What happens when we die? It’s not like I can tell you exactly. Paul said, “To be absent from the body is to present with the Lord” (verse). And (verse) says that first comes death, then the judgment. So we got that. But, to be honest, that’s pretty vague stuff when you’ve got a question that big.
When my grandfather died, my grandmother had a dream that they were in a wide open pasture of green rolling hills. They sat under the shade of a tree, and he smiled at her, made a joke, and it gave her comfort that everything was going to be all right. That’s a good story. For me, anyway. I like to believe it was more than the dream of a mourning woman to self-soothe. I want to believe it’s true. But, even if it is, I’m not sure sarcastic granddads in beautiful vistas really gives me any concrete answers.
The church has guesses. Based on the scant information the bible gives us about the afterlife, the evangelical church of my youth has come up with all kinds of hokey visions of heaven. In some book or another I’m not motivated to research the title of, after the apocalypse, Hal Lindsay has the two love interests go to get married on the New Earth. Jesus shows up and asks something cheesy like, “Mind if I do the honors?” I really don’t know how much that actually helps.
I went to one of those Hell Houses when I was a teenager. After seeing people fictionally die horribly in drunk driving disasters, drug overdoses, and other incidents related to disobeying parents, we—the onlookers—were ushered into heaven. There, a man in a white bed sheet and red sash welcomed us by walking up to each of us and saying, “well done, my good and faithful servant.”
All the annoying emotional manipulation aside, I had a deep reaction to that moment. When the man with the full beard and wig walked up to me, placing his hand on my shoulder, I closed my eyes and imagined it really was Jesus, and that he was telling me that because I’d accepted what he’d done for me, in my place, for my salvation, that all my bad was burned up, and all that counted was love. Even right now, that gets me in the gut.
I’m fairly certain heaven won’t be encounters with hippie Jesus, or look like a plywood room covered in red curtains constructed on a fairground by church volunteers on the weekends. I’m also pretty sure scaring people into decisions with car wreck scenarios isn’t all that Christian. But I’m thankful for that tall guy in the wig. Number one, he wore that wig like a boss. Two, after being yanked along by a manipulative wave of scare-tactics, he reminded me that God is for sinners, like me. He gave me the closest thing to a glimpse into the afterlife I really need. He reminded me of no more striving, or tears, or worries or doubt. Complete acceptance and an all-encompassing love that we can only guess at with the cardboard cut-outs of our poor imaginations.