Streets of Gold – Part 2 of our 4 part series on The End

All Dogs Go To Heaven poster
All Dogs Go To Heaven poster

Do dogs go to Heaven when they die?

Do dogs go to Heaven when they die? Eve asked me this question on our way to the bus stop one morning. She was about 7 or 8 years old and at the time we were living in Georgia. I was carrying Emma in my arms as we were heading down the hill to the corner where the bus would come and take her to school when the question popped out. Do dogs go to Heaven when they die? I wasn’t completely surprised. Just the night before we found out that the little dog across the street got hit by a car and didn’t make it. I’m sure it was on her mind. Often the loss of a pet, whether it’s a goldfish, a hamster, a dog or a cat is what triggers our exploration of death. At first telling them that they go to Heaven seems to appease them, but as they grow up they experience death in different ways and pretty soon there are lots of different questions about it. I remember when I was eight years old and my grandmother died, my mom told me she had gone to Heaven and the first question I had in mind was, “How do you get there?” Did she catch a bus? Did she walk? How did she know where to go? Especially at that age, life is pretty literal and I was looking for concrete answers about a topic that had none. I went to quite a few funerals when I was a child and each one left me with more questions than answers.

But every question we ask about death revolves around one central question:

What happens after we die? What happens after we die? It’s a question that stays with us because there are so few people who can tell us the answers. Jesus is the leading authority about it and even he didn’t share much about what it was like. Lazarus never said a word. Elijah and Moses only came back to powwow with Jesus during the Transfiguration and didn’t spill the beans. John had a tremendous vision of God and life in the spiritual world, an experience that formed the basis for the book of Revelation. It is also the most difficult and confusing book in the Bible. Sometimes I think John was simply doing his best to put into human concepts images and experiences that go beyond human understanding. Now, every once in a while we hear amazing stories like that of Colton Burpo, the young boy whose life was the basis for the movie and the book Heaven is for Real. And reading stories like that give us hope and allow us to point to something and say, “At last there’s something tangible to hold on to.” But for every story like Colton’s you can read stories about people who have come back and experienced nothing but darkness and coldness, emptiness and solitude and that puts us right back where we started.

Cast of the Big Bang Theory whose title is based on Hoyle's coined phrase
Cast of the Big Bang Theory whose title is based on Hoyle’s coined phrase

We’ve tried to prove or disprove the existence of an afterlife using logic and reason.

Arguments about the existence of God often are at the heart of such debates because if we can prove God exists, it logically stems that all the other arguments including an afterlife could become valid. Some atheists like to use evolution as an argument against the existence of God and even though evolution and God are not necessarily contradictory, one of my favorite quotes on the subject was given by an atheist of all people. You probably don’t know the name Fred Hoyle, but you probably do know the theory of creation he coined – The Big Bang Theory (not to be confused with the TV show of the same name). Interestingly, Hoyle didn’t believe in the Big Bang Theory. Nor did he believe in evolution as Darwin had originally posited.[1] Instead he believed in intelligent design, a concept that something greater than ourselves must have guided the development or even creation of humanity. But he didn’t believe in God and might be offended to hear his argument being used in defense of God. But what he said in defending intelligent design was, “The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way (through evolution) is comparable with the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.”[2] “The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way (through evolution) is comparable with the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.” That’s how infinitesimally small the odds are of human beings ever being created simply by chance.

Movie poster for the movie 21 grams based on MacDougall's faulty concept
Movie poster for the movie 21 grams based on MacDougall’s faulty concept

One doctor tried to prove that the human body had a soul by weighing patients as they died.

Dr. Duncan MacDougall posited the theory that human beings have souls and that it could be proved at the point of death. He took six dying patients and weighed them right before death and immediately afterward and he claimed that after the body had ceased functioning, the human body suddenly lost weight that could not be accounted for by normal means. He said that through his experiments, he calculated that the human soul weighs ¾ of an ounce or as it is more popularly known today: 21 grams.[3] 21 grams, Dr. MacDougall said, was how much the soul weighed. But the truth is his results over this incredibly small sample varied widely and none of them had an consistency of weight loss. Just one person recorded an actual loss of 21 grams and the rest had completely different results.[4] But MacDougall’s efforts is testimony to our desire to learn about the afterlife.

