Tag Archives: Heaven and Hell

Garden door

 “I see what you’ve done. Now see what I’ve done. I’ve opened a door before you that no one can slam shut. You don’t have much strength, I know that; you used what you had to keep my Word. You didn’t deny me when times were rough.

 “And watch as I take those who call themselves true believers but are nothing of the kind, pretenders whose true membership is in the club of Satan—watch as I strip off their pretensions and they’re forced to acknowledge it’s you that I’ve loved.

 “Because you kept my Word in passionate patience, I’ll keep you safe in the time of testing that will be here soon, and all over the earth, every man, woman, and child put to the test.

 “I’m on my way; I’ll be there soon. Keep a tight grip on what you have so no one distracts you and steals your crown.

Revelation 3: 8-11

When we are children we often have comforting images we return to again and again. In my case one of these images was a door in a wall. Through this door was a garden and if I could only find it then I could go through this door and enter the garden where nothing bad could happen. Of course, as I grew up this image became tinged with sadness. In the godless world I lived in then, this door could never exist.

Before I started the book club I spoke to a number of (adult) people about their favourite books. This book, The Last Battle, by C. S. Lewis came up again and again. Having read it again, I wonder if it is that image of a door into a perfect world that means so much to so many people. Yet it is a world full of paradoxes. The first is that you must step into the darkness to find the light. Lewis describes the moment Tirian (the Narnian King) steps over the threshold into the stable. He expects to find a dark place inhabited by Tash, the dark god. Instead:

For a moment or two Tirian did not know where he was or even who he was. Then he steadied himself, blinked and looked around. It was not dark inside the Stable, as he had expected. He was in strong light: that was why he was blinking.

In the bright world Tash is there. But he only wants to overcome the Calormene leader, who has summoned him. Soon, Tirian sees another sight.

Seven Kings and Queens stood before him, all with crowns on their heads and all in glittering clothes, but the Kings wore fine mail as well and had their swords drawn in their hands.

These people are the humans who have made their way into Narnia from our own world. But there is one missing…

The rest of the book is really an allegory or fable. Is it of Heaven? Is it of a New Earth, renewed in the image of Heaven? I don’t know and I’m not sure it really matters. Maybe we could go one step further and say it is a picture of the Kingdom of God here, now, on Earth, in our own lives and hearts.

SusanpevensieBut, Tirian asks: ‘Where is Queen Susan?’

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'”

“Oh, Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.”

So Susan is excluded from the New Narnia. And what is her terrible crime? She is the sceptic, the one who embraces the ‘real’ world. She has forgotten the wonder of the walk through the snowy forest and the awe of meeting Aslan. The everyday god of social acceptance has become more important. What she no longer believes in she cannot have.

But the next thing the Narnians find is that some people have arrived the New Narnia who don’t believe in Aslan. They find the dwarves sitting in a circle, unable to see the beautiful land and only seeing the dark and smelly stable. Even Aslan cannot help them. He gives them fine food and it tastes like raw turnips. Fine wine tastes like smelly water;

But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went to quarrelling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot.

But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said: “Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. But come, children. I have other work to do.”

The problem is that the Dwarfs have been taken in. Night after night they had bowed down to a donkey in a lion skin. They had been told this was Aslan and, for a while, had believed it. They had done what this false god had asked them to do. So, when he was shown to be a fraud. They refused to believe in anything except themselves and, perhaps, each other.

In our godless world this is what we call ‘growing up’. In the last ten years or so I’ve met a lot of teenagers. They all believe in something. It may be a boy band or a football team. It could be their own dreams or ambitions. Yet all of these things will fail. The boy band or football team will, after all, be just young men who can falter. Even if the dreams are realised they will not change who we are, or chase the shadows away. So these youngsters will leave behind the gods that failed them, get a job and a mortgage and just well, carry on.

Before we reach the end I want to look at another character in this story. The Last Battle was published in 1956. To modern minds it has some very non-PC characteristics. One of these is that the baddies (called Calormenes) are clearly of middle Eastern origin. They are quite bloodthirsty and have an unpleasant, devil like, god. But Lewis makes the point that, even in such a rotten barrel, there will be one or two good apples. Emeth resolves to walk into the stable to find his god ‘to look apon the face of Tash though he should slay me’. But once he walks through the door he finds himself in the wide, beautiful, New Narnia and comes face to face with Aslan.

