For many people, as we age we start to reflect on life and our own death.
In particular, we question our beliefs around life after death, and how our faith may enable and sustain those beliefs.
Rev Andrew Goodhead, chaplain to St Christopher’s Hospice, was asked about the “big questions” in regards to life after death.
The common questions he is asked as a chaplain are:
Is there a God?
If there is a Heaven, and what is Heaven like?
Will I get into Heaven at all?
Have I done enough to make sure I get there?
Instead of rushing to provide answers or dismissing questions as unimportant, Rev Andrew suggests it’s useful to find out what might have prompted the question in the first place.
“Sometimes I will say ‘what is it that makes you think you might not get into Heaven?’ and allow the person to respond to that. And then open up the conversation about ‘what do you think Heaven is like?’ Do you think that sometimes the way that we think about the afterlife is much more our own construct, than the way in which it actually is? Don’t you think that God might be rather more generous to us than we’re allowing him to be?’’
Christians believe that Jesus is the revealed person of God to humanity and therefore take hope in his description of what is to come after death, believing that he speaks with authority and that his words serve as a map of this ‘life after death’.
As theologian William B. Frazier, M.M., once observed: “The way faithful Christians die is the most contagious aspect of what being a Christian means.” ‘Mission Theology Revisited: Keeping Up with the Crises’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 1985.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus often spoke of Heaven and gave details in the analogies and stories he would use. In John’s gospel, he uses the analogy of a house when comforting his disciples’ fears, saying:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14: 2-5)
Throughout his teaching, Jesus emphasised that the actions of our lives will affect our ability to enter Heaven, saying:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Therefore, Christians look to the way that Jesus lived as the measure for our lives, to one day be with him in Heaven.
Recently, Pope Francis addressed this fear of what Heaven is like as a practical experience:
“…’So what’s Heaven?’ some ask. There we begin to be unsure in our response. We don’t know how best to explain Heaven. Often we picture an abstract and distant Heaven… And some think: ‘But won’t it be boring there for all eternity?’ No! That is not Heaven. We are on the path towards an encounter: the final meeting with Jesus… Heaven will be this encounter, this meeting with the Lord who went ahead to prepare a place for each of us. This increases our faith.”
Many believe that the afterlife is a purely spiritual experience, but Christian tradition has always stated that the afterlife is a physical experience also. Fr Peter Harries, Lead Chaplain at University College London Hospital, explains to people the “Christian tradition of the resurrection of the body and eternal life, rather than just survival of some essence or some meaning living on in the memories of others.”
Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans writes that we have our confidence of a resurrection of both body and soul from the resurrection of Jesus:
“Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” (Romans 6: 8-10).
Further information on faith and beliefs.