(Recently a friend asked me to post something on death and the afterlife. That’s a topic I think about very often. Here’s the first in a two-part blog on life-after-death.)
“We’re all going to die some day, Eva. Mommy will die. Daddy will die. Gaga and Baba will die too.”
“Baba’s going to die?”
“Yes, Baba will die too one day.”
“No, not Baba. Baba will never die. No!”
That touching conversation took place recently between my daughter, Maggie, and her daughter (our granddaughter) Eva. Eva was three then. She calls me “Baba.” She calls her grandma “Gaga.” And Eva was trying to come to grips with death – its inevitability, and the way it touches the ones we love. In that she’s like the rest of us. Death and what happens afterwards is and has always been a great mystery, something of a threat, and an object of denial. We don’t even want to think about it.
Earlier this year, Time Magazine’s Easter edition confronted all of that head-on. So did a friend of mine, Tony Equale, a former priest who blogs at http://tonyequale.wordpress.com/. Tony’s Easter blog was called “We Say That ‘God’ Is Love . . .” The Time article opened the question of heaven in a nicely popular way. However, it successfully avoided shedding light on the question of what really happens after we die. Tony Equale’s piece involved no such evasion. Its answer was clear, extremely thoughtful and challenging. But it also left me undeniably uncomfortable. I’m not sure I liked the heaven Tony suggested awaits us.
The Time Magazine cover story was a piece by Jon Meacham called “Rethinking Heaven.” Basically, it compared two approaches to the afterlife. The one Meacham termed the “Blue Sky” approach would be familiar enough even to three-year-old Eva and to most Christians for that matter. After death, good people go up in the sky to “heaven,” where they live with God, Jesus, and all the people they love happily ever after.
The other approach favored by Meacham himself and attractive to what he sees as the “younger generation, teens, college aged who are motivated . . . to make a positive difference in the world” is a metaphor for “how you live your life.” “What if,” Meacham asks, “Christianity is not about enduring this sinful, fallen world in search of a reward of eternal rest? What if the authors of the New Testament were actually talking about a bodily resurrection in which God brings together the heavens and the earth in a wholly new, wholly redeemed creation?” In the words of N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar, and the former Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, “’heaven isn’t a place where people go when they die.’ In the Bible, heaven is God’s space, while earth (or if you like, ‘the cosmos’ or ‘creation’) is our space. And the Bible makes it clear that the two overlap and interlock.”
A person of faith, the Time Magazine author adds, must decide which “heaven” to believe in. The decision makes a difference. The “Blue Sky” approach makes life on earth and issues such as climate change and HIV/AIDS less important. The alternative makes stewardship imperative. The alternative makes it important to follow “Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 25 to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and clothe the naked as though they had found Jesus himself hungry, homeless or bereft.”
Like Meacham, I find the “God’s space” approach to heaven on earth more believable and adult than the “Disneyland in the Sky” understanding. Just as I’m convinced that some people endure hell here on earth (the victims of Abu Ghraib come to mind), so also there are people in “heaven” (like Mother Theresa or the Dali Lama). But still, what about death? What happens afterwards? If it’s not Disneyland, what can we expect or hope for? That’s where my friend Tony Equale comes in.
(Next Wednesday: Our Fate after Death)