“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, ‘Son, thou art welcome.’ But I said, ‘Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.’ He answered, ‘Child, All the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me.’…

But I also said (for the truth constrained me), ‘Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.’ ‘Beloved,’ said the Glorious One, ‘Unless thy desire had been for me thou woudst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.’

So Emeth the Calormene joins all the other humans, talking animals and other creatures as they go ‘further up and further in’. They go through another door into an even wider and more beautiful place. But I won’t tell you how it ends, you will have to read the story yourself.

A new pilgrimage – Friday

Packing

There are all sorts of pilgrimages we can make. The last one involved a lot of walking. This one involves packing tents, sleeping bags, pillows and getting in the car down to a vast campsite in Somerset. Its two years since we have been to New Wine. How do I feel? Excited, a bit worried (that we won’t have everything). It feels like, as a family, we are a real team this year with the kids doing their bit and really helping. I’m going to have to keep this short as I haven’t packed any books, washing stuff or anything. But, I’m going to make a promise. That I will blog every day we are there. Even if it is only a picture sent from my phone. See you there.

 

Love Wins – Rob Bell

Love Wins BookDeciding to blog on ‘Love Wins’ was easy. Deciding what to say about it was a lot harder. My process for blogging is this. I generally choose a book I’ve already read. I then read it again quite carefully and place little coloured stickies at the points I think are interesting and quotable. At this stage I usually have about 8 or 9 bits of coloured paper sticking out the side of the book. But, as you can see, I kept on marking the book and in the end sort of gave up. Every page seemed to have something important and interesting to say.

Having said that, I need to mention what is not in the book. It caused a bit of a stir. Rob Bell was accused of being a heretic and a false teacher. In the end he had to leave the church he had founded and move to California. He was also accused of being ‘politically liberal’ and a ‘universalist’. This side of the Atlantic being politically liberal could be seen as a compliment (certainly in our family) but being a ‘universalist’ will need to be explained.

In my post on ‘A New Kind of Christianity’ I looked at the orthodox Christian view of where people end up after they die. To recap: If you believe in Jesus then you will be saved by him and go to Heaven. Otherwise you go to Hell. It is not altogether clear what Hell is but it is very unpleasant and goes on forever. Rob Bell tackles this head on with the example of a 15 year old boy who died an atheist. In the orthodox Christian message he goes to Hell. That’s it. Some people believe there is an ‘age of accountability’ that is around the time a child is twelve years old. Bell says:

This belief raises a number of issues, one of them being the risk each new life faces. If every baby being born could grow up to not believe the right things and go to hell forever, then prematurely terminating a child’s life would actually be the loving thing to do, guaranteeing that the child ends up in Heaven, and not in hell, forever. Why run the risk?

And that risk raises another question about this high-school student’s death. What happens when a fifteen-year-old atheist dies? Was there a three-year window when he could have made a decision to change his eternal destiny? Did he miss his chance? What if he had lived to sixteen, and it was in that sixteenth year that he came to believe what he was supposed to believe? Was God limited to that three-year window, and if the message didn’t get to the young man in that time, well that’s just unfortunate?

When I read this book again, I can see why it made people angry. It starts with a blistering list of questions, tearing apart the traditional idea of who will get to heaven and who won’t. If that was at the base of my faith, I would be angry too.

But one of the main reasons for our understanding of Hell may simply be a misunderstanding of the original Greek text. Right at the end Matthew Chapter 25: 42-46 Jesus says this:

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.

They will also answer, ‘Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (New International Version)

Now how I, and I would guess you too, read the phrase ‘eternal punishment’ is some terrible painful punishment going on and on forever without even death to end it, because you are already dead. OK. Except it seems that is not what Matthew meant at all. Bell says:

…the story Jesus tells in Matthew 25 about sheep and goats being judged and separated. The sheep are sent to one place, while the goats go to another place because of their failure to see Jesus in the hungry and thirsty and naked.

The goats are sent, in the Greek language, to an aion of kolazo. Aion, we know, has several meanings. One is “age” or “period of time”; another refers to intensity of experience. The word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish.

An aion of kolazo. Depending on how you translate aion and kolazo, then, the phrase can mean “a period of pruning” or a “time of trimming”, or an intense experience of correction.

