Ask an Atheist Ex-Pastor – What about Me and Grandma in Heaven?

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our first “Ask an Atheist Ex-Pastor” column. “Dave” will answer religion questions you always wanted the answers to, but were afraid to ask (like mine below), Even better, Dave will give you straight answers you never got when you did ask your pastor.  Dave’s sensitive and serious answer to my question meant a lot to me, even though I no longer believe. Email your questions to Dave at askanexpastor [at] gmail [dot] com. An archive of the columns will appear in the Ask an Atheist Ex-Pastortab above. 

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Question

Dear Dave,

I’ll start off your column with something I wondered about for years when I was still religious, but never asked.

I like the idea of heaven, in part because of everlasting life and in part for the opportunity to see loved ones again, particularly my kind and cheerful maternal grandmother who died when I was just 15.   So here’s the question I would have asked back then:

What’s it like when you meet a loved one in heaven and you are now older than they were when they died?  For instance, my grandmother died in her 60’s, but if I don’t die until I’m in my 90’s, then I’ll be older than my own grandmother when I meet her in heaven.  Plus, she’ll presumably be hanging out with her grandmother, whom I never knew.  What will my relationship be like with them?

I know this is a kid’s question, but it stayed with me into adulthood, and a major feature of heaven has always been being reunited with loved ones.  So I wonder how you would have answered a question like this while you were a pastor and how you would answer it now.

Dave’s Answer:

First of all, Linda, there is no need to apologize for raising a question a child might ask.  The notions we wrestle with as children are often the most basic and fundamental issues of life and should not be ignored just because we are adults.   The initial idea of heaven is a source of great comfort no matter how old we are.  Won’t it be wonderful to be reunited with old family and friends (and for some people, pets) for eternity?  The question you’ve asked about the respective chronological ages of you and your grandmother is a natural outcome of thinking of heaven.

If you had asked me at the time I was a pastor, I would have fallen back on the notion that heaven is a mystery.  We know little beyond the idea that we will be with Jesus forever.   As for the details of how old everyone will be, we won’t know until we get there.  End of answer.  Today your question is similar to the many issues which led me to conclude that we humans have tried to ward off death by eliminating it in our minds.  Belief in life after life has been a powerful antidote to the terror many feel at the very thought of death as extinction.

Post-mortem pie in the sky is the delicious hope of every Christian.  When I was a pastor I was convinced that I was immortal.  I had accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior and he had gone ahead to prepare a room for me in a place where the only tears would be tears of joy.   I used to find great joy in conducting funerals because I felt I was offering hope for despair, comfort for bereavement.   I began every funeral with the alleged words of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he died, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:26)

But as I began to question the tenets of my faith, I admitted that heaven, not to mention the concomitant destination of hell, is a very imprecise place.  Where is it?  Who goes there?  Who will we meet?   I also started to wonder if I really wanted to spend eternity with family and fellow Christians.  Frankly, I decided that I would relish the bonhomie of gregarious, albeit imperfect, sinners.  In the maxim attributed to Mark Twain, “heaven for the climate, hell for the company.”

Even when I was a pastor, I used to laugh at how certain Christian denominations are convinced that THEY are the ones going to heaven and the rest of the alleged believers most definitely are not.  I don’t laugh anymore.  I just shake my head at the absurdity of it all.  So if we are religious, we may be sad at the idea that there is no heaven: no eternity to spend with our loved ones.   But what does it say about us if we are prepared to believe something because it bring us comfort even when we know in our heart and mind that it isn’t true?  Besides that, the fact that we’re going to die is good news because it means that we lived; that we were lucky enough to have existed at all.  And that, if nothing else, should urge us to savor every day as the most amazing gift of all.

 

Photo credit - Question marks — Image by © Gregor Schuster/zefa/Corbis photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/ccsd/6217427569/”>ccsdteacher</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>

 

About Linda LaScola

Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013) and “Preachers who are not Believers” (2010). She is an independent qualitative research consultant who works out of Washington, D.C. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and is a co-founder of the Clergy Project.

  • http://ripplingbrainwaves.blogspot.com/ Gideon

    Reminds me of when I seriously wondered about replacement heavenly bodies, without the imperfections before death. Did that mean someone who was blind from birth would see in heaven? Or the deaf hear? Or if they had any number of cognitive handicaps, then in heaven they would have clearer thoughts?

    But I couldn’t decide where the dividing line was. What kind of body is considered “heavenly”, and to what degree is that standard incredibly dismissive of so many actual human bodies on earth? Is there a perfect body height and weight? Complexion? Age? And if someone’s physiology is so deeply intertwined with their personality (that’s why psychiatric drugs work), then at what point is the heavenly body an erasure of someone’s self-identity? This is without even delving into the question of whether a perfect heavenly body will be gendered, and if so which one…

    • Linda_LaScola

      Gets complicated, doesn’t it? I do know of handicapped or chronically ill people who expect to be “made whole” after death.

  • ctcss

    It’s interesting how every theology (and non-theology) has their own particular take on the big question of what happens after death. Atheism, being largely focused on matter, makes the assumption that since life is formed using, and is dependent on, matter, once death occurs, one ceases to exist, since one’s existence depends entirely on the functioning of one’s material body.

    Mainstream Christianity has a different take, of course. Most Christians assume that they live in a material body, but that they also have an immaterial (and immortal) soul. After the body has ceased to function, they believe that their soul will be judged at some point and that it will either end up in heaven or in hell for all eternity, co-existing with others of the same judgment class, depending on what they did during life. (If I have this wrong, I apologize, since I wasn’t raised with this kind of belief.)

