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Yes, But What Really Happens after Death: Rethinking Heaven Indeed!

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"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 is three years old. She calls me "Baba." She calls her grandma "Gaga." And Eva's 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.

Recently, 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."

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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?

Tony Equale's blog tries to answer that question. For Equale heaven has little to do with the pearly gates. At the same time, however, he helps us understand more starkly what entering God's space after death might really entail.

To begin with, Equale says, we must admit our ignorance. We have little idea about heaven or what happens after death. It's all speculation. Even Jesus himself said precious little about the afterlife, much less about the specifics of a heaven. In any case, anything the Bible might have to say about the afterlife is expressed in religious language which is of necessity highly metaphorical.   It gestures towards something else.

What we do know about Jesus is that his own understanding of death was shaped by his belief in God's universal love. He had absolute trust in God as a loving Father. Jesus believed that God's unfailing trustworthiness took away the "sting" of death, so that dying became irrelevant; whatever was to happen could be trusted as the best outcome possible. As a result, death had no dominion over him.     

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Moreover the heroism of Jesus' witness was to actually "prove" his claims about God by staking everything on them. Here we're not talking about a rationalistic proof, but about something existential. In effect Jesus said, "Do you want me to prove I'm right? O.K. then, I will." So he courted death by doing the things God's love demands (siding with the poor and oppressed) -- a choice that usually brings assassination to any prophet. That was his proof. "You see," he insisted, "God can be trusted; death is irrelevant in the face of God's love." A way of putting that metaphorically is to say that Jesus rose from the dead.

According to Equale, belief in resurrection in those terms -- in terms of real flesh and blood people choosing to risk their lives because they trust God's love -- mostly unraveled within a few generations of Jesus' execution.   Its place was taken by a mixture of Roman and Egyptian ideas about disembodied souls in a "Blue Sky" heaven familiar to three year olds, to Dante, Raphael, and Michelangelo.

According to Equale, where does that leave us? With one choice only, he says -- either to trust or not to trust the source of our existence, which Jesus claimed is absolutely loving.   However, even if we make the choice to trust, the reality of God's love might not be as we want it to be. Tony writes:

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Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Recently retired, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 36 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program.Mike blogs (more...)
 

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It was interesting to me that the Time Magazine ar... by Mike Rivage-Seul on Thursday, May 3, 2012 at 11:26:50 PM
Jalalud-Din Rumi said it very well, many years ago... by Ned Lud on Friday, May 4, 2012 at 6:29:07 AM
Rethinking heaven is now definitely on the agenda ... by R. A. Landbeck on Friday, May 4, 2012 at 10:29:31 AM
Finally a concise discussion of God, heaven and he... by Jmm242 on Friday, May 4, 2012 at 11:21:58 AM
I had never thought of it this way, but our refusa... by Laura Barnard on Friday, May 4, 2012 at 11:56:18 AM