Which makes perfect sense. Because people who are unkind, selfish or even cruel will never be able to flourish in the Kingdom of God. They will first need to change. It also makes sense because this is what God is like. Not a soft pushover, but always giving people a second chance. Another thing strikes me about this story: The ‘sheep’ who ‘receive their inheritance’ are not defined as ‘those who believe in Jesus’ but those who are kind and generous. It is clear from the story that they may not even realise they are doing these things for Jesus at all.

At the start of this post I promised I would explain what Universalism is. It is this: that everyone, of every faith; however sinful they are, can eventually be reconciled to God. I honestly think that it will always be harder for those who don’t accept the grace and forgiveness that Jesus offers, but the gate is open. There will always be second chances.

But what Jesus did was a whole lot more than that. Bell says:

Jesus, for these first Christians, was the ultimate exposing of what God has been up to all along.

Unity.
To all things.
God is putting the world back together,
and God is doing this through
Jesus.
 
 
He holds the entire universe in his embrace.
He is within and without time.
He is the flesh-and-blood exposure of an eternal reality.
He is the sacred power present in every dimension of creation.

Which is mind blowing but also a bit hard to grasp. So, I created a couple of pictures using my Three Worlds framework to try and explain this.

The leaves in this picture represent the physical world we live in. The people walking represent us and also the social world of friends, family and even enemies. The stained glass window represents God and His Kingdom. Before Jesus came this was the picture. There were ways of reaching God: through sacrifices, priests and a few prophets. But you had to be the right person at the right time in the right place. God was in charge, but, for most people, most of the time he was a long way off.

Broken world

We start our year counting at Jesus’ birth, but this is wrong. The first day is the Sunday when the two Marys find the empty tomb. From then on nothing is the same. God’s world and our world are knitted together. Everyone who believes in Jesus can live in both at the same time, can be a child of the world and a child of God. On that first morning everything had changed.

Healed world

Love Wins.

A New kind of Christianity – Brian Mclaren

Introduction

It is now quite a long time since a did a post on a book. And quite a lot has happened. After I had written this post I realised that it contains as many of my own ideas as those of Brian McLaren. If you want to know more of what he thinks then I would really recommend reading this book. I’m sure that he won’t mind me using his ideas as a springboard for my own…

What do we believe?

When I am sitting in church do I know what the person sitting next to me believes? I will almost certainly know their name, usually their occupation and the details of their family. I may well have sat in their house and eaten food they have cooked but do I know what they believe? There is a well known saying here in England – ‘Never talk about politics or religion’ and generally we don’t. This is not helped by belonging to an established church which tries to be relevant to as many as possible. The mission statement of the (local) church I belong to is:

Building a community to reach a community with the love of God.

Which is great, fantastic and most of us are doing our best to live this out. But it is more about what we do rather than what we think. Of course the two are connected. My recent posts on pilgrimage show that what we do can change who we are and even what we believe. Maybe, as McLaren says, we need to get past this, to emerge into an ‘Age of the Spirit’. As he says:

… an approach to Christian faith that tries to preserve the treasures of previous eras and face and embrace the challenges of the twenty-first century. So something is happening. Something is afoot. A change is in the wind

But first we need to be clear about what we are leaving behind. For many people this will be quite a wrench.

timeline
This timeline is taken from McLaren’s book (I couldn’t resist adding some pictures of my own). This is the classic ‘Christian’ story. It goes something like this:

Once we were innocent. We lived in a wonderful garden and talked with God all the time. Then Eve (naughty woman!) ate the apple and gave some to Adam. They were expelled into some bleak place and there they (we)stayed until Jesus came along and saved them (us).

At this point we were given a choice. Either believe in Jesus and then, after you die, you will go to a good place called Heaven or don’t believe and then (also only after you die) you will be in Hell forever, without any time off for good behaviour. Put as bluntly as this it not only makes little sense it also seems profoundly wrong. Lets start with Eden and the fall. McLaren says:

… the Genesis narrative sets the stage for what follows. As we’ve seen. it’s the story of a good creation, marred by expanding human evil, countered by divine faithfulness, leading to profound reconciliation and healing. This narrative serves as a kind of fractal for the (bible) story as a whole and for its many parts.

