Pie in the Sky when you Die? How to understand heaven


Have you noticed that every time a celebrity dies (which seems to be occurring at an alarming rate this year – or am I just getting old?) that inevitably the remarks follow about them being in heaven, looking down, playing their guitar etc? For a generation that is supposed not to believe in God and the afterlife it seems somewhat contradictory. For human beings, it appears there is an understandable fascination with what happens to us when we die. As the preacher in Ecclesiastes tells us, God 'has put eternity in the heart of man'. Is this just false comfort? Is this just social conditioning for the poor and the weak, to help them cope with the troubles they have in this life, by encouraging them to think of the next? Is it just pie in the sky when you die?

What will heaven be like? I know this sounds strange but even as a Christian for a number of years I struggled with the idea of going to heaven almost as much as I struggled with the idea of going to hell. Not long after I became a Christian I was walking along the beach at Brora in the Eastern Scottish Highlands. It was about midnight and it was a glorious and beautiful crisp and clear night, with the full moon bouncing off the calm sea. I confessed to my companion at the time, the wonderful Bible teacher, Dick Dowsett, that I did not want to go to heaven. He smiled and asked me why not. "Because although I know that it is not really like this, I cannot get out of my head the images of sitting on a cloud, playing a harp, or heaven being like one eternal church service, and then when I look at all this beauty, I think I don't want to leave that." Dick looked horrified; "David, you really have no idea about heaven. Stop and think. Look at all this beauty and you have to realise that it is just a foretaste, it is but a shadow. What you see now will be a million times more in heaven."

One of the images that help me to understand heaven better is that of sight. Now we see but through a glass darkly. Then we shall see clearly. I heard a scientist who was based in the Antarctic explaining that when he stood on his small hill he could now only see 100 miles with the naked eye whereas when he first came to the Antarctic he used to be able to see 400 miles. It was not that his eyes were fading but rather that the environment was becoming more polluted. It struck me that that is a great analogy for heaven. Right now we see dimly. The pollution of sin, the incapacities of our minds and the limitations of our bodies mean that we cannot conceive what God has prepared for those who love him – in the new heavens and the new earth, without the pollution of sin.

Before I sat my driving test I had to go and get an eye test. I thought my eyes were perfect and confidently told the optician that there was nothing wrong with my eyesight. When he covered over one eye and asked me to read the top line on the board, I had to ask, "what board?!" When he gave me glasses and I put them on, everything in the room was clearer. I had not known that my eyesight was so bad because it had gradually deteriorated. That for me is what heaven is like. We think just now that we can judge God, that we can tell him what is right and wrong and that we can even determine that he does not exist. The arrogance is breathtaking because in reality we are blind men shouting at the light that we say does not exist. When Jesus opens our eyes we begin to see, but it is only a beginning. Throughout our lives as we draw closer to Christ we see more and more of the beauty. But it is only when we get to heaven that we will really see and grasp. Then we shall see clearly.

It takes an enormous shift of mind to grasp that what we are living in just now is real, but is not the ultimate reality.

It takes an enormous shift of mind to grasp that what we are living in just now is real, but is not the ultimate reality. We are tasting but this is not yet the banquet. Heaven is not an ethereal dream but a reality to which in contrast this current live I am now living is but a shadow. CS Lewis developed and spoke a great deal about this idea of the Shadowlands. This week's recommended book is his wonderful story about the difference between heaven and hell –The Great Divorce.

Speaking of which I don't know a better description of heaven than the latter part of Lewis' conclusion to the Narnia tales, The Last Battle. "It was the unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore-hoof on the ground and neighed, and then cried: I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-heehee! Come farther up, come farther in!"

What all of this has to do with Jesus is this. What makes heaven heaven, is the presence of the Lamb. It is Christ who is the joy, light and life of heaven. "We now understand that Jesus himself is 'heaven' in the deepest and truest sense of the word – he in whom and through whom God's will is done," says Pope Benedict. Heaven is where Jesus is. Hell is where he is not. Anyone who chooses to reject Jesus and live without him is in effect choosing hell.

The Humanist Hope

There are problems, depths and many questions in thinking about all of this. And surely that is the way you would expect it to be? When human beings try to create a heaven on earth just think how weak and pathetic our efforts are in comparison to what God does and promises. 

What is the humanist hope? Bertrand Russell expressed it starkly – "No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought or feeling, can preserve a life beyond the grave...all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system; and the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins." 

We are a blob of carbon floating from one meaningless existence to another.

That is really what it all boils down to. Is our life a sad meaningless journey from nothing to nothing? Is life, as Macbeth says in his final speech,

...but a walking shadow; a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more; it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Or is there something more? Surely everything in you screams out – there is more. Life is a journey – complete with ups and downs. For me as a Christian it is a joy, a feast, but it is not the final destination. We are on the road to somewhere.

That somewhere is tied up with a whole host of words and concepts – beauty, truth, love, life, justice. A few years ago I buried a young man who was a great fan of The Lord of the Rings movies and so the family requested that we play Annie Lennox singing Into the West. It is the song at the end of the last of the trilogy and accompanies the ship sailing into the West. It represents death. And hope. Beautifully phrased and sung. Little wonder that there was not a dry eye in the house.

Lay down
Your sweet and weary head
Night is falling
You have come to journey's end
Sleep now
And dream of the ones who came before
They are calling
From across a distant shore

Why do you weep?
What are these tears upon your face?
Soon you will see
All of your fears will pass away
Safe in my arms
You're only sleeping

What can you see
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home

And all will turn
To silver glass
A light on the water
All Souls pass

Hope fades
Into the world of night
Through shadows falling
Out of memory and time
Don't say
We have come now to the end
White shores are calling
You and I will meet again
And you'll be here in my arms
Just sleeping

Whilst we are on the Lord of the Rings – perhaps the following quote encapsulates the Christian hope of heaven.

'"Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What's happened to the world?"
"A great Shadow has departed," said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.'

The hope of heaven and the certainty of arriving at our final destination, the realisation that 'this world is not my home, I'm just a passing through', is something which gives us the courage, strength and ability to face all the ups and downs of this present life. It's not just pie in the sky when you die, but steak on your plate while you wait!

David Robertson is the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and director of Solas CPC, Dundee. Follow him on Twitter @theweeflea.