Francis Gardom asks us to consider seriously what will happen to us after death and to build up clearer pictures of life after life

When one arrives to take a funeral at the crematorium, the chances are that the previous one will still be in progress – either because it started late, but more probably because the minister who is officiating is taking his or her time, cataloguing the virtues of the dear departed or speculating about the heavenly reunion which, supposedly, is taking place between the late lamented and their pre-deceased spouse.

It is instructive to listen-in to these proceedings because they usually bear no relation whatsoever to what Christians, Jews, Muslims – or Jehovah’s Witnesses for that matter – have ever believed: and my guess is that, if asked to justify what they have said, their answer would be that it is ‘the sort of thing that bereaved folk want to hear’.

Avoiding the truth

There’s a word for ‘telling people what they want to hear’ and that word is ‘flattery’. And flattery, they tell you, gets you nowhere.

Be that as it may, one might have supposed that when people are confronted by something as serious and inevitable as Death, whether their own or someone else’s, they would at least want to be told the truth.

Seemingly this is not so. Over and over again people claim that they are ‘not interested’ in what happens to them beyond the grave.

This may sound rather high-minded, even praiseworthy. Not to be concerned for one’s welfare after death sounds a lofty ideal. But it takes on a different aspect once you ask such a person exactly whose future life they are not interested in. Can they really say, standing by the death-bed of someone they have loved, ‘You are about to die, and frankly I am not interested in what happens to you after that’? The simple transference from thinking about their own death to that of someone else changes the whole picture, does it not?

Does it not begin to look as if the question of what happens when we die (especially as it applies to other people) is one which cries out to be addressed. It maybe the answer we come up with, after due thought, is ‘I simply don’t know,’ but that answer is light-years away from saying ‘I’m not interested.’

No direct experience

It is true that being alive we can have no first-hand experience of what being dead is like, and the great world religions have constantly warned their disciples against becoming too curious about the subject. But this is different from saying that it’s just a matter of blind guesswork, in which one person’s ideas are as good as another’s. Christians believe that God has given them enough data to build up some sort of picture of what he has intended, though much of it has to be expressed in picture-language and by analogy.

So, much of our speculation about life hereafter depends precisely upon the use of images. That is why we have to remember that images have different effects upon different people. To some, not all, listening to music is the experience which puts them most closely in touch with the immaterial: so, not surprisingly, some people imagine that there will be a dimension about the life everlasting that, in some respects, resembles music. For others, it may be the spoken word. For yet others, natural beauty resonates of the eternal, whilst yet others still, find the sheer vast-ness of space, the solar system, and terrestrial mountains speaks to them of Gods majesty.

Of course, we must not make the mistake of equating any of these things with their Creator. Earth, sky, sea, sun, stars and nature, music and art – none of these is God. But Christians have always insisted that in Jesus Christ the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us. Christianity is, therefore, an incarnational faith and nothing material or fleshly can, in itself, be bad or evil. Though the world and the flesh may lead us astray, they are not in themselves things that are evil. Hence there must be a continuum between what is obviously good in this world and what we shall find available in some form in the next. If this were not so, then it would mean that God was prepared to destroy, quite wantonly, the good in things he has created.

Now that’s not at all to say that we shall discover what is innocent and enjoyable in this life precisely replicated; but it does suggest that part of our post-mortal experience will be that of being enabled to enjoy to the full what we have been able to enjoy only in a partial way on earth- The partial and transitory nature of earths pleasures are part of the scheme of God to encourage us (to tempt us, if you like) to prepare ourselves for the vision of himself, which is the End for which he created us. As the Shorter Catechism puts it, “The Chief End of Man is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever.’

Heaven and hell

This presupposes that in our pursuit of what is enjoyable on earth we have not in the meanwhile so defaced his image in ourselves that we become incapable of enjoying anything permanently. If you think about it, any worldly pleasure, if sought to the exclusion of all other considerations, ceases to give pleasure sooner or later and becomes an evil. Gluttony and alcoholism are but two examples. The real risk to our eternal future is not that God will refuse to let us into heaven, but that there will be nothing left within us capable of enjoying it. The final divide is between those of us who have said to God ‘Thy will be done (in us)’ and those to whom God says ‘Your will be done (in yourselves)’. The gates of hell are locked on the inside, and its inhabitants, by refusing the Good when they see it, prefer to keep their own company with other like-minded people, or perhaps in perpetual solitude.

The keynote of heaven is fulfilment by letting ourselves, of our own free will, become conformed with what God designed us to be. The keynote of hell is boredom and frustration because in his grace he will allow us, by using the free will he has given us, to employ it in separating ourselves as widely as possible from him.

The consequence of this may well be that those who refuse God’s mercy will undergo a process comparable with shrinkage. In the eyes of the Redeemed they will shrink into insignificance. In their own they may well appear to be of supreme importance as individuals. The problem will then be that everyone around them will be thinking precisely the same thing about themselves.

What a bore!