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Sermon - Life after death, heaven and hell

Monday 6th June, 2016 @ 12:45 pm

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Life after death, heaven and hell - Sermon preached by Rev Christopher Harrison at St Mary’s Church, Nottingham, on 5th June 2016

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus performs a miracle in which he brings a young man back to life. His divine powers and his great compassion have a massive impact on many people, who see him as a prophet. I am prompted by this passage to talk this morning about ultimate things – in particular matters of life, death, the soul, heaven and hell.

I remember once watching a programme on Channel 4 about a woman who had four distinct personalities. She could switch from one to another; it was as if she was four different people in the same body. It is well known that people can have multiple personalities – this is a phenomenon which is well-documented by psychologists. It is something, however, that raises important questions about who we really are, and of what our identity consists. Who is the real ‘me’? Following this programme, there was an article in The Times which argued that the existence of multiple personalities proved that the ‘soul’ does not exist. For which one of the four personalities of that woman would the ‘soul’ correspond to? The author of this article wrote with a sense of real triumph. He seemed to take great pride in his conclusion that he has disproved the existence of the soul.

If he is right, of course, there are profound implications for our Christian beliefs. If there is no soul, there is no life after death – at least as Christians believe in it. There is no heaven, no hell. Where does this leave us? This particular author is not the only one to have questioned traditional beliefs about who we are, and the idea of eternal life. Even some radical theologians have concluded that the idea of heaven and hell is just an ancient superstition.

What, then, are we to believe about heaven and hell? Should the possibility of going to hell affect our lives? Should we look forward to a life in heaven if we lead a good life?

Let’s return, first, to the idea of the soul. If there is no soul, then the idea of heaven and hell, of a personal life after death, would seem to fall. We have to admit that serious challenges to the idea of the soul have been made. Powerful arguments have also been put forward against the idea of a hidden and eternal realm to which we go when we die.

- On the question of the soul, some scientists argue that we are no more than a bundle of biological and chemical processes. Who we think we are is simply a result of things that happen within our brains and bodies – fluctuations in chemicals, hormones, electrical patterns and so on. We are no more than sophisticated animals who can think in a more complex way than most creatures.

- on the question of life after death, some argue that since there is no way of proving that anything in us lives on, we should not lead our lives in the mistaken belief that heaven – or hell – exists. The material world, the physical universe, is all that there is. Anything else is pure fantasy. In any case, if we do live on – to what period in our lives does our eternal soul correspond? Are we to be a child for ever, or will our elderly form be that which we take with us to heaven?

- Moreover, it is argued, why should we want to believe in a God who punishes people for ever for what they have done on earth? If God is eternal and utter Love, why would he want to do something like this, and consign some people to hell for all eternity?

What, then, are we to believe? Let’s start with the teachings of Jesus. Jesus clearly did believe that people after death would at some point be raised to eternal life. This was a controversial belief, even in his time - the Jewish sect known as the Saduccees, for example, did not believe in resurrection. Jesus talked on several occasions about the last judgement; about punishment for the sinful and reward for the blessed. He told the vivid parable about the rich man, Dives, who went to hell, and the poor man, Lazarus, who went to heaven. He described hell as ‘Gehenna’ – which was in fact the name of an area outside Jerusalem where the city’s rubbish was burnt. He spoke decisively about the separation of souls at the Last Judgement into those who had done good things here on earth, and those who had led sinful lives, comparing these to sheep and goats. In the light of Jesus’ clear teaching, then, we mustn’t just discard the idea of heaven and hell in the belief that we today know better.

Moreover, there is an increasing openness among scientists to the idea that the material, physical universe is not all there is. There is an increasing assumption among scientists that different dimensions to existence are necessary to the universe – there may even be up to 13 such dimensions. There have been more and more studies in recent years of near death experiences – those who have nearly died, and come back with a powerful sense of another level of existence. Such studies have been carried out with increasing degrees of sophistication and rigour, and with full awareness of the medical complexities involved (such as when exactly one defines death to have occurred). It is often the case that those who have nearly died see or experience the presence of people known to them who have died earlier; many feel that they are passing through something like a tunnel; many are drawn towards a bright light or a being – if that’s the right word – of love. These common patterns which emerge cannot be dismissed lightly. On the question of the existence of the soul, nobody yet has proved conclusively what consciousness and personal identity actually are. The idea of the soul has certainly not been disproved – it is quite possible to argue that the soul is that which lies at the heart of our being, the inner core of our identity, not just our mind or our emotions, but something more timeless.

And then there is the question of why we are here at all. If we are just here to live and die, with no greater meaning or purpose, how can we understand all the suffering in the world? How can we make sense of the deaths of children in countless numbers, and others whose lives are suddenly cut short? If there is any purpose in the world, surely we have to see such things in the context of a greater, eternal life which awaits us beyond the grave.

The true nature of what awaits us is of course hidden from us. We should not waste too much time speculating about that which can’t ever fully know. But there are two things, finally, which I believe we can be sure about, and which should guide us in what we do in our lives here on earth. First - wherever or whatever hell actually is, it can be described as the state of being separated from God. If we live lives which are dominated by selfishness and other forms of sin, we cut ourselves off from God. If we choose to be wrapped up in self-centredness, we end up in hell – and we then find ourselves in hell here on earth as well as running the risk of encountering it after we die. Second – whatever heaven proves to be like, we should try to follow the Christian way for its own sake, and not for the purpose of any eternal reward. That may well come too, as a result – but if our motives are to be the purest, we should try to love God and our neighbour simply because this is what He wants of us, not for anything that we may get out of it.

God invites us to look forward to the eternal life of heaven, and to be inspired by that hope – but never to be complacent and arrogant in our belief that our place there is secure. It is true that Jesus, by dying on the cross, has offered passports to heaven to all those who believe and trust in him, and who follow his teachings. But we also need to decide for ourselves that we want the entry visa.


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