Pastoral Perspectives

Between Heaven And Hell

In our Asian context, it is not unusual to hear someone saying that he is not prepared to trust in Jesus because it would mean that he will have to be separated from his deceased loved ones who are not Christians. How can we respond to such an objection, especially when this person sincerely desires to fulfil his filial obligations as a son or marital commitment to his spouse? Indeed, if a person is open to the truth claims of the Gospel and believes in the reality of a heaven and hell, how can our interaction with this individual be “gracious and seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6)?

Firstly, we should continue to engage in earnest prayer for this person whom we are reaching out to. When a person is willing to consider what Jesus says about himself, this is possibly an indication that the Holy Spirit is opening his eyes to see the need for his sins to be forgiven and for a Saviour to rescue him from the power of Satan (Act 26:18). We also want to pray that he will understand the truth about God and his perfect love demonstrated through the death of Christ (Romans 5:8) such that he is willing to repent and desire to be in God’s loving presence.

Secondly, we should pray for ourselves and trust God to give us wisdom and compassion. As much as we believe we have something good to share with others, we must strive to be better listeners. Besides being respectful to the other person, this allows us to understand where the person is at spiritually. Often, asking questions such as “What do you mean when you say …?” or “How did you feel when …?” can help the person to open up to us. More importantly, when we give time in our conversations for others to voice their opinions or raise objections, we are communicating that we value them as individuals. 

Furthermore, behind every question is a questioner. Regardless of whether the person has intellectual questions or emotional baggage, he is a person whom God has called us to minister to. We will need to rely on the Holy Spirit to give us insight into his real needs and struggles. This is because some may have underlying issues of hurt, guilt or shame which need to be lovingly and patiently dealt with before they are ready to take a step of faith to trust in Jesus. By faith, we trust that nothing is too difficult for God (Jeremiah 32:27) and that God can work through our words of truth and deeds of love.

When it comes to this topic of the afterlife, we need to help those who have a different worldview to see the inadequacies and inconsistencies of their beliefs. Take for example, the Chinese religious beliefs and practices during Qing Ming and what is popularly known as the Hungry Ghost Festival. One of the reasons that people bring food offerings and burn paper money is that they believe that the departed are unable to provide for themselves in the “other world”. Given that there can be no objective way to be certain if one’s loved ones are in paradise or heaven, it is only to be expected that surviving family members fulfil their obligations and make provisions for the departed.

In this worldview, the well-being of the departed is solely dependent on his surviving relatives. Not only so, it would suggest that it makes scant difference how many family members one has with him in this “other world”. This is because if this” other world” is understood to be hell, then the departed would likely be isolated and separated from each other. They would also be unable to or prevented from offering any comfort or practical care for their loved ones. If it were not so, then there would be no fundamental difference between life here on earth and in hell.

Whether we are Christians or not, there is no doubt that it is right for us to remember the departed and to honour their lives and contribution to our family. However, it is quite another thing to believe that we can actually be with our loved ones without the need to have Jesus in our lives. As much as it may sound noble and virtuous to choose hell with our loved ones over heaven with God, the truth is that this option is not open to people, even within the Buddhist or Taoist worldview.

Furthermore, in the Buddhist worldview, if the departed has attained nirvana or enlightenment, then he or she is no longer an embodied soul. In other words, they do not get to be reunited with their loved ones in the afterlife and whatever earthly relations would have ceased thereafter. If it is so, then observing all those religious practices makes no difference to the departed. Moreover, by continuing those practices, we are actually concluding that our departed loved ones are still trapped in this endless cycle of suffering, which is a rather depressing thought.   

As people made in the image of God, we are meant to be relational beings and it is only natural that we desire our relationships to last. However, it is only in the Christian worldview that believes that those relationships that we so cherish will endure in heaven, albeit in a manner that is radically different. Because God is love (1 John 4:8), He does not and will not compel us to choose him. Instead, he has graciously provided a way for fallen humanity to be reconciled with him so that one can spend a blissful eternity in loving relationship with him and others who have trusted in Jesus Christ. Sadly, many reject God’s gift since they do not really like to be with God and would rather live in separation from God. Hopefully, as we reach out to others, our lives can be a testimony that with Christ, heaven begins here on earth.

Rev Edwin Wong

August 27, 2017