Afterlife, Three Options

I believe what we think about death, and life beyond death is an interpretive key to all serious thinking.

Many believe religious ideas about life after death are essentially the same.  Just like when people say all religions are basically the same.  But that’s not true.  A vast chasm exists between the Muslim who thinks martyrdom in the cause of Holy War yields immediate and everlasting heavenly delights, virginal or otherwise,1 The Koran reveals an afterlife surprisingly sensual and, unsurprisingly, male oriented. and the Hindu who believes karmic requirements dictate putting on disposable bodies, life after life after life after life in dogged pursuit of the next stage of one’s destiny.  For the Orthodox Jew, individual bodily resurrection awaits the righteous whereas the Buddhist hopes to finally disappear like a drop of water into the great nameless and formless Beyond. 

These are different visions from very different stories, embodying significantly different beliefs about God and the world, and significantly different agendas for how people might live in the present.  They are not the same.


Confronted with the universality of death, our greatest thinkers refused to adopt hedonism as their guiding light.  Although, that was and is an available option.  But officially the “let’s eat and drink for tomorrow we die” crowd is surprisingly small.  I say surprisingly because unofficially many of us live our lives as if “pleasure” is our guiding principle.  But when pressed on the matter we, of course, acknowledge higher purposes. And the better angels of our nature take flight.  At least in public.2The big problem Jesus confronted in Matt 7:1 was not judgement per se, but hypocrisy.  Jesus dropped a verbal hammer of judgement on the heads of more than a few religious leaders in his day!  Read Matthew chapter 23 for the larger context of Matthew 7:1.  After finishing his no holes barred indictment of those leaders, Jesus prophesied the sacking of the city of Jerusalem and it’s Temple. He prophesied the entire dismantling of their religious apparatus.  An apparatus built on the Truth God had given them, “do as they say, but not as they do.”  Yet by their hypocrisy they forfeited their leadership role as caretakers of God’s law and the House of God.  A Temple he himself would rebuild in Three Days!  Matthew 23 is an astonishing Jeremiad against those who claim to be God’s leaders.  Yet, who are not.  But before any would be Jeremiahs go off half-cocked with “righteous indignation” against hypocrisy I have two questions: are you living like Jesus lived?  Can you build like he builds?

Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Christians have somewhat similar views about the afterlife. Their ideas exist on the same conceptual map.  Each of them acknowledge the God given gifts of sensual pleasure. God created our bodies, after all.  But more about those ideas later. 

First, I want to explore other beliefs about the afterlife popular in the Western World, a part of the world where Christianity had its widest impact.  Three major ideas about post-mortem destiny emerge:  Annihilation, Reincarnation, and Absorption (the last two with a characteristically Western twist.)


Before they lowered the lid, and I looked down upon the quiet face of my Susie, was that the last time? 

More and more people think so these days.  In this Enlightened Age, this Age of Science, “this life is all there is,” they say.  Death is the end.

Annihilation is an increasingly popular opinion in the modern industrial world.  Philosophical Materialism gave birth to the idea of Annihilation.  Materialism got its formal start in Ancient Greece.  So it has a long distinguished pedigree.  Some of the most famous materialists, oldest to latest, are Epicurus, Lucretius, Machiavelli, Voltaire, Comte, Marx, Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and, unfortunately, most modern scientists.  Its main idea?  Matter and energy exists and nothing else.  

Some infamous members of that diverse group were mentioned in my last post. Their murderous ways were no doubt aided and abetted by the belief that this life is all there is. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc., and their followers are the ugly step-sons and daughters of Philosophical Materialism.  Most Materialists or Physicalists, as modern day materialists prefer to call themselves, wouldn’t dream of taking another human life.  But if your philosophy teaches you nothing exists but matter and energy, you could plausibly think

(a) I might as well get all the matter I can,


(b) I might need to energetically remove matter if it blocks my way to personal growth or, more unselfishly, Utopia for all. 

