Most of us learned about heaven as children – the place where we go after death if we’ve been good and trust in Jesus to get us there. And we had visions of heaven with pearly gates, mansions and streets paved with gold. We believe it is there that we will meet our loved ones who have gone on before. This expectation and hope bring much comfort to those who have lost a loved one.
A Pew Research survey (2008) showed that 74% of Americans including 18% of atheists believe in the afterlife. Many of us have never re-examined or articulated as adults what we believe about heaven and the afterlife.
Is it important to believe in the afterlife? “This question is not inconsequential,” says Donna Schaper, Pastor of Judson Memorial Church in New York City. I recently interviewed her as the author of Approaching the End of Life. (The interview will be posted on The Collegeville Institute’s website, Bearings Online.) .
Pastor Donna Schaper says:
Belief in the afterlife is important. It makes a difference because of the level of trust in the continuity of your life and its leaving. So if you live to be 80 years old, it trivializes your sense of being to think there is nothing further on. I encourage people to imagine something beyond. . . . . . It’s not for us to know what it is but we can trust that there was great life before us and there will be great life after us. By trusting that, it allows you to place your own life in the proper context and to create meaning while alive. As people move into dotage, the sense of nothingess is the greatest threat. I’m trying to replace the nothingness with a something.
As a pastor, Donna helps to prepare persons for the next life.
It’s a very good question to ask: What do you want to do before you die? When they have feelings about having wronged someone, I try to push them to make amends and I urge them to find a way to deal with a serious regret they have. As pastors, we provide companionship and offer trust that everything will be okay even if things are not okay now.
Hungarian writer Útmutató a Léleknek wrote the following parable about the afterlife as a conversation between two unborn babies in their mother’s womb. I suggest you read this twice—the first time for content and the second for meaning.
Is there Life after Delivery?
Do You Beleive in Mother? By Útmutató a Léleknek
Two babes were in their mother’s womb. One asked the other, “Do you think there’s life after delivery?”
The other answered, “Why yes, of course. There has got to be something after delivery. Perhaps we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”
“Nonsense,” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”
The second replied, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat with our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t comprehend right now.”
The first snorted, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”
The second insisted, “Well I think there is something, and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”
The first replied, “That’s stupid. If there is life, then why has no one ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”
“Well, I don’t know, answered the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”
The first one laughed, “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s nonsense. If Mother exists then where is She now?”
The second replied, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her, it is in Her that we live. Without Her our world would not and could not exist.”
Said the first, “Well, I don’t see her so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”
To which the second responded: “Sometimes, when it’s quiet and I focus and really listen, I can perceive her presence, and I can hear Her loving voice singing over us from above.
“You don’t know what you believe
until you have discussed it with another person.” Donna Schaper
It’s important to believe in the existence of an afterlife and I encourage all of us to articulate what you believe. I will reiterate what I believe about the afterlife.
I believe there is life after this life. I can cite no proof of that so it will continue to be a mystery. Partly, I choose to believe because that belief is firmly “in there” from my childhood. I also choose to believe because I see the comfort this belief brings at the time of the death of a loved one. Thirdly, I agree with Donna Schaper that believing in the afterlife brings a sense of continuity and hope for the future. I share the reality of not knowing with Baby Two in the parable above who speculates that we will be changed in many and significant ways. And I steadfastly believe with Baby Two that “certainly we will meet Mother [God] and she will take care of us.”