There is a lot of talk these days about heaven and hell. Recently a handful of best-selling books have been published on this topic (23 Minutes in Hell, Erasing Hell, Heaven is for Real, God Wins). Some of these are in direct response to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (incidentally and ironically a book almost entirely concerned with this life, not the next one).
As a Christian who believes in the Bible and Jesus, I have found the intensity and certainty of the debate all very bizarre. It’s strange that so much passion and ink has been spilled over something that is all speculation.
Here’s what I mean: If you died, took pictures, and came back to life again, then you would know with certainty what happens after death. Of course you would only know what happens to you, not everyone else. But if you haven’t died, you can only speculate about what happens to you and everyone else.
This speculation is perfectly fine. As long as we recognize these are only our beliefs. And beliefs by nature are not certain, they are faith based assumptions. That’s what makes them beliefs, once you can prove them they are no longer beliefs, they become a kind of knowing. And the funny thing is, once you know, you don’t need to debate anymore.
I have never died, so I don’t have a theological position on heaven or hell, I can only entertain theological possibilities. There is a big difference.
I take a position when I know something with certainty. Almost always through direct experience. If someone pinches me, I don’t believe they pinched me. I know it. I experienced it. It doesn’t reside somewhere in my head. Nothing to debate. It happened.
I consider a possibility when it’s something I don’t know. This is something I merely believe. Either because someone I trust told me, or the Bible seems to say it, or reason supports it. But until I’ve experienced it, this is only something I believe– a possibility. And possibilities should be held with an open hand, perhaps with some humility and even humor. Who knows, I could be wrong about what I believe?
Now having said this, I’m only aware of one person who died, and I mean really died, like three days dead, and came back to life again. His name was Jesus. Upon his return from the dead, he didn’t believe anymore, now he knew. So if I wanted some indication about what happens after I die I should probably pay attention to what he said after he came back from the dead.
Here’s what he said about heaven and hell after his resurrection. Nothing. Nada. Zip.
What did he talk about? Here’s just a sampling: He tells his disciples to make students of Him (Mt 28:16), to share the good news of liberation in this life (Mk 16:9-20). He says “peace be with you,” and “I’m hungry” (Lk 24:36-41). He says “receive the holy breath, now you can forgive sins” (Jn 20:22). He says “It’s me, really, touch my side.” (Jn 20:27), and “the fishing is better on the right side of the boat.” (Jn 21:6). He says “let’s eat” (Jn 21), “feed my sheep, now follow me” (Jn21:18-20), and “stop worrying about the future and the fate of other people, just follow me” (Jn 21:22; Acts 1:7-8).
Not exactly a systematic theology of the afterlife. Mostly it’s a repeated invitation to trust and follow him and not worry about the future. Apparently he is also hungry a lot. If anyone had the authority and credibility to provide a coherent-once-and-for-all description of exactly what happens after you die it would be Jesus upon his return from beyond the beyond. But he didn’t. He didn’t even seem all that interested.
If it were important to him, you’d think he would have written a book about it. Or preached a sermon or two. But he didn’t. After Jesus rose from the dead, he spends his time talking about this life.
It would seem Jesus is more concerned with this life than the next? Perhaps we should be too.
We only get one, and it’s short.