The April 16, 2012, issue of Time magazine has an interesting cover story entitled "Rethinking Heaven," by Jon Meacham. The article begins by the author discussing conventional understandings of heaven. He says that the images that many of us jump to when we think of heaven can be found in the best-selling book Heaven Is for Real, by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent. The book tells the story of four-year-old Colton Burpo, who reported that he visited heaven during surgery for an appendicitis. The child was indeed seriously ill and close to death. He told his parents about seeing Jesus, sitting on his lap, meeting John the Baptist, meeting his grandfather, and meeting a deceased sister whom he knew nothing about. He saw Mary, who acted like a mom toward Jesus. Meacham talks about how art, tradition, and religion have influenced our understanding or concepts about what heaven will be like.
But the author presents other views, other than the traditional, to help us understand heaven. He quotes John Blanchard, executive pastor of Rock Church International in Virginia Beach, who said: "I don't believe we are going to be floating around with little wings looking like Cupid playing harps, for all eternity. Heaven isn't just a place you go - heaven is how you live your life. What's trending is a younger generation, teens, college aged, who are motivated by causes - people who are motivated by heaven are also people motivated to make a positive difference in this world." Meacham also mentions N. T. Wright, the former Anglican Bishop of Durham, England. Wright has a very existential, here and now approach to heaven. Heaven is God's space; the followers of Jesus should be trying to bring God' s space to the earth, transforming our world into how God would have it. Wright speaks of trying to create heaven here on earth. The alleviation of pain and injustice in the world, in this view, is the ongoing work that Jesus began, and the means of bringing into being what the early Christians meant when they spoke of heaven. Believers should be hard at work making the world godly and just.
Who is correct - The Heaven Is for Real/traditional understanding of an afterlife awaiting us on the other side of death; or this more existential approach that suggests heaven is our work now, as we live on earth? I think this week's readings suggest that there is truth in both understandings.
In the gospel of John, this week, we hear the famous story of the doubting Thomas. Thomas would not believe in the risen Jesus until he saw him and probed his wounds. Jesus appears again a week later after his first appearance. In both instances, he calms his followers' fears with the word, "Peace." I believe that Thomas represents all of us: we all have moments and periods of doubt. To a degree, it is true that we all have some agnosticism in us, in that we know do not know all things about God, Jesus, eternal life, heaven, etc. But Thomas is paradigmatic for how faith works. He moves from doubt to a direct experience of Jesus; he has a religious experience. This religious experience leads him to "come to believe." As with the other first witnesses of the resurrection, his religious experience leads him to convictional faith. He becomes convinced that Jesus is risen - his identity intact, but nonetheless transformed, different than he was before. So it is with you and me: we can doubt; we cannot know; but we also have experienced Jesus as risen. We have come to believe; we are convinced about resurrection, Jesus' and, eventually, ours.
This encounter with the risen Jesus speaks of the transcendent nature of resurrection. Jesus was the same; but he was transformed. His identity was intact; but he was no longer subject to the laws of time and space. He passed through doors and walls. He appeared, and disappeared. He was recognized, and sometimes he was not recognized. This spirit - body of the risen Jesus reminds us of the mysterious, transcendent, ethereal nature of resurrection and eternal life.
But there is a quite down to earth, existential approach to resurrection also contained in this passage from John. Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into those gathered in that room, and he sends them on a mission. The mission has a curious, challenging direction. It is to be a mission of sharing with people God's forgiveness, while challenging them to forgive each other, in imitation of God.
The real-life, here and now implications of heaven and resurrection are also spoken of in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 4. The group of people that abandoned Jesus, denied him, betrayed him are described by Luke as completely transformed. "The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions were his own; but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need."
This glimpse of the early church speaks of people who were trying to create heaven on earth. This portrait of the early Christian movement speaks of the miracles that flowed from Easter, and the resurrection of Jesus. In the second reading, from the first letter of John, we are told that we who believe in the risen Jesus are victors over the world. In John's theology, the world represents all that is anti-Christ and anti-the Reign of God. Here again, the here and now, existential implications of the resurrection as mission are spoken of.
Many years ago, I was very impressed by the theologizing of a priest, Roger Troisfontaines, who wrote the book, I Do Not Die. In this book, the author speaks of eternity as a process. Some people choose to be in the process of heaven by living the values and behaviors of the Reign of God, as taught by Jesus. Heaven people pass over the threshold of death, and heaven continues for them. In a similar way, some people choose to live hell - oriented lives. They are alienated from others and from God, self-centered, narcissistic, oriented toward power and/or pleasure. People who begin such a lifestyle here on Earth also pass over the threshold of death. Troisfontaines believed that people with a hell lifestyle probably continue that lifestyle in the hereafter. In this view, God does not send anyone to heaven or hell; rather people choose how they want to live eternally. I believe this view is tempered by the story of the good thief who died with Christ, who, in the last moments of his life repented, and was assured paradise by Jesus. I know people who translate the tradition of purgatory in this way: maybe the spirits of some people continue to strive toward conversion and repentance, even after death. Perhaps people can change the direction of their lives after they have died.
There is much that we do not know about heaven. I believe in both of the dimensions of heaven discussed in Meachem's article. I believe that after death we move, as Jesus did, into a different dimension of being. We become spirit, one with God, one with those who preceded us in death, and one with those who remain here on Earth. Our identities will be intact, but we will be transformed. But I also believe that indeed in John's gospel this week, and in Matthew, chapter 28, Jesus has sent those of us who believe in resurrection on a mission: to bring God's space into the world, to bring heaven to earth. Perhaps that is just another way of saying that the believers in Jesus are called to help with the emergence of the Reign of God in the world.
I was with my aunt, Ag, the night she died, after a brutal fight with cancer. Ag had lost her only son, her only child, years before to kidney disease. Later she lost her husband to the same disease. Ag was a woman of loss and suffering. Nonetheless, during her years on Earth, she brought much joy, happiness, and love to many people. Moments before she died, though she was unconscious, tears began to flow down her cheeks. I said something about it to the people standing around her bed. One of the medical people in the room said that her tears were simply her autonomic nervous system at work, involuntary movements. But I don't think so. I think her tears were tears of love for the people standing around her deathbed, and tears of joy as she saw her son, Ronnie, and her husband, Johnny - and all who preceded her in death - with whom she was about to be rejoined. That is not to mention the vision of God she may have been experiencing. She was journeying to a new dimension of being. I had similar experiences with my parents and so many other people that I was with when they died.
Heaven? It truly is now and later.