There are four main theories (a) there’s nothing (b) we’re recycled (c) we continue in some shadowy form (d) we move on to a new life.
This sermon isn’t about what happens when we die or how do we know there is something, it’s about what the Bible itself tells us about that new life.
All Bible passages speak of afterlife in visions & pictures. Daniel (& Ezekiel) in the OT are no different. The picture is dominated by a figure described as a ‘son of man’ (v16) – a term Jesus used for himself. The figure has human speech and human features but is otherwise totally un-human – shining, powerful, awe-inspiring, a fleeting vision.
The OT reflects little on afterlife because it spends many pages looking back on the history of Israel and God’s dealings with them. But in the writings of the prophets there are many hints of God’s kingdom breaking in, a world already existing rather than waiting to exist, a world behind the scenes of the human drama we are part of.
Revelation is very little different from Daniel; its words probably a comfort for an audience having a hard time under oppressive rule. Its visions are frequently beyond our understanding, though the furniture of them is familiar from OT visions e.g. horses, lamp-stands, stars. We would have understood it more easily in Jesus’ time than we do in our culture today; it’s like trying to understand a joke in a foreign language. As in Daniel the visions focus mainly on God but in Revelation 21 and 22 we see something more about the nature of heaven. In our six verse sample we notice the following :
- newness – vv1,2,5 (an end to decay)
- beauty – v2 (celebration)
- the absence of all evils & suffering – v4
- the presence of God among people – v3
- the offer of life to the thirsty – v6
These are developed in greater detail in the two chapters. The new city of Jerusalem (our picture might be of a new Truro cathedral) is carved out of vast jewels. It is rich and fantastically bright and beautiful. It is perfectly balanced and through the twelve gates stream people from every corner of our world i.e. it is like a church service with all electoral roll members present. Chapter 22 verse 1 speaks of the clear life-giving water flowing from God’s throne into the city (a bit like Helston’s main street). The life given to us not only lasts for ever (21.6), it is more life-giving than the life we know now.
Trees on the riverbank give fruit every month. It reminds me of the fruit trees in Genesis’ garden, only this time the fruit are healing rather than dividing fruit (the Fall in chapter 3).
NB Revel’n 21 v1 talks about the end to the sea because for the Jews the sea (the Mediterranean) was a place of hazard and invasion; Leviathan, the sea monster, was a symbol of chaos and evil. Ezekiel’s vision of the great river in ch 47 included the sea (all that water had to flow somewhere).
The lesson is not to take the pictures or their detail too literally
The mathematical harmony in the dimensions of the city is mirrored in the harmony of the peoples. As Jesus said once, marriage and family life will be meaningless where all are together in every way. Animals & fish & birds? Why not? They were created in Genesis 1. If there are no more predators, then the lion shall indeed lie down with the lamb. Perhaps too the mountains and trees will move. (See ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ by CS Lewis). BUT two key Qs remain
What will we do there ?
Heaven would not be attractive as a piece of frozen perfection (like being in a painting) or as an endless church service. The pictures of the life of heaven in Revelation clearly point to the worship of Father and Sonas the essential activity; these Biblical snapshots might incline us to forget that ‘worship’ and ‘service’ are the same word in the Bible. We will surely be co-creators with God, leading active and fulfilled lives– never tired, never frustrated and never distracted or disturbed by our co-workers. In a way we find hard to grasp work and worship will be intertwined not separate.
Who will get to heaven ?
Revel’n 21.6 makes it clear, as do many other Bible verses, that life in heaven (or eternal life) is a gift to those who ask for it from Jesus. (see also John 4.13,14 and 14.6). The Bible makes it clear that God loves all he has made and desires that all should be saved. It also acknowledges that we are made to relate to God freely and that he never forces people to worship and acknowledge him. The ‘place’ people go who do not wish to be with God is ‘hell’, defined as a place outside of God (as heaven is defined by his presence). It is not a cruel God who consigns people to hell – people make their own choice.
CHALLENGE What is our choice and what daily choices do we make in life in the light of afterlife ?