MATTHEW 13:24-52; MARK 4:26-32; LUKE 13:20-21


            Interest in the conditions which characterize the future is as old as the human race. Possibly no one ever lost a loved one without becoming wistfully conscious of a desire to know something of the nature of life on the other side. Yet how weird and illogical are the average person’s notions about heaven and hell. We matter-of-fact Westerners have too frequently interpreted the Bible literally and thereby missed its message and meaning. The Bible is an oriental book that grew out of the experiences of people who were in the habit of thinking and speaking figuratively. Jesus spoke almost entirely in parables. Thus we have frequently missed the deep and eternal significance of His teaching concerning the way the truth and the life because we have failed to look beneath the surface of His symbolism.


            As a boy I was taught that there are but two conditions in the future life – one of endless torment and one of endless bliss. You went either to hell or to heaven, and there your condition was fixed forever. But Jesus did not so conceive it. His words were to the effect that the kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed, having within it the principle of eternal growth and unfoldment. As our understanding and comprehension of life and of God expand, as our spiritual horizons are pushed back, we pass from one state of consciousness to a higher, from one heaven to another. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” That kingdom is, thus, a state of God-consciousness, both in this world and in the next. We take our heaven with us when we die, here and hereafter!! – Not a place but a quality of life.


            When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of heaven, He was referring to God’s perfect rule over men and women, a kingdom constituted by men and women who obey God’s will entirely and receive His fullest blessings. It is the rule of God over us that continues after leaving earth.


            Paul tells us that on one occasion he was caught up “to the third heaven, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” He was given a fleeting glimpse of a future state of a developed soul that was so glorious that he could not find words to describe it. And who knows how many heavens beyond the third there may be. Paul gives us a faint conception of the joy and glory that awaits us in the dim and distant future when we have earned the right to enter this blessed condition.


            Certainly no one is ready for that state at the end of one short lifetime on earth. “Aionis” (eternity) does not mean everlasting but for an age. Our confusion over this word has come from the failure of early translators of the Bible to note two meanings for that Greek word. Even though Webster’s International Dictionary gives but one definition “everlasting,” any good Greek lecicon gives the following: an age, a long period of time, a generation. It was in this sense that Jesus used the word. Dr. Leslie Weatherhead says, “A close study of the words used in the New Testament shows that there is really no word at all which carries with it the definite idea of a period having no end.”


            As John saw in his vision: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away.” What a relief to me it was to learn of the two meanings of the word eternity. I had wanted to believe in the fairness and justice of God, but I could never understand how many people I knew were ever ready for endless punishment or endless bliss after a few fleeting years on this planet.


            Growth is the law of all life. The alternative is stagnation. Christlikeness is our goal, and it is a distant though challenging one. At death there is so much that is imperfect in even the best of people. False values concerning material wealth, social position, rank, culture, education, pride of race, and the like, becloud our spiritual vision. The incident of death doesn’t change us one iota. Five minutes after our hearts stop beating we are the same identical people in the land of Spirit that we were here five minutes before we made the crossing.


            Jesus said, “Verily, I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.” That social position, pride of race, habits of whatever kind, will go with us. They have been built into the warp and woof of character. They have made us what we are. What we have “bound” to our lives here, whether good or evil, will be “bound” to our lives here, whether good or evil, will be “bound” over there. What we have loosed and discarded will remain discarded on the other side.


            The one who plans to put an untimely end to his earthly life usually does so because he wants to run away from problems and conditions that he has neither the fortitude nor courage to face. According to Jesus’ statement, that person will not escape them by changing worlds. It is himself and not his circumstances that must be faced. And he’ll be the same person there that he was here until through struggle and tears he has met and conquered self.


            The chief aim and goal of life here is the growth of our souls. Experience shows us clearly that most of that growth comes with the brave facing of difficulty and adversity. I have yet to read the biography of a single great personality who did not arrive at the goal of eminence over a rugged and rocky road. It is the climb that puts on muscle. God has no bargain counters for even his weak and poor. It hurts to fall down, but it strengthens us to pick ourselves up. It is out of the crucible of suffering and pain that great personalities are born. Here in this world the workshop of character is the rough and tumble of everyday life.


            Is there any reason to believe that it will be radically different on the other side? Jesus found the going rugged. Most of His followers left him; even His disciples fled from Him at the end. He dies on a cross between two thieves. But the writer of Hebrews tells us that “he learned by the things which he suffered.”


            God (and His Son Jesus Christ) is still at work building a universe. The principle building blocks of that universe are human souls. Since God gave us freedom of choice when He created us, a freedom whose misuse causes us most of our difficulty in this world, there is no good reason to believe that that same free will not continue to be ours in heaven nor any reason to suppose its misuse will not continue to cause us occasional trouble over there. We, too, learn by the things which we suffer.


            Although “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God,” and we will, therefore, not have physical bodies there and hence cannot succumb to “sins of the flesh,” nevertheless it is logical and probable that we will meet temptations to discontent, jealousy, and pride.


