We are frequently contacted by clients upon the loss of a close friend, boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse with questions, or accusations concerning the role of religion in their loved-one’s death. The following are a few of the more common questions asked by believers and non-believers alike. These questions are usually generated by the realization that the faith world is somehow more real and more substantial than previously thought. We address these questions with grief counseling and a listening ear.
Street Youth and Death
Street youth have a closer relationship with death than most people their age. Death is only occasional, but certainly much more common than any mortality table would suggest. Last year, for example, we held memorial services for five clients who died in Austin. This year, so far, it has been four. We hear of many more deaths around the country of people we know, and many more of friends of friends. In addition, our clients’ photo albums on Facebook and Myspace clearly show they have lost a significant number of loved ones over the years.
"Is my friend asleep now or in heaven?" The Bible does use the word “sleeping” when talking about the dead, especially in the Old Testament and occasionally in the New Testament. However, I like to seek out the red letter words and see what Jesus says. For example, Jesus promised the repentant thief who died on the cross next to him that "this very day you will be in heaven.” Therefore, Jesus knew the man would not die or “sleep,” but go directly to heaven. The Bible also talks of two resurrections – an immediate spiritual resurrection in heaven, and then later, a bodily resurrection in connection with the end of time. This latter resurrection would consist of rebuilding a new heaven and earth, and restoring God with his people. With that said, I believe that someone who has a personal relationship with Jesus is immediately taken to heaven upon death, and that it's more magnificent than our imaginations could ever comprehend.
"How can you be a Christian and believe my friend went to hell? I hate you!" First, I don't know what happened to your friend. However, I do believe what the Bible says in terms of judgment. Although there are several views, I believe the one most compatible with your question is the one which describes Jesus as judge, and that all people come before Him for judgment. If that person's name is in the book of life (because they have a personal relationship with Jesus), then the process is over. That is, they are "in" no matter what they have done. However, if their name is not in the book, the person's life is judged by Jesus. Although the Bible doesn't say specifically how that judgment is carried out, we can assume that it incorporates what we understand to be real and true from the Bible. It considers what is in your heart, and the intentions behind your actions and deeds. If Jesus finds you lacking, the consequences are dire – you are cast into hell. At the end of the day, all judging is done by Jesus – not me, or any other Christian, and a Christian who tells you that your friend is in hell is overstepping anything that he, or she can know to be true.
"Does this life matter on earth or is heaven the only life that matters?" What a great question. Certainly heavenly life matters, and we can find that easily in several places in the Bible. Jesus tells us that our earthly treasures don't matter at all – only heavenly treasures (which I believe to be relationships with people). God showed that the end of life isn't as tragic as we consider it to be. We recoil from the slaying of Job's good and upright family, but somehow God sees their life as full and complete and ends their lives early. We can call it callous and cruel, but I think it’s all a matter of perspective. However, if heavenly life were all that were important, why would God have created anything good on earth? Why would He have given us enjoyment and pleasure? Why would He have given us relationships, spouses, children, friends to enjoy? I think life on this earth matters a great deal to God. I think He is revealed through the beauty of nature, the good relationships we have on earth, the pleasures in life, and more. The Bible says that great things are coming in a new heaven and a new earth. Some believe that nothing good will come until then. However, when I read the bible, I don't see that as being the only truth. “Goodness” is not just for the future, but it is happening right now! When people form personal relationships with Jesus, they begin the process of restoring a new heaven and new earth today. When people respond to God's love and follow the good rules He has given us by which to live our lives (Love God with all your heart, mind and soul. Love your neighbor as I have loved you.), the future kingdom becomes more and more about the present as well as the future. Yes, there will be a cataclysmic time as described by the Bible when the Kingdom is dramatically completed, but times can be good now, but only if we follow Jesus and act accordingly.