The Hope of Heaven

The God of Jesus waits long through the night, with the light lit and the door open, confident his most defiant child will one day accept his love and turn toward home. Photo by Bogdan Serban
The God of Jesus waits long through the night, with the light lit and the door open, confident his most defiant child will one day accept his love and turn toward home. Photo by Bogdan Serban
By on November 8, 2012

At the time of the first anniversary of Steve Jobs’ death, many newspaper and magazine cartoonists remembered and celebrated his achievements at Apple, his rivalry with Microsoft’s Bill Gates and his incredible drive, vision and innovation that never made him satisfied with the status quo.

One cartoon had Bill Gates asking an angelic Steve Jobs what heaven is like. Jobs responds, “Perfect, Bill. It’s just that it doesn’t have any wall or fence. We don’t need windows and gates.”

Another cartoon had St. Peter introducing Steve Jobs to Moses. St. Peter says, “Moses, meet Steve. He’s gonna upgrade your tablets.”

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Another memorable cartoon had an angel in heaven explaining to a newly arrived Steve Jobs, “To be honest, Mr. Jobs, the last time an apple caused so much excitement around here involved Adam, Eve and a snake.”

But the cartoon that resonates with me most shows Steve Jobs getting his heavenly harp. Immediately, he starts examining it and says to an angel, “When was the last time this device was upgraded? It really needs to be more user-friendly. Who’s in charge of innovation up here? Is this available in other colours?”

Those cartoons prompted me to return to Walter Isaacson’s now classic biography of Steve Jobs. Isaacson recounts that Jobs, toward the end of his life, sat in the garden behind his house, reflecting on death. “I’m about fifty-fifty on believing in God,” Steve said. “For most of my life, I’ve felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.”

Isaacson goes on to write: “He admitted that, as he faced death, he might be overestimating the odds out of a desire to believe in an afterlife. ‘I’d like to think that something survives after you die,’ Steve said. ‘It’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.’

“He fell silent for a long time. ‘But, on the other hand, perhaps it’s like an on-off switch,’ he said. ‘Click! And you’re gone.’

“Then he paused again and smiled slightly. ‘Maybe that’s why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices.’ ”

I think Steve Jobs was reflecting a universal sentiment in the heart of every human being: a desire to believe in some kind of afterlife. We want to believe that our essence or soul, the good in us, doesn’t die but somehow lives on. Even some diehard atheists are reluctant to believe that the only thing awaiting us in death is annihilation, that we simply cease to exist.

But if there is an afterlife, what is it that we can look forward to when we die? Maybe you’ve asked that question. Many people do, especially as we grow older or face health problems.

Christians believe that when we die, we go to heaven. But what is heaven? I have to admit, heaven is not easy to understand. When the Bible describes heaven, it uses metaphor, symbol and poetry. It reaches for the language of greatest delight we know on earth-melody, song, banquet, shinning light, or being embraced by the beloved.

One thing we can definitively say about heaven: it is the place where God is. “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Heaven is that state of being where God is in us and we are in God. Our ego, so anxiously seeking the fulfillment of its desires, is at last overwhelmed by having its true desire met in God. This is not the annihilation of the self, but the fullest realization of our true selves. As St. Augustine prayed, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”

We who have spent our whole lives so restlessly are at last received by God, just as we are. In heaven, God welcomes us home-not because we have achieved perfection but because God loves us in our imperfection. The death we had spent our whole lives dreading, fearing, fighting against, is, in the light of heaven, seen as a final purging, a final opening up of ourselves to God. Death is the ultimate letting go of our lives so that in heaven God may embrace us forever.

Who gets into heaven? No one really knows the answer to that question, but we do know that God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” as First Timothy puts it (2:3-4). In other words, God’s purpose in creating us is to save us, and in saving us, to enjoy his fellowship forever.

To me, the notion that in the end all shall somehow be united with God in heaven -despite their lives on earth-makes sense because I am amazed that I feel at least some degree united with God, despite my life. More than that, it is difficult to imagine that God the Good Shepherd would ever stop seeking his lost sheep, or that God the father would ever stop waiting for his lost son, or that God the woman would ever stop looking for her lost coin.

To believe that everyone will be saved is to confess that God’s grace will be triumphant against all the destructive powers that would pull us away from God; and that God shall ultimately, despite us, have his gracious way with us.

Yes, I know… history is full of murderers, scoundrels, terrorists, thugs and tyrants who have brought tremendous misery on this earth. Their fate is, of course, up to God, not up to me. However, having been overwhelmed by the persistence and determination of God to have me, I can imagine that God is determined to have them as well. I believe, like the dying curate in The Diary of a Country Priest by George Bernanos, that all is grace; everyone is in God.

So, you will surely not think me silly when I say that, for me, the basis of my belief in heaven is my experience of God here on earth. The God I have experienced is the God of Jesus-a God of unlimited patience, unending forgiveness, unrelenting mercy, unyielding love and unbending faithfulness. The God of Jesus waits long through the night, with the light lit and the door open, confident his most defiant child will one day accept his love and turn toward home. The God of Jesus loves the unlovable, touches the untouchable, and redeems those thought to be beyond redemption. The God of Jesus loves people more than dogmas and offers pardon more than punishment. This is the God who never gives up on us even when we give up on God.

You see: with the God of Jesus there is this unwavering commitment to never stop loving. Think about it. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more, for God loves you perfectly and totally. But more wonderfully, there is nothing you can do to make God love you less-absolutely nothing, for God loves you always and forever.

So, will people go to heaven, regardless of what they have done, or how they have lived? Even with all my sins, God doesn’t give up on me. And if God doesn’t give up on me, then God doesn’t give up on you. In fact, I simply refuse to believe that God gives up on anyone-ever.

One last question about heaven: will we know our loved ones there? I hope so. When Jesus was resurrected, though he had mightily changed, his disciples, with just a little coaxing, knew who he was. In heaven, we shall truly be who God means us to be. Persons with Alzheimer’s shall be in their right mind. People with mental illness will no longer live in the dark shadows. People physically disabled will be made whole. Those who suffer depression shall finally know joy. Yes, in heaven you and I shall be the ones God means us to be.

Several years ago I saw a play about an aristocratic but dysfunctional family struggling with many painful issues. There was a sister who was mentally ill and eventually had to be put into an institution. There was a brother who was a success at business but a failure in his personal life, struggling with alcoholism and alienated from his wife and children. There was a husband and wife who outwardly modelled the perfect marriage, when in reality their love for each other had long since died. This family seemed to have everything, but in reality they were living on empty.

There is no happy ending to their story. The family struggles and carries on as best they can, but they are never able to change their lives. The play gives us a vivid image of the weakness and frailty of human beings who hope for the best but often fall short. Most of us, to one degree or another, are like that.

And yet, the last scene of the play brought everyone in the theatre to tears. Miraculously, we see the mentally ill daughter in her right mind, the brother reconciled with his wife and children, and the father and mother in a loving embrace. And we know…we are seeing a picture of heaven, where broken lives are made whole, bitterness is changed into forgiveness, hate is transformed into love, and our yearnings, hopes and dreams for a better life and a better way come to fruition.

No matter our pains and problems in this life, in heaven we will be one with ourselves, one with each other, and one with God.

Heaven is our hope when all else fails. There we shall enjoy the presence of God. There we shall be welcomed by God, embraced by God, and loved by God forever. There we shall be our own true selves with those we love and who have loved us. So take hope, dear people. No matter your condition or situation, the best is yet to come.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.

 

 

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