Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
This morning I wish to provide an overview of the Afterlife as Christians understand it. In this overview, I wish to focus on the four H’s (Heaven, Hell, Hades, and Hallmark) and how these four H’s tie together. I also wish to look at our common misunderstandings about each of these four H’s.
Let us begin by considering Heaven. A few years ago, a widely popular book called Heaven is For Real was published. Heaven is for Real tells the story of a 4 year old, Nebraska boy named Colton Burpo who on account of a ruptured appendix nearly dies. But where the story takes a really interesting turn is a few months after being released from the hospital, Colton began describing to his parents a visit he made to Heaven while in surgery even though he never actually died.
Colton described hovering outside his own body in the hospital watching his Mom talk on the phone, while witnessing his Dad praying and yelling at God for the turmoil he was going through. Colton described meeting his sister in heaven (whom he had never heard about it, having died in his mother’s womb). Colton then describes meeting his great-grandpa who has insights into his father that he couldn’t have possibly known before.
Colton claimed to have met biblical characters like Jesus’ cousin (John the Baptist) and the Archangel Gabriel who sat at the left hand of God the Father. Colton described meeting Jesus who still had the marks of crucifixion on his hands and feet. Colton described seeing all sorts of animals in heaven. Colton said that in Heaven that no one was old nor wore glasses.
A lot of the book consists of Colton’s Dad, a Wesleyan Minister, trying to reconcile Colton’s experiences of Heaven with what is taught in the scriptures. The Rev. Todd Burpo concludes that it all matches up in a way that no four year old child could have ever figured out on his own. A book like this that makes so many claims about the afterlife is worthy of reflection. What should be pointed out whenever someone claims to have gone to Heaven is that this is not exactly a new phenomenon.
In the 18th Century there was a man named Emanuel Swedenborg who claimed to have been given permission to freely travel back and forth to Heaven over 28 years. When Swedenborg returned from his journeys, much of what he claimed to have learned stood in direct contrast to Christianity. It would be easy to dismiss Swedenborg as a nut. Yet is should be noted that Swedenborg’s teaching about the afterlife influenced was well-received by some of the most influential people of his days such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson.
Within recent years, the International Association of Near Death Studies has documented over 900 incidents of similar experiences as portrayed in the book Heaven is For Real. These experiences have existed across a wide variety of faith traditions (Christian, Muslim, Mormon, Atheist, and Hindu). But what’s most interesting about all these near death experiences is they seem to correlate directly with one’s own faith tradition.
For example, Muslims describe being greeted by 70 Virgins, Hindus describe themselves as meeting Vishnu, Mormons get to meet Joseph Smith, Catholics get to meet the Virgin Mother, and when Colton Burpo returns from heaven, he describes Heaven as constantly placing an emphasis on the need to Ask Jesus into a Person’s Heart. Faith Language that never appears in the Bible yet is very prominent within his own family’s religious tradition.
Another thing worth noting is Heaven is For Real isn’t the first book within this genre. In 2004, A Baptist Minister named Don Piper, who unlike Colton Burpo was clinically dead for a period of time as a result of an auto accident, wrote a book entitled 90 Minutes In Heaven where he describes his own personal encounter in Heaven.
Yet when Don Piper describes his visit to Heaven it contradicts Colton Burpo in that he describes everyone in Heaven not being young, but rather looking the same way as when they died. When you have two contradictory visions of heaven between two people who I have no doubt are sincere in their faith it seems something else is probably at work here. Mainly the power of the Human Mind and the influence of American Folklore are at work in providing these understandings of Heaven.
The problem with these I’ve been to Heaven and back stories is they portray an incomplete understanding of the afterlife. Heaven isn’t really what most of us think that it is, and I’ll get back to that in a bit.
Now let’s look at the second H in Hell. The greatest misconception about Hell is when people think of Satan as the ruler of Hell. This idea isn’t Biblical rather it comes from the rich imagery of 17th Century author John Milton in his book Paradise Lost. For the book of 2nd Peter describes Fallen Angels being cast into Hell and then being thrown into chains. The Book of Revelation describes Satan’s Final Destination as being cast into the Lake of Fire after Christ’s Second Coming.
Now let’s move to the Third H. The less known H of Hades. Hades is a Greek translation of the Old Testament Word “Sheol”. Sheol was known as the Grave, The Pit, or the Abode of the Dead throughout the Old Testament. Sheol was the place of darkness where all the dead go whether Faithful or Unfaithful. Sheol or Hades was known as being the personification of death along with the grave evil that death represents. Death and Hades are considered the same throughout the Book of Revelation.
Today’s Gospel Lesson comes to us today from Luke the 16th Chapter. In today’s parable, Jesus is seeking to confront the beliefs of the religious leaders of his day, mainly their love of money. To describe the error of the religious leader’s ways, Jesus speaks of two characters. The first character is a Rich Man, the type of man who the religious leaders would have idealized on account of the great blessings that God had given him.
The second man was Lazarus a poor beggar that would have been seen as a result of his poverty someone who didn’t possess God’s favor. This parable describes both the Rich Man and Lazarus being taken away after death. The Rich Man and Lazarus are both brought to Hades. Within Hades or the Abode of the Dead or Sheol, the Rich Man is unable to escape suffering and torment. Where as Lazarus is brought into a separate location within Hades called Abraham’s Bosom where he is described as being comforted within death.
What makes Jesus description of Hades so odd is the Rich Man is described as being able to communicate with Lazarus within Hades. The Rich Man requests to Abraham that Lazarus communicate with his brothers so that they don’t end up like he has.