For example, you could be tempted to believe you should remove unjust class distinctions by removing entire classes of matter.  Communism did just that last century. As I mentioned in my last post, in the span of 4 short years, Cambodian Communists returned 2 million discrete bundles of matter & energy back to the earth from whence they came. Vive la révolution!

Cambodian leader Pol Pot learned his Marxism in Paris in the 1950’s where leading intellectuals Jean Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty were explaining how terror could be the midwife of “humanism.”3Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanism and Terror, trans. John O’Neil (Boston: Beacon Press). Not exactly a shining moment for Materialism or Humanism.


Buddhist Stupa Memorial filled with 5000 human skulls
[Killing Field, Choeung Ek, Cambodia]


But, as I said, most Materialists wouldn’t dream of taking human life much less committing such atrocities.  It’s just that I don’t see how the logic of Philosophical Materialism successfully argues against it.  I suspect the better angels of our nature are unconsciously at work here.  And thank God!

Now back to the personal level, death ends all of me.  It’s a difficult proposition for most to accept.  So most don’t. On the cosmic level, some world class physicists have been driven to despair because their studies reveal a Cosmos heading for either

(a) a slow death as the Universe continues its expansion away from the Big Bang, with galaxies slowly cooling and decaying into a dying whimper,


(b) a relatively quick reversal and catastrophic “Big Crunch” brought about by gravitational contraction.

Of course, none of this will happen for billions of years, so no worries for now, but for those of us who scan the Big Picture for clues about the meaning of life, Philosophical Materialism remains unavoidably depressing.  

Distinguished theoretical physicist and atheist Steven Weinberg concluded in light of the above mentioned cosmic futility, that life seemed quite pointless to him.  He could only face it with a kind of heroic defiance.4 S.Weinberg, The First Three Minutes, Andre Deutsch, 1977, p. 149.

He’s not alone.  This defiant despair may be found among poets too.  Dylan Thomas, presumably a member of the annihilationist camp, when thinking of the upcoming death of his father wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

Nobly defiant.  But still depressing.

Which is why most say, annihilation may be for thee, but not for me.  Almost everyone believes in an afterlife.  And though the annihilation school boasts record numbers today, attended by some of the most influential people, it’s still relatively small.


Inner calm of Buddhahood, Awakened Bliss
[Central Tibet, 12th Century]


Many in the West find an afterlife idea from the ancient Far East appealing.  Reincarnation is the belief that human souls individually migrate from one body to another in a series of lives until complete purification and education is achieved, at which point individuality melts away into the unconscious experience of Oneness with “God.”   Spirit is valued over body.  Bodies are wonderfully dispensable in this second, third, fourth, fifth….chance spirituality.  For Buddhists the ultimate practical goal is resisting the temptations of desire, a resistance that results in enlightenment by stripping away the false consciousness of individuality with its bodily existence so that you find your “true self” in the great spirit sea of God.

Having more than one bite at the apple of life appeals to many.  Also, it allows us to acknowledge the intuitive wisdom that choices in life have consequences. Which brings up another closely associated idea. Karma. Karma appeals to our sense of justice. We get what our actions deserve.

Of course if you are a member of the lower classes, your prospects are, here’s that word again, depressing.  Karma put you there.  The bad acts committed in one life receive punishment and hopefully purging in the next.  Unfortunately, given your current bodily existence, as a member of the poor unwashed, you have a long, long way to go buddy.  Many turns of the wheel before escaping the cycle of birth-death-rebirth and experiencing the eternal bliss of Nirvana.  This ancient wisdom also teaches regress down the chain of being from human to animal life or worse. Needless to say, progress is not inevitable.  

Modern Westerners tend to excise the unappealing, unmarketable parts borrowed from other cultures.  Pairing them down to more digestible, more profitable portion sizes for western bellies. Given Western notions of self-improvement this possibility of downward mobility rarely comes up.  Too tough to mass market, I suppose.  I suspect an unquestioned assumption of our technologically astute Western World, the “myth of progress,” may also have something to do with this.  


But since I’ve taken a couple of gentle swipes at western tendencies, and will continue to do so, let me say something positive.