Last summer I spent a week in Oxford studying Christian apologetics. One of the many memorable conversations I had there was with a young (only 19) American lad called Drew. He said: ‘How do you explain the Fall with evolution and all that?’. I thought about this. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘Who is the most fallen person you can think of?’. After a pause I came up with my own idea. ‘Gordon Gekko‘. The mythical antihero of Wall Street has no morals, no scruples, for him greed really is good.

‘So,’ I explained. ‘You have Jesus at one end of ‘falleness’ spectrum and Gordon Gekko at the other end and most of us somewhere in the middle. As society expanded it became more and more possible to ‘work the system’. Living in small family groups or villages it is hard not to be honest and upright as everyone is looking out for each other. But when people began to live in larger and more complex societies it is possible to use power to get your own way, to trample on those weaker than you.’

I had never considered this question before but I think my answer was broadly right. The story of Jewish/Christian faith covers a large chunk of human civilisation from about 3,000 BC until the present day. McLaren shows us the step changes in civilisation, each with advantages but each moving further and further from a more innocent past. This past is quite close to our own English myth of the happy and well fed farmer untainted by the delights of the big city. The story of Adam and Eve is really an ancient parable. All knowledge, all progress, comes at a price.

Here is where the conventional narrative becomes a bit confusing. We have to move from a ‘us’ story, involving everybody to one concerning each individual soul. Many of us, as Christians, are locked into a story where we have to reach a certain stage in our faith before we die so we can be in the good place. If we don’t reach that stage, if we are still confused or uncertain then we may go to the bad place after we die.

Except Jesus never said that. When he talks about Hell he uses the word Gehenna. When he talks about Heaven or (more usually) the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. It is as something present and real, that we can be living in right now not just after we are dead. Gehenna was the Jerusalem rubbish dump and we have all been there. Unhappiness, poverty, hopelessness can all seem just like a rubbish dump. I watched a TV news slot about the war in Syria last week. It looked about as close to Hell as you can imagine but this was really happening, right now and, as the camera moved through the bombed buildings, a woman with a small child ran across the blasted, empty street.

What about other people?

And this story of Heaven and Hell doesn’t make Christians look good. About 13 years ago, when I was a very new Christian, I worked with a lovely man who followed the Sikh religion. We had some long conversations about our faith and what it means to us which were really interesting and fruitful. But then he asked THE QUESTION: “What will happen to me after I die?” I answered “You will go to Hell, because you don’t believe in Jesus”. I’m ashamed to say that I said this without the slightest hesitation, not even feeling guilty afterwards. My only excuse was that this was what I had learned from my two or three years as a Christian. I really hope he didn’t take me seriously.

McLaren addresses the ‘other religion’ question in some detail. After a 4 page tour through the old and New Testaments he says:

We would eventually need to look at Jesus, considering in detail, say, his attitudes towards a Samaritan woman, or a Roman centurian, a Syro-Phoenician woman, or some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus and went through Andrew and Philip. We could even look at Jesus’ birth narrative in Matthew, noting how the Magi – what we might call New-Age practitioners – are drawn to Jesus through their own religious arts.

As in so many other things, we need to see Jesus not as a rule giver (although there were a few) but as a living parable. As C.S Lewis put it ‘A true Myth’. In a society and culture that shunned and feared outsiders, Jesus and his followers reached out to others and respected their views. In a way this is easier in Britain than in other Western countries such as the U.S.A because we are just so diverse. It is quite difficult to feel badly towards someone of a different faith, nationality or sexual orientation if they are living next door to you or sitting at the next desk. Once you start speaking to people their lives start to be interesting and rich rather than just alien.

But, if you are reading this as a Christian, by now you will be shouting at the screen “John 14:6-7!!” For those of you who can’t recall the bible just by the book and verse (I can’t either) this is:

Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!” (Message Version)

This is where Brian McLaren and myself will need to differ. McLaren wraps this around in the context of Jesus’ coming crucifixion, resurrection and the anxious questions of his followers. This is fair enough but I think we have to assume that if Jesus said it and John wrote it down then it has got to have a wider application. I completely agree with him that this does not mean that people of other faiths or none are automatically on that mythical rubbish heap, either before or after they die, so how should we look at this?

