ELLIOTT WRITES: Dear Alison, Mum says that God said in heaven there won’t be any sadness or crying. But I know lots of people don’t believe in heaven and don’t want to go there. Some of my friends and their families don’t want to believe in God or heaven. I think I will miss them in heaven so I will be sad – I don’t think God will make clones of them. Can you explain this to me? I would like it in an email. From Elliott.
This week, Elliott has kindly given permission for me to share his wonderfully curly email with you all, and my tentative response. It’s a bit dense, because hey, Elliott’s questions are BIG! But it’s a response I hope he can catch bits of, and one day grow into – like us all. Because after Sunday, when we looked at God’s neverending invitation (here), I know he’s not the only one wondering about all this. Thanks, Elliott!
I LOVE your questions! Of course it would be very sad to be in heaven without all the people we love: so how can there be no tears in heaven? Thinking about this, I have a few ideas. I hope what I say makes sense, but if it doesn’t let me know and we can try again. So here goes …
When she talks about heaven, your mum is probably thinking of what God says through the prophet Isaiah:
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare for all peoples a feast of rich food, a banquet of well-aged wines – the best of meats and the finest of wines. God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; God will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces, and take away the disgrace of the people from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. In that day they will say, “This is our God, the one in whom we trusted, the one who saved us. This is the Lord for whom we waited. Let us rejoice, and be glad!” (Isaiah 25:6-9).
Isaiah was first written for people who had been taken away from their home by war. They had suffered a lot, they were separated from their family and friends, and they were very, very homesick. Now, God is working away in the background and will one day bring them home; but in the meantime, through Isaiah, God is encouraging the people to hang in there by giving them a vision of what it will be like when they are back with all the people they love, including the people who have died.
What Isaiah describes sounds like a wonderful party! There’s lots of yummy food, and I imagine them eating roast lamb with rosemary and freshly baked bread. Maybe the adults have had a glass of wine; anyway, they’re all relaxed and laughing and telling stories. Some kids are playing; others are hiding under the table and listening to the adults talk; still others are nestling into special adults’ laps, or being rocked to sleep by a granny. It’s a warm, safe place, and there’s probably a friendly dog or two, and candles, and flowers, and everything held together by a rich, deep joy.
Even better, says Isaiah to these sad and homesick people, at that time God will swallow up death forever, and wipe away the tears from all faces, and take away the disgrace of the people from all the earth: and then they will recognise God.
So that’s a pretty powerful picture, both of heaven and of God.
But, you ask, what about those people who don’t believe in heaven and don’t want to go there? And what about you: because if your friends aren’t in heaven, you’ll be sad. How does that work?
I think there are two important words here.
The first word is ‘EVERYONE’. That is, there are stories in the Bible where people who apparently don’t know or want or love God are shown to be very close to God’s heart and included in God’s future; and there are also stories where people who hate God are forgiven, loved and welcomed in.
And did you notice? In the vision from Isaiah, God prepares a feast for ALL peoples, and will wipe away the tears from ALL faces, and take away the disgrace of the people from ALL the earth: no exceptions. It doesn’t matter who they are or what they believe or how they live. Heaven is a gift for ALL people, and EVERYONE is welcomed in.
More, Isaiah says that when they have experienced the banquet and how God wipes away tears and swallows up death, the people will recognise God and rejoice and be glad. So maybe even your friends who don’t want to believe in God will one day be with you at that great big party in heaven: and maybe once they’ve known the good food, good drink, good stories and God’s love and care, they’ll go, “oh! This is the God we’ve been waiting for!”, and they’ll rejoice to be there with you.
The second important word is ‘EVERYWHEN’. That is, heaven is much bigger than our universe, and much bigger than our time. So our entire lives are wrapped around by heaven: or what we sometimes call ‘God’s reality.’ We believe Jesus moved freely between heaven and earth, or God’s reality and our reality. We also believe that, in the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection, his spirit was poured into us, helping us to live in both realities all the time, not just when we have died or at the end of time.
This all sounds very complicated, but what it means is this: Heaven is already around us, and we get to live in heaven right now. It doesn’t always feel like it, but with practice we can learn to notice God’s love and God’s reality shining into our lives. We can notice how the Jesus-stories come to life in us; and we can host little heavenly banquets, sharing food and telling stories and comforting people and laughing together even in the face of bad news and death. And because God-in-Christ is alive in us, we can set the banqueting table; we can wipe away people’s tears; we can do this for people whether or not they trust God; and we can do it anytime.
Sometimes we do this in church, telling stories and praying together and hugging each other and sharing communion bread. Sometimes we do this at home, eating with family and friends and being together in loving ways. Sometimes, heaven pops into our lives in surprising ways, times and places, and maybe we don’t really notice until we think about it. But one way or another, God’s reality keeps breaking into our reality. It’s not yet fully, completely here, but if we pay attention, we keep getting glimpses of heaven on earth. We call it the ‘now-and-not-yet’ because we experience it a little bit now, but we know that the best is yet to come.
So we can enjoy little bits of heaven with our friends, whether or not they want to believe in God or call these experiences heaven. And who knows? Maybe these experiences will make them curious about God’s reality and what sort of words and stories and experiences best describe it. And maybe in this life they will one day say, “oh! This is the God we’ve been waiting for!”
Which is all to say: I believe heaven is for EVERYONE. I believe it happens EVERYWHEN. And I believe that you and I can be part of sharing heaven with others, here and now. So I don’t think we need to be worried or sad, because nobody will miss out—especially not if we make sure they get to experience little bits of heaven in this life!
So that’s what I think. But what do you think?
Emailed to Sanctuary 1 June 2022 © Sanctuary, 2022. Photo by Elevate on Unsplash. Does this look like a glimpse of the heavenly banquet to you? If not, why not?
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