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What happens when you die?

When I was in grade school, our church sent us youngsters to Hanging Rock Christian Assembly for summer camp. One of my fond memories was sitting around the campfire singing “camp songs,” which was back in the day when kids really loved to belt it out. One of my favorite songs had the lines, “Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace. I want to see my Savior’s face. Heaven is a wonderful place (I want to go there).” I used to sing extra hard on that last line, because I sure wanted to go there … instead of that other place!

The other day my youngest son was asking me about heaven. He heard a speaker at a recent youth event talk about heaven, hell, paradise, and Hades. What happens when you die? If you’re a Christian, do you go immediately to heaven or do you wait in “paradise” until the Great Day of Judgment? Do those outside of Christ go to Hades and then have an opportunity to repent before the final judgment?

Here’s the understatement of the day: Kids have a way to make us stop and think. We usually don’t sit down to think through what we believe and why we believe it unless someone starts probing, snooping around and asking questions. And then when our kids are the ones doing the interrogating, we can only say, “Go ask your mother” so many times before their incessant nagging gets the best of us. We dust off our Bibles (or download a Bible app) and start some digging of our own.

Assuming that at some point you want to probe into the mysteries of heaven and the after life, here are a few guidelines to aid your quest.

First, this issue really does matter. I was driving my dad to his physical rehab appointment yesterday, and he told me that when we was lying in his hospital bed after open-heart surgery, he had a re-awakening (epiphany?) of what’s important in this life and his sense of the ultimate significance of eternal life. What you believe about heaven and hell really does matter.

Second, heaven really is a wonderful place. We live in a divided culture, even among those who don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Some are secularists who don’t believe in anything except the physical, temporal world. Others are spiritualists who believe in some sort of afterlife, whether it’s nirvana, another life form, or a new reality dictated by aliens. My personal conviction is that most Americans hope for heaven but are so consumed with the matters of this life, they rarely spend time to think about what is to come. Whether or not you choose to believe in the veracity of Scripture, the Bible makes it abundantly clear that there will be “the dwelling place of God,” where He “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).

Third, hell really is a bad place. As a preacher, I get asked all the time, “If God is so loving, how could he send people to hell?” To which I respond, “God doesn’t send anyone to hell. He allows us to choose our path and in the final judgment, He affirms what has already been confirmed. “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). If someone’s name is not in the book of life, it’s not because God has kept it out; it’s because the person hasn’t wanted to sign on the dotted line. The Bible teaches us that God “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). And, yes, hell really is a bad place called “the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14) and “outer darkness” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12).

Fourth, the choice is yours. At some point, you need to stop procrastinating and start deciding. Many people say, “Well, I’m too busy to think about all this `spiritual stuff.’ I’ll get around to it someday.” Don’t delay, not only because eternity hangs in the balance, but also because of the great joy and peace to behold in this life! Of the hundreds of people I’ve talked with about their relationship with Jesus, I’ve not had one person say, “I wish I would have held off another ten years before making this decision.” Quite the opposite: I’ve had many who told me, “Why did I put this off for so long? I’ve missed out on so much of this incredible joy-filled life!!” The Bible says, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). When you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, you gain the strength of the Spirit, the hope of heaven, and the peace of mind to know that heaven really is a wonderful place.

"Train a child in the way he should go…”

I have a son heading to college in a couple of months. When I look back over the past eighteen years, I remember all too well thinking this moment was so far in the future it would never arrive. But here it is. Even though my son will be attending a Christian university, I know the pressures of finding his way in the world are still real and, at times, heavy.

In my sermon this past Sunday I mentioned that 70-80% of all high school graduates leave the Church when entering college. In numerous surveys asking these church drop-outs why they left the faith, the number one reason given was not because of the music, programming or preaching. The number one reason young adults leave the church is because they don’t see that believing in Jesus made any difference in the lives of their parents.

I pray my son sees a different story in my life. I can think of the numerous times I’ve blown it, but I hope he sees that following Jesus is not just about attending a church service, having family devotions, and praying before meals. I hope he sees that following Jesus means I have a joy not based on my circumstances, a love not based on conditions and trivialities, and a peace that surpasses understanding, especially when life doesn’t measure up to our expectations.

When my son goes off to college, he will be faced with making choices of what he believes and why he believes. He will enter a scientific world possessing amazing knowledge of how to do almost anything. But he will also enter a postmodern world that has lost its way as to what should and should not be done. Science gives us the knowledge and tools to do the “what,” but it leaves us morally paralyzed because we do not know the “why.” We may be far advanced scientifically, but we are extremely primitive morally.

Albert Einstein observed that “perfection of means and confusion of goals seem—in my opinion—to characterize our age” (“The Common Language of Science,” in The Living Language: A Reader, p. 306). Einstein called the setting of goals the concern of theology and the humanities, not science. “Why are human beings here? How should we act toward one another? What is necessary for happiness? What is the purpose of life?” (Gene Edward Veith, Loving God with All Your Mind, p. 61).

These are the daunting questions my son will face when he leaves home, and these questions can’t be answered in a test tube. My wife and I did the best we could at giving him a solid foundation from which he can investigate these eternally significant questions. And now he has to wrestle with the answers as we once did, and sometimes continue to do. 

To all parents who have had to open your hands and hearts as you watched your children enter adulthood, may the grace, comfort and strength of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. To all parents whose hearts are heavy, because your adult children have chosen a different path, my prayers are with you. Don’t give up. Continue to love and pray for your grown children. To all parents who have a child entering college this fall, I pray you will be there to listen, love, and walk with your child as he or she wrestles with questions that probe deeper than Freshman Biology. May they find the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.


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