The clue is at the other end of John’s Gospel: John 1:12-13:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God –   children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (NIV)

Belief treeThis diagram shows a number of relationships we can have with God. I’m going to be bold here and say that only Jesus Christ can offer us the relationship in the top layer. Which seems like a wonderful thing, and it is, but it carries with it a responsibility. If one of my own parents requires something from me I will do it if I possibly can and there is a bond that cannot be broken. So it is with God.

But not all Christians are at this stage. And that’s OK. And followers of other faiths are relating to God in whatever way their culture and personalities will allow. There are a lot of people who believe in God who don’t follow any sort of religion, who simply think he is there. I’ve called these ‘Onlookers’. There are also people who believe in God but are angry with him, some ‘atheists’ seem to be a bit like that.

I think God honours all of these relationships. There may be a point (perhaps after we die) when we see clearly the truth of who God is. If this is so then some of these people will have a big surprise and I’m sure we will all have to adjust our thinking. I’m going to end with a parable of my own, hope it helps:

There was once an girl, about 12 years old, who was put up for adoption. The prospective parents were extremely wise, loving and patient and took time to get to know the child. The girl had very mixed feelings. On the one hand she didn’t quite trust these people. Why did they want to love her so much? What was in it for them? On the other hand she was a bit afraid. They had a lot of other adopted children already who all seemed to have their lives sorted out. What if she just wasn’t good enough?

She realised that she had a choice. She could walk away and never see them again. They had said that she could change her mind at any time but what if they rejected her?

She could maintain contact and call on them when she needed support. This seemed like a good, safe option but it was a bit scary to be out in the world on her own and what if they ignored her when she called?

She could go and live in their house, follow the rules. She would pick up her clothes, do the washing up when asked and go to school on time. If she was good and polite they would look after her and keep her from harm.

Or she could really join the family and become their child. The prospect seemed very attractive and fun but all her old fears came back. What if they didn’t love her back? What if she wasn’t good enough?

So, in the end she decided to opt for the third option. She lived in their house and did what she was told and they loved her as much as she would allow. And because the parents were extremely wise and loving they waited.

Suggested Reading

I would really recommend reading the starting point for this blog: A New kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. It is completely packed with ideas about faith, Jesus and God.

The best two books written about Heaven and Hell are by C. S. Lewis:

The Great Divorce

The Last Battle

They are both works of fiction which seems quite appropriate for this topic.

Of the hundreds of books I read as a girl there are only a handful that still sit on my shelves: Lord of the Rings, The Glass Bead Game, some of the Narnia books and this book: Jane Eyre. It is, of course, a love story. Through TV and film adaptations almost everyone knows the story: The young orphan girl who becomes a governess and falls in love with her employer. But I will leave the reader of this blog to discover that for themselves because I want to look at another aspect of this book. Hidden in its 500 or so pages are some extraordinary ideas about heaven and hell.

But first: Why talk about Heaven and Hell? Well, I said in an earlier blog that no-one wants to talk about miracles but everyone wants to talk about what happens after you die. Even people who have no intention of ever stepping foot in a church are thinking about it. (The most bizarre question I had recently was about what happens to battery chickens after they are killed. And no, I don’t know the answer). Charlotte Bronte lays bare a lot of the mythology surrounding this and, I think, gives us a better way to consider this whole question.

The book starts with Jane as a young girl being brought up by her Aunt, who dislikes her. She is introduced to the patron of a school, Mr Brocklehurst, and Aunt Reed gives him some advice:

I should be glad if the superintendent and teachers were requested to keep a strict eye on her, and above all, to guard against her worst fault, a tendency to deceit. I mention this in your hearing, Jane, that you may not attempt to impose on Mr Brocklehurst’

Well might I dread (thinks Jane), well might I dislike Mrs Reed; for it was her nature to wound me cruelly: never was I happy in her presence. However carefully I obeyed, however strenuously I strove to please her, my efforts were still repulsed, and repaid by such sentences as the above. Now uttered before a stranger, the accusation cut me to the heart: I dimly perceived that she was already obliterating hope from the new phase of existence which she destined me to enter. I felt, though I could not have expressed the feeling, that she was sowing aversion and unkindness along my future path: I saw myself transformed.. into an artful noxious child and what could I do to remedy the injury?…

‘Deceit is, indeed a sad fault in a child.’ said Mr Brocklehurst; ‘it is akin to falsehood, and all liars will have their portion in the lake burning with fire and brimstone’

