There are many reasons for the tension between longing to go to heaven and not wanting to go immediately. But I am sure that part of it is simply not having an understanding of what the transition will be like. What will happen when I take that last breath?
For more than half a century I’ve listened to preachers trying to give an explanation but interpretations of the Bible, personal opinions and possible scenarios vary so much I had all but given up on any hope of even a picture that can describe it. Recently, however,
I found an illustration that helps me. Not long ago, I was at a funeral during which a poem by Canon Scott-Holland was read. It is often recited at such times.
The opening lines are:
‘Death is nothing at all…I have only slipped away into the next room...’
I must admit I have always found the poem a little too sentimental, but as I sat and considered those words again I was reminded of an incident that occurred during the last 24 hours of Jesus’ earthly life. On the morning of the day before he died, he asked his disciples to find a room in which he could eat the Passover meal with them. That evening, he told them that he was going to die, and then he said: ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms…I go there to prepare a place for you’ (John 14:2, ESV, emphasis mine). It seemed to me that the image that Jesus used – moving from one room into another – was not so far from that used in the poem.
Philosopher Dallas Willard put it like this: ‘[A] picture [of death] is of one who walks to a doorway between rooms. While still interacting with those in the room she is leaving, she begins to see and converse with people in a room beyond, who may be totally concealed from those left behind. Before the widespread use of heavy sedation, it was quite common for those keeping watch to observe something like this. The one making the transition often begins to speak to those who have gone before. They come to meet us while we are still in touch with those left behind. The curtain parts for us briefly before we go through.’
Because Jesus understood the ‘nearness’ of that other world, he was able – even as he was dying – to make an appointment with one of the thieves who was hanging on a cross next to him. He promised to meet the thief in a garden later that day: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43).
Jesus talks about those who love him not ‘tasting death’ (Mark 9:1). Peter Marshall illustrates this by describing a child playing in the evening with her toys. Gradually she grows tired and falls asleep. The next thing she experiences – or ‘tastes’ – is the light of a new day flooding her bedroom. She has not ‘tasted’ sleep.
The Bible repeatedly urges us to let the prospect of life beyond death affect the way we live now. If we can grasp the truth of the ‘thinness’ between the world we now inhabit and what we call ‘heaven’, perhaps an incredible realisation will dawn on us: that the one who has redeemed us stands waiting in the room just beyond that in which we live out our everyday lives. That room is near. Very near.
And if we can grasp that truth, the way we live in the first room will be changed forever.