My parish has been blessed with enough interested and committed members to run two tracks in our Wednesday Night Bible Study series. This fall, we have a New Testament Survey and a seminar on heaven and hell. Attendance has been great, and everyone’s had a good time.
I’ve been in the heaven and hell seminar — where I’ve been so thrilled to be able to use words like eschatology and soteriology in sentences! — and there’s something that’s been working in me since last Wednesday’s session. Last week, we discussed two Christian traditions that explain what happens to us when we die; both have biblical support, and both are supported in the Book of Common Prayer as well. [Note that what follows is a complete oversimplification of Christian eschatological and soteriological thought and writings.] In one tradition, as soon as we die, we enter God’s presence for judgment and are admitted to heaven or to hell. In the other tradition, while we may undergo a particular judgment immediately after death, we must wait for God’s final judgment, once Jesus returns to this world, before we are finally sent to heaven or to hell.
That place of waiting can go by many names. In some threads of this second tradition, it is a place where we are cleansed or purged from our sins, and so it is called Purgatory. In other threads, we are asleep or unaware of the passage of time. In yet others, the place of waiting is Paradise, which is not heaven itself; rather, the word paradise comes from ancient roots that indicate a walled garden, an orchard, or a beautiful park.
In our group discussions, we found we had some problems with the idea of having to wait for the last judgment. As Anglicans, we do include prayers for the dead in our liturgy; in Sunday worship we pray very generally for their salvation and rest. It gives us comfort to pray for our dead loved ones, since we don’t know where they are or what is happening to them; if they are waiting, then perhaps our prayers on their behalf could make a difference, and if they’re not, then at least we’re comforted by our prayers. And our clergy have both preached on the immediate judgment, telling families at funerals and memorial services that your loved one is in heaven with Jesus right now. This also gives us comfort. We want to know that they have passed from our loving arms into those of God. But at the same time, we pray in the Nicene Creed every Sunday that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. We could not simply write off the biblical evidence for a final judgment, for a final resurrection of all people. It all comes down to this: we don’t know. But these ideas certainly are fun to think about, to play with, too find in scripture and Christian writings, and to talk about!
Through all of this, I seem to have come to the place where I can actually verbalize where I am. I believe that God transcends time and space, able to — but not needing to — physically occupy space. I believe that God holds in God’s mind and heart the entirety of all that is, all that has been, and all that will be. The bible opens with the line in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, which implies that heaven is part of Creation and not outside of Creation. But at the same time, I will not rule out the possibility that our all-powerful, all-able God can bring us outside of Creation with God. Heaven can indeed be both part of Creation and outside of Creation, at the same time. This is a difficult paradox to hold in mind, but we have to remember that God can not only accomplish the impossible but the improbable as well, and even the merely difficult.
So when Mother Teresa died, it’s entirely possible that she was both immediately united with God, outside of space and time, and in a place of waiting, whether that is Purgatory or Paradise or “sleep” or something else. In fact, even before she died, it’s possible that she was both united with God and living here on earth. I have come to believe that we can only be in one “place” at a time within Creation, a place on earth, a place in wait, a place in hell, or a place in heaven. But where God lives, where “place” and “time” don’t mean anything, there is no limit whatsoever.
In this framework, it might seem to us like nothing we do in this world could possibly change anything. But I do not believe this to be true. The fullness of Creation that God holds, this is not just a static artifact; as we make choices, as we create and destroy, we bring change to the fullness of Creation. God holds a Creation that is living, growing, breathing, changing. And if that fullness of Creation consists of multiple universes or layers of dimensions, where multiple versions of ourselves live, then this is entirely possible. We Christians worship the God of electrons and quarks and neutrinos, and we worship the God of galaxies and black holes and universes, and we worship the God of everything in between, from the chickenpox virus to the duck-billed platypus to the moon. We don’t worship the God of This-Box-Defines-Exactly-What-We-Humans-Say-You-Are-So-You-Can-Never-Be-Anything-More. That God is as limited as we are, but the God of the fullness of Creation — this God of bosons and paramecia and giant sequoias and planets and stars — now that’s a God worth paying attention to.
And if we really believe in this God, then we cannot place our own arbitrary limits on God’s abilities. So should we preach, your loved one is with God in heaven right now? Yes. Should we teach about the next coming of Jesus and the Final Judgment? Yes. We are blessed with a book of Scripture that holds both of these ideas in a dynamic tension; we are blessed with millennia of thought, based on this Scripture, as to what happens when we die; we are blessed to worship a God who is big enough to hold both of these ideas true at the very same time.