So here is my quick image of the lake of fire. This is really Hell as a threat. If you don’t do what you are supposed to do then this is what will happen to you! I’m not convinced. Something in me says that Hell would not be that obvious.

cartoon hell

But hidden in this passage is another kind of hell, a much more immediate one. I drew the picture below for a study we did about a year ago on the parable of the Sower. The parable is about the word of God. It falls on different sorts of ground, and some falls among weeds and thorns. In Matthew 13 Jesus explains this:

22 “The seed cast in the weeds is the person who hears the kingdom news, but weeds of worry and illusions about getting more and wanting everything under the sun strangle what was heard, and nothing comes of it.

inthorns

Jane, in her childish way, is internally voicing a fear that many of us have: That we will be unable to escape our past, that sins and injustices, real or imagined, will follow us wherever we go. That the small green shoots of a new life, a new start, will be strangled by what we have brought with us from our life before. Recently I said that I did not believe in Hell. ‘What do you mean by Hell?’ I was asked. ‘A sort of cartoon Hell with fire and brimstone’, I answered. But I do believe in the kind of Hell that Jane imagines, a hovering of fear over everything we do.

 And for a while, after she goes to school, this fear seems to be realised but two people come into her life who change her views. The first is a kindly teaHelen Burnscher called Miss Temple. The second is a slightly older girl called Helen Burns.

Helen seems to have an almost supernatural ability to put up with difficulties and forgive those around her. She is constantly accused and punished for the slightest transgressions, yet accepts this without complaint. As Jane gets to know her one thing is clear. Helen is dying. A fever breaks out in the school she attends but Helen is not dying of Typhus, she is dying of consumption and she has known for a long time. In the middle of the night Jane wakes up and feels that she must go and visit Helen. As it is a cold night she gets into bed with her to keep warm. Then they have the following conversation:

“I am very happy, Jane; and when you hear that I am dead, you must be sure and not grieve: there is nothing to grieve about. We all must die one day, and the illness which is removing me is not painful; it is gentle and gradual: my mind is at rest… By dying young, I shall escape great sufferings. I had not qualities or talents to make my way very well in the world: I should have been continually at fault.’

‘But where are you going to, Helen? Can you see? Do you know?’

‘I believe; I have faith: I am going to God.’

‘Where is God? What is God?’

‘My Maker and yours who will never destroy what he has created. I rely implicitly on His power, and confide wholly in His goodness: I count the hours till that eventful one arrives which shall restore me to Him, reveal Him to me.’

‘You are sure, then, Helen, that there is such a place as heaven; and that our souls can get to it when we die?’

‘I am sure that there is a future state; I believe God is good; I can resign my immortal part to Him without any misgiving. God is my father; God is my friend; I love him; I believe he loves me.’

‘And shall I see you again, Helen, when I die?’

‘You will come again to the same region of happiness: be received by the same mighty universal Parent, no doubt, dear Jane.’

There seems little need to comment further. If we trust God then we must trust him to look after us after we die. We do not know, cannot know and, perhaps, should not know exactly what heaven will be like. If I live out an average lifespan then I have about another 25 years on this earth and I don’t feel any need to rush towards my end. After all, with all its difficulties and challenges, God has put me here. I shouldn’t throw it away. But, I’m not afraid of death, or only in the way that we are afraid of anything new that cannot be altered.

Jesus has very little to say about  it. Only when he is nearing his end he says (John Ch 14 – The Message):

‘Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready. I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live.’

But I don’t think that God’s home will be like a large hotel with a discreet manager catering for our every whim. He will be more like a generous host, present in everything, reaching out to all his guests. And there lies the problem. Because, what happens if you have spent your whole life sneering at Him, thinking you are better than Him, or doing your very best to ignore His existence? What happens if you are so ashamed of who you are that you have tried to only show your ‘best’ side to him? Jesus tells a few stories about God inviting people to a feast and all the good, respectable people giving their excuses and not turning up. These same good, respectable people who couldn’t bear to be with God while they were alive will suddenly be face to face with him. Its going to be pretty uncomfortable to be living in his home, in his presence every minute of every day.

