As a chaplain and a pastor I get a lot of questions about the afterlife. People want to know what happens in the moments after we die.
I have heard a variety of answers from other pastors about this weighty and pertinent topic. Some of them use what I call Chutes & Ladders imagery, claiming that the faithful among us begin climbing a ladder to the heavenly gates, while the others find themselves whooshing down a hellacious slide shortly after death. Others give an answer that sounds something like teleportation — upon breathing our last, our souls get zapped into heaven or into hell. And still others merely shrug their shoulders and state that we simply can’t know.
I struggle with these answers, mostly because we can’t find them in the Bible. And what we do have in the Bible holds a lot more meaning than Chutes and Ladders, teleportation or, worst of all, the absence of existence.
In Luke 23:39-43, Jesus is hanging on the cross with two robbers who are also hung on crosses on either side of him. Then this happens: “One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, ‘Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.’”
Jesus doesn’t say that we need to climb or slide or teleport to a new location. We’re simply with God after we die. And if we’ve been trusting God throughout our lives to faithfully walk with us, doesn’t it make sense that we wouldn’t be on our own after death?
When Jesus claims in Matthew 28:20 that “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” we need not think that God’s presence somehow disappears upon our passing from this life. It seems to me that in many ways, our journey with God simply continues.
Without proof-texting, and without eschewing the Bible, we can read the story of Jesus on the cross and know that as he died, he firmly believed that his spirit would live on with God. While he didn’t talk about heaven, hell, clouds, or fire, he did speak about paradise. And not just paradise for himself, but also paradise with us.
So may we hold tight to the hope of paradise today. May we prayerfully reflect on the meanings of Maunday Thursday and Good Friday. And in the midst of the fear, doubt, and ambiguity that all of us face at some point or another, may we rest in the knowledge of our future place in paradise.