The British brought and did bad things to India, the birthplace of Reincarnation, but paving the way for Authentic Christianity wasn’t one of those bad things. Our criticisms of Empire, and they are many, whether British or American, must not blind us to the existence of real benefits. Our critiques must be grown-up and nuanced. After all, the pagan empire of Rome and its benefits, not least of which were Roman roads, and the relative ease of travel, greatly assisted the spread of Christianity. Not, of course, as much as the Holy Spirit empowered witness of “the blood of Christian martyrs” on the hands of those same Romans or of Christian compassion for the sick and poor. Yet it remains true “in the fullness of time, Christ came.”5Galatians 4:4 (NRSV): But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son,

All that to say this. For the Orthodox Hindu, Karma, the inexorable law of cause and effect, places you in this life with a certain status or class. That is your dharma, your duty in life and that’s what you should remain this time around. For devout Hindus, the Dalits (lower class “Untouchables”) are born into their state, their caste, due to karma from a previous life. They are to remain content with that status—to seek status improvement in this life makes things worse next time around. Also, reaching outside of your class to extend a hand of compassion to those less fortunate may contribute positively to your karma, but makes things worse in the future life of the recipient. Why? They must by their own actions change their future destiny. I think it’s fair to say ancient Hinduism would not have produced many Mother Teresa’s. Untouchables usually remained untouched. In sharp contrast, authentic Christian community lovingly opens to all classes the fruits of family membership and shared obligations.

Galatians 3:28–29 (NRSV): 
There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,
heirs according to the promise.”

Gandhi’s philosophy was heavily influenced by the teachings of Jesus found in the gospels. And although he opposed conversion to Christianity, for himself and his community, it is certainly arguable that India would not now be the World’s largest democracy without Christianity and its teaching about the worth of the individual human life, body and soul.

I know in saying this I’m stepping in front of “the multicultural train” that has been steaming down the track for many years now. And once that one passes over me, “the post-colonial train.” But, I humbly submit these hopefully Christian observations for your open-minded and generous assessment.

What is not open to doubt, or cultural bias is the following fact: recent polling suggests around 40% in the United Kingdom believe in Reincarnation. That’s a big number!


Now to the next popular idea, Absorption.  Also from the Far East. Again, as is common to us westerners we jump straight to absorption at death bypassing the rigorous outworking of karma that the Orthodox Hindu or Buddhist insists upon. The Buddha himself, presumably the most noteworthy practitioner, required more than a thousand lifetimes on his path to enlightenment. His drop in the ocean merger with the unnameable, unknowable Beyond did not come easy.

But this level of rigor won’t do for the modern Western mindset. Here are a few poetic examples of Western impatience with that tedious prospect.

From the pen of the Romantic poet Shelley in a memorial to another poet Keats, dead at the age of 25:

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep—
He hath awakened from the dream of life
’Tis we, who, lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife …

He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known...

Here we find a mixture of Nature Religion and Buddhism.

Finally one more in that vein. An anonymous soldier on his way to battle, and perhaps death, memorably expressed the doctrine of Absorption so popular today.

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain …
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I do not die.

When Princess Diana died, memorials of flowers, love notes, well wishes, etc., were left in London at various Royal Family locales.  One note spoken in Diana’s own voice reflected a similar fusion of Nature Religion and Buddhism: ‘I did not leave you at all. I am still with you. I am in the sun and in the wind. I am even in the rain. I did not die, I am with you all.”

One presumes that the titular leader of the Church of England, and “Defender of the Faith,” the Queen herself would quibble with that misguided, albeit, tender sentiment.  The Royal “Mum” would or should know those comments are devoid of Christian content.


When a Christian dies sometimes you’ll hear from other Christians things like, “She/he is with us now more than ever.”  Actually, I don’t think so.  She/he is with God more than ever, I’ll grant that.  Even if Susan attained some god-like ability to be with us simultaneously or in light-speed succession we still couldn’t see, hear, touch, or taste her or talk with her.  And because we cannot do those things she is not fully present. Not yet.  😇

How did Christians get to the point where we say or imply that bodily death doesn’t matter?  That bodies are disposable, or are essentially irrelevant? Or based on the last comment, actually impede spiritual growth and presence?