    However, if Linda had asked me as a Sunday School teacher, I would have offered her a rather different answer. The theology I was taught does not have a heaven or a hell as physical places. Rather, they are states of consciousness. Similarly, death is not a finish line, nor is it a state of being. It is simply a misconception regarding God and God’s image and likeness, man. Since God, being Life itself, cannot express His nature through death, man cannot be an expression of God and also entertain the notion of, or be an expression of, death. God’s man, like God, has to be eternal. Likewise, since God is Spirit, God’s man has to be spiritual. Human, material existence then, is simply an ignorance of who and what we are as images of God’s being.

    So the seeming experience called death does not place a person in heaven or in hell, any more than walking into and then out of a school building makes a person a graduate of that school. In order to benefit from school, one must actually replace one’s current ignorance with the knowledge and understanding obtainable through learning. Without undergoing that needful change, one cannot graduate. Similarly, merely experiencing death doesn’t change a person’s understanding of who and what they actually are as God’s expression. Therefore, the death of Linda’s grandmother actually wouldn’t change anything about her experience unless and until she continued to grow in her understanding of her true nature as God’s child. And since growing in one’s understanding can occur at any time, both Linda and her grandmother, even though they are no longer aware of each other’s existence, can both continue to grow in their individual understanding of God and God’s kingdom right where each of them currently is. Basically, both the dream of human material life, as well as the dream of death must be put off.

    So the question of what will Linda’s grandmother look like in heaven is actually a non-starter where I come from. A more relevant question would be, what kind of thinking/consciousness is necessary in order to grasp/comprehend God’s nature and God’s kingdom? And is it likely that this improved consciousness will be obtained in an instant (such as, right after death), or is it far more likely to be an ongoing process where, bit by bit, the old man is put off for the new man, as we willingly start to let go of the old, limited, and familiar because we are growing past it? (If God lives in eternity, is it likely that He will suddenly switch tracks to a limited and temporal human outlook when making a decision as to how to help someone improve? Is it not more likely that He would take the larger, less hobbled, more expansive, and more generous, patient, and loving view?) Paul points out that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven. Jesus pointed out the need for a person to be perfect, even as God is perfect. Matter, mortality, and limitation are not the basis for such perfection. So cherishing matter or mortality of any sort won’t get us where we need to be. It’s only by cherishing that which is God-like that will take us forward. As Jesus notes, “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

    To me (as a believer), the big mistake people have regarding God and God’s kingdom/creation is that they keep thinking of these things in limited, human terms. Since God, Spirit is infinite and eternal, and His kingdom is infinite, eternal, and spiritual, the limited human outlook cannot conceptually grasp what this is all about. So it is only by putting off the human view of things that one can begin to start grasping the divine. And the neat thing about that is (at least as I see it), that only that which lacks eternal value will be discarded. And this process of discarding the valueless happens willingly. In fact, the only way it can happen successfully is for a person to willingly allow it. (A coerced heavenly existence would actually be hell for someone not ready for it.) All that is perfect and harmonious and valuable will be retained. So whatever wonderful qualities Linda remembers about her grandmother will still be there, but perceived more clearly. (No longer “through a glass, darkly”.) Similarly, whatever qualities of Linda that are worthy of eternity will also still be there. And both will find themselves more fully reflecting God’s nature. So basically, Linda and her grandmother will recognize each other, not by physical appearance (since the kingdom of heaven is not material at all), but by the unique qualities they each express.

    In essence, the kingdom of heaven is the consciousness of creation as God knows it, and has always known it. And, as Jesus pointed out, that knowledge is (conceptually) available to us here and now because the kingdom of heaven is within us. Death doesn’t get us there. Being at one with God (in harmony with God, aware of God and His kingdom) does. (A non-trivial task, to be sure.)

    I don’t know how Linda would have taken this explanation, but I hope it would have helped answer some questions for her.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Thanks, Ctcss – I admit it’s hard for me to understand this as an adult and so I think it would have been even harder to grasp as a child.

      • ctcss

        Well, I did write that for an adult, even if I didn’t do it perfectly. And if I were talking to a child (of whatever age), I would try to help them grasp the basics of it, rather than just leaving them puzzled or confused. The whole point of teaching is to help someone understand a subject well enough that they can learn to reason through it themselves. But all of this all takes time and effort, both for a teacher and for a student.

        If one swallow does not make a summer, then one blog response does not make for an entire course of instruction! :)

        • Pofarmer

          I think the main question is, how much stuff with no basis in reality are you actually willing to believe?

    • http://richardzanesmith.wordpress.com/ Sohahiyoh

      ctcss , interesting , and seems very Gnostic. the body as something temporal to shed away like a dry snakeskin to allow a spirit essence to survive it…but its of course simply theory that can only be believed or not believed. ..so its of course a faith issue.

  • knowdoubt

    After eternally not existing, we become alive. That is absurd on the face of it. And true. To become alive after death is less unbelievable to me. Life itself is nothing if not unbelievable. Yet, here we are. And it is complicated. Every time we peel back a layer to discover the simple processes involved in anything, we find something so bizarre that it boggles the imagination.

    A second thought, ex-pastor Dave mentions the exclusive nature of life, that it comes once and that we should be grateful that we are offered that much, reminds me of the comment by Ravi Zacharias about the exclusive nature of salvation. People are offended that God would only offer one way to heaven, but we should be grateful that he offered a way at all. If that is true, then it is the most important thing we can imagine.

    Answers about age and relationships in heaven can be speculated about, but the important question of a creator God is first. If you can’t believe in a being beyond time and space, a heavenly location beyond time and space seems less believable.


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