This post concerns the eighth chapter of the book Faithful Questions: “Where Do I Go When I Die?”
One time while surfing the old Web, I came across a picture of a church’s small roadside billboard in the middle of summer, which said, “Whoever stole our air conditioner, it’s plenty hot where you’re going!” This kind of light-hearted approach when talking about death is a fun thing to do. It is, however, pretty baseless.
Gene Wilder died the other day. Everyone says nice things about people after they die, and that’s good. But I was listening to the radio yesterday and it said that someone had said, “If there’s a heaven, Gene Wilder had a golden ticket.” Then they played the slow version of “I’ve got a Golden Ticket” to really drive home the sentimentality of their point and thus to persuade their audience that it was true. Really, lamestream media? Do you know this to be true? If you do, you’re surely among the greatest visionaries alive. But I feel it’s safe to say that no one knows who’s going where at death. Not even if it’s air-conditioner-stealing-guy.
Unfortunately, day and night, the media persists doing what it does best: reducing complicated issues to simple sound bites. If you repeat simple stylizations frequently enough, they come to seem true. A similar thing has happened over the centuries with our conceptions of heaven and hell. Faithful Questions authors Shobe and Gunn attribute our ideas about hell to Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno, and Greek mythology. The bottom line is, as foretold in the parable of the seven husbands, we should expect the afterlife to be like nothing we can imagine. Or better yet, don’t expect anything in particular. Just don’t expect. Hasn’t life taught you by now that God is smarter than you? Than all of us?
Shobe and Gunn are a little soft on afterlife fearmongers for my taste. Of course you’ve seen signs like “Life is short. Eternity isn’t. –God” while actually, I don’t think God commented in the Bible on the duration of eternity. Maybe you’ve seen a sign such as, “Stop, drop, and roll does not work when you’re in Hell,” where the authors dare to put themselves in God’s shoes and tell you what techniques won’t work in the afterlife. Anyway, I call these people who tell others that they’re going to hell “afterlife fearmongers.” They are not to be feared.
These people should read Job 38-42:6 over and over until they lose their compulsion to tell others what it will be like in a place they have never been to or seen. And while they’re reading Job, they can read how few times the Bible actually mentions hell. It’s infrequent. The OT mentions Sheol 65 times, but that’s a place where they expected everyone to go, good and evil alike. The NT mentions Hades 11 times. Gehenna was also mentioned, although it could refer to Hinnom Valley near Jerusalem, a center of Baal worship. In short, yes, the Bible does tell us that we will be rewarded for certain actions and punished for others. However, popular conceptions of heaven and hell are based more on artistic or literary renderings on those topics – kicked into overdrive in recent decades by the media and the fearmongers – than on what the Bible actually says about them. Consider that next time some person on the street approaches you and tells you that you’re going to hell.
Shobe and Gunn write, “The reason that these kinds of ads are so persuasive…,” referring to the fearmongers and their signs. This is something that Shobe and Gunn do frequently. They say something like “Because X is true, we know Y.” But I don’t think X is true at all. I don’t think the fearmongers are persuasive. I hope you’re not persuaded by people who try to frighten you either.
Do you believe in God? If you’re reading this blog or if you attend an Episcopal Church, I would bet that you do. Well, I think it’s a safe bet that God is smarter than you. A friend of mine once asked me, “If you were put in charge of heaven and hell, would you let me into heaven?” I said, “Don’t put me in charge of those: I’m not smart enough.” My friend was not happy about this, but I explained that I figured that the placement of souls in the afterlife could have vast, metaphysical consequences, and these decisions should not be left up to me. Well, the power to place us in this or that position after death would be in the hands not merely of a smarter person than we, but of a categorically and immensely better and more perfect being than we can imagine. We cannot contend with such greatness. We have only our lives in which to do our best, and hopefully in which our dross can be consumed and our gold can be refined. Pray that God will accept our best efforts.
Fear of death is fear of the unknown, and it’s a natural thing. I am familiar with it, and those who experience it have my sympathy. But not all natural things are optimal. Two-year-olds can’t understand what adult life is like, and it may seem frightful and impossible to contend with. But it’s not too bad. I hope death will also not be too bad. But I’m not deceived by my own wisdom enough to suggest that I know.
The best thing to do, it seems to me, is to focus on your life. Shobe and Gunn agree with me, also suggesting that you consult The Book of Common Prayer. It says a little on heaven and hell, but it says useful things regarding the Christian hope:
“Q: What is the Christian hope?
“A: The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world.”
“… God’s purpose for the world.” That sounds majestic. What could your part in God’s purpose be? I bet that if you devote yourself to contemplating that, you’ll have little use for fearing death after all. I don’t worry about it much anymore myself, and you don’t have to either. It’s in the hands of greater forces than you or I, and frankly, I wouldn’t much want it in my hands.
Aside from that, I’ll conclude what will likely be my final blog post on this site with an imploration to you, the reader. Please, if you have not done so, make the time to read the Bible for yourself at some point in your life, from cover to cover. That way, you won’t have to rely blindly on what fearmongers or the media tell you about it, what Shobe and Gunn tell you, or what I tell you. I split it up over the course of a year in 2014 and found an audio Bible—consuming it thus was no great burden for me. Don’t get me wrong: you should still listen to scholars if you have read the Bible, but there are all kinds of misconceptions about what Christianity says out there that I don’t even have time to make a dent in in terms of addressing. The only solution, really, is to read the source document. The Bible is some good literature, enriching to the soul—especially Psalms. You may begin, as I did, wanting answers to one set of questions, but by the end you may realize that you were asking the wrong questions to begin with.
Reach Mr. Fedele of Bellingham at firstname.lastname@example.org.