abraham’s mouth is significant, and it tells you all you need to know about recent fad of Heavenly Tourism.
Abraham tells the Rich Man that his family doesn’t need the testimony of one who died. “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31). In other words, the testimony of the resuscitated is irrelevant, unpersuasive.
What is compelling evidence? The ethics of our faith. Try living by the standards of the Law and the prophets. Try living the Sermon on the Mount. Try living by the Epistle of James. If these commandments in and of themselves do not convince you of the truth of the message and the authenticity of the messengers, then any other “proof” is just mental gymnastics. “This is eternal life,” says the Lord, “that they know …the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom [He] has sent.” (John 17:3). In other words, Heaven is knowing the Truth Itself.
And how does one know the Truth? “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32). If you want eternal life in the here and now, practice the teachings of Christ as hard as you can. If you want to learn about Heaven, don’t surf to CNN.com; pick up the Gospel and read, then do. That’s Heaven enough already. The rest can wait.
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