I’m sure I will return to this theme but, to complete Charlotte Bronte’s vision of Hell and Heaven, we must speed forward in the book to Jane as an adult. She is living with a family of two sisters and a brother. She has discovered that this family are actually her cousins. But rather than settling down to a comfortable life with them she is presented with a dilemma: Should she marry her cousin and go with him to be a missionary in India?

St John Eyre Rivers must be one of the most interesting characters in 19th Century fiction. He is intensely religious but not spiritual. He appears to be more concerned with those on the other side of the world more than the people around him. He wants to do good but is prepared to destroy Jane, both physically and emotionally, in the process. As the daughter of a clergyman Charlotte Bronte must have known people like this. Indeed, to me, this has the ring of truth. There are many people, inside and outside the Church, who feel that the best way to do good in the world is to leave the world they know and enter another. Maybe they are right for themselves but ,like Jane, I feel rather uncertain about this. But I know two things: Anywhere in the world there is good to be done (however outwardly comfortable it seems) and to do good without wanting to, without Joy, is a lifeless and almost cruel thing. He is described thus:

… he seemed of a reserved, an abstracted, and even of a brooding nature. Zealous in his ministerial labours, blameless in his life and habits, he yet did not appear to enjoy that mental serenity, that inward content, which should be the reward of every sincere Christian and practical philanthropist.

For him Heaven can only be reached through Hell. He will be given his ‘reward’ only if he first denies himself every softer human quality. You have to ask yourself what kind of room Jesus will be preparing for him. Maybe a bare monastery cell, if he’s lucky!

There is a lot of nonsense talked about life after death and I hope I’m not going to add to that. But on the other hand there seems no harm in playing around with ideas on this topic, just as long as we don’t think we know anything for certain. But first I have a personal admission to make: I know a lot about computer systems. Not the sort of systems that run the laptop I’m writing this blog on, or the WordPress software that is publishing it out to the net but big corporate database systems. And very strange things they are. For a start they are never switched off. Also, the system the office users see is completely different from the system I see, which consists largely of patterns of data. And there are other people, who look after the low level functioning of the database and servers who see yet another side which is mostly composed of processes which move the data from one place to another. So, like a living thing the whole system is constantly changing and working, even when no-one is using it. Even when it is ‘down’ the core of it is still functioning.

So, why does this matter to our thinking about life and death? Well, because last week we copied this system from one physical computer to another. We took an image of the essence of the system and put it in a file. This image couldn’t do anything, it was essentially dead. We then copied this into a working system which ran exactly like the one we had copied it from, but it was on a different physical computer, in a different building. For the computer system this was quite a traumatic process. It was unable to communicate with the outside world for a couple of days. For a short while it had no data at all.

Metaphors are dangerous things and I don’t want to push this too far but it seems to me that (from the clues in the bible) this copying process is a lot like what happens when we die. Luke Chapter 20 says:

34 Jesus replied, ‘The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”.[a]38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.’

So, we will have a new type of body, be ‘like the Angels’. The only account we have of this kind of body is that of Jesus himself. When he came back from the dead he could appear and disappear at will, He was clearly different yet was also ‘himself’. If we are to continue after our own deaths then, however different we are, some essence of ourselves must continue. And just like my computer system that essence can only be transferred at the moment of our death. This means we must be more like Helen Burns than St John Rivers. It is what we are, not what we do that matters, if we are to meet God in his home.  One of my favourite Christian songs is ‘Dance’ by the Newsboys. This seems to put it perfectly:

Faith is the substance
Faith is the key
Faith is gonna take us
Where we’re meant to be

So, if we believe, really believe in God; If we trust, really trust in Jesus then we will be changed by Him. Then what we do will always be right because it will come out of who we are. Then it won’t matter if we get to Heaven because we will already be living in the Kingdom of God.

Postscript

Firstly I want to apologise to anyone who was expecting the next blog to be on ‘Mind and Cosmos’. I will get back to that, but not just yet.

Recommended reading:

If you have never read ‘Jane Eyre’ (or only been forced to do so at school) then I would really recommend doing this. The book has a lot more in it than any of the film/TV adaptations. For those of you who prefer to listen to your books there are some very good audio versions available.

‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell. Brilliant, controversial and very readable. Surely the rewriting of this theology for our age.

The next post will be on ‘The Rage against God’ by Peter Hitchens, and why England is now a secular Nation.

And finally, If you want to reach me leave me a message here: