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Heaven is an essential part of Christian faith

18 July 2014

It may be unfashionable, but the afterlife is vital to the affirmation of a God of love, argues Rod Garner

IN RECENT talks and interviews, the poet, critic, and broadcaster Clive James has spoken candidly about his own mortality and death. In failing health, he is still glad to be alive, believing that "it is here we live, or nowhere."

After death, he does not expect to see, think, or touch again. There will be nothing to do or share, and he has found nothing that points to a personal existence beyond his demise.

Such sentiments are not uncommon, and can be found in surprising places. In a 2012 Ipsos/MORI poll on attitudes to religion, of the 54 per cent who identified themselves as Christian, only three per cent cited "hope in an afterlife" as the statement that best described what Christianity meant to them.

In his 2013 Lent book Abiding, the Revd Professor Ben Quash also recalls a conversation with a churchgoing friend who did not expect that she would still be "her" after she had died. She imagined, instead, something less personal - an end of individual consciousness, and a release into the cosmos, where her atoms would simply become part of all living things.

On the one hand, Mr James represents a considered post-Christian estimation of death, which rejects the wish-fulfilment of personal survival as illusory; on the other hand, he exemplifies a popular but fuzzier notion that the tradit-ional picture of heaven no longer holds any real or necessary comfort.

Increasing numbers of people feel that it will be enough to be absorbed into the ebb and flow of the material world. In either case, there appears to be a challenge to see our lives with a clear eye, and discard as insubstantial or untrue a future world of make-believe that is fit only, perhaps, for those who are ill at ease with mortal questions.

MR JAMES's rejection is important, because it alerts us to what Freud described as infantile thinking - "The projection of our own wishes on to the sky" - that, unchecked, can trade on our capacity for nostalgia or denial.

Despite the insistence of the New Testament that hope and heaven transcend the limits of our experience, and are therefore beyond imagining, we can all perhaps recall conversations where the hereafter has been described in terms of the known and familiar, without the shackles of sadness or sorrow.

In religious terms, this is some distance from the language of a future hope predicated on the possibility of an ineffable love beyond ourselves that holds everything dear. It represents something less attractive and true - in effect, the human but mistaken desire that a future life will mirror the sum of our personal wishes as the persons we currently are.

But heaven, like death, is an "undiscovered country", and to presume to know the contours and purpose of its terrain is to reduce the vision of the New Jerusalem to something selfish and shallow.

THE implication of the second challenge - that Christianity can jettison the expectation of a personal hereafter without impugning its truth and integrity - is open to two objections. First, it represents a modern and highly individualistic response to the question of life after death, which takes no account of the corporate nature of Christian believing.

Viewed primarily through the prism of self-regard, it evaluates a matter of ultimate concern from a purely personal perspective that fails to see how the moral adequacy of such a belief is bound up with lives and destinies other than our own. Second, in this respect, it represents a serious failure to understand a fundamental belief concerning the goodness of God.

A perennial task of theology is to contend with the calamities and cruelties that degrade and destroy individual lives, and cast doubt on the religious claim that the universe is a morally ordered place. It is possible to deal with such obstacles, and to offer religious explanations and interpretations of evil that remove some of its sting.

WHEN all the arguments have been advanced, however, only the hope of heaven, with its vindication of the promise that, ultimately, "All shall be well", can safeguard the central Christian affirmation that, if there is a God, he is a God of love.

To be clear: our best moral intuitions demand that, if God is to be true to his nature, revealed to us in scripture as a shepherd who watches over his sheep, he is morally obliged to raise the dead. Only if innocent sufferers are offered this final vision of human redemption, where they know themselves to be free from pain and misery, can we really believe in the mercy of God, and the sacred value of each human life, in a world shot through with undeserved pain.

Without such a belief in a hereafter, the moral case against God is overwhelming. As the French author Stendhal caustically remarked: "The only excuse for God would be for him not to exist'.

To believe in the life of the world to come, where identity is preserved rather than absorbed into the flux of things, is to say that we believe in a God whose mercy is everlasting, and whose ways can be trusted. Heaven matters because it enables us to believe in God, despite the horrors of a world that speak of his absence.

Far from being a matter of wish-fulfilment, or an evasion of death, it represents the logic of the human heart, and its insistence that, under God, things ultimately go well.

With commendable reticence, that most acute of Christian thinkers, St Augustine, said: "We shall rest and we shall see; we shall see, and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be, in the end, and shall not end."

The Christian hope is inextricably bound up with such a vision.

Canon Rod Garner is Vicar of Holy Trinity, Southport, and Theologian for the diocese of Liverpool.

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