Texts: Romans 8:18-25, Luke 23:39-43, Psalm 49:7-20
Winston Churchill claimed to be an agnostic. He regarded faith in an afterlife as mere superstition, akin to believing in ghosts and goblins. He once told his doctor that death was just a long black, velvet sleep. Still, he held out at least a sentimental hope. He wrote his wife Clementine that if there were anything more (i.e., more than this life), he would look for her. He also opined than in heaven he would paint for about 5,000,000 years and thus master the art. He said that, of course, after a time, additional colors would be added to his palette, and they would require more work, for these new colors would add to the color palette of this new world, as the palette of color photographs once added to the palette of black and white photographs. (This is a very loose quote, but accurately captures his sentiment.)
The ancient Jews did not believe much in life-after-life. Sheol could be everything from a hole in the earth, where the dead were buried, that continuously enlarged its appetite. It was also “the place of departed spirits.” In Sheol, there was no worship of God and no memory. Both good people and bad were consigned to Sheol. Psalm 49:7b-14 describes the expectations of many:
7b Truly no man can ransom himself, or give to God the price of his life, 8 for the ransom of his life is costly, and can never suffice, 9 that he should continue to live on forever, and never see the Pit. 10 Yea, he shall see that even the wise die, the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others. 11 Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own. 12 Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish. 13 This is the fate of those who have foolish confidence, the end of those who are pleased with their portion. [Selah] 14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home.
Some of the Psalms began to express hope for life-after-life. Even Psalm 49 contains some hope. Does the Psalmist describe his deliverance from Sheol due to a recovery from an illness, or does the Psalmist describe his deliverance from Sheol after death when he writes, 15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. [Selah]
Likewise, Psalm 16:10, we read, “For thou dost not give me up to Sheol, or let thy godly one see the Pit.” This text raises the same question as Psalm 49:15. Is this a plea of the Psalmist who prays to recover from an illness? Or does it indicate that he has faith in life after death? Perhaps the Psalmist had the same faith as the 20th Century Rabbi, who wrote, “It is easier for me to believe that God raises the dead than it is for me to believe that God will forget me.”
Certain prophets also began to think that God had the power to restore to life those who had gone down into the Pit of Sheol. In Isaiah 26: 9 we read:
“(O Lord) Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades (the LORD) will let it fall.”
As the people of Israel endured through the centuries, despite almost constant warfare, and despite their Egyptian and Babylonian captivities, the idea of resurrection became more common. In the intertestamental period, many believed that the dead were divided between those who passed the painless sleep of death and those who endured the terrors of “hades” or “hell.” Isaiah 66:24 describes the fate of the wicked saying:
“And (my people) shall go forth and look on the dead bodies of the (people) that have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
Perhaps Isaiah was a lot like Winston Churchill in his opinion of the wicked. As noted, Winston Churchill did not believe in God or the afterlife in a traditional sense, yet the Englishman once opined that Lenin and Trotsky were proof of God’s existence because such men “Need a hell.”
The Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, is not unequivocally on the side of resurrection and life- after-life. In John 5:39, Jesus said, “You search the scriptures because in them you think you will find eternal life, and they are they which testify of me.” “You search the scriptures!” Meaning, “You have to look hard to find the evidence for life after death!”
Still, by the beginning of the New Testament era, the idea of a two-fold resurrection was firmly fixed. The Pharisees, including Saul of Tarsus (who was known as Paul after his conversion), believed that the righteous dead would be raised to life, and the wicked dead to judgment and condemnation. Jesus, like the Pharisees, embraced the idea of the resurrection of the righteous. Jesus told the Sadducees (who say that there is no resurrection) that when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, he said, “I am the God of Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob.” Jesus makes the point that God spoke in the present tense. Thus, he adds, “God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.”
It is certainly worth mentioning that Jesus once described the afterlife as “paradise.” He told the dying thief who was crucified next to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Paradise no doubt refers to a return to the beginning. Humankind was created, and placed in a garden paradise, only to be driven from it following their disobedience and sin. Jesus looks forward to a return to paradise, as does the Revelation of St. John the Divine. The devotional author Oswald Chambers once wrote that it was the duty of the first pair in the garden, Adam and Eve, to transform their innocence into holiness, or dedication to God. They failed. Rather in disobeying God’s command not to eat the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden, they transformed their innocence into sin and guilt. Carlyle Marney, who once pastored Myers Park Baptist Church was once asked if he believed in a literal fall. He responded, “Believe in it? I was there!” He suggested that, for him, the fall took place while he was a small boy in the home of his aunt somewhere in Tennessee. Marney’s crime was petty by today’s standards, but it was sin, nonetheless.
Thankfully for us, Jesus, “the last Adam,” reversed the human paradigm. The man of the earth, the first Adam, whose very name means “earth,” is our archetype in sin and death. The man of heaven, Jesus, was perfectly obedient to God, thus maintaining his innocence, establishing his holiness, and accruing enough merit to transform our sin and death into forgiveness, holiness, and life eternal. Jesus, the last Adam, is our archetype in holiness and eternal life.
In the gospels, Jesus also embraced the idea of hades/Gehenna/hell. He used the term to describe the fate of the wicked, but in using it, he described the place of torture using the name of the garbage dump that endlessly smoldered outside the gate of Jerusalem. St. Paul never mentions hell but speaks rather of God’s wrath as destruction.
As we have seen before, the Christian doctrine of life-after-life is not based on the idea of the immortality of the soul; it is based on the resurrection of Jesus. He is “the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he might have preeminence.” The resurrection is God’s seal upon the life and death of Jesus, his vindication. Likewise, “Jesus is the first-fruits of them that have fallen asleep.” Those who believe in him belong to the harvest.
So, in Jesus, there is hope for life after death. This life will be lived in paradise or heaven. But what is paradise like? The Bible is careful not to say too much. The vale that separates time from eternity may be thin, but no one can see through, except, of course, “the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father.” He brought us news of life Eternal and offered us the chance to participate in it.
We don’t know what paradise will be like in any kind of detail, but if we read the New Testament closely, we can discover some general principals. Thus, in Romans 8:19-21, St. Paul reminds us that heaven will not be unlike this world. He writes:
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.
“The whole creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God!” Using this text as evidence, John Wesley opined that, in heaven, he would be reunited with the horse that carried him more than 200,000 miles as he preached the gospel hither and yon.
Likewise, if we read carefully the Revelation of St. John the Divine, we can deduce certain principals about heaven, mainly that heaven or paradise will be the place where 1) Common things are precocious, and 2) precious things common. Thus, an ordinary tree bears twelve kinds of fruit, one for each month of the year, and the leaves of the tree are “for the healing of the nations.” (Rev. 22:2) And gold and jewels are so common that the streets of the heavenly city are paved in the precious metal and the gates of the city carved out of precious stones. (Rev. 21:21).
I believe it is right and good for Christians to have hope. In times of loss, or ill-health, or pandemic, we need a hope that cannot be shaken. The apostle says that we are to “set our minds on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Still, it is clear from the New Testament that we dare not risk being so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good. The one divine moment for us is the present moment. As a very gifted young man once said to me, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.”
So, we are to make good use of the present. John Wesley was right-on when he advised the early Methodists saying:
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
And it was the great Samuel Johnson who said, “Dying takes a very short while, while living takes a very long while, therefore, we should concentrate on living.”