When we die…

February 25, 2010

The topic of death, heaven, and the resurrection often comes up in our house, because of my daughter’s recent obsession with death and afterlife. My mom came to visit us yesterday, like she does every week, and the conversation was steered by Isabel. She asked, “Grandma, are you going to die?” which we generally respond to with “Probably not today.” Isabel said she wouldn’t be sad because she could still talk to her. My cheeky daughter. Then Grandma corrected her, “Well, I’ll be able to see you, but not hear you. When I want to talk to my mom, your great-grandma, I just ask God to give her a hug for me.”

There’s a very weird difference here between the Catholic and Protestant positions, and I’d venture to say the Protestant one is defined by an effort to be not Catholic. We have taught Isabel that when you die, if you want to (essentially true), you go to heaven and be with God. You can then see people on Earth and they can talk to you even though you can’t talk back (normally). In heaven, you can talk to God and ask Him to help people on Earth, and they’ll see you when they die, and then God brings us all back to life later. There’s a new heaven and a new Earth. We will walk with God and will be as He created us to be, glorified and one with Him in Christ. We usually leave out that last bit for Isabel.

I can’t explain very well the Protestant, non-denominational, Bible-only derived version of the afterlife held by my family. Part of it is I never had a very good grip on what they believed when I was growing up. The resurrection was an afterthought and heaven was our final goal. I think that it goes something like this: when you die, you go to Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:19-26) and become one of the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). There, they believe you can see things, hence the witnessing part, but you are “asleep in the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:13,14). Essentially, here, you are not in heaven, you cannot pray to God, and you cannot hear others talking to you. But God can give you hugs. Judgment Day comes and those deemed “saved” will be resurrected and go to heaven in their resurrected bodies. Those not saved will go to hell. I’m not sure if they get bodies, but I think they don’t. My brother very adamantly was defending this view when we told Isabel that death comes first, then heaven, then resurrection. He insisted that death comes first, then resurrection, then heaven. I don’t think he realizes the idea that we are all resurrected and then go to heaven kind of ignores the new Earth (Rev 21:1).

There are so many reasons this view is self-contradictory, I don’t know where to start. First of all, I don’t know why Abraham’s bosom is considered separate from heaven, especially since there exists an obvious corollary to Abraham’s bosom for the condemned. They don’t believe in an individual judgment and a general judgment later, but then I don’t know how they avoid that God decides some go to Abraham’s bosom, and others to… not Abraham’s bosom, where there is fire and agony. Kind of sounds like hell. If it is not an individual judgment that decides this, then what is it?

They acknowledge that the dead form a cloud of witnesses and combine that fact with the idea that those who have died have “fallen asleep in Christ” to make it sound like we enter some kind of spiritual state of paralysis. We can see, but not function in any spiritual way. Maybe it didn’t occur to them that falling asleep only referred to our physical selves. Here, I think the only reason they believe the dead can’t hear the living and can’t talk to God when we’re “asleep” is to avoid Christians asking those who have died to pray for us to God. It’s a move motivated only to distance themselves from Catholic practices that are deemed idolatrous. But there’s nothing idolatrous about it, since we’re not worshiping those we ask to pray for us. It’s Biblical, and there is no Biblical or logical reason to demand the cloud of witnesses can’t hear and pray.

Likewise, my mom seems to want to allow for the dead who are in Abraham’s bosom to be able to see God such that He can communicate with them and give them hugs, but not that they are in heaven or that they can ask Him for things for those on Earth. The only reason I can see for this is she is making an effort to be consistent with the Biblical testimony that we are comforted by God in Abraham’s bosom, but again maintain separation from Catholic teachings. I’m not sure what heaven is if it is not being in the presence of God. It makes absolutely no sense to say that someone who is in heaven, in the presence of God, and is able to witness what goes on on this Earth, is unable to ask God to help us.

Both of my parents are very respectful of whatever way Chris and I decide to raise the kids. My mom wouldn’t knowingly contradict what we teach them. At least I don’t think she would. So I will have to at some point sit down with her and explain our views on these, and probably other, matters. It’s uncomfortable for a couple reasons. Firstly, I’ll be revealing more of my Catholicity. Also, my mom isn’t very easy to talk to about things that displease her, and she has a tendency to get very defensive when “corrected” about the kids. But I’ll bite the bullet, and soon, so that poor Isabel won’t get a wonky and confused version of reality, especially since this topic means so much to her right now.