Scholars have poured over the Bible to find clues to what we can expect when we die.

Jesus tells us that in Heaven God has a house with many rooms and that there is a room reserved there for each of us who believe in Him. John tells us that when God creates the New Jerusalem at the ends of the age that it will have streets of gold and walls of jasper and foundations made of gemstones. But for me, my favorite image in the Bible comes from Revelation 7:9-12. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, would you please go to Revelation 7:9-12. The passage we’re reading is from John’s vision of the end of days before the creation of the New Heaven and New Jerusalem. Now this isn’t an image of the New Heaven, but an image of what John sees as we approach the day of final judgment when God will determine what happens to each of us. And even though this isn’t exactly an image of the New Heaven, to me this is a glimpse of what we can expect when we get there.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

This is often how I imagine Heaven to be.

Filled with people of every type from every nation. A multitude of every race, color, gender, age, and size. A crowd so large they cannot be counted. A place where all of God’s children live in unity with one another. And I think the reason we debate so much about what Heaven looks like and how you get there and what we can expect is because we are not sure if we are going to be in that great multitude. Our beliefs about Heaven are often exclusive to our belief in God. Catholics believe that it is a combination of faith and good works that earn you a place in Heaven. Mormons believe that Heaven consists of three levels and that only believers of the Mormon faith get into the best level to be with God. And Jehovah’s Witnesses believe it all doesn’t matter. God has already picked out the 144,000 that will be joining him and too bad for the rest of humanity. Presbyterians and other Calvanist faiths believe that we are predestined. And so the debate about who is right becomes more important than ever because it involves our eternal destiny. That’s why we worry so much about this stuff. That’s why we stress over it and debate over it and argue heatedly over it, because it matters so much! Or does it?

Do we not believe in a God of love and mercy and grace?

That’s not to say I believe in universalism where everyone simply goes to Heaven because that belief is just as faulty as all the rest. Basically a universalist attitude says that the death on the cross meant nothing because we all get in anyway and I believe Jesus died for each one of us, to save us and rescue us from a life that otherwise would be irredeemable. But for any of us to say we have all the answers and you have to believe in our version of salvation or you won’t get in seems as restrictive and debilitating as what the Pharisees used to say. And we all know what Jesus said about them. He called them barriers and roadblocks and closed-minded to the truth that was staring them in the face. Is that what we want to be? Instead I believe we should heed the words of Christ who told the disciples not to worry. He said to them, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?… 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” The solution is simple. Put God first. Trust in God and free yourself from worry. Trust in God and free yourself from worry. To do otherwise holds us back from showing the rest of the world the unbridled love of Jesus.

Harvey West is one of the best pastors I know.

He was my senior pastor when I was attending Alpharetta First UMC back in Georgia and I was fortunate enough to take a Bible study class with him. During that class one of the people asked, “How do you know you are saved?” And Harvey said, “I don’t.” That stunned all of us right there. But then he continued. “But I have faith in God and in his Son Jesus Christ. And I believe that faith will save me. And so I don’t worry about it. Instead I focus on trying to live a life that best honors Christ’s sacrifice for me.” Those words have continued to guide me in my ministry and I hope they guide yours as well. And as for the question, “Do animals go to Heaven?” I think they do. When we read the Scripture we hear from God through the prophet Isaiah that “the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.” If God will provide space for the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the ox, and even the serpent, surely my former neighbor’s dog is resting comfortably somewhere up there waiting for his human. That’s what I told Eve that morning, that I trust in God enough to believe he will always do what’s right and we didn’t have to worry.  That little dog was already up there enjoying Heaven.  To which Eve told me, “Oh, he’s not there yet. It hasn’t been three days.”  And left it at that. Heaven is one of the great mysteries and maybe Eve is right that we need to account for travel time to Heaven, but no matter what, I trust that no matter what my vision (or Eve’s or anyone’s vision) of Heaven or how we get there, God’s vision will always be better. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/fred-hoyle-an-atheist-for-id/

[2]http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Fred_Hoyle

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duncan_MacDougall_%28doctor%29#In_popular_culture

[4] http://www.snopes.com/religion/soulweight.asp

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