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-Pastor tab above.
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.
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.
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