While things are confusing down here, we can always trust in the hope of heaven.
About an hour northeast of Indianapolis on April 26, 2006, a tractor-trailer drifted across the Interstate 69 median. In its path: ten students and staff in a Taylor University van. The tractor ripped through one side of the van, scattering wallets, purses, and debris across the dark roadway and sending five souls into eternity.
In the accident’s aftermath, one survivor was identified as Laura VanRyn, and officials contacted her family as she was airlifted from the site in a comatose state. Over the next several weeks the VanRyn family kept constant and prayerful vigil at her bedside while she struggled out of her coma.
Then came the shattering revelation: the young woman they lovingly watched over did not answer to the name Laura VanRyn. Instead, a battered and broken stranger lay in her place: fellow Taylor student and co-worker Whitney Cerak. Laura VanRyn had not survived the accident and was already buried under a headstone bearing another name.
And so, even as one family plunged from hope into confused grief, another family was delivered from mourning into sober joy. One daughter presumed to be in heaven remains on Earth, and the other thought to be alive and recuperating had long departed for eternal life.
Reading this we might wonder, How on earth could such things happen? briefly forgetting that on this side of eternity we stumble through a fallen world filled with imperfection, confusion, chaos, and randomness. The ordered illusion of our daily grind lulls us into slumber; but suddenly we are reminded: this dark highway we travel is littered with the debris of the cosmic crash of sin and paradise. A midnight collision, death, and the mystery of misidentification briefly wake us from our dreams.
But all is not chaos; we have hope. Some things remain certain and absolute, if not now, then surely in the life to come — eternity awaits. Though mere humans might mistake one departed soul for another, we trust that the Shepherd knows his sheep. And whether you have welcomed the God of eternity into your heart or you have barricaded it from within, in the end you will know and be known, without misidentification. You will enter into eternity identity intact, whether to heaven or to hell.
But what do we know about eternity? What can we profitably speculate on, and what’s mere fanciful fodder? How much of our identities will we retain in the afterlife? Will we know our children? Will our parents recognize us? If God transforms my broken body in eternity, will I recognize myself?
Many questions about eternity don’t come with easy answers — if any. Some questions come with controversy. With few exceptions, the men and women of Scripture had not seen heaven or hell, and those who did had more pressing concerns to relate. Paul the Apostle could not describe his vision (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). John, in his Revelation, focused on the endgame victory. And Jesus insisted we choose the proper destination without providing a glossy vacation guide to heaven.
Nevertheless, the Bible says much about the life that continues after death. And a quick search through the CTLibrary archives offers up a dizzying array of articles with enough insight and controversy to feed and enlighten your imagination. You could head on over and start searching immediately, but be warned: querying for heaven returns a mountainous 3,437 articles, hell presents an abysmal 1,747 hits, and the combined heaven and hell search still uncovers a daunting 737-item reading list — good for about five weeks of non-stop, eight-hour-a-day reading.
But, before launching into a prolonged click fest of eternal verities, allow us to offer a few suggestions for orientation.
A good place to start in any discussion of the afterlife is ground zero: the soul. Writing for Books & Culture in “Is Science Good for the Soul?” Matt Donnelly introduces us to the debate over the nature of the soul — whether the Bible describes the soul and body as two separate things (dualism) or as eternally inseparable (nonreductive physicalism). And why should this matter? “While talk of conscious robots or cloned humans may sound like science fiction, Christians must be prepared to engage this brave new world by articulating a vision for the future of humanity that combines scientific knowledge with biblical wisdom.”
Or you could go back in time to explore early Christian beliefs about eternity in Jeffrey Burton Russell’s article for Christian History, “Goodness, Gracious(ness), Great Balls of Fire.” Russell provides a handy roadmap covering Irenaeus, various apocryphal texts, Augustine, the Venerable Bede, Dante, Thomas Aquinas, and more. We should study these ancient texts because, as Russell notes, “the modern worldview assumes that material things are more real than spiritual things. Perhaps this is why so many people have impoverished ideas about heaven and hell — places they cannot see or touch and therefore fail to imagine.”
Writing for Christianity Today in “Afraid of Heaven,” Kenneth Kantzer offers more reasons for our impoverished eternal imagination. First, we fail to truly believe heaven exists, only grasping for heaven as death nears or suffering escalates. Then, more damningly, Kantzer suggests, “we do not yearn to be near God because we do not find sin utterly repugnant or goodness rapturously attractive. … We cannot imagine [heaven], we cannot anticipate it, and, therefore, we cannot long for it.” Thankfully, Kantzer offers hope for those prepared to submit: “By [the] regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, we are bit by bit restored so as to become prepared for eternal life in God’s good kingdom.”
And for those who are prepared? What clues does the Bible provide? Peter Kreeft, writing for CT in “What Will Heaven Be Like?” addresses 35 popular questions about life in heaven, while Anthony Hoekema brilliantly surveys the biblical evidence in “Heaven: Not Just an Eternal Day Off.”
Regarding the unprepared, The Evangelical Alliance published a comprehensive report summarizing what can be said of hell. Fortunately, CT had Robert A. Peterson on hand to boil it down to simplicity in “Undying Worm, Unquenchable Fire.” And Tim Keller’s Leadership article, “Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age,” outlines some persuasive reasons why we postmodern Christians must believe hell exists.
Even if we had guarantees for long and healthy lives, barring rapture, death remains certain, respecting neither power, prestige, wealth, nor identity. But an even greater certainty looms over death, nullifying its sting, providing us hope, and drying our tears: the hope of heaven.
If heaven’s been on your mind lately, we pray these articles help you grow in knowledge, wisdom, and passion for the certainty of heaven’s reward.
(Note: Most of the articles linked above require paid membership at CTLibrary.com to view, but if you’re the kind of person who enjoys reading Christianity Today, Leadership, Books & Culture, or Christian History & Biography, it may well be worth it. Also, though I was once employed by Christianity Today, I do not personally benefit from any transactions through these sites.)
[tags]2-Corinthians, afterlife, Anthony-Hoekema, Augustine, Bible, BlogRodent, chaos, Christian, Christianity, Christianity-Today, Christianity-Today-Library, Church, CTLibrary, Dante, eternity, Evangelical, Evangelical-Alliance, Heaven, Hell, identity, Jeffrey-Burton-Russell, Kenneth-Kantzer, Laura-VanRyn, Matt-Donnelly, mistaken-identity, paradise, Peter-Kreeft, religion, resurrection, Robert-A-Peterson, Taylor-University, Thomas-Aquinas, Tim-Keller, VanRyn, Venerable-Bede, Whitney-Cerak[/tags]