A couple of decades ago, I taught a midweek Bible study on the subject of heaven. It stretched over seven or eight weeks and, while I had a lot of outlined material to cover, we also allowed conversation throughout the studies.
I took a lot of questions about life after death and heaven. What amazes me now is how many answers I thought I had primarily based on obscure passages of scripture framed from a particular eschatological viewpoint. I even had charts and diagrams to illustrate the timing of heaven’s creation by God, desecration by Lucifer, and re-creation in the future after the final judgment.
The discussions went something like this…
Q: Do my pets go to heaven?
A: Maybe. We can see that heaven will be a complete restoration of Edenic paradise, so it’s likely heaven will teem with biological life. As for Fido in particular? We can’t know until we get there.
Q: Do I go to heaven as soon as I die?
A: Sort of. For now, you’ll be consciously in the presence of Jesus in paradise, but not yet in the “new heaven” that will exist someday after the rapture, millennial reign of Christ, and final judgment. We know that by Paul’s words to the Philippians about being “absent from the body” and “present with the Lord.”
Q: Will I have a body in heaven?
A: After Jesus was resurrected, he possessed a body that could be seen and (presumably based on Jesus’ conversations with Thomas and the other disciples) touched. But Jesus also passed through locked doors without opening them. So you’ll have that kind of body.
As I said, I taught from a particularly narrow view of how the future would unfold.
If I could teach that series again today, I would have a very different answer for a lot of the questions that would likely annoy attendees. I might even put it on a posterboard sign and hold it up to save time. It would read:
IT’S A MYSTERY.
I GUESS WE’LL FIND OUT.
I’m still a Christian. I believe in life after death for all of us. I still love the Bible. I just read it a bit differently than I did back then.
Instead of seeing the Bible as one giant glossary of answers to all of our biggest questions about the spiritual world and the afterlife, I’ve come to see the Bible as a collection of ancient documents, written by a variety of authors to share their accounts of what they experienced and heard in their journeys with God.
The Bible is, I believe, inspired by God in the sense that God’s Spirit moved its authors to write it and later guided the process of its collection, canonization, translation, and preservation. But I don’t believe God turned those people into robotic dictation machines scratching out every syllable of scripture in some kind of involuntary way.
We get farmers like Amos telling us how God would deal with Israel through word pictures that made a lot of sense to farmers in the ancient world. We have letters written by well-meaning individuals taking on the personas of Paul, maybe Peter, and maybe John, and sharing with us the ways in which the earliest churches were dealing with the theological issues of their times. We have more books that turn oral traditions and stories into written records after being passed down for hundreds of years.
None of that means the Bible is bad or useless. On the contrary, scripture is the primary means through which we understand who Jesus was and is and how God interacts with his creation and his people. But it does mean two things about the Bible that are hard for people to swallow who grew up with a somewhat superstitious view of the Bible.
First, the Bible isn’t a complete record of all that is true about God, the universe, or humanity. It doesn’t tell us everything. In fact, when it comes to the vast amount of information available about the universe in which we live, the content of scripture barely scratches the surface. And that’s okay. The Bible’s purpose isn’t to exhaustively cover every possible question we would ever have.
And second, the Bible is definitely not “clear” on almost any subject, as much as we would like it to be. There are some topics about which the Bible seems to give us pretty clear agreement. After a few hundred years, the church wrestled with these topics and summarized them in the early creeds, which are still used today in many mainline Christian denominations.
Let me give you an example. I used to say that the “heaven” that exists today has been marred by the fall of Lucifer, who is still allowed access to heaven as is evidenced in the first chapter of Job, where we see Satan entering God’s courtroom, so to speak, to accuse Job of having weak faith. So while heaven was once perfectly free from sin and sin’s effects, now it needs to be fixed, which the Bible tells us about in Isaiah, Peter’s letters, and the Revelation when those authors announce that God will make a “new heaven and a new earth.”
Sound plausible? Here’s the problem. We don’t know that Lucifer is actually the same being as Satan. We don’t know that “the satan” (a title, not a proper name) in Job was THE Satan we also call Lucifer or another kind of accuser. We don’t even know that the story in the first chapter of Job was intended by its author (or by God) to be taken as having actually happened, or if it’s a story illustrating something using symbolism. (By the way, the Bible Project has an excellent overview of the book of Job.)
In other words, my answers to the questions people asked me about heaven were far more complete and clear than the Bible’s actual answers.
Therefore… When I talk about life after death now, I speak with much more humility. I’m far more willing to say…
IT’S A MYSTERY.
I GUESS WE’LL FIND OUT.
And I believe that answering this way is quite possibly more honoring of the Bible as God intended us to use it than stretching my interpretation of it into something that sounds like certainty when in fact, I’m not certain at all of many of my answers.
When it comes to life after death, it’s okay – even freeing – to acknowledge the limitations of our information about it.
The core story of Christianity is that God came to earth in human flesh as Jesus, who died on a Roman cross and then rose again from the dead, promising resurrection to everyone else. Because of this, I do believe quite strongly that there is life beyond death for all of us. I believe we are eternal.
As for what heaven is? Or where heaven is? Or what heaven looks like? Or when heaven starts to look like the heaven we describe in our songs and sermons? I can make some somewhat educated guesses based on the hints left for us in some ancient documents that none of us fully understands, but the only thing I’m certain of is that life after death is filled with mystery.
And the more I lay down my own demand for certainty and embrace the mysteries of God, humanity, and the universe around us, the more liberated I feel. I enjoy hearing the perspectives of people who have spent their lives studying theology, but at the end of the day, there are simply many answers we just don’t have.
And that’s okay. It really is. Mystery doesn’t have to be scary. Mystery can actually be encouraging.
I could certainly be wrong. I guess we’ll find out. Maybe.
Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash.
- Enns, Peter (Author)