Thursday, 11 October 2012

Show Me Heaven

Oh dear. If we're Christians please do not get all excited over a neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander, saying that he knows Heaven is real as he's been there.

OK, at first we might think, whoop-whoop, a scientist- and a doctor at that- has come up with firm evidence for an afterlife.

I sympathized deeply with those who wanted to believe that there was a God somewhere out there who loved us unconditionally. In fact, I envied such people the security that those beliefs no doubt provided. But as a scientist, I simply knew better than to believe them myself.

Notice his attitude- people want to believe that there is a deity who loves them unconditionally. They have his sympathy- and it sounds a condescending sympathy at that- but he envies them as well. But as a scientist he doesn't believe them.

Why not? Why should he deny their testimony and expect us to accept uncritically his?

Because it is clear he doesn't think they have a testimony- just a wish fulfilment. So, why shouldn't we dismiss his testimony as a wish fulfilment?

Here I need to look at feelology. This has two meanings. The first is the term used by a Sarf Londoner when they're trying to say "theology". That isn't the meaning I'm interested in.

The other meaning is a thinking about God and spiritual issues which takes as its basis feelings. Now, I have to admit something here- and some evangelicals have problems with this. In the spring of 1995 I was diagnosed with depression (by an evangelical doctor) and that summer and autumn it was bad. You think depression is feeling low? Feeling a bit blue? Well a deep depression is like that- on the good days.

And you learn something spiritually. Firstly, that nothing- not depression- can separate us from the love of God shown in Christ (Rom 8:31-39). Period. However bad it gets, God has not stopped loving you. Secondly, there is the old story of facts, faith and feelings walking along a wall. As long as faith was keeping his eyes on facts he was walking the right way. The moment he turned round to look at feelings, he lost his footing and fell off.

The human heart- our feelings- is deceitful (Jer 17:9) and, as such, isn't the source of our hope, or our theology. In depression you learn that instead of trusting on this, you trust in God and His promises, knowing that, unlike our feelings, He does not change. Our faith should be built on rock, not sand (Matt 7:24-27).

Wish fulfilment is feelology. Believing something is true doesn't make it true. We should not believe because we want it to be true- we should believe because it is true.

Let's have a look at what Alexander says:

Toward the beginning of my adventure, I was in a place of clouds. Big, puffy, pink-white ones that showed up sharply against the deep blue-black sky.

Pink fluffy clouds.

Seeing and hearing were not separate in this place where I now was. I could hear the visual beauty of the silvery bodies of those scintillating beings above, and I could see the surging, joyful perfection of what they sang. It seemed that you could not look at or listen to anything in this world without becoming a part of it—without joining with it in some mysterious way. Again, from my present perspective, I would suggest that you couldn’t look at anything in that world at all, for the word “at” itself implies a separation that did not exist there. Everything was distinct, yet everything was also a part of everything else, like the rich and intermingled designs on a Persian carpet ... or a butterfly’s wing.

It gets stranger still. For most of my journey, someone else was with me. A woman. She was young, and I remember what she looked like in complete detail. She had high cheekbones and deep-blue eyes. Golden brown tresses framed her lovely face. When first I saw her, we were riding along together on an intricately patterned surface, which after a moment I recognized as the wing of a butterfly. In fact, millions of butterflies were all around us—vast fluttering waves of them, dipping down into the woods and coming back up around us again. It was a river of life and color, moving through the air. The woman’s outfit was simple, like a peasant’s, but its colors—powder blue, indigo, and pastel orange-peach—had the same overwhelming, super-vivid aliveness that everything else had. She looked at me with a look that, if you saw it for five seconds, would make your whole life up to that point worth living, no matter what had happened in it so far. It was not a romantic look. It was not a look of friendship. It was a look that was somehow beyond all these, beyond all the different compartments of love we have down here on earth. It was something higher, holding all those other kinds of love within itself while at the same time being much bigger than all of them.

Sorry- he and a lady were flying in the wings of a butterfly?

This is a vision of the afterlife which chimes in well with modern thought. The pink fluffly clouds. All nice, and sweet.

We hear this in the modern world's comments about death:

She's gone to a better place.

He is at peace.

She is now with her late husband forever.

And you will probably want to put your fingers down your throat with this one:

Diana, Princess of Wales died because God wanted another angel

Though, to be honest, it really grates whenever anyone young dies, there will be the mawkish newspaper article mentioning that grieving relatives have explained that "Mummy has gone to be an angel in Heaven" etc. accompanied by how at the local Anglican church prayers will have been said for whoever dies.

That is poor theology, and the Church shouldn't go along with it. No, it's not being harsh - we help no-one by playing along with mawkish views of the afterlife.

Walk around any graveyard and look at the inscriptions. Paul told the Thessalonians that they should not grieve like those without hope (I Thess 4:13), but what we see in modern graveyards is not relatives with no hope, but with a false hope. The hope that everyone- apart from the occasional Hitler or Stalin- makes it there.

In the Bible, it is clear that all will be judged and those whose names are not in the Book of Life (Rev 20:15)- later called the Lamb's (i.e. Jesus') Book of Life (Rev 21:27) are not there (keep Revelation 21 open, as we come back to this later).

The mawkishness about death, so that any person who dies young "becomes an Angel in Heaven" is not Biblical.

Angels. No place in modern feelology for the ones with flaming swords (Gen 3:24), or one who fights (Isa 37:29). No place for "macho angels". No concept of angels ministering for the Church (Heb 1:14). No, modern angels' main task is to spread a little soppiness.

What is our hope? Is it to go to a place where we ride with ladies on the wings of butterflies?

What is missing from Alexander's vision? No God. No Jesus. No judgement.

This is not a vision we should be jumping up and down over and claiming "scientific proof of heaven".

But is our hope Heaven? A sort of pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die?

Paul gives the Corinthians teaching about our future resurrection (I Cor 15). But there is more. Revelation 21 talks about the new Heaven and the new Earth. It's about a new creation (II Cor 5:17).

Let's not shortchange people by offering them a future of flying on butterfly's wings. Let's instead proclaim the Biblical teaching about life beyond death.

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