The last few weeks we have been studying the Parables of Jesus. The Parable of the Lost Sheep, The Parable of the Lost Coin, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, we’ve touched on the Parable of the Prodigal Son that surrounds this lesson. Jesus’ parables always use earthly metaphors within earthly contexts to convey spiritual meanings. Jesus parables use real places (vineyards) and real titles (Father, Son, Older Brother) to convey these spiritual messages.
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus isn’t a Parable because: A. It would be the only Parable that uses a real person’s name in Lazarus. B. Jesus is not conveying a new belief or symbolic belief about the afterlife only reinforcing a belief from the Old Testament that upon death that everyone went to Sheol or Hades.
Our lesson for today brings up something interesting about Christians and the Afterlife. The scriptures portray two realities of what happens to the believer after their death. These realities are often ignored by the majority of 21st century Christians who just tend to think of the soul being immortal. We must distinguish for today the afterlife as two separate realities. Both of which are often called “Heaven”.
The first state of the afterlife is “The immediate state of existence upon death” which is the place where our loved ones may currently reside, the place that is referred to as bliss, or paradise within the New Testament. The first reality of the afterlife is what too many people refer to as “heaven”. If Colton Burpo did die in Heaven is For Real it would have been what he experienced.
When Jesus encounters a Thief on the Cross as he prepared for his own crucifixion the famous words were spoken “Today, you shall be with me in Paradise”- Luke 23:43”. Jesus was promising a similar existence to the Thief on the Cross as was given unto Lazarus in today’s lesson, a place of blessing to await the final resurrection. Yet where Lazarus resides in Abraham’s Bosom does not paint a complete picture of the afterlife.
The 2nd and final reality of the afterlife, the New Heaven and the New Earth has a higher degree of scriptural emphasis placed upon it then any sort of intermediate state between death and resurrection. The New Earth has not yet been built, when people describe going to heaven in books and seeing streets paved with Gold and pearly gates. They are describing a place that according to the scriptures is not in existence.
One place where Jesus speaks of the preparation of heaven being made between the time of one’s death and the second coming occurs in John the 14th Chapter. Famous for being read at many funerals, the passage states “In My Father’s House are many rooms”. Consider the words from this passage that are often ignored verse 2 which states “And if I go to prepare a place for you, I WILL COME BACK for you to be with me that you also may be where I Am.”
When the Apostle Paul seeks to comfort the mourning Thessalonians in 1 Thessalonians the 4th Chapter, he doesn’t describe the recently deceased as currently with Christ. Paul rather describes them as the ones who will be raised first at the second coming. Yet the Apostle Paul proclaims to the Church in Galatia that it is better to depart and be with Christ, for to die is to gain. What happens between Death and Resurrection is a question that can’t be answered.
Yet I do believe that like Lazarus in today’s text that believers are in some known state of comfort. As we look at our text for today, I should say a few words about Purgatory and our Catholic friend’s belief in it. Purgatory is known as being the place of purification. The place of getting one ready to enter into a State of Grace by purifying one of the sins committed in this life. The time frames vary on purgatory on account of the nature of one’s sins. Prayers and Masses are held to lessen one’s time in Purgatory.
The issue that Lutherans have with purgatory isn’t that it’s not possible for their to be an intermediate state of existence between Death and Resurrection such as Hades, Abraham’s Bosom, Paradise, or Bliss. The real issue with Purgatory is how it relates to the Biblical witness. The Thief that Jesus told on the Cross would be with him on the next day in Paradise lived the type of life that if purgatory was a reality would deem that he spend time there. The problem with Purgatory is that it places additional debt unto God’s people, apart from the death of God’s own sin. The real issue with Purgatory is that minimizes the complete and total forgiveness won for us on the Cross at the expense of one’s ritual purification.
This brings us to the last of the Four H’s for today, the H of Hallmark. Hallmark is adopting beliefs about the afterlife because they sound nice. Hallmark is the place of Happy Endings where good people find true love, and bad people get what they deserve. Hallmark thoughts are attractive because Hallmark always gives the nicest sayings with the nicest stories. I wonder if we often don’t sell the afterlife short as strange as it might seem. We do this when we think of only the soul living on for eternity apart from the body. I think our initial thoughts about the afterlife or heaven is that such a place seems nice, to think in terms of someone playing Racquetball on a big court in the sky, an idealized version of this world with Silver Bay Falls, and Las Vegas Winters. Yet the problem with the soul living on apart from the body is that it leads one to believe that the afterlife is a lesser existence in any way, shape, or form.
When in reality the afterlife is beyond what we can imagine. The afterlife is beyond what can be expressed in a movie or on a greeting card, since we have never lived in an existence without sin, without pain, without death. We have never lived in an existence where at the very center of our being is the one gave us life, and eventually redeemed it on a cross. The afterlife is Jesus Christ is coming back, not so we can levitate outside our bodies, Christ is coming back to save the whole world, all of God’s creation. So, that it may finally be declared to be “good again” Amen
 Patton, Michael. “Book Review: Heaven is For Real”. Parchment and Pen Blog. Credo House Ministries. 6.Feb.2011. Web. Sept.23.2013
 Patton. “Book Review: Heaven is For Real”
 Patton. “Book Review: “Heaven is For Real”
 Patton. “Book Review: “Heaven is For Real”
 2 Peter 2:4
 Revelation 20:10
 Revelation 1:18, Revelation 6:8, Revelation 20:13-14
 Luke 16:22-23
 Luke 16:27
 Luke 16:27-28
 Revelation 21:1
 John 14:2
 John 14:3
 Philippians 1:21
 Luke 23:43
 Genesis 1:31