Heaven, Hell or Neither? – The God Slot

heaven and hell

The Reverend Priestly Brook, an Anglican priest, retired in August 2012 from the Colne and Villages Team Ministry in East Lancashire. His Bishop has granted him a licence with ‘Permission to Officiate’. He is married to Christine, with six grown up children. For many years he’s been a well known preacher and communicator in the North of England.

I love to see the repeats of Morecambe and Wise sketches where they set up a famous star, yet the two I readily recall involve other actors: The Two Ronnies for the Four Candles or Fork ‘Andles and the Dead Parrot from Monty Python.

The latter involves a Mr Praline played by John Cleese, who returns a ‘Norwegian Blue’ parrot to the pet shop because he discovers it had died and nailed to its perch even before he collected it. He
attempts to convince the wary shopkeeper played by Michael Palin by describing the state of the parrot as: Dead, resting, deceased, demised, passed on, no more, ceased to be, expired, resting in peace, choir invisible, gone down the curtain and to meet its Maker. It is hard to believe in my written word that this is judged as one of the funniest sketches ever performed, by poking fun at the many euphemisms for death in British culture.

I believe I know why it has been so adjudged, because Brits loathe thinking of death, never mind talking of it, so humour surrounding the subject relieves us of that direct responsibility, and further today unlike Victorians, immortality is a subject we also prefer not to discuss.

Many years ago in the Yorkshire Dales if a farmer died, it would be said, he’s gone to his reward, or his glory, or he’s crossed over to the other side. Today we find it nigh impossible to talk of Heaven or Hell even if euphemisms are used! And of course tongue-in-cheek (maybe) tombstones of an earlier age add mystery and elixir to immortality.

“One of the funniest sketches ever performed, by poking fun at the many euphemisms for death in British culture”

First a thought of a better life in Heaven from a tomb in Easingwold Parish Church which reads: She lived with her husband 50 years, and died in the confident hope of a better life.

Maybe heaven is not so peaceful after all. From a tomb in a Northampton cemetery: Here lies John Gibbons. Peace perfect Peace. His widow had instructed that when she died the further words be
cut: Till we meet again!

Or what does Heaven or Hell offer? This from a headstone in Wolverhampton parish Church: Here lies the bones of Joseph Jones, who ate while able; but once overfed, he dropped down dead, and fell beneath the table. When from the tomb, to meet his doom, he rises amidst sinners; since he must dwell in Heaven or Hell, take him – which ever gives the best dinners.

But finally I am sure we all hope this army officer is residing in Heaven when such a praiseworthy individual. From his tomb in Woolwich Barracks cemetery: Sacred to the memory of Major James Brush, Royal Artillery, who was killed by the accidental discharge of a pistol by his orderly, 14th April 1831. Well done good and faithful servant.

So after that tombstone humour is there really a hereafter? Some years ago I was leading a Christian house fellowship and I asked the participants to write down what they believed heaven was like and as an afterthought what hell may be too? The responses given were as diverse as the reasons for their decisions.

One member explained she had encountered a near-death experience, which she described as entering a tunnel with a bright light at the end. She was later to discover that her heart had stopped while being operated on; her heart was restarted with great difficulty and on waking was able to remember the experience she described. She therefore believed heaven was full of light and a welcome from a dark world.

Others considering the Book of Revelation knew that heaven is where God will receive us and be with us in all his glory for eternity. There will be no more crying, no more pain, mourning or death rather perfect eternal life.

But in what state are we received? There seemed a common consensus that we are not received physically, but in the nature of the spiritual; some thought it was our
personality that was received.

The great challenge was who goes where? Some felt that God was a loving God and therefore everyone was received. One or two simplistically thought it was only those that went to church and some, those that did good on Earth, while the majority thought those who believed and the reflective who thought we got a second chance on death or Christ’s second coming to renounce our sins and enter Heaven.

But what is Hell like and who goes there? Some with trepidation concluded that it was a place with lakes that burn with fire and sulphur and for everyone who had done wrong, till it was pointed
out that all sin!

But just I was about to wind up the meeting we were taken aback when one elderly member of the fellowship said he did not believe in Heaven or Hell. He said he believed that we live our life on
earth, we die and that’s the end of it! We knew he had not been to church for donkey’s years, till a few months before, but not the circumstances.

He explained he had stopped going to church when their only daughter, a Christian, had died in her teens. He believed allowing her to die showed God was an uncaring God. He, now a widower, while he could not explain what or who had drawn him to attend Sunday service on the exact 50th anniversary of her death, but because he was befriended by the congregation he continued to attend, not for the promise of eternal life but because of the fellowship offered. Several of the group attempted an explanation, which appeared to have little impact as we concluded in prayer.

He had stopped going to church when their only daughter, a Christian, had died in her teens”

Incredibly, after only a few weeks he died and there followed a service in church. It transpired that after our time together he had instructed his solicitor anew that his funeral service had to be in our church and that the church would benefit from his estate. Did he now believe in the hereafter? May he be in Heaven with his spouse and beloved daughter!

Later after applying for, but prior to, training for ordination a small group of would-be priests including myself met once a month and at one of these meetings we considered the concept of life after death and in particular, when we get to Heaven, will there be others we knew? Obviously since there was no mention of Hell; we were not going there!

This group knowledge of scriptural support for their explanations was outstanding. This worried me a little. Was I not up to scratch?

First one quoted from Matthew’s Gospel: Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, suggesting that those who did good work would inherit their place in heaven and those who did not would receive eternal punishment. So for this wouldbe priest it was either Heaven or Hades!

But shall we meet in Heaven? A most attractive and angelic young female – which I suggest a congregation would die for – read: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in
me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you I go and prepare a place for you? She, a liberal, suggested that there is a place prepared for each one of us and we will meet again. I say Amen to that.

For since in my teens I have believed in eternal life. To me it is an essential part of the Christian story. Christ paid the price for my sins. And while I am a sinner I believe I will, without any worth on my part, be received one day spiritually into heaven, where I will meet all those I love in an ethereal world of love and peace, for ever.

The last two verses of the hymn How Great Thou Art for me it says it all. And when I think of God, His Son not sparing; Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in; That on the Cross, my burden gladly
bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin.

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation And lead me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Then I shall bow with humble adoration, And then proclaim, “My God, how great Thou art!”

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