Monday, 17 January 2022

Dying and the hereafter

SOON I shall be dead. The prospect is rather exciting. I am nearly 80. There is

SOON I shall be dead. The prospect is rather exciting. I am nearly 80. There is good biblical authority for the years of man being threescore years and ten “though some be so strong that they live to fourscore years”. Eighty, yes, but not 90. Or even 100.

There are some magnificent people still active in their eighties and nineties but too many of the rest line the walls of dying-houses, sitting in chairs and looking at, but not watching, television screens all day long while angels of mercy — nurses and carers — minister to their needs. I hope that I do not live to suffer that. I am ready for when God wants to take me.

What happens then at death? An acquaintance of mine, a former senior surgeon, is quite sure. Perpetual oblivion. He echoes the Roman poet Catullus: “Nox est perpetua, una dormienda.”

For my part, I am convinced of an after life. But what? The wonderful difference between life and death is the disappearance of Time and Space, those two frustrating elements which imprison us here on earth. No past. No future. Just now. No distance to have to travel. One lady on her deathbed spoke of awaiting an onrush of timelessness. Surely she was right.

What though is this paradise? Time after time The Bible refers to the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of the body. This is the exhilarating message of God-made-man-in-Christ-Jesus and of His rising from the dead. As He rose from the dead so shall we.

But in what form will be our resurrected body? What shall we look like? Shall we recognize each other as the young which once we were? As the oldies which now we have become? Our children: babies, teenagers, or parents themselves? Beautiful girl friends turned pretty wives turned old grandmamas?

Anyway, The Bible tells us that in Heaven there is no marrying or giving in marriage. And, incidentally, none of the joys and burdens of sex: no breeding, no needing! Presumably no more aches and pains either.

How, among the trillions and trillions of souls who have stacked up in Heaven, shall we find and recognize our friends? Will we have to come across those whom we do not like and who do not like us? And where are the dogs? Surely we shall experience again the sheer beauty of the terrestrial countryside and the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Elgar? On the other hand if I hear certain pop groups will it be an indicator that I am in Hell?! Did C S Lewis approach the truth of the world-to-come in his final book in the Narnia series? And all of this where there is neither time nor space.

For my part I suspect that all of us will be a microscopic integral part of the Godhead itself: formless, spiritual but aware of the presence of those whom we have loved and recognizing, and being recognized by, them as part of the love which pours forth from God. Not just the God of the Christians but the God of the Hindus too, of the Muslims, of the Jews and of those who have worshipped Him down the human ages in different ways. Perhaps Rupert Brooke came near it: “And think, this heart, all evil shed away, a pulse in the eternal mind.”

It sounds, and will be, wonderful. But there is a catch. We have to earn it. The Bible is perfectly clear that Sin shuts us out. The rejection of sin and evil, true repentance for what we have got wrong and an unqualified seeking for, and acceptance of, the forgiveness of God are essential elements for an admission ticket for Heaven.

Otherwise we shall find ourselves in Hell. No devils with forked tails. No fiery furnaces. Just timeless exclusion with the knowledge of what we could have had and what we have lost — with no going back.

Not long ago I had one of those vivid just-before-waking dreams. I was in a well-lit corridor, panelled with wood. There was a door in the wall. Through it I could see a glorious, beautiful garden and there were people in it. Then the door closed, slowly and gently, and there was no handle on my side of it. I was locked out, utterly alone, for ever. It was terrifying.

I don’t know what the after life will be like. What do you think? Our guesses are as good, or almost as good, as those of learned theologians. In the end though getting a passport to Paradise, in whatever form that turns out to be, is a matter of faith.

My application will rely on the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross which assures us of the forgiveness of God and his uniqueness as the only Son of God and the only way into the presence of the Father, either here or in the world to come.

In principle I am not frightened of death but just of dying, especially if that dying is painful, violent and sudden. I just hope that I shall squeeze into Heaven and won’t get excluded. Please pray for me — if you believe in that sort of thing.

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