The Two Afterlives

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.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Two Afterlives

  1. My condolences to you and your family.

  2. Kay

    My condolences to you and your family as well.

  3. Rebecca

    My codolences to you and you family too.
    I think that both stories are reconciled in the doctrine that the resurrection is of the body, whereas the spirit already has gone to its destination. IThis is taught in 1 Thesselonians 4:13-18. IVs. 14 says that thee spirits of Christ followers will be with him when he returns on the day of resurrection, .

  4. The 1 Thess 4 passage you mention ends with these words:
    “Therefore comfort one another with these words.”
    Surely that is why the first story is chosen — it offers more immediately comforting images of the loved one. I am curious why the author of Revelations would use another story.

    Best to your family in these tough times, Ian.

  5. Your post reminded me of a special I saw on the impressionist painters some time ago. After the death of loved one, one of the painters wrote in a letter or diary how he looked upon the deceased and realized he was taking mental notes on the colours of the skin, the lines and thinking about the composition. The artist chastised himself but I think it’s part of the analytical mind, to be always drawn to the inconsistent, as you put it.

    And, in a way, I think it is very much an important part of the personal grieving process, finding an understanding apart from the group’s understanding.

    I’m sorry to hear of your loss. My thoughts are with you and your family.

  6. Ian

    Thanks everyone.

    @Rebecca – I didn’t mean to suggest there couldn’t be even more elaborate stories with aspects of both – just that they tend to be fairly separate when I hear them rehearsed.

    @sabio – I think we see in Paul the development of a theology of death – bearing in mind that in the very early stages it is likely that the Jesus followers were trusting in a *very* immanent return of Jesus, so when believers starting dying, we can see the ripples. I’ve posted on something similar before with the Ananias + Saphira story in Acts, I think.

    @andrew – lovely analogy, yes. I have to say I found the words quite comforting, though I don’t believe they are anything more than mythology. But they are an old mythology, a favourite mythology of my sister in law, and a familiar one to almost all who were there. I’m happy to join the group in being moved by it.

  7. Jus

    Ian, my sympathies to you and your family. Hope you guys are doing well in your “struggle”. Sorry this message is a few weeks late. I haven’t set time to visit blogs lately. But I do appreciate your blog Ian.

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