Heaven is for real. That’s the title of a book published some time ago. Read it? Heard of it?
The subtitle summarizes it: A little boy’s astounding story of his trip to heaven and back. The book is about a four year old, Colton Burpo, who was misdiagnosed with the flu. Actually his appendix had burst. On the edge of death, he was rushed to the hospital. And on the operating table he apparently journeyed to heaven.
His parents at first dismissed his story. But little Colton seemed to be able to talk about things he could have never known. He explains that God is a Trinity. He tells his mom, “I have two sisters.” His parents had never told him that his mom had miscarried. “There were lots of people, and their heads were shining. There are thousands of colours we have never seen.” And more.
What do you think? Believable? Does it prove to you heaven exists? Do you believe in the after-life? Why – or why not?
An old question
It’s an ancient question. Two thousand years ago there were two Jewish groups that argued about the existence of the after-life. The Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. That’s why they were sad, you see? Sorry – old joke. The Pharisees did.
What if . . .?
One day, the Sadducees come to Jesus and trot out one of their favourite arguments against the after-life. It seems to make the whole idea of a resurrection absurd.
It might sound a bit strange to us. But if you were Jewish it might make some sense.
It goes like this.
A couple gets married. But the husband shortly dies, without having any children. According to the law of Moses, continue the Sadducees, if there is an unmarried brother-in-law he has to marry the widow. (The Latin word for brother-in-law is levir – so this is sometimes called levirate marriage.) This was done so that there would be children to inherit the family farm etc. In an agriculturally based society, this is pretty important.
But the brother-in-law also dies without having a child. There happened to be, say the Sadducees, five more brothers in this family. They all are married to the woman, but all die. Without fathering a single child.
Then they pose their conundrum: “If there is a resurrection, whose husband will she be? All seven were married to her.”
You can imagine the snicker. Just look at what a resurrection could mean. One wife with seven husbands!? One man with seven wives might be more acceptable in those days. But this is utterly ridiculous.
In the minds of the Sadducees, a clever and witty argument is all it takes. Their hypothetical situation is enough to convince them that the whole idea of an after-life, a resurrection, is absurd.
And it’s no different today.
Sometimes all it takes is a little joke for us to push God away. “Where did Cain get his wife?” “The Bible talks about the “corners of the earth.” You can’t expect me to believe it, can you?”
How does Jesus respond?
Christ cuts through their mock scenario, like a hot knife through butter.
“Aren’t you in error,” he says, “because you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God?”
Now those are fighting words. The Sadducees were intellectuals, even priests and theologians. They were the upper crust of Jewish society, wealthy and influential.
But knowledge and power have a way of blinding you to the knowledge and power of God. Then and now. Have our modern miracles blinded us to the miraculous power of God? Has all our knowledge made us as a society ignorant in the knowledge of God?
Those two things Jesus highlights – knowing the Scriptures and knowing the power of God also go together. If you want to truly know the Bible, you have to be open to the power of God. The Bible has to be read in faith. It’s about God, after all, and if we only have our wimpy view of God, we will end up flattening it to fit our perspective. Without believing the power of God even the most learned theologian really knows nothing about the things of God.
Then Jesus explains those two things a bit more.
First, the power of God. In the resurrection, says Jesus, people are like the angels. There is no more marriage.
Now notice carefully how Jesus compares the next life to angelic life. He doesn’t say we become angels, that sprout wings and find our own cloud. In the next life, we are like the angels only in that there is no marriage.
When God created the world, he created a multitude of angels. Jewish thought put the number in the billions. There was no need to procreate in the angelic world. But there was only two humans, Adam and Eve. God brought them together and commanded them to be fruitful and multiply.
But in the next life there will be a multitude saved by the blood of Jesus, redeemed from this fallen world. There is no need for marriage anymore.
The Sadducees had a very limited idea of what God could do. There will be no marriage – because God will raise us to an existence different, higher than this life. Marriage will be made obsolete. In all their theologizing, that critical detail was not part of their thinking.
Maybe you have your questions about the next life. Will we recognize others? Will everyone be saved? How can the earth fit them all? What about those that are not saved? Will they be remembered?
I wish I had answer to all of those questions. But I know this: we have to reckon with the immense power of God.
God can raise us to a kind of life where the questions we have in this life are no longer any questions any more. In fact, we have a promise in the Bible that He himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes. God has power to deal with all the evil and injustice that we have suffered or committed in this world. If you know the power of God, a resurrected life, in perfection, is not such a strange hope!
And Jesus will do more than just speak about God’s power. He will bring it, embody it.
Look at his cross. There we see God has power to deal with our sin – which is over our head. That sin that separates us from God – Jesus carries it. At the cross, we see God has power to deal with Satan, who has the whole world is his grip. In Jesus, God deals with death. When we see Jesus, our small view of God has to disappear. God is far greater than we can imagine!
Lessons from Pharaoh
Secondly, Jesus says to the Sadducees that they do not know the scriptures.
He then quotes from the book of Exodus, where God appears to Moses at the burning bush. There God says to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have been dead for centuries. But not to God!
Now consider the scene where God says this. The Israelites are in Egypt, slaves of Pharaoh. Pharaoh commanded all the Israelite baby boys to be drowned in the Nile. Death is a reality for them.
But God says to Moses, I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am the God who wants to have a relationship with human beings. (That’s called a covenant in the Bible.) I see my people in Egypt, suffering, even dying. But I am not the God of the dead. I will deliver the Israelites, so I can have a people for myself.
And that’s why there was this miraculous event called the Exodus. That’s why there is, there must also be a resurrection, an after-life. God wants to have a people, who know him, who enjoy him forever!
Look at Jesus. He also shows God’s passion to have a people for himself.
In Jesus, we see the lengths God will go to save us, to bring us to himself. John 3:16 says, God sent his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. If God’s love compelled him to give up his One and only Son, what can get in its way? Can death or the devil?
How can it be that we live only for a moment, here today, gone tomorrow? Jesus, the cherished Son of God, has died for our salvation!
The resurrection does not just mean there is an after-life. The resurrection is the triumph of God’s purposes. That there will be creatures who know life again, in God’s new world, as God’s people, enjoying him and he enjoying them forever.
Just specs of dust?
I confess. Sometimes I wonder if God truly cares for me. Or even that he knows me. Who am I, after all? I’m only here for a moment. Maybe I will die and that will be it. Sometimes I’m tempted to be a Sadducee, too.
But Jesus challenges me. God said, I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God knows them by name. God is the God of individuals. The God who is bigger than the universe knows little specs of dust like you and me. By name!
God is a not a God of generalities, abstractions. He’s not some impersonal force. He is the God of love, of fellowship, of friendship. And Abraham is even called God’s friend in scripture.
That’s my reason for hope in the after-life. I don’t believe in the after-life because I think I’ve got a soul that can’t be destroyed or something like that. I believe in the after-life because I believe God knows my name! He wants to have friends! I will never be dead to him. He will never allow that! And I see that passion of God especially in Jesus.
Turn to God! Trust in Jesus, the power of God. Confess your sins, your unbelief, your hostility to God.
Don’t try to live aloof from him. Live closely with your God day by day, in faith, in hope.
And you will be raised by the power of Jesus, given a place in his new creation, to live with God forever, as his friend!
Thanks for reading.