Well, it is partially because many in our Western world have borrowed willy nilly and Western like from other great religious traditions, but also because within Christianity itself we have appropriated outside ideas based on the sensible belief that “all Truth is God’s Truth.”

Yet, we often fail to contend for the unique contribution Classic Christianity made and continues to make to the questions of death and the afterlife. Not to mention how we ought to live in the present. Our story is unique. We need to get back to the heart of that story. And start again.

As I highlighted in my last post that story is a fully integrated vision of reconciliation. A marriage between all the vital parts of God’s good creation. This union in marriage does not obliterate the unique and continuing contribution and worth of each marriage partner. You will not find in this story a Buddhist dissolution of self into the great Beyond. Strictly speaking that is Oneness, and not Christian union.

It is a story about Jew and Gentile. Husband and Wife. Male and Female. Heaven and Earth. God and Creation. Spirit and Matter. Soul and Body. All coexisting. All real. All commingling together, intimately joined, yet remaining distinct. Unity & Diversity. And at the center of it all. A place for real persons to walk and talk and enjoy each other forever—The Garden-City of God.


Paradise – Giovanni di Paolo – ca 1445
Altarpiece in the church of San Domenico, Siena


At the end of this post we started a little Christian “house cleaning.” There is more to do. We will also look at the influential teachings of a prominent Western thinker/theologian whose ideas have taken us away from the teachings of Classic Christianity.

If you haven’t already added your email to my list, do so and I’ll let you know when the blog is updated. And send you passwords to access my Private Collection.


I recently signed up to participate in the Gail Parkins Memorial Ovarian Cancer Walk & 5K Run.  Also, I created a Team called:

Susan’s Soldiers (This is War!)

Contribute if you can to this worthy cause.

Two Gardens

Several years ago I recited a poem to Susan that I knew she would like.  I knew why she would like it.  The poem is by Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree.  I recited it again in my Eulogy at Susan’s funeral mass.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live in the bee-loud glade.*

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.


Well it wasn’t the Lake Isle of Innisfree, but it was a small cabin.  On the north shore of Lake Oneida in Central New York State.  It was the family camp.  Susan’s family would spend entire summers there.  Card and board games.  Tea kettles and cups.  Sunbathing.  Laughter.  Fishing.  Food.  Family.  I knew this poem would bring those memories flooding back.  That’s why she would like it so much.

We visited the camp on every trip to see the family.  Susan loved it there.  I said to her once; 

“You know why you love coming here so much, aside from the obvious reasons, why you long to see this place when you are away?   There is a deep primal need in all of us to get back to the garden.  To get back to a place of peace.  A place of recreative silence. Joy.  The unencumbered embrace of family.  But most of all, so that we might, at the time of the evening breeze, in the cool of the day, walk with our God.1 Genesis 3:8 (NRSV): They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.

“That’s what we want.  That’s really what we want.

“You believe in that garden don’t you sweetheart?”  “Yes,” she said, “I believe.”



We thought and studied about other gardens too.  Gardens of the past, present, and future, for all who believe.

One garden in particular, in the distant future, spoke to us like never before.  

You can read about it in the last book of the book of books we call the Bible.  John wrote it as an exiled prisoner of the Roman Empire on the Isle of Patmos (about 35 miles off the coast of south-western Turkey).  We know it as the book of Revelation.  Otherwise known as “The Apocalypse of John.” Apocalypse comes from a Greek word meaning to uncover, unveil, reveal.  Thus “Revelation.”  It’s a book about Last Things.  And things in between too.  Fittingly, the final two chapters reveal the destiny of the people of God.  Two chapters that give meaning to all that has gone before.  Both in the book of Revelation and all of Scripture.

