I became a theologian at age five. My parents had gone away for the weekend to a church conference and left my brother Bill and me for the weekend with a kindly church lady, Bertha Orr. I had never spent much time with a dog before, but that weekend I was inseparable from Taffy, her poodle. Being a pious Baptist child, I eventually asked her the big question for us Baptists, “Will Taffy go heaven?” She paused a moment, and then I saw that look, the look adults make when a child has says something really stupid or impolite. She responded, “You better talk to your Father. He’ll set you straight. Jesus didn’t die for dogs or cats.”
I was just a child. But I knew something was wrong. How could God not love Taffy? Didn’t God love the things I loved and wouldn’t God have a plan for them? At that moment, in my bones, through not in my mind, I realized that the religion I grew up in was too small for my questions, hopes, and dreams.
Today, we’re going to talk about the afterlife. I don’t claim to be as certain as Mrs. Orr about the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell, or who’s in or who’s out, or the dividing line between humans and non-humans in terms of eternal life.
I do know that in our humility, we want to know something about the great beyond, the great mystery of living and dying. As we grow older, we wonder if we will have further adventures or be reunited with loved ones, or if justice or injustice go beyond us in the next life. We wonder, do our loved ones live on and will we in the afterlife experience fulfillment of dreams deferred and healing of sin and pain in this lifetime? Or do we simply fall asleep, dreamlessly forever?
These are questions that even our young children and grandchildren ask. I’ve had more than one conversation with my grands which began with their comment “I can’t imagine not existing.” We want more, we want future experiences, we know life is incomplete, and we have room to grow, and we want forgiveness and healing.
Interest among folks like ourselves was piqued by the reports over the past five decades related to near death experiences. On their death beds or after being resuscitated from clinical death, people from every culture report a journey to another world, encounters with a being of Light, reviews of their lives, meetings with close friends and relatives, and then a question, “do you have unfinished business?” And the choice to stay or return. Most of these experiences are positive, and for many persons, it’s tough to come back to this world of pain and ambiguity and yet this world of love, work, and family lures them back.
Near death experiences don’t conclusively prove the afterlife, but they are food for thought and suggest that even Taffy may have a home in the afterlife, as many report encounters with beloved companion animals. Whether or not there are medical explanations for such experiences, they surely change the lives of those who have them. Death is no longer a source of fear and life calls them to live fully in the now.
Now the Bible doesn’t say much about the afterlife. But what the Bible says is both challenging and reassuring.
First of all, the Biblical tradition does not succumb to Karl Marx’s critique that religion is the opiate of the masses and that images of the afterlife turn us away from issues of justice in this life. Sure, the promise of afterlife has been used to keep people in line – the fear of hell and the possibility of excommunication can keep us under the thumb of power hungry religious leaders and slave owners.
The Bible, the prophets and Jesus, assert that this life matters. It is not the front porch to eternity or an illusion. This life is real and our calling is to seek justice in the community and love in our relationships.
Second, the Biblical tradition proclaims the faithfulness of God. Think of all the memorial services or funerals you’ve attended. Usually the focus is as much on God as on the deceased. The bible says God is faithful, and on God’s fidelity our hope of the afterlife depends. The Bible promises that nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death. When you go through the darkest valley – the valley of the shadow of death – God is with you and prepares a place for you. Today, you shall be with me in paradise. Death where is your victory, death where is your sting. Death has been defeated by Jesus’ resurrection. Such are the promises of faith.
We don’t get a lot of imagery but we get the picture of a loving parent, who tucks us into bed and lies beside us as we go to sleep and who is waiting for us with loving arms and breakfast when we wake up.
Third, I can’t claim to know what’s ahead. But I believe nothing that is loved is ever lost. That love gives an eternity to our lives and the lives of those whom we love, and that One who loves the world will not lose any cell of creation. Whatever happens, it is well with our souls.
Fourth, I believe the afterlife is a place of growth in which our journeys continue. Our lives here matter and are carried over beyond the grave. What we do here shapes the contours of the afterlife. To me, that means we are creating our afterlife and the afterlives of others right now. Our acts of kindness, justice, compassion, and care not only bring beauty to this world but live on beyond us in this life and the next.
Fifth, in this complex world, I believe grace abounds. The afterlife is both a hospital and an adventure, a therapeutic encounter and a playground. I believe that ultimately everyone is saved, that the afterlife is the environment where we grow into grace, face our imperfections, experience the healing of relationships, and venture forth to experiences beyond what we can imagine. Heaven is not a static state – where you play the same tune on your harp into infinity and beyond. Heaven is a place of evolution, relationships, and adventures.
Finally, I have come to believe that those who’ve died may be sources of wisdom for the living. We can call upon the guidance of a companion in the next life as we did in this one. While they have adventures that go beyond the earth, love only increases beyond the grave. There is a bond between this life and the next – and that bond is love.
I can’t claim to know much, but I believe that our hopes for eternity challenge us to live in the now. Our hope for healing and salvation beyond the grave inspire us to change the world today, to dry the tears, to uplift spirits, to make this earthly world look more and more like the eternity for which we yearn. Heaven may be our destination, but as Thoreau said on his death bed, “one world at a time is sufficient.” Let’s live today – justly, fully, and lovingly, and heaven will take care of itself and we will hear “well done, good and faithful servant” as we enter into God’s realm.
We go forth with the words of Kalidasa –
Look to this day:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendour of achievement
Are but experiences of time.
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
And today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;
Such is the salutation to the ever-new dawn!