Few of the four hundred or so students that I teach are religious: a few Christians, a few Muslims, but overwhelmingly people who identify as agnostic or atheist. Despite holding no religious beliefs, the majority of them believe in an afterlife, although they are vague about what it might be like.
The students would have been baffled by someone like Phil. Phil belonged to some fundamentalist Christian group. He came from the Bible belt that runs through London suburbia, and it was always disarming to hear sentiments more likely to be found in Ulster, or the southern states of the US, being spoken in a Home Counties accent.
Phil was an avid student of the Bible. He would spend his spare time with a large study guide exploring the less well known of the Scriptures. The study guide was fascinating. It had a soft cover and the pages were at least the size of foolscap sheets lain sideways. Phil would put the guide on the floor with his Bible beside it and kneel on the carpet to pore over the pages.
There were numerous diagrams to illustrate the practical details of the Bible stories. Was there a plan of Noah’s Ark? I don’t know. What was definitely included was a plan of Heaven based on measurements from the Book of Revelation.
Even to a twenty year old without any theology whatsoever, Phil’s plan of where the afterlife would be spent seemed pretty unimpressive. It was not a very big place and it was going to be filled with people like himself who were going to stand singing hymns all day. Being honest, it did not sound like a bundle of laughs.
Years later, Phil’s speculations on the nature of Heaven, raise questions.
Most people are like the students I teach, they actually believe in an after life. They might not be religious, but there are not many who think that the end of this brief span represents the complete extinction of a person. But if there is a life beyond this one, what is it like?
To answer that “we will be at our best” is almost to dodge the question; if that is the case, then when are we at our best? Do children remain children for all eternity, is there no space for growth and maturity? Is heaven no more than a place where everyone is frozen at the point where their life ended? Do we spend the infinite aeons of the time to come with all the limitations we have endured in this life? Do I live in the next world as the irascible, short-tempered grumpy person I have become?
Phil’s book would not have answered the awkward questions. Perhaps, as hard cases make bad law, so awkward questions make bad theology. Perhaps Phil’s literalist reading of the Scriptures was much neater and tidier than my vaguely liberal approach. He knew how to get to Heaven and what it would be like when he got there; he would say that all the other questions would be answered by God.
In a time when Christians struggle for a hearing, Phil’s set of propositions is no longer enough. Intellectual credibility demands that Christians actually engage with questions as to what it is they really mean when they talk about eternal life. What might they offer to the four hundred students I teach?