The problem is that most readers rarely make it to the final chapters.  It’s heavy slogging.  A prophet tries to make sense of a series of heavenly visions about a Kingdom embroiled in a cosmic war.  And it ain’t easy.  For him to write down.  Or for us to read.  There are few things like it in all of Scripture.  Daniel and Ezekiel in the Old Testament, Isaiah and Zechariah too, foreshadow the content.  But towering above them all, after having borrowed from them all, stands “The Apocalypse of John.”  A world-wind of mixed and unmixed metaphors.  Fantastical language concealing as much as revealing.  Early on we get images of four creatures resembling a noble lion, a strong ox, a wise man and a swift eagle, each with six wings and full of eyes in front and behind expressing their ceaseless vigilance before the throne of God.  And that’s just for starters.  John bears witness to a bewildering array of symbols crashing into each other.  White horse, red horse, black horse, pale horse, each in their order bearing the riders of Conquest, War, Famine, and Death.  You’ll find frequent earthquakes, hail storms, flashes of lightning and peals of thunder.  A scroll with seven seals of judgement to break open.  One by one.  Like a mounting storm at sea.  Crest after crest moving us ever closer to a great reckoning, the final consummation.  Trumpets blaring.  Bowls of wrath poured out.  Blood.  Lots of blood.  It’s very unsettling.  Confusing.

At the end when it’s all been said, and all been done, when the cosmic war between good and evil reaches its climactic conclusion, with the final destruction of all evil and the vindication of those who we are told have faithfully followed the Lamb, (meaning Christ) at the end of it all, a garden.

Unless you are trained in the genre, the apocalyptic genre, it’s hard to make sense of the details.  The shocking co-mingling of the familiar with the unfamiliar.  The earthly with the heavenly. Unless you are steeped in the prophetic stock and trade found in the Hebrew Scriptures it’s hard not to lose your balance, throw in the interpretive towel, and exclaim “no mas, no mas!  Can you bring back The Gospel According to John, John?”  “Bring back the God of Love?”

This book is a hard read for many reasons.  Still, for Christians, the overarching themes are clear enough.  The victory of our God on behalf of His creation against the forces of rebellion, both human and divine2Satan and his fallen angels, forces which could bring only chaos, darkness and death.  The longed for righting of every wrong, that’s what this book is about. 

The payoff? 

In the negative.  No more tears, no more pain, no more dying. In the positive.  Endless day.  Lush, fruitful living.  Beauty beyond belief.  The unencumbered embrace of an exceptionally large family, as numerous as the stars. 

But most of all, unceasing, unfettered access to the light and life giving presence of an unconquerable God.

But like I said, most people never make it to this point.  Too much confusing mayhem along the way.  Which is a shame.  Because the ending perfectly frames the entire biblical witness.  A witness that begins and ends with the garden of God.



Most of us are somewhat familiar with the garden at the beginning called Eden.  But we’ve given far less thought to the garden at the end.  We’ve thought about heaven a lot, but as you’ll see, that’s not the same thing.  So let’s think about the Revelation garden bookend.

Unlike the first garden this future garden will be in the center of a city.  And like the first garden, the Tree of Life will be there.  A River of Life will be there, too, and according to the story, flowing from the throne of God at the center of a city called The New Jerusalem.  (Perhaps the city-planners of Manhattan when they came up with the idea of Central Park had this passage of Scripture in mind.)

As you might expect, the architectural accoutrements of this city will be nothing short of astounding.  Maybe you’ve heard of some of them.  Streets of gold.  Walls of Jasper.  (What is Jasper?)  Twelve Pearly Gates. (Only one with St. Peter.)

Now, I have a question for all Christians about the garden bookends of our Sacred Text.  The ones found in Genesis and Revelation.  Your answer will reveal much.  Is the first to be understood as an earthly garden and the second a heavenly garden?  Eden earthly?  The New Jerusalem garden heavenly?  What do you think?  What if I was to suggest that the answer for each garden is BOTH earthly and heavenly.

That’s right.  Both gardens are best understood as a mixture of earth and heaven.  Human and Divine.  Just like Jesus was and is (if you are a Classic Christian).


