eternity

Tell Me About Eternity: A Reflection on Mothers, Death, and God’s Love

kuruneko / Shutterstock.com
kuruneko / Shutterstock.com

“So, tell me about eternity …”

“Eternity?!?” I thought to myself. “I’m just beginning to learn about the present! Eternity is mystery.”

As a pastor, I’ve been trained to not answer those kinds of questions. It’s best to invite others to explore and answer their own questions, as opposed to giving our answers. But for some reason that felt inauthentic in the moment. Sometimes providing answers is the most compassionate thing we can do. But, in the face of eternity, who has answers?

Hell and the Love of God

Illustration by Ken Davis

I GREW UP IN THE BAPTIST CHURCH, memorizing scripture as part of our “sword drills” and arming myself with the necessary tools to convert my friends to the side of righteousness. I was taught that the Earth was 5,000 years old, that scientists fabricated the fossil record to fit their agenda, and that some people—really, most people—were going to hell.

I remember waking up, shaking in my bed from dreams of the hungry flames of hell licking at my heels. My daily decisions were increasingly governed by fear and guilt rather than by love or a sense of what was right.

Where do our contemporary ideas about hell come from? First, we have to consider what it is we’re talking about when we say “hell.” Is it effectively the same as the annihilation of the soul, when one ceases to exist, even in the spiritual sense? Is it less physical and more of a conscious torment, where we, bound by our sins, spend eternity aware only of our irreconcilable separation from God?

Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller says, “If the religious fundamentalists are right, heaven will be hell. And almost nobody will be there.” Rob Bell, best known for his bestselling book Love Wins, stirred up a tidal wave of controversy not so much for suggesting there wasn’t a hell, but for suggesting a loving God would ensure that such a place would sit empty.

IN THE OLD TESTAMENT, the word “hell” appears 31 times. The phrase “the grave” is used 31 times, and “the pit” comes in at a distant third with three appearances. But all 65 instances of these words throughout the first 39 books of the Bible come from the same Hebrew word, Sheol.

In the Jewish tradition, Sheol is a resting place for the dead. While some believe this is the same as hell, there are indications to the contrary. In the ancient Jewish tradition, Sheol is a place of rest for both righteous and wicked, with no distinction.

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'God is Good. God is Great. Hope is Eternal:' Lessons in Life and Dying

Phil Haslanger (l), and his friend Mike. Photo courtesy Phil Haslanger
Phil Haslanger (l), and his friend Mike. Photo courtesy Phil Haslanger

My friend Mike died last week.

We were the same age. We grew up together in Marinette in northeast Wisconsin. Worked our way through Boy Scouts together. Played at each other’s houses. Studied in the same classrooms. And then, over time, we drifted apart. Until this past year. That’s when I learned that Mike was dying of cancer.

In less than 12 months, we re-established a friendship and Mike and his wife, Nancy, taught me amazing lessons about living with the prospect of dying.

In our initial contacts, Nancy wrote of Mike: 

“He is doing well with his treatments. I am amazed, each day, how well he handles this journey we are on. Never once have we asked ‘why us?’ We feel so blessed that we have each day to love each other and enjoy our retirement one day at a time. Not everyone is so lucky to have a long goodbye with the one they love.“

Uncertainty's Graces

JUST A FEW dozen pages into Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I've Crossed, evangelical pastor Jay Bakker pens what may be the best explanation for the Christian emphasis on church community that I've ever encountered. Noting that doubt can be "hard and scary," Bakker writes: "That's why we have one another, why we have community. We can go through those days of doubt together. I wouldn't be who I am today if it weren't for the people who have been there with me as I question everything."

Many writers have grappled with the challenge that doubt poses for religious believers. But in this honest, searching, and ultimately uplifting book, Bakker pulls doubt out of the shadows where many believers wrestle with it on their own and instead presents it as a reality that Christian communities can and should address together.

Bakker's approach to the often-taboo topic of questioning—or, as he puts it, "the sense that faith is crap, life is meaningless, there is no God, the Bible is a fraud, Jesus was just a charismatic man turned mythological figure if he existed at all"—is shaped by his childhood in a Pentecostal environment that left no room for doubt. As Bakker ruefully notes in the book's introduction, "I will probably be 80 years old and still introduced as Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye." That unusual background only provides the impetus, however, and not the substance for this book, which reads mostly as the stream-of-consciousness meditation of a man pushing and pulling at his faith to see if it holds up.

The beliefs that pull Bakker up short, that cause him to question what he's always been taught about his faith, aren't that different from what many of us are told in our own religious communities. Our membership is often contingent on accepting a certain concept of God, a certain idea of eternity and where people get to spend it, a certain understanding of the Bible. Above all, many communities demand certainty.

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