What Happens after We Die? Rethinking Heaven

(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)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

4 thoughts on “What Happens after We Die? Rethinking Heaven”

  1. Mike
    When I read this I figured I had one of three options
    Option 1
    Dig deep into my mountain of research and hit you with a well thought out missive which proves you, your friend and most of all Time to be off the handle..
    Option 2 That I warn you between now and next Wednesday you give due cognizance to the fact you are on thin ice here…and being ex-Milton you know all about the Swamps and the first freeze of winter…so take care as none of us are without sound legal international and interdenominational counsel.
    Option 3
    I go to the fridge and break out a cold can of Sapporo and keep my head down for a week.
    Thank you!
    cashman – on his way to the fridge!

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    1. Dear Jim, I know how hard it is to write those long missives you reference. I don’t expec them. But I do wish you’d share your thoughts on this topic. My wish is existential; because I’m trying to figure it out for myself. The problem I run into is that people don’t want to “Rethink Heaven” or to talk much about it. You might want to check Tony Equale’s blog and that nice essay I referenced. In any case, I always appreciate your thoughts. Gratefully, Mike

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  2. Mike,
    I am currently reading “Proof of Heaven” by Eben Alexander. His Near Death Experience during coma expresses well how what we call “love” is the key and the connection from this life to the next. The awareness he returned to this reality with, expressed through a presence -not verbally – in the next realm, and attempted to put it into words, was three-fold: “You are loved and cherished,dearly, forever”; “You have nothing to fear”; and, “There is nothing you can do wrong”. I see this as the reality once we cross over, believing that there is indeed much we can do “wrong” while here on earth. The “Blue Sky” version, like Disneyland, is way too commercialized.

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    1. Dear Craig, I haven’t read much of the near-death experience literature. But what you’ve written here moves in the direction I intend to write about next Wednesday. Today, after reading your response, I found myself thinking about the three-fold observation you share in your posting. Those three observations are so comforting and somehow ring true without need for analysis or critique. I’m not sure why. We’re all out of our depth here. But we’re doing the best we can to share our convictions and intuitions, and to make sense our of an experience that each of us must face. . I so appreciate what you’ve written. .

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