Now to my most provocative point. (At least for many Christians)

The view of the early Church, a very Jewish view by the way, as revealed in their writings is this: 

The Christian Hope, the spiritual goal, the promised inheritance, is not Heaven. 

“What did you say? It’s not about going to heaven when we die?” Nope. It’s not. Why?  That wouldn’t follow the biblical pattern and the revealed purposes of God.  What is the biblical pattern?  The God of Grace comes down to us, yet again.  And invites our participation in His wise rule, a partnership contemplated from the beginning, and continued through this middle period by our prayerful service as we build for His Kingdom on “Earth as it is in Heaven.” 

Listen to ole Saint Peter himself. 1 Peter 1:3–4 (NRSV): “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”

Did you get that? From St Peter himself? The living hope. The promised “imperishable” inheritance kept in heaven for you. But here’s the payoff! Based on the whole counsel of Scripture. It will be an inheritance kept for us and then brought to us, by Grace, in all of its down to earth glory!

God, the Grand Initiator, comes down to us. Yet again. For the final time.


One more bookend combo. This time, both of them from the very Jewish early Christian writings.  We begin not with Genesis but with The Gospel According to Matthew this time. The first book of the New Testament.  [Our Church Fathers knew what they were doing when they bookended the Christian contribution to Scripture.] At the beginning of this book we find another vision from heaven.  This time given to Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, who agonized over what to do about the young lady he loved but had not made pregnant.  In a dream-vision an angel of the Lord said to him, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

Then so as to bring further assurance to this very Jewish young man, assurance of God’s overarching purposes, the angel quotes an old Hebrew scripture, 

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” [Isaiah 7:14]

Matthew drives home the point about this God when he finishes the Gospel account with these final words, the words of Jesus to all His disciples: “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”3Matthew 28:20 (NRSV)


Now the big finale! Speaking of the end of the age brings us to the climax of the story, the last two chapters in Revelation that I’ve already mentioned, the crucial text at the end of the book of books.  In all of its down to earth glory.

Revelation 21:1–7 (NRSV): Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 

“See, the home of God is among mortals. 
He will dwell with them as their God
they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children, for the first things have passed away.” 

Revelation 22:1–5 (NRSV): “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”

Reign where? And on what basis? John answers that question in an earlier chapter.

Revelation 5:9–10 (NRSV): They sing a new song (to the Lamb of God):
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.

[I can hear nonbelievers (some of my friends) justifiably saying all this talk about religious folk ruling and reigning and Judgment makes us very, very uncomfortable. I don’t blame you! In future posts, I will try to speak more fully to this concern. Stay with me.]



It is the New Jerusalem, “coming down out of Heaven from God” linking the created realms of heaven and earth, yet again.  Recapitulating the original design.  And at the center of that marriage of heaven and earth, a garden. Because God doesn’t give up on a good thing.  Remember the story in Genesis?  Before it went horribly wrong?  He called His creation, both heaven and earth, GOOD.  Not perfect, but good.  Pregnant with possibility.  And at the apex of creation, human beings, God’s image bearers, He called that creative work, VERY GOOD.  Since according to the expanded version of the story (Genesis 2) females were created at the end of this explosion of God’s creative genius, the description VERY GOOD, makes great good sense to me!

And now in this final Biblical scene, Revelation chapters 21 and 22, God faithfully finishes what He started at the beginning.

The restoration of all things is at root about the reconciliation of all things.  The image of marriage is key.  “Prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”  The coming together of difference in loving harmony.  The divisions between us brought about and sustained by human and divine4Satan and his fallen angels arrogance will dissolve and God’s whole creation will finally reflect God’s fullness. God’s unity and plurality.  Start down the big list.  The reconciliation of Male and Female.  Jew and Gentile. Heaven and Earth.  God and His creation.  All the separations of life that were never part of the original plan are reconciled. And at the center, we find the Garden-city of God’s love. 

