My dad died April 1st, 1996, almost twenty-five years ago. His theology prohibited choosing the day of death, but if he could have chosen, it would have been April Fools’ Day. It fitted his humor. His gravestone is in a local cemetery, and my mom tends the plot on Easter and Memorial Day.
Last year, as my mom tidied the grass and planted flowers, a seven-year-old boy and his grandmother approached. The boy asked my mom what she was doing. My mom answered,
This is the grave of my husband. He died many years ago. His body is buried here, and I like to plant flowers in his memory. But his soul isn’t here.
After he died, his soul went to heaven.
The young boy stared at my mom for a few heartbeats and barked,
Or to hell!
My father was a pastor. In one of his churches he had an elder, named Russell Hitt, who was editor of a Christian magazine named Eternity. I once asked why they named it Eternity, why not something more relevant like the famous magazine Christianity Today? Hitt said:
Our human nature always thinks today is more important than yesterday or tomorrow. But Scripture constantly tells us our deepest life comes when we look backward (to the Exodus, crucifixion, resurrection) and forward to life of eternal joy with our beloved Father. Mortality is about today. Christianity is about eternity.
Our subconscious approach to time probably affects us more than any other belief of our hearts. If we believe “this week” was going to be our last days on earth, we wouldn’t worry about our upcoming Annual Review. Heck, we’d probably play hooky.
But if we thought this challenging year on earth was a drop in an ocean of eternal bliss, we would whistle while we work at a difficult job or in a terrible economy, viral pandemic, or if an opposing political power arose.
When I worked at my software company, I sweated too much in the office, I traveled too much, and each crisis seemed like the end of the world. Now, thirteen years later, I bet not one single former employee or client ever thinks back about those disasters or my work contribution.
It’s not that I shouldn’t have cared for employees and clients; of course we should care. It’s that those crises were not nearly as important as I thought; they had nothing to do with eternity. They have been forgotten.
People scorn the “pie in the sky” nature of Christianity and even more disdain any talk of hell. There are scores of writers today (like Rob Bell) who ignore the hundreds of verses about hell simply because it doesn’t fit with their modern doctrines of today. I haven’t heard a sermon on hell in twenty years.
But the idea of two different eternities has always been a crucial element of Christianity. Lewis wrote:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.
… It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.
We may not want to talk about hell, but if we forget to think about heaven, we do damage to our souls. God “has put eternity in our hearts” (Eccl. 3:11). We are in the middle of a story with foes and struggles and tension; it is only when we read the end of the book that we can finally lay down our fears and striving and control.
After that young boy said my father might have ended up in hell, his grandmother looked aghast and stammered an embarrassed apology. My mother smiled and said,
I’m so glad he’s got his theology right.