Its been a tough week here, we lost a close family member, and have been struggling to emerge from the weight of the situation.
This weekend was the first stage, hopefully, in coming to terms. We attended the funeral, which was excellent. Very positive, very celebratory. It was highly, highly Christian. And everyone, I think, appreciated that it reflected the character of her very strong and frank faith quite authentically. I certainly did, and would not have wanted it any other way.
So, for the few of you who know me or our family, be assured this is not critical.
But this is a blog about religion and the bible, and the way life is complex and right and full of compromises.
There are, broadly speaking, two sets of stories about what happens when you die in the Christianity I’m familiar with.
The first is the ‘heaven’ story: when you die you go to heaven to live – you get given your own mansion in heaven, you meet all those who’ve died before you, you get to finally meet God face to face, and you can ‘look down’ in appreciation on those left behind: watching over the family members who try to honor your memory.
The second is the ‘sleep’ story: when you die your body goes back to the earth, and there you lie, your soul at rest. At some point in the future, Jesus will return to the earth, and the dead will rise again from the earth with new bodies. God will create a new heaven and a new earth, and will come down and make his permanent home on the new Earth in a great city (the new Jerusalem) with the believers.
Both these threads are there in the NT, to a greater or lesser extent. The second is perhaps nearer to the theology of Paul, say, and the first to the writer of Revelation*.
What was interesting about this weekend, was the way the family and church had completely opted for the first story. That was the model which guided all discussion and all the messages preached at the services. But the bible verses quoted were specifically those of the second. So we had the famous 1 Thess 4 reading, surely the epitome of sleep-story references, immediately followed by the pastor saying (I paraphrase) – “yes, as the reading says, X is now in heaven with Jesus”.
Now, don’t get me wrong, a harrowing situation like this is *not* the time to be worried about consistency in theology. If religion has any use it is in times like this, when the *effect* of the words are far more important than their logic. But I did find it interesting and curious.
I wondered to my wife beforehand which story they’d go with, being a family that is quite evangelical (and conservative evangelicalism is the context I’ve come across the second story in, the first is much more culturally common here). The little corner of my brain still engaged as a biblical geek (which, it must be said, was a tiny fraction that day), found it an interesting compromise.
At some point, I think it would be interesting to think and write something about religion and rites of passage, particularly in how we deal with death. But now’s not the right time, now’s the time to comment briefly and focus on rebuilding our family.
* For clarity: I don’t mean to suggest either story is a fair portrayal of Paul or John’s theology of death, or that either is a ‘good’ exegetical story at all. Just that, if you wanted to quote-mine the NT for support, you would probably want to start in Paul for the sleep story and Revelation (or the gospels) for the heaven story.