But first the destruction of evil, and every dark force that kept us apart, last of all Death, our final enemy, will die.51 Corinthians 15:24–26 (NRSV): Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. The eternal rule and presence of God with His people throughout His heaven and earth New Creation, that is the grand story of Scripture. 62 Corinthians 5:17–19 (NRSV): “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.“

God desires to dwell with us.  Imagine that! And He will.  Between now and then He calls us to the ministry of reconciliation in anticipation of that great endless day of reunion.  When heaven comes down to earth once again.

No, our final goal is not heaven. 

Heaven is real, but it is not The Christian Hope

Why have we thought so?  Answering that question requires a bit of unpacking.  We’ll look at those reasons in future posts. And because God will not abandon His good creation but will transform it we are commissioned to, among other things, campaign for justice and ecology now in anticipation of our Christian Hope. For our “labor is not in vain.”71 Corinthians 15:58


The Last Judgement – Michelangelo


But before leaving this big picture look at Scripture and specifically the book at the end,  so as not to be misunderstood, or charged with glossing over a great difficulty in this hard to read text, I need to say something about Judgement.  

Revelation is a book full of Judgement which makes most of us in today’s comfortable free wheeling Western world decidedly uncomfortable.  Where after the Lord’s Prayer, and perhaps John 3:16, Matthew 7:1 “judge not, that you be not judged” is one of the most quoted Scripture verses.  And for good reason.

Judgement in and out of the Church is often unwise and unloving.  Church leaders have sometimes focused more on the wrath of God against sin than on the love of God in Christ for His creation.

I understand the great unease.  

That’s one reason it’s hard to read this book.  But then you fail to get to the Garden climax and miss out on the crucial consummation of all things.  

So how are we to understand Judgement?

With a little historical awareness we recognize that for most of human history and in many parts of the globe today the world was and is decidedly unjust, unfree, uncared for, and in bondage to dark powers.   In the 20 century alone, in my parent’s lifetime, approximately 100 million of God’s image bearers were slaughtered at the altar of National and International Socialism.  Ideologues slaughtered or forcibly starved their own citizens wholesale.  Because they were regarded as either ethnically or intellectually impure.  A tragedy of planetary dimensions was the result. The Nazis in Germany and the Soviet, Chinese, North Korean and Cambodian Communists, plus many other lesser known imitators, offered human sacrifices to their gods on an industrial scale.  The sheer magnitude of this malevolence is unequaled in the annals of history.  100 million.  Meditate on that number for a moment.  In the last 100 years.  In this so-called Enlightened Age.   (If you don’t know about all this, your teachers are guilty of a gross dereliction of duty.)8One book to read is “The Black Book of Communism” written by a group of European scholars, almost all of whom were former Communists, published in English by Harvard University Press, (1999). Search Amazon and at the very least read all the professional reviews. Here is one review “An 800-page compendium of the crimes of Communist regimes worldwide, recorded and analyzed in ghastly detail by a team of scholars. The facts and figures, some of them well known, others newly confirmed in hitherto inaccessible archives, are irrefutable. The myth of the well-intentioned founders—the good czar Lenin betrayed by his evil heirs—has been laid to rest for good. No one will any longer be able to claim ignorance or uncertainty about the criminal nature of Communism, and those who had begun to forget will be forced to remember anew.” — Tony Judt, New York Times

Sticking with Cambodia for a moment, having moved past the Communist Killing Fields9 See the movie “The Killing Fields” starring Sam Waterston for a dramatic retelling of this ghastly tale.where in the 1970’s 2 million, 1 out of 7 Cambodians, were planted, the country now leads the world in forced labor and sex trafficking, especially “Child Sex Tourism.”  Commercial Sex Exploitation (CSE) rages in this once beautiful paradise.  Thousands of women and young girls, some as young as 5 and 6, end up in forced prostitution.  Often with the tacit approval of local government officials.  Served up to foreign interests.  Wealthy “pleasure” seekers from abroad.  The horrors inflicted on these mothers, these daughters, these granddaughters, these sisters, beggars belief.  Most of us don’t have categories in our brains to contemplate such evil.  But there they are.  Caged, deprived of food, beaten, forced to perform sexual acts against their will, gang-raped until fainting, their horrible suffering gives witness to the existence of dark powers still yet encircling that country, that region and our globe.

