I have been reflecting lately on death, for brother-in-law Jim Bouchillon died yesterday, succombing to cancer.
He has died. What does that mean for him? Or for anyone? It is clear that in 2 Cor 5 and Phil 1 Paul indicates that death cannot distance one from Jesus. Rather, one is on the same side of death as Jesus, although not “all of the way there” in the sense that one is not resurrected. It is better, says Paul, but not ideal. The ideal is a transformed body on earth, while the better is being closer to Jesus and/or being released from pain (and surely Paul suffered daily pain given all of the trauma that he had been through). So while Paul fills in the gap that one finds in 1 Thess 4 and 1 Cor 15 (i.e. What happens to the dead between death and resurrection?) the goal of 1 Thess 4 and 1 Cor 15 remains, which is resurrection life on earth with “the Lord.” His Majesty Jesus is coming to make a parousia, which means that he is coming to earth at least for judgment and, many texts indicate, to reign. His holy ones will greet him as he approaches “in the air” or “in the clouds” and form part of his triumphal procession into “the city,” i.e. earth. This Greco-Roman imagery is clear enough. Likewise Revelation never describes the New Jerusalem in heaven, but only as it is on earth; this is a city made of people, a symbol for the new community. If resurrected people are to be “forever with the Lord” they will have to be with him on earth.
But what happens in between? They are “with the Lord.” Other than that we have precious little information. There is no indication that they are with one another, unless one takes the group cry of the martyrs in Revelation as such an indication, or the crowd scene in heaven. But even then Revelation does not indicate any interaction among the group, just worship of “the Lamb.” One wonders if this is anything more than a symbolic presentation of being “with the Lord?” From Jesus we have the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (or Dives and Lazarus if we want to put Rich Man in Latin). But again we are involved in symbolism, not literals. Lazarus is in Abraham’s bosom, i.e. lying against his chest or in his lap. The rich man never addresses Lazarus, only “Father Abraham.” And there is communication from the place of torment to the place of bliss, despite there being “a great gulf fixed.” The story made Jesus’ point, and made it well, but taken as a literal it becomes absurd. It is bliss for the righteous to observe the torment of the suffering? Is there communication back and forth? Is there room on Abraham’s lap for everyone? No, the point is made, and made within that context. And, besides, the rich man and Lazarus never communicate, although Lazarus is recognizable. Likewise when Jesus speaks to the insurgent on the cross, he says, “You will be with me in Paradise,” which is what Paul says, i.e. “with Jesus.” That is the one and only point that everyone makes who speak to the topic.
On the popular level we talk about people interacting with one another in heaven. We talk about their seeing “Uncle Joe” or “Mom and Dad” or whatever. We talk about their “walking the streets of gold.” We talk about “Mom and Dad being together again.” And we thereby miss the point. First, in the resurrection of the dead their is neither marriage nor giving in marriage, but folk are like the angels, i.e. without sexual relations. At death the marriage ends. It will never restart. Marriage is part of this age. Even blood family is part of this age. Already in this age Jesus and Paul and I think Jesus prefer the fictive family, the community of the followers of Jesus, to the blood family. At death the transition appears to be complete. People relate to Jesus within the company of the resurrected. So the whole idea of seeing loved ones again misses the point. The point is being with Jesus. Second, in the intermediate state there is no body, so how does a person have any behavior? How do you recognize one another? All of our behavior is mediated by a brain, all of our recognition by senses. So any behaving or relating “in heaven” (I prefer to say, “in the divine dimension” for “heaven” is tied to a worldview of their being a place above the sky; I also say “where God is” although can one say that is a “where”?) that we can describe is analogous rather than literal in the sense that we can only describe “being” using bodily terms so our talking about (or visualizations of in dreams and visions or fiction) are all analogous, however emotionally meaningful they are to us.
Perhaps how we really are in that period (is it really a “period” or does it have anything to do with time?) is best described as being in pure contemplation of God/Jesus? And is it not true that their “minds” (certainly not exactly like our limited ones) are what hold the data of the resurrection?
So such hymns as “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” and “When I Get to Heaven” and the like describe our mythology about the intermediate state, not the reality. They often contain the gem of comfort that we need at the time, but should hardly be taken as literal truth. Many sermons describe the people relating to one another “in heaven.” And often funeral sermons fail to so much as mention the resurrection. Thus they may be comforting, but they are comforting people with something that we know nothing about, with pure fiction. It will be good, says Paul, it will be very good. But it will be good because we will be with Jesus. That is the one and only reason that it will be good. And even in the resurrection it will be good because we will be with Jesus in the community of the others who have followed him. Take the focus off Jesus, and we have mythology, a comforting mythology perhaps, but a mythology that diverts our focus from what really matters.
Perhaps we want that diversion, for we have not really loved Jesus in this life, so it is difficult to think of any type of existence as meaningful with his being the one we contemplate.
As for me, I will preach on the resurrection as funerals, for while we have the promise that it is good, the resurrection is the hope of followers of Jesus. And I will use Anglican/Episcopal liturgies, for they are full of the resurrection. And I will enjoy family and marriage now, for that is the grace of the present, and work on my contemplation of Jesus now, so that when the day comes, I will be ready to be in his presence. And I will say at the graveside, “All go down to the dust; but even at the grave we sing [the Easter acclamation] Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”