The normal (Christian) journey of faith
Chapter 15: What next?
After life comes death – or passing on, or meeting the Lord, or being promoted to glory, or kicking the bucket, or any one of the many ways we have of avoiding using that final word – death. There is a fundamental problem in talking about what follows life. Everything that can be said about it has to be expressed in terms of this life. And, that is not an easy thing to do. This shows very clearly in the range of different words that the New Testament writers use. Matthew talks about the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ (which is really a way of saying the Kingdom of God but avoiding the use of the word God) and a wedding banquet; John talks about ‘eternal life’ – or, more literally, the ‘life of the ages’, or, more interpretively, ‘God’s new age’; Paul talks about our ‘citizenship in heaven’; Peter talks about an ‘inheritance’; the writer to the Hebrews calls us to ‘the city that is to come’.
But even the width of that range of words gives us some important clues as to how we should think of where we are going. In two ways: first, all those expressions, without exception, refer to a place of relationships – a kingdom is where the King is, wedding banquets are a celebration of relationships, eternal life is about life, citizenship is shared, inheritance is about continuity of life and a city is people. Secondly all those expressions have a strong hint in them that we are already there: we are in the Kingdom, the life of the ages must have started already, we have to have a passport to know our citizenship, inheritance means we are part of an ongoing family and cities have a great ongoing life to them. One thing we can be sure of: we shall not be sitting around on the clouds playing harps, as so much popular thinking has it!
You and I do not know what it will all look like, however hard John of Patmos may have tried to explain through his word pictures in the book of Revelation to enthuse us for what lies ahead. (You will note that I do not rate those who think they have perfect knowledge of what he means in every verse and every sentence!) That does not matter.
The one great puzzle is where and how the idea of ‘the new heavens and the new earth’ fits in. The phrase comes from the prophecy of Isaiah and is picked up by Peter and John of Patmos. It suggests that the future is not totally different from the world we now live in, which we should therefore take great care of and look after as best we can.
There have been all sorts of suggestions that after we die we will start in one place, proceed to another and then another and so on, possibly depending on how good boys and girls we have been. All such ideas should be rejected.
What is abundantly clear is that in some sense, still hidden from us, life after death for the believer will be in a place where we shall be in close proximity to the Lord of All, the King of the Ages, our Lord Jesus Christ. In some way we cannot begin to understand we shall be fully content with that, time will be of no significance, nor will other people. HE will be all in all to us.
No Christian should be frightened or worried about being dead. We may indeed be worried about dying, which may turn out to be a lengthy, unpleasant and uncomfortable business. We may be deeply concerned about the future of our loved ones that we will leave behind, perhaps to a difficult and poverty struck or loveless existence, and that rightly so. To be that way is to be concerned about the breaking of the deep loves of our life, and the more we have loved the more difficult is the thought of love fractured. There is certainly nothing to be ashamed of in being worried by such thoughts.
We shall die when our time comes. Except if we take part in highly dangerous and risky enterprises this will be entirely within the hands of our good and gracious Lord. Why some should die young, and others live to a difficult old age we shall never know. Job said “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”. But that is in the first chapter of his book and he goes on to a long and tortuous argument with his friends, struggling with the multiple calamities that have overtaken him. Only in the very last chapter of his book does he get to saying, “I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge? ’
Surely I, Job, spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me. ’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.”
Like Job, we too will struggle with the things that happen to us, particularly in the death of friends and loved ones and then perhaps when our own day to depart comes. Don’t let that worry you beyond the natural worry of such things. Rest in the hands of the Lord. Paul said “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” So it is for us. Don’t forget it!