After We Die
Roger suggested that I look at Patrick Mead's blog entitled Tentpegs. Patrick (who at one time preached at Grandy Street in Norfolk) is answering tough questions that his readers send in. (If I ever get readers, I may try that. Then again...) Since his question and answer for today is about the passage I preached on Sunday, I thought I would cut and paste it. That and because it is so much easier than writing something of my own. Warning, this is a l-o-o-o-o-n-g blog entry, though it is about average for Patrick's entries--
What happens to the righteous after they die? Do they sleep somewhere until God wakes them up on the last day? Are they conscious at all? Do they go to heaven? Are they in paradise? Are the dead aware of what is going on on earth? When we are resurrected, is it just our bodies or are our souls remade or resurrected, too?
I knew the answers to all of these questions — and more! — when I was a kid. Long before PowerPoint or MediaShout, we had bedsheet sermons, sometimes called "chart" sermons. For those sad, poor, ignorant people who don’t know what I am talking about, a bedsheet sermon wasn’t a lesson on the Song of Solomon but, rather, a bedsheet strung in front of the auditorium and festooned with illustrations, lurid colors, scripture references, and a really cool title. We loved these sermons because there was something other than a preacher to look at during the lesson. Besides, it was as close to "art" as we were allowed to get in the church. (think I’m kidding? When our church bought a Methodist building, my father had them remove or cover the stained glass windows. The beautiful altar rail and furniture on the stage were all removed and replaced with a plain wooden pulpit and a bench seat for the song leader and preacher to use. This was normal in my religious tribe)
An aside: once when we were visited by several Big Preachers in the Brotherhood at the same time, my mother ran out of sheets and had to get creative. She made up a bed for me in a corner of the house. When I pulled back the blanket to climb in I was greeted with huge letters asking "Where Are The Dead?" This is one eight year old that didn’t sleep well that night. I kept fearing that I would unwittingly roll over on the "tartarus" section and, if Jesus came back, he might leave me there.
Anyway, "Where Are The Dead?" was a very, very popular sermon. Most traveling preachers had a version of that bedsheet sermon and it had been made into a tract (religious booklet) and a flimstrip that gave most of us kids the heebie-jeebies. Taking most of its material from the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16, this was a very cool sheet. Dead people who were righteous were "carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom" and deposited in Paradise, one of the three subsections of Hades, the waiting place for the dead. The other two places were Tartarus — a place of torment for the wicked — and the Great Gulf, or the area that lay between Paradise and Tartarus that was so wide that no one could cross from one place to the other.
Then… one day… Jesus would come again. Arrows on the sheet showed souls from Paradise meeting up with Jesus and then meeting up with their resurrected bodies and entering heaven (after formal judgment). Souls in Tartarus met their bodies, too, but they were then tossed from the fire in Tartarus to the fires in hell so their situation didn’t really change much.
There are problems with this view… but there are also problems with every other view I have seen. I love Edward Fudge’s work, for example, and wouldn’t want to engage him in a "smart contest" but I don’t buy his view of this passage — which is anything but traditional. Neither do I accept the bedsheet sermon as entirely accurate.
The fact is… I don’t know for sure what happens next. There. I said it. I have absolute trust in God that He will do the right thing and that I will be with Jesus in heaven for eternity but I am not sure about the process and what I will see or feel or experience from here to there. Many passages are salted throughout scripture saying that we "sleep" but there are others such as this passage in Luke and some in Revelation which show us as being alive, aware, and active after death. In Revelation, we see martyrs talking to God, asking questions, and speaking about things going on on planet earth. At the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah walked with Christ without any mention of them being remade or resurrected just for that one event. Because of passages such as that, I cannot buy the "no consciousness until Jesus returns" teaching.
Neither can I say that we stay in Paradise until judgment day after seeing so many already in heaven in Revelation. I’m not at all sure there is a separate place called Paradise. It might just be another name for being with God. I don’t think the rich man is still in Tartarus (where preachers assured us he was still calling for a drop of water after all these centuries) or that he will then be transferred into hell one day. I think he was burned up, annihilated. I don’t think that people in heaven can see their friends and relatives burning in hell, much less that they can turn a blind eye to that and enjoy heaven while that view is off the port bow, so to speak.
Yet, even if the evil are annihilated out of sight of the righteous, where are the righteous? I find it informative that those who were able to see beyond the veil were not allowed to speak of it. Paul says he saw things "it is not lawful" to speak about. John the Revelator saw and heard something in heaven that the angel told him he was not allowed to repeat. "Do not write" was an strange order to receive after he’d been told to write so many other strange things, but there it is. No one was allowed to enter or see what was there and then give a guided tour later! In case you wonder, that DOES mean I have big problems with those who write about their visits to heaven. I cannot say they didn’t go there because I’m not God and I don’t know for sure. However, I know the brain and I know how the release of chemicals, the behavior of pain receptors, and the clash of memories and expectations can produce incredibly realistic visions and memories of things that never happened. (remember — I’m not a theologian but I AM a scientist who deals with the brain)
While I don’t know what will happen for sure, I am absolutely, 100% sure that we who belong to Jesus Christ are going to love how it all turns out. I am so very excited to get to see it for myself! Contrary to the country song popular right now that states everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to go now… I want to go now! I am Paul in Philippians One; the only reason I can tolerate staying here is because I know that means I have something to do for Jesus. My work, evidently, isn’t finished yet. Sleep, transference into Paradise, or the express train to heaven…. either way, those who believe on the Lord and who walk in His steps are going to love whatever it is that happens next.