Our fast-paced lives leave us little time to ponder the ultimate meaning and purpose of life. Many of us try to avoid the question entirely, sensing it only as an occasional faint stirring in the still of the night. It may be thrust upon us in moments of joy – upon seeing the birth of a child – or in moments of anguish, when we contemplate the loss of a loved one. I spoke to someone recently who was asking questions about the “point” of life on earth. He had just buried his father, who had lived a full and vibrant life, but the question of “what happens next” was something to which he had not given much thought.
From the earliest written words, history records the struggle of countless men and women who sought to make sense of this very question. As a result, a variety of religions and philosophies arose and developed, each seeking to provide an answer. Christianity’s answer may not seem, at first, to add much. It is simple and rather straight-forward – the point of life is to gain eternity with God, by coming to know him and by loving and serving him. But beneath this rather simple formulation lies the greatest story ever told – the story of man, his origins and his ultimate destination. The Bible presents first the bad news of the human condition – the account of man’s rebellion against his Creator and the dire consequences that ensued. Man’s actions created a rift between us, corrupted our natures so that walking with a perfect being was no longer possible. Death and corruption entered the world as we reaped the consequences of our actions. But the Bible also tells how God closes the gap, how he restores us to union with him. There is, however, a problem for us: having endowed us with free will, God does not force reconciliation with him upon us. Instead, he seeks our consent. The master of all creation actually leaves us the choice of what we will do with the gift of life he has given us. In short, though he has the power to control us, he will not override our rebellion. Instead, he uses life’s circumstances – relationships such as marriage and child-raising and at times hardship and grief – to call out to us, to help prepare us for the work of salvation he has in mind. This life, then, constitutes a period of separation from him during which we will essentially decide our eternal future, during which we will follow a path that will lead us to ultimate life… or to endless despair.
Not satisfied, my friend asked how this could make sense of the loss of babies and very young children. How can a toddler make the kind of choice that octogenarians may not yet fully grasp? Implicit in the question is the basis for the answer. There is an assumption at play that heaven possesses a “one size fits all” characteristic. But why should that be so? It is entirely possible that infants are in heaven but in a state in which they will never progress, for lack of a better word. They are happy and will never suffer, but they will also never experience a greater connection to God that is in store for those who have developed intellectually, who have sought to love God with their minds as well as their spirits. There is considerable support for this view in Jesus’ own teachings. He speaks many times about the kingdom of heaven. He promises great “treasure in heaven” for those who follow him and who “sell what you possess and give to the poor.” (Matt 19:21) The Beatitudes promise a variety of rewards in heaven, specifically tied to things people do here. (Luke 6). Jesus assures the disciples who left houses or family members or lands for his name’s sake that they will receive a hundredfold in heaven. (Matt 19:29) Many of the parables convey a similar message. The parable of the talents (Matt 25:14- 30), for example, contemplates rewards in heaven commensurate with “investment” here on Earth. There are, after all, many rooms in “my Father’s house” and “if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2-4) By contrast, the one who denies Jesus before men will be denied before the angels of God, again speaking of a connection between what occurs here and what results in the hereafter. It may well be that there is progression that occurs once there, based on what our state of development was before we died.
In sum, the person who reaches intellectual maturity faces a different challenge than the child who never reaches the age of reason. Having developed the capacity to freely and knowingly accept or reject God brings with it both a greater consequence, but also perhaps a greater reward.
For many today, alternative philosophies – such as reincarnation (we keep trying until we get it “right”) or pluralism (everyone eventually gets the same reward in heaven, regardless of belief) are considerably more appealing. But the right question isn’t what makes me feel better but rather what is true? It is worth noting that questions like this can never be “proven” in the traditional sense. We obviously cannot see or otherwise determine what lies beyond this life. This, then, is an example of something that must be taken on faith. The Apostle Paul tells us that all men are destined to live and die once, and then to face judgment.Simple, straight-forward … and final.
Because I believe that the Bible is true (for other reasons too lengthy to detail here), I accept that its teaching in this area is worthy of belief. Each of us faces the same question, however much we try to suppress or ignore it. And much hangs in the balance.