The Reverend Robert Reiss Canon of Westminster
Sunday, 23rd December 2007
In the Sundays in Advent I have attempted in these Matins sermons to look at the last things of death, judgement, hell and then today, heaven, but to look at them in the light of the fact that according to most sociological surveys only a minority of English people definitely believe in life after death. It is a substantial minority, some 44% of the population according to a YouGov poll in 2004, but the rest either definitely does not believe in it or are unsure about it, even though, when asked, a much higher proportion than that says they do believe in God. And that sociological fact does cast these matters in a particular light.
So, at least in the case of judgement and hell I have tried to look at them in the light of what they might mean for our life in this world rather than in terms of any life beyond this. But today we come to a difficult issue, the matter of heaven. We may all of us had moments of sublime bliss in our lives from time to time, and we can look back upon them with pleasure and gratitude, but I doubt whether any of us would have ever thought even at the time that we were in heaven. So what can we realistically make of the notion of heaven?
Perhaps, first of all, it is necessary to state again the obvious, we do not know. Even St Paul recognised that. In 1 Corinthians he quotes an ancient passage: ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’. A former Canon of this Abbey, David Edwards, has pointed out in his very helpful book ‘After death?’,[a title that ends with a question mark] ‘It is typical of our uncertainty that we do not know the source of Paul’s quotation.’ When it comes to thinking about heaven uncertainty is the name of the game.
But there are, I believe, two things we can say about heaven. First, it is about eternity, and secondly it is about God.
Take eternity first. There is a wonderful wall plaque in Ely Cathedral commemorating someone whom it described as a ‘Gent of this City’ who, on a particular date, ‘exchanged time for eternity’. When I first saw that as an undergraduate I thought it a very interesting description of death even though its consequences have taken some time to mature in my mind. But death is the completion of life, even if it happens as it does for some at a very untimely moment. At that point we enter eternity, from which there is no coming back, even though we shall continue to exist in the minds of those who were close to us.
In this life we are constrained by time, and so we work on projects that we hope in some way might be completed while we are alive, including the project of thinking carefully and realistically about what we believe. But death ends that. David Edwards puts it well and clearly. ‘If beyond death there can be no time and space as we know it, dying must mean the end of all projects which needed to be completed within the boundaries of available time and space. Since in eternity there can be no time to be measured by our normal methods, there can be no timing of development. This life which means Becoming has been replaced by the life which means Being, and that does not take place in time; it takes eternity.’
But if heaven is about eternity it is also about God. At the very heart of Christian belief is the notion that the ground and source of all in this universe is a loving and generous God, who made us that we might enjoy his creation and find our home in Him where our hearts can ultimately rest, and, indeed, even in this life, we can at times rest in our joy and appreciation of what He has made. That is not to ignore the many difficult things we may encounter in this life,. Some are undoubtedly the consequence of the freedom he has given to us human beings to make a mess of things. Others seem to be built into the very structure of creation, the tectonic plates that shift and cause disasters that kill many, or the disease that can destroy a person or decimate a community. But the evidence is that even those things do not destroy everyone’s belief in God, but that rather for some at least their belief and trust in God provides the inspiration for their trying to bring some sort of good out of disaster where it occurs. Personally I do not belief in a God who is a sort of master puppeteer, pulling the strings of the universe to bring about particular ends. But I do believe in a loving God who allows the world and humankind its freedom, but who continues to love and care for all of his creatures, and who at times probably suffers with his world as well. As Dietrich Bonhoffer once wrote ‘Only a suffering God can help’ and indeed I believe it is a suffering God that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ at Calvary.
In this life we can cooperate with God in seeking to be an agent of his loving purposes, or we can, of course, ignore him and pursue our own ends without reference to God. That choice is ours. But Christian belief asserts that, whether we acknowledge him or not, God continues to love and care for us as individuals, and death does not end that love. Just as we shall continue to exist in the minds of those who knew us in this life, so we shall exist in the mind and memory of God. There may be much that we have done in our lives that we would rather God forgot, and perhaps in his generosity He will. We may even want wholly to dismiss God and want him to dismiss us, and again perhaps He will and complete non-being might be the consequence once those who knew us in this life have either forgotten us or died. But for those who have entered some sort of relationship with God, whether expressed in conventional religious terms of not, I think we can believe He will not forget that love for us when we enter that eternity where He is. In eternity that love will be, not because it is ours for God, but because it is God’s for us.
And with that hope I believe we can follow the example of Jesus. When death comes, in what will probably be for most of us far less dreadful circumstances than he faced at Calvary, we can say as he did ‘Into thy hands I commend my spirit’. And then we must leave the rest to God.