Summary: We know little about life after death, but we do know that heaven is not possessing things, that hell is about separation from God, and that the love of God will reach even to the most alienated.
We think that having things will make us happy. The truth is that happiness comes from sharing what you have with someone you love. Fulfillment is not measured by how much you have. Genuine fulfillment is measured by who you have it with. That is true in this life. I believe that is also true in the life to come.
Things in themselves don’t bring joy. It is having someone alongside, things or no things.
When Margaret and I first moved to Washington, we met two sharply contrasting families. Within a short time, we had been to each of their homes, and the differences were very obvious.
The first couple, not much older than we, had acquired many expensive things over only a few years. Their home was a show place, filled with prized possessions gathered from all over the world. Everywhere you looked there were rare books, fine pieces of art, beautiful objects which had been gathered with a collector’s eye. The house was almost like a museum, and when you went there, you felt as though you should speak in a whisper and take off your shoes. Since I am sort of a bull in a china shop, I jammed my hands firmly in my pockets, for fear of touching something and breaking it. And, since, at that time our children were very young, by the time the evening was over we were nervous wrecks, trying to keep the kids from damaging something it would have cost me a king’s ransom to replace.
But we did notice, in addition to all of the beautiful things in that home, something that was not so beautiful. We noticed a tension there. We heard an uneasiness in that family. That husband and that wife seemed edgy and restless. They spoke harshly to each other. They traded little barbed insults throughout the evening. Their children seemed nervous and anxious. We left that home with a discovery. What they had, materially, was wonderful; what they had in their relationship seemed pretty shabby.
Not long after that we were invited into another home, an older home. The couple there were almost the age of our parents, and had been around a long time. But it didn’t seem as though they had accumulated very much. The living room was sparsely furnished, and what there was had obviously been used a great deal. The dining room furniture was a jumble of different patterns, looking a bit like it had come from your friendly neighborhood yard sale. When I was served a cup of coffee, it was in a mug whose handle had long since broken off. Not exactly a museum piece.
But the clue to what life was really like in that home came when our little daughter, who was not quite five years old, got a bit restless, went exploring, as kids will do, and tipped over a little table that had been piled high with books and magazines. Margaret and I both jumped up to bring her back under control and pick up the mess, and of course we mumbled our apologies. But the gentleman of the house just laughed, gave our daughter a playful hug, and said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Some people have invested in fashionable “Early American” furniture. But we call ours “Early Orange Crate”!
As the evening went on, and laughter tumbled out of this husband and this wife and their teenage daughter, we made another discovery: that joy comes not from having things. Joy comes from sharing whatever you have with someone you love. We saw that fulfillment is not measured by how much you have. Genuine fulfillment is measured by who you have at your side.
That is true in this life. I believe that is also true in the life to come. And just as we head down a dead end when we worry about accumulating things here, we also get off on the wrong tangent when we think about what we’re going to get over there. Instead, both here and there, both now and then, we need to be thinking about who it is that we’ll share it with.
The Bible has a great deal to say about life after death. I do not intend to cover it all today. Don’t even expect that. This is a subject which is steeped in mystery. Obviously there is no one around who can give us an answer to everything we might like to know. Despite what you may have read standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, I very seriously doubt that there is anybody who has been to the other side and has climbed back over the fence to tell us about it. We just don’t know very much about what life after death will be like.