Last night, my family and I watched the movie Heaven is for Real. It was a 2014 Christmas gift from a former cell member, a devout and exemplary Christian in my book. To be honest, it took me one year (so to speak) to decide to slide that gift into my dvd player. And l was compelled to do so last night because it was either veggie tales reruns or that. I avoided that movie for a few weeks (given to me on 6 December) until the new year 2015 because those days about heaven, hell and St. Peter’s gate toll-check were, for me, days of future past (…that is, basically muddling confusion if you had watched the X-men movie). You see, I have heard and read many testimonies about such experiences and I once believed it hook, line and sinker. I am more sober now and I view such self-confirming accounts with a pinch of salt and down it with a few cups of communion wine.
That movie revolves around a 4-year-old boy named Colton who had an emergency surgery due to a burst appendicitis and during the surgery, he was taken to heaven. Note that it was not a near-death experience because he did not flat-line during the whole time. Colton was nevertheless hospitalized for 15 days. As expected, the usual sightings happened. There were a host of angels humming a beautiful hymn (who according to Colton politely declined to sing Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”) and there were the indispensable peace and joy with everyone, including Colton’s sister - who had died in a miscarriage - and his grandpa, looking gorgeous and uncannily young. And for your info, no one ages in heaven – that’s a bankable religious truth.
Of course, what spooked me (a little) about the movie was that Colton saw everything during surgery…he saw his pastor father (Todd Burpo) praying, crying and nearly losing his faith in God and his mother in the other room waiting and praying. He also saw things that was at that time never told to him like his sister and grandpa. Well, the father and mother bit were explainable because who wouldn’t be praying at such time. But the miscarried sister caused a slight rising of the eyebrow for me (…erm…I guess I needed a little more communion wine?)
After the movie, my wife turned to me and asked, “Do you believe now?” I hesitated, smiled and whispered diplomatically, “…it’s possible.” Then, my son innocently went for the jugular, “But do you believe enough?” I guess that’s the bottom-line for me. Do I believe enough. I imagine that the word “enough” was the evidentially unbridgeable gap of faith for me.
In Hebrews 11:16, it is written, “But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a heavenly city for them.” I dare wager that all of us, whether religious or otherwise, either openly or secretly, long for life after death; especially such a charmed life of eternal bliss after we pass on from this most-time difficult earthly life. And this longing has been our struggling pious hope that has kept us on existential tenterhooks for the longest of evolutionary time. Who doesn’t want ultimate justice to be done where we can finally lead a life without pain, sufferings and tears?
Personally, I am skeptical of all the accounts given so far. Many people saw hell, animals, mansions, street paved with gold, a mighty endless river, a musical band of angelic singers, God as bigger-than-life, and of course, the son of man, Jesus. The latter’s appearance has never changed throughout the decades. He is amazingly good looking, avuncular and beamingly wise, with a characteristic overall beard, and a voice that only Sean Connery could match. These are all standard versions of heaven with some minor deviations. After all said and done, I guess the bottom-line is this: they could all be true or otherwise, that is, they are our cultural memes acting out in desperate self-conjured imageries with compliment of our plastic, hormonal flooding brain.
So, when the eschatological rubber meets the existential road, do I believe enough? I guess the movie provokes in me a sentimental longing I can’t deny and it also brought back a floodgate of poignant memories. Still, I am quite a wishful stick in the empirical mud.
However, I am still open to all experiences, heavenly or otherwise. The evidence may fall short but my faith is still stubbornly adventuresome. I shall therefore keep my views to myself for now and adopt what T.S. Eliot once said, “I had far rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children’s game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end.” Never say never, right?
Let me then end with my own version of a heavenly encounter should I one day die and go to heaven…
…when I arrived, I was greeted at the gates by an angel. He told me his name, Stephen. He was quite apologetic when he first saw me. Stephen told me that I had come at a wrong time. No one was actually prepared for my arrival. In fact, Stephen told me that God was on a vacation with his entourage and he will be back only later in the day.
Surprised, I asked Stephen, "Isn't God omnipresent?" Well to be honest, I don't recall his reply to me on that question. But I think he said something like these are matters relating to the Host's sovereignty and angels like him don't ask God about it.
Thereafter, Stephen wanted to show me my abode but I pleaded with him to show me God's. At first he was hesitant. He told me that that is against protocol. But after much persuasion - and I trust me, I nearly traded