If you died right now, would you go to heaven?
Have you ever heard that question? Ever asked it? When I was growing up in a wound-very-tight fundamentalist church, that question was at the heart of "witnessing." It was at the heart of "the gospel." We were expected to ask The Question of people we encountered. Few of us did that, but that's another matter.
Nevertheless, it's an interesting question. If I died right now, what would happen to me? What happens to anyone at the end of this life? Is our ultimate destination heaven? Hell? Neither? Does the Bible care? Should we?
I've written before that I'm reading N.T. Wright's book Surprised by Hope. I'm still reading it, and these are some questions he raises, and ties them to the question of the mission of the church. I think they're well worth thinking about. They're "rock the boat" sort of questions.
Just what will happen when I die? Sleep until some future event? Oblivion? Be present with Jesus? Will I be sitting on a cloud somewhere, playing a harp? What will happen to my body? It has its problems, but after all these years, we've gotten quite close.
Does it make difference? Will I live my life differently if my future includes some "sleep" state rather than being "awake" through the entire process, whatever that may be?
What does the Bible teach? Is heaven the ultimate destination of followers of Jesus?
I have become convinced that what I was taught - and what most readers were taught - is wrong. In fact, there is little New Testament support for an ultimate - eternal - destination for us in heaven.
Let me point out here that the Bible presents heaven as God's "place," full of his glory, and not a place of fluffy clouds with people sitting on them. Are there people in heaven? Yes. Revelation is pretty clear on that. Are they going to stay there? That's a different question. Revelation is not so clear about that.
Wright makes an interesting argument that our ultimate destination and dwelling place will be this earth. But it will be an earth renewed, glorified, and as comparable to what we know now as the present, resurrected and glorified body of Jesus is to his first body. Similar, recognizable, but way better.
So, if I'm going to have a need for this body - which God called good, incidentally - and an equal need for this earth - which God also called good - perhaps I should take better care of both.
The fact is, God gave me my body and placed me on this earth, and I live in the line of ancestors who were charged with caring for and protecting the earth.
Over the past few years of studying my Bible and thinking a lot, I have become convinced that Jesus-followers - and maybe others who don't quite fit with that name - will have their ultimate place of residence on a wonderfully restored, renewed and glorified earth. This earth made new.
So what? What difference does that make in my life?
Here's a big difference, as I see it. Churches tend to go to one of two extremes. Either they consider that the main question in life concerns whether one will go to heaven - or hell - upon physical death. And they are pretty sure they know who will and who won't. These folks are usually very conservative in their theology. On the other hand, there are those who insist there is no judgment, no resurrection, and no point in caring about any of this. They are generally on the liberal side of the continuum.
The truth lies in between. First, the Bible never makes heaven and hell The Big Question of life. In fact, it says surprisingly little about the subject, though the few things it does say are imperative, and should not be overlooked. Second, the Bible presents a redemption narrative that is first and foremost relational. It's about knowing and loving the one true and living God.
So what do we say about events associated with physical death? For my part, not much. I am not worried about it, and it's really no big deal.
I can say that with confidence, because of the relationship I have with Jesus. I am a branch firmly attached to the vine, and it is from him I receive my very life. Jesus is my Source, my Lord, my elder Brother, my Friend. And with that, he will be my Judge. But I'm not worried about that, because the Judge is my Brother and Friend, and our Father is very fond of us both.
What's to fear?
So the question, I think, is not about what would happen if you died right now. It's about who you know now, and who you will know when you die.
Jesus. He's the focus. He's the point of the story. And in him we can know, with no doubt, that what happens to us after our death will be very good, indeed.