In order to cash in positively on Halloween my son helped to run a ‘Death Café’ working with an atheist who nevertheless agreed with him that death is the one big taboo subject in our day, and that it really would do people good to have the opportunity to think and talk about it. Apparently Death Cafés are growing in numbers, and I would have loved to have been there.
There are a few times in the Bible where people tell God that they’ve had enough and would rather just die, an idea which I suspect was not widely represented in the Café. Poor old Moses in Num 11:14; Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4; Job several times, and Jonah in 4:3, for example. That isn’t a prayer I’ve ever prayed, but I have on a couple of occasions been in situations which made me feel that I could understand totally anyone wanting to pray it. I didn’t ask God to take me, but I came pretty close. Sometimes life is so full of trouble that death and heaven seem preferable. Or do they?
I suppose it’s about getting older, but I find myself more and more amazed at the way so many Christians seem to be earthbound in their thinking. Having lived around three quarters of my life now I find the prospect of heaven an increasingly inviting one: on a bad day I can’t wait to get there. But to be honest I don’t find many other people who share these sentiments. There seems to be a burning desire, even among Christians, to hang on to this life as though there were no alternative. It might be awful, but at least I’m alive. Yet the Bible constantly holds out to us the hope of eternal life, and the promise of something better. So much better, in fact, that St Paul can say that he considers ‘that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’ (Rom 8:18) Clearly for him heaven was a shining vibrant daily reality, and at times you can hear his frustration that he isn’t already there: ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Phil 1:21-24) I hear this kind of talk very rarely in today’s church.
This makes me ask how much of a reality is heaven, really, to Christians today. How certain of it are we? Does there still lurk a nagging suspicion that we might just not be quite good enough to make it? And does this anxiety make us want to hang on to this life, however awful, because at least we know it’s real. Or is there a fear of oblivion, nothingness, in spite of the Bible’s reassurances to the contrary?
Might I suggest deeper meditation on the Bible’s constant affirmations of new life, won for his people by Christ and in no way dependent on our hard work, and its frequent reminders that this world is not our home? And to those of us who are teachers in the church, I ask how often the celebration of heaven is a theme upon which we dwell.