On what life after death is not like

I am sometimes asked what life after death is like, what heaven is like, and my answer is similar to the answer Jesus gives in the Gospel today. (Luke 20:27-38) It may surprise you to know that there were many people in Jesus’ day who believed in God, but not in life after death. Here we see Jesus dealing with such people, and as with the gibes of some atheists today, he is having to cope with their mockery. Like Jesus, I am astonished how many people assume that we Christians think that life after death is rather like life now.

I remember a very devout Christian old man who would endlessly ask me how all the people who had died would fit into heaven. Again and again, I explained that heaven was not a space, that it is like asking how all the thoughts we have fit into our brain. But he could not get it. He assumed that because we talk about going TO heaven, and that those who have died are IN heaven (or hell of course) that we mean that literally. You see in the same way how these devout Jewish men in the Gospel are making the same mistake, when they ask who will a man be married to in heaven if he had seven different wives in his life on earth. You can almost hear Jesus sighing at their stupidity, before saying “Those who are judged worthy of a place in the other world and in the resurrection from the dead do not marry because they can no longer die, for they are the same as the angels.”  

Of course that needs us to understand what angels are like. Again many people wrongly see angels as a bit like us humans, only with wings. But as we learn from all the stories of angels in the Bible, they may seem to look like us, because those who meet them think they are ordinary people, but actually they are not physical beings at all, but spiritual beings only appearing to us at the command of God when a particularly important message needs to be given – as with the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary. Artists may show them having wings, but they only do so to indicate how different they are from us, and how they can appear and disappear at will.

So I cannot tell you what heaven is like, only that it is not like the physical life we live now whilst we are alive here on this earth. We may try to describe it in physical terms, as if it were a place, but what it actually means to be in the presence of God for ever is quite beyond our imagining.

St Paul, in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:35-52) says that it is like the difference between a seed appearing to die as it falls into the ground (some seed being merely like a speck of dust) and the plant that grows from it. Like Jesus, Paul is dealing with people who think of it in purely physical terms, and has to say quite firmly in verse 44 “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” and later in verse 50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”

There is one other famous passage from the Bible that talks about this. It is Revelation Chapters 21 and 22 where the writer describes heaven as like a city. We can easily misunderstand this too, because we tend to think of cities as noisy places and heaven as being more like a peaceful country village. But in the time of the Bible, the countryside was a dark and frightening place with dangerous criminals or wild animals that might attack people; whilst the city was a place of safety, surrounded by strong walls and with many lights. Even then the City of Heaven is altogether different from an earthly city. Again the writer uses images to express this; because in a place where God is ever-present, there is always light, and there is always plentiful supplies of fresh running water, and the walls and gates that protect the city can never be broken down.

In the end all we know about heaven is that there we will be with God who is love, in a way that is beyond all words and images that we use here in our physical life. As we heard from Paul in that Reading from the 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians (2:16-3:5) “The Lord is faithful, and he will give you strength and guard you from the evil one” and in the end, that is all we need to know.