The Vanity of “Hoping to Goodness”

Reprinted with permission from As I See It, which is available free by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com

Recently, we purchased several dozen books from a used bookstore, and were given a “freebie” book as part of the transaction. That book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, published in 2003, was by Mitch Albom, whose earlier volume Tuesdays with Morrie, we read and reviewed in As I See It 4:3. Since that earlier work was well-written, and not without some merits, and this present volume was less than 200 pages, we decided to give it a read.

Unlike the former book, which was a factual account of the physical wasting away and death of one of Albom’s college professors, this current one, though also focusing on the issue of death, but especially the afterlife, was an entirely fictitious account. The story focuses on the death of an ordinary man, one Eddie, whose life outwardly amounted to little more than being a maintenance man at a small amusement park, a life unfulfilling and frustratingly wasted doing the menial. As the story goes, after death, this man goes through a series of encounters with five different people whose lives had deeply impacted his or whose lives had been deeply impacted by him. These encounters allow him to sort through his own frustrations especially with life-altering circumstances he didn’t cause and couldn’t control, and the unanswered “whys” of his life, so that he can be at peace with himself—this process and outcome being the very purpose of the afterlife. “And they lived happily ever after.”

All nice and neat except….

The book is written from a faulty perspective. In the dedication, the author mentions an uncle,

who gave me my first concept of heaven. Every year, around the Thanksgiving table, he spoke of a night in the hospital when he awoke to see the souls of his departed loved ones sitting on the edge of the bed waiting for him. I never forgot that story.

A rather subjective premise. But it gets worse.

Everyone has an idea of heaven, as do most religions, and they should all be respected.

One subjective opinion is just as good as another, so we are to believe. And every religion’s view of eternity is just as good as any other. Really? In Hinduism, you merely get recycled back into earthly life over and over again, until you reach a state of eternal unconsciousness. In Islam, assuming you murder yourself and others in the name of Allah—and pretend that you are thereby a “martyr”—you get to spend eternity gratifying your physical passions with abandon. In Catholicism, there is a corrective and purgative period of unspecified length of punishment before the state of bliss is attained. In Mormonism, you can become a god, with your own universe to tinker and toy with. According to the claims of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Adventism, most people face annihilation and complete cessation of existence, something atheists claim—and hope—is true of everyone. Other religions have various and sundry views. With so many diverse and inherently contradictory views, they cannot all be right, and indeed, at most, only one can be true and all others false.

Eternity, the life after this life, is a concern, even a pre-occupation of mankind. God has “placed eternity in our hearts” (Ecc. 3:11) and it is an enigma man wishes to resolve. But how shall we discover what is to come? Shakespeare placed in the mouth of Hamlet this anxiety and doubt about the hereafter in his famous soliloquy:

The dread of something after death—the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns—puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of. (Act II, scene i, ll. 86ff)

None have come back from the “great beyond” to authoritatively tell us what lies ahead (supposed after-death or near-death experiences not withstanding). Is there joy? or judgment? or simply nothing? Some people respond to a fear of judgment to come by denying any conscious existence after this life. Others imagine a temporary period of judgment, suffering and retribution before the joys of heaven are experienced. Others posit a blessed eternity for everybody (universalism) regardless of lifestyle, sins, or evil conduct.

With so many diverse, divergent and inherently contradictory views of the afterlife, as we noted, at most only one of them can be correct, and all others must be wrong, merely false hopes. And it is insanely irrational subjectivity to suppose that one can imagine whatever kind of eternity he wants and it will magically turn out to be true.

But how shall we choose which? How shall we know which is the truth, and which are false? Can we indeed know? If God has in fact created us, and has placed a yearning for eternity in our hearts, it would be reasonable to suppose that God would reveal to us in some way and to some degree what eternity will be like, and how we might attain to an eternal existence of the best sort.

Paul the apostle, in quoting from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, notes man’s inherent inability to discern, unaided by God, what lies beyond this life—”

What no eye has seen and no ear has heard, and what has never come into man’s heart, is what God has prepared for those who love Him. (1 Cor. 2:9 HCSB quoting Isa. 64:4)

But, Paul notably continues (v. 10).

But, God has revealed them to us by the Spirit. (emphasis added)

The foundational premise, the most basic teaching of the Bible, is that God has indeed revealed Himself, His actions, His requirements and His plans to mankind (Deuteronomy 5:24), and that that revelation is accurately written down and recorded in the Bible (2 Peter 1:20, 21; 2 Timothy 3:16-17), including information about eternity, and the destinies of men. And in truth, if God has not revealed Himself to us, then we do indeed walk in darkness in this life and pass unprepared to a greater, deeper darkness beyond.

The Biblical account of eternity, of heaven, unlike Albom’s (and those of Mormonism, Islam and others) is centered on God, not man (among many texts, see Revelation 21, 22). God the Creator, the Sustainer, the Redeemer is the focus, not the fulfillment of human pride or the gratification of human lust. The Bible clearly presents but two eternal destinies for people—one of pure justice and retribution for evils done in this life, when people will be given by a just and holy God exactly what they deserve (see, inter alia, Revelation 20:11-15). As sinful humans, we are more than inclined to minimize our transgressions and our guilt; a God of perfect knowledge and justice, in stark contrast, sees us exactly as we are. And such evil and such sins cannot be minimized or ignored by God—His character will not allow it. Nor, even, can they be forgiven without satisfying God’s justice, and corresponding repentance on the sinner’s part.

In the hours before Jesus’ departure from this life through His sacrificial death on the cross, the puzzled disciples through their spokesman Peter asked, “Lord where are you going?” (John 13:36). Though Jesus explained to them that He was going away to prepare an eternal place for them, and would return to bring them to Himself, they in their continued bewilderment stated—this time it was Thomas who spoke up—“Lord, we don’t know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). With crystal clarity, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). There is a conscious eternity, and the hope—a guaranteed promise, really—of being in the presence of God. It is secured for us by the death of Jesus on the cross, a sacrificial death when He, Who in fact committed no sin and bore no personal guilt, offered Himself as the sinner’s substitute, to satisfy God’s justice, and to make possible the sinner’s forgiveness.

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, He who was righteous, for those who were unrighteous, that He might bring you to God. (1 Pet. 3:18)

Though Christ in His death has earned a place in heaven for every sinner, the enjoyment of this blessed privilege is not automatic, but becomes the individual’s eternal inheritance through personal acceptance of responsibility for sin, and turning away from that sin and casting oneself on Jesus as his only hope.

We have put our hope in the living God who is the Savior [potentially] of everyone, especially [i.e., actually] of those who believe. (1 Tim. 4:10)

Salvation from sin, and eternal joy, are free for the taking, but you must personally abandon yourself to God and embrace this salvation in order to have it.

So then, we need not face eternity with nothing more to hang onto than our own imaginings, or those of others. It is possible to know what to expect, and how to prepare for the eternity that we will all someday, individually enter.

Albom confesses, “The version [of heaven] represented here is only a guess, a wish, in some ways.”

Eternity is too long to enter it with no more than a guess and wishful thinking, especially if it is possible to know with certainty what lies beyond this life, and how to assure that it is a blessed “forever.”

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Steve Newman's picture

I was recently leading a Bible study in the local jail. One of the prisoners there was a subscriber to similar thinking and was under the impression that all you have to do to make it to heaven is to "walk toward the light" at the time of your death. I give that example to illustrate what kinds of ideas people are using to decide their eternity instead of "the way, the truth, and the life."

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