            And why not? Our principal work will be among people the same as it is here. And we shall not be perfect until we have been fully changed into the likeness of Christ, for countless eons of time, though that is our goal. Possessed of spiritual bodies we shall know even as we are known. Any conception of heaven which is omitted recognition and reunion with those we love would be no heaven at all. When Jesus said to the dying thief on the cross, “This day thou shalt be with me in the world of spirit,” He implied that they would recognize each other and go on with their interrupted conversation. I’m not saying that families will have to remain together if there is no binding power of spirit to hold them united. Uncongenial bonds that have been largely physical in character, will have no binding power whatever. But even so, since we shall be working among people, and since we shall have the power of choice, a power we have not yet learned to use to the best advantage, we shall undoubtedly be tempted to make wrong decisions and to get into trouble as a result of those wrong decisions. And thus we shall learn and grow.


            Many weary and sorrowful people who have heard sermons preached about the heaven of endless bliss and harp-playing may be disappointed at these interpretations of the passages in the Bible.


            In his book, After Death, Dr. Leslie Weatherhead of City Temple, London, has a significant paragraph:


            “A mother certainly cannot be said to be in a condition of perfect bliss even though her own soul may be prepared for if her wastrel son is still passing through the cleansing fires of remorse and remembrance even though she knows they are cleansing. Indeed the pain of heaven must be intense, for the higher we have climbed the spiritual slopes in this world, the more shall we be able to share the life of God in the next. And the life of God is certainly one of pain. He bears all the sin, all the sorrow, all the pain of the world in His own heart. The heart of God is breaking with an anguish none can guess; breaking with a yearning love which is constantly out on the search for the rebellious hearts of men, and a search which we know well enough is constantly baffled and disappointed. There is no stern Deity seated on a throne in pomp and power and glory, uttering in a voice of thunder the eternal decrees, living in remote grandeur a life untouched by human sorrow and sin and need.”


            Jesus described the joy in heaven over one sinner reclaimed to a life of rectitude; and there can be no joy without the possibility of the opposite. Jesus’ description of the return of the Prodigal Son to the father’s house depicted the Father’s great joy over the return of the prodigal, and Jesus said that “God is like that Father.” God’s sorrow over those multitudes of His sons who have not yet returned is immeasurable.


            I realize that there will come to your mind at this time John’s glorious description of heaven: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.” However, the first verse of that chapter, the 21st, reads, “And I saw a NEW heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away.” The heaven that John describes, where there is no sorrow, nor crying, nor pain, represents the consummation of the ages. It is surely not the first heaven into which you and I shall pass at death. And we must always bear in mind that John wrote his Revelation for the Christians of 100 A.D. at the time of the Domitian persecutions. Followers of Christ were being put to death by the thousands, and John wanted to assure them of a future state so glorious, if they remained true to their convictions, that no amount of suffering should be considered too much to bear. The book of Revelation has a great spiritual message for all people facing trouble, but it should not be interpreted literally. The message beneath its symbolism is one of pure delight and hope.


Someone may say that this point, “This has all been very interesting, all of this talk about heaven but how can you be so confident?” I’m confident because I believe in the same God in whom Jesus believed. The “proof” of immortality is, in the last analysis, bound up with the character of God.


            During World War II, it was my privilege to spend much time talking to heartbroken parents whose sons lives were cut off. All of us, many times have seen the indescribable anguish that only one thought could even partially alleviate; the assurance of the continuation of those precious personality values beyond the grave. Could the Infinite Intelligence, God, struggle for millions of years to bring forth anything so supremely valuable as a human soul and then toss it lightly away at the caprice of a stray bullet, leaving the unutterable longing of broken hearts but the empty shell of their dreams?


            If so, God is no God and Jesus was completely mistaken about everything. Emerson said, “The blazing evidence for immortality is our dissatisfaction with any other solution.” I freely admit that the traditional heaven and hell of eternal bliss and eternal damnation satisfies neither the demands of intelligence nor of justice. Of the glorious and satisfying fact of a continuing existence in a better world than this, have not the slightest doubt.


            Watch Victor Hugo as he writes near the end of his life, facing death:


            “I feel in myself the future life. I am like a forest once cut down; and new shoots are stronger and livelier than ever. I am rising, I know, toward the sky. The sunshine is on my head. The earth gives me its generous sap, but heaven lights me with the reflection of unknown worlds.


            “You say the soul is nothing but the resultant of the bodily powers. Why, then, is my soul more luminous when my bodily powers begin to fail? Winter is on my head, but the eternal spring is in my heart. I breathe at this hour the fragrance of the lilies, the violets, and the roses, as at 20 years. The nearer I approach the end, the plainer I hear around me the immortal symphonies of the worlds which invite me. It is marvelous, yet simple. It is a fairy take and it’s history.


            “For half a century I have been writing my thoughts, and I have tried all ways. But I feel I have not said the thousandths part of what is in me. When I go to the grave, I can say like many others ‘I have finished my day’s work’. But I cannot say, ‘I have finished my life’. My day’s work will begin again the next morning. The tomb is not a blind alley; it is a thoroughfare.


            “It closes on the twilight, opens on the dawn.”


            So heaven is not a place of existence but a quality of life, both here, and hereafter.