The sweet by and by

Published 11:37 am Thursday, January 16, 2020

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By Scott Baker

About a week ago I received an email from a former parishioner letting me know what was going on in her life. After some pleasantries and updates, she got to the meat of the reason why she was writing me. In short, she was struggling with the whole concept of heaven. I don’t wish to convey the wrong impression of my friend; she is a deeply devoted and committed Christian. She goes to church every Sunday. She teaches Sunday school. She is one of those believers who is at church every time the doors are open. So, you can imagine my surprise when I read that she admitted that she didn’t believe in heaven. She didn’t believe in hell either; in fact, she didn’t believe in life after death at all. In her email she was asking me for some guidance and support. What bothered me in the email was the fact that she was so disturbed by her uncertainty. It appeared that the concept of heaven/hell truly was one of those faith issues that had kept her up at night. She had been doing what St. Paul described as “working her faith out in fear and trembling.” I responded (I hope) in a pastoral and supportive way without judgment and without reproach.

I have been a Christian my entire life. There hasn’t been a time when I can remember that I didn’t go to church. Unlike my friend who has struggled with an on-again off-again relationship with Christianity and her faith, the notion of heaven and hell has always been a given to me.

However, when extrapolated out, the implications of whether one believes in heaven or hell can have significant influence in one’s daily life. If one does not believe in heaven, then what is there to hope for? For Christians, we don’t live a moral and righteous life in order to earn heaven. We live a moral and righteous life, precisely because of the gift given of life with God beyond the grave that could never be earned. We live our lives out of a posture of gratitude not quid pro quo; that latter would be a life of righteous works in hopes of a heavenly reward. Furthermore, the promise of heaven can make the suffering on this side of the plane seem all the more brutal, even irredeemable, especially when there is no hope of deliverance and something better. As Paul writes to the church in Rome, “I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed. (Romans 8:18).”

With all that said, my friend continues to struggle. Like all faith-based concepts, approaching it with a logical and systematic mind can actually be an obstacle. My friend is just such a person: systematic and logical. But I have to give her kudos in the fact that she is genuinely struggling to sort the whole thing out. And who knows, maybe the advice and guidance I wrote back to her was just what she needed.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure the existence of heaven and hell are contingent on whether we believe in them or not. If it did, then we can manipulate the whole cosmic order to our own liking, and I’m just not sure that we are all that powerful.

What I told my friend was something from my own heart. I told her, for me, that when the rubber meets the road if you believe in heaven it makes all the difference in the world; if you don’t, it makes all the difference in the world.

THE REV. SCOTT BAKER is the rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Franklin. Contact him at 562-4542.