As a pastor, I've been dealing with a lot of death lately. It seems like one of those things that comes in bunches. And understandably, when death comes, people start asking lots of questions.
The conversation I have most frequently is with people wanting certainty regarding death, which makes sense as uncertainty is the foundation for fear. Everyone wants to make sure that they have their top priority for the afterlife locked in. They want to make sure they've got their reservations right... (double Queen, pet-friendly, jacuzzi suite please). And the concern I hear could be most easily summarized as this:
"The most important thing for me in the afterlife is to be in heaven with God and not in hell."
(Now sometime, I might get into my theology regarding heaven and hell, what I believe Jesus was trying to communicate, and issues such as whether people will literally be on fire for the rest of eternity. But right now, I just want to think about what's going on inside of us as we seek such resolution.)
I've rarely met people who truly desire to live life with God in the present who are concerned about what's going to happen when they die. The concern comes when people realize that God isn't very high on the priority list in this life.
Which makes me ask...
Why is it that our highest priority after we die is to live with God, but it's not often the highest priority before we die, when we are living?
Is our desire really for life with God? or against an unpleasant alternative?
Do people really only desire heaven (and life with God) in the afterlife due to a lack of better options?
If there was a third option, would people choose it? Heaven, hell, or the land in between, like earth is now where God's goodness is only partially seen?
And if we're only choosing heaven for lack of better options, is that really choosing heaven?
And the church encourages this strange thinking. For anyone to suggest that hell is not a great big ball of fire, that burns people for all of eternity, many in the church throw out this protest, "Stop! If you water down hell, you'll lead people away from heaven!"
Here I have to take a stand. I believe that God and his goodness is worth pursuing. Not because it's better than the only other alternative, but because IT IS GOOD!
If there was no hell, heaven would still be worth pursuing!
Even with other choices in life, heaven is still worth pursuing!
And that, it seems, is what makes up belief in God. Not that we believe he is powerful enough to save us from the flames, but that he is GOOD ENOUGH to PURSUE, even given an infinite number of other options.
A true desire for the heaven (and life with God) of the afterlife will be accompanied by a desire for the heaven (and life with God) in the present life...
...not just choosing heaven for lack of better options.