During our vacation Deb and I visited a dear friend in Asheville. Grady had served as my clerk of session in Clinton and was a godsend to every shut-in in our congregation. She moved to a retirement center in Asheville a couple of years ago and we have remained close.
About a month ago, Grady’s daughter called informing me Grady had suffered from an extensive heart attack. Thanks to the quick response of a rescue team and the medical staff she survived. But the experience was not without excitement. On reaching the medical facility, her heart stopped and Grady was shocked twice to restart that vital organ.
When Deb and I arrived at her apartment, we expected to find a frail invalid covered in blankets. Instead we discovered our old friend, bouncing around her apartment, eager to tell us about the new adventures she planned for the coming months. After the usual pleasantries, Grady turned serious. “Louie I have a theological question. When they got me to the hospital, I blacked out and my heart stopped beating. My daughter thought I was gone. They hit me with the paddles and I came back from where ever I went but I have to tell you, I have no memory of seeing any kind of white light. It was just darkness. What on earth do you think that means?”
I wish I had a dollar for every time I have been asked about heaven and hell. I read somewhere when Dante reinvented hell by writing The Divine Comedy, church attendance exploded. No one wanted to risk going to the place Dante had so vividly described. Likewise, when a person who has no religious affiliation has an out of body experience, he suddenly becomes an expert on heaven. That amazes me. My personal Bible has over 1600 pages. This includes the 27 glossy photographs with circles and arrows and explanations on the back of each one. In those 1600 pages the word “heaven” is mentioned only a handful of times and it usually refers to the sky which covers the earth. “Hell” or to be more exact “Gehenna” receives even less Biblical interest. The “Christian” development of the idea of Hell happened during the first and second century and its formation was highly influenced by the Greco-Roman culture. Truth is Hell is mentioned only in passing by Jesus but it does get a bit of attention in the Book of Revelation.
I believe we have given heaven and hell a lot more airtime than they deserve. Might I remind you the resurrection of Jesus is the center piece of the Christian faith. Resurrection is nothing less than the act of a new creation, signaling the divide between the old and new world and inaugurating a new order of life. Without the resurrection of Christ there would be no Christianity. Jesus might have been seen as a great rabbi. Perhaps a new sect would have followed his interpretation of the Torah, but the sect would have remained Jewish. The significance of the resurrection of Christ, to paraphrase First Corinthians 15, is death cannot hold the source of life. I have no intention of down playing the significance some folks place on of heaven. But I would like to suggest discussions of heaven and hell complicate rather than compliment the New Testament message, that being the significance of God’s love as understood in the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
To quote Douglas John Hall, “If there is anything distinctive about Christianity, it is that this faith is focused, not on general theism, not on religious principles, not on ethical teachings, not on ritual observances, not on heavenly appearances or worldly observations, but on a life, a life lived under the same basic conditions that affects all life. Faith perceives what transcended this particular life. We believe this life revealed an eternal love in which all life is wrapped. Because of this life, we believe all life is eternal. We are not surprised or threatened if we see this same eternal love manifested in other places. Yet we cling to this particular life for our universal understanding of love. Our faith is bound to this one we call Christ but because we believe the way to the universal is through this particular man we dare to call Son of God.”
Now that is a mouthful. But it is a glorious mouthful. Hall celebrates the resurrection of Christ. Hall, without speaking of heaven or hell, expounds on a God who created something out of nothing. Through the faithfulness, love, and commitment of God, where there was once only chaos, God created life. This belief in God’s grace informs the biblical story from beginning to end. This is such good news and should be our emphasis as we share our faith. But we get sidetracked by rabbit holes as we explore our curiosities concerning heaven and hell.
A perfect example is the text this morning. Jesus was in the Temple just days before his death. The Sadducees, a religious group of great importance, came to Jesus with only death on their minds. They asked tricky questions hoping Jesus would utter some heretical words justifying their claims that Jesus was a dangerous man. They bombarded Jesus with questions such as, “Where do you get your authority? Did the baptism of John come from heaven? Should we pay taxes to Rome?” The questions came fast and furious but Jesus never answered in a way that was in conflict with Torah.
Almost in desperation one of the Sadducees asked, “Moses wrote if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife with no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise the children in honor of is brother. What if there were seven brothers and each died childless. Would not each brother be obligated to marry the widow? Then when the widow died, who would be her husband when she arrived in heaven?”
This is such a ridiculous question asked by a Sadducees did not even believe in heaven. But it was also a dangerous question because many of his religious counterparts did recognize an afterlife. No matter how Jesus responded, someone was going to be upset. All ears strained as Jesus spoke. “Moses speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. God is not God of the dead but rather of the living.”
Game, Set, Match. The contest was over. Jesus had taken the argument to a place neither religious group was prepared to explore. Jesus affirmed from beginning to end, God’s story is about a new creation while the Pharisees and the Sadducees were arguing over immortality. Is that such a bid deal? Actually it is bigger than a big deal. Immortality is based on a doctrine of human nature that denies death. Resurrection is based on a doctrine of God which says even though we die, God restores us to life beyond out imagination.
Unfortunately this text and others like it peak the curiosity of those who are doing everything but dying to discover answers about heaven. They jump on the questions of the Sadducees while all but ignoring the comment offered by Jesus. Our curiosity is intrigued with the unknown and we ask, “What will heaven be like? What will we look like? Will we know Uncle Henry? Will our eyesight be restored? Will we recognize each other?” Those and a thousand other similar questions concerning our immortality cross our inquisitive minds. I have to be honest I have not discouraged this. Often, when a family is struggling with the reality of death I have mentioned the deceased is now with family members. I don’t know why I say this. I certainly have no Biblical proof for that kind of statement. I guess it is a way to offer comfort to a grieving family.
The truth is the Bible doesn’t answer all our questions despite our illusions that it should. But what the Bible does tell us is that God is faithful, God’s mercy is immeasurable, and God’s love is beyond our understanding.
41 years ago I was a long haired college graduate who had just been drafted. In my eyes I might as well have been dead. I marched into a barbershop and received the same treatment of a thousand other newly minted G.I.’s. I was then issued my uniform. With my new haircut and olive fatigues I was indistinguishable from the other 200 men in my company. We soon came face to face with our new drill sergeant. I still remember his words. “I don’t care if you flunked out of high school or finished college. I don’t care who your mother was. I don’t care if you were rich or poor, black, brown, yellow or white. Now you are green and you belong to me.”
A song from the African-American experience claims, “I got a robe, you got a robe, all God’s children got a robe. When I get to heaven I am going to put on my robe and shout all over God’s heaven.” Maybe that is all we need to know about heaven. God has a robe waiting for each of us. When we put it on, we will belong to God for the rest of eternity.