A world caught in the gaping maw of those and similar malevolent powers was and is screaming for righteous judgement.  For restorative justice.  For a cosmic reckoning.  “How long, oh, Lord, before heaven comes rolling down like thunder.  How long!?”

I’ll stop now.  Sorry for the shocking language but examples like this could be multiplied exponentially ad-nauseam.  Perhaps with these and many others in mind we might reread the Judgements of Revelation in a somewhat different light.


But why does God allow this great suffering?  That’s the next and hardest question, isn’t it?  Especially for a Monotheist like me.  It’s a legitimate question.  And requires a long, straightforward answer.  But let me humbly defer for now by saying:

If this life, a life lived desperately by so many, is the only life there is, then there is no justice.  And no God worthy of our love.

I simply can’t believe such a horrible thing.  Can you?  No.  A great and terrible reckoning must be in our future. 10 Rev 11:18 (NRSV) The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth.

But also restorative beauty, goodness and love.


Which brings us back to the Garden-City.  The most important part of living in the Garden is seeing, walking, talking with our God.  That’s the longed-for future.  For all who believe.

Although many naturalists yearn for it, there will not be a return to Eden.  The human couple began in a garden paradise, but the final scene is that of an enfoliated, fruitful city, and the unencumbered embrace of a very large family, from every tribe and nation. 11 Rev. 21-22, but there should be plenty wide open spaces inside & outside of the city!

Oh happy day.


The first reading at Susan’s funeral mass was from another puzzling book. It too deals with evil. The book of Job.  A book about great suffering but unlike Revelation, the problem of evil remained unresolved.  And yet, yet, incomprehensibly12 If you know the story of Job you know what I mean., Job, a man who suffered much, could say:

“But as for me, I know that my Vindicator lives, 
and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust;
Whom I myself shall see: my own eyes,
not another’s, shall behold him;
And from my flesh I shall see God;
my inmost being is consumed with longing.”

At the end of her mass, I finished my Eulogy with…

“Sleep for a season sweetie.  I can’t wait to walk hand in hand with you into the light and life giving presence of our God.  My inmost being is consumed with longing.”


“You believe in those gardens don’t you sweetie.”  “Yes”, she said, “I believe.”


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Death, Then What?

Susan at Jenny Lake, Grand Tetons – Sept, 2012


Most people believe in an afterlife.  In human history only a very small minority have believed that this life is all there is, the whole shebang.  

For the rest of us, ideas about this future state vary widely.   It might surprise you to know that only a minority of Christians today have ideas about the afterlife that most early Christians would recognize.  

As you might imagine, in the last several years, Susan and I have given more than a little thought to questions about the afterlife.  Cancer focuses the mind that way.  It drove me to dig deep into the traditions that we hold dear.  That give meaning to our lives.  The Faith that sustains us.  What wisdom about death and life after death would we find there?

I intend to write a series of posts about what I found.  My hope is to encourage you to think deeply about these questions.  For death comes to us all.


Of course peering into the future is of necessity looking through a dark glass, to use an old biblical image.  But this doesn’t mean we can say nothing about the matter.  We’ve been given signposts, maps even, to guide our way.  Signposts don’t tell us everything but they tell us something.  Maps are very useful in pointing the way and giving the general lay of the land.  But the map maker can’t document every detail.  Those details await our arrival.  My tradition teaches me that once upon a time the Master Map Maker sent us His right hand guy, the guy who had overseen the entire map making process. That guy was sent to show us how and where to walk. “Follow me,” He said.  “Live like me.”  But here’s the hard part, “die like me.”  That was very confusing and unpopular at the time.  Still is. Expectations were shattered.  “You are suppose to show us how to live, how to overcome life’s obstacles along the way, obstacles like these nasty Romans, not die!”  Everyone doubted.  “This can’t be the way. Following a crucified Jew!”  But then came the really surprising part, “live again like me.”  That’s when everything changed.  The worlds largest and most influential map reading family, warts and all, was and is the result.