One subject generally perceived to divide Christians from non-Christians is that of heaven, and the notion of an afterlife. I would challenge this perception, and take the view that there is more common ground than might at first be realised.
Interestingly, belief in heaven and an afterlife is not universal amongst Christians. According to “A Theory of Us”, 13% of American Christians do not believe in an afterlife. In Britain, according to YouGov.co.uk, the number of professed Christians who definitely believe in an afterlife is just under 50%, and even fewer believe in heaven. We can either draw the conclusion that the church is littered with heretics or that the nature of this aspect of Christian faith is seriously misunderstood.
Traditional, orthodox faith does not assert that we have a soul destined automatically to go on to another life, but it does propound the concept of resurrection. I once contributed a chapter to a book called “God and Reality” whose editor challenged this idea, referring it to Lambeth Palace. I was gratified that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office backed me up!
Many pictures of heaven are a distortion of Christian belief. There are no detailed descriptions of heaven in the gospels; our final destiny is said to be “in God”, which is precisely how we should be living our whole lives. As Paul says, “We live and move and have our being in God”. Similarly, the kingdom of heaven/God is amongst us and within us; something to experience here and now, a desire expressed in the Lord’s Prayer.
The whole point of this teaching is to focus our attention on our present lives and to look for God and the goodness of heaven among us.
Many ministers, in the hope of bringing comfort to the dying and bereaved, will talk of being reunited with friends and family, and living a life of unending happiness. The obvious questions are put to one side: What would it be like to meet former acquaintances? What would an unending life be like? What age would we be? Would it not become increasingly perplexing and tedious? The difficulties arise from thinking that heaven represents the next chapter in our life whereas in fact it is the end; its completion and fulfilment. Death brings our life to an end and the very word “after” is therefore necessarily metaphorical.
Christians cannot escape these questions and in collaboration with their non-believing friends must work to ensure that goodness is enjoyed and celebrated now, and that people are enabled to live worthwhile and fulfilling lives surrounded by loving and supportive friends.