People my age think about this. Death is coming, and then what? Most of us put hell aside; we consider the burning flames to be a myth that was created by clerics to scare us into being good. The Old Testament calls it Sheol, that dark watery place where ghosts wander about. The New Testament calls it either Gehenna, the garbage pit that burned outside of the walls of Jerusalem, or the Greek term Hades, which corresponds to Sheol. So, we dismiss hell, but what about heaven?
Is heaven a myth, too? If you google “heaven” you will see pictures of the clouds parting and stairs leading up to a golden city. And if you read Paul’s letter to his Greek converts in Thessaloniki you get the same image: “We will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” (1Thess. 4:17) “In the air?” What does that mean? We’re going to float along on the clouds? Will the astronauts see us through the windows of their space ships?
Heaven is mentioned 657 times in the Bible. There is no doubt in the minds of these biblical authors that Yahweh lives in Ha Shamaim in the Old Testament and in Uranus in the New Testament. Angels live there, and devils too until they’re thrown out, but the Hebrew authors don’t allow humans to ascend to this lofty place, except for Elijah (2 Kings 2:11) and Henoch (Gen. 5:24). However, the New Testament opens up the golden gates and we can now sit with Christ himself (Matt. 19:28) and enjoy our eternal reward.
What does this mean?
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Every human being since the beginning of our existence has yearned for an after life. Nobody want this to be “all there is.” We know the Egyptians buried their kings with items to play with, even mistresses. All of us want to break out of the suffocating tomb and breathe again. But will we? We just don’t know.
So, we believe.
And our faith in a heaven allows our imaginations to soar. Paul imagined that heaven would come in his lifetime, descending from the skies and taking all the Christians up with Christ. Paul wrote this around the year 52 C.E., but as time went on and Paul had died and heaven had not come, one of Paul’s followers wrote the epistle to the Christians in Ephesus, stating that God has done it already through grace: “He has raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavens, in Christ Jesus.” We’re in heaven now!
But that’s not the heaven we mean. We know death is coming and we want to know if our lives will continue in some fashion. Any fashion will do; even reincarnation would be heavenly. But the image of living once again with relatives and friends and angels and saints – and God in some way—has fired up our imaginations and created some of the finest art in the world. From Fra Angelico to Rembrandt to Leonardo da Vinci to the modern paintings of men like Richard Hook, we find our way into heavenly realms. And we like it.
When my father was on his death bed, he called me to his side. He had been an Irish Catholic all his life, raised by immigrants who believed they were surrounded by supernatural beings. Dad had abandoned all superstitious ideas and had even come to doubt religion itself. He had lived a full life and had traveled all over the world. But now it was time.
He looked at me and smiled and said: “This will be my greatest adventure.” And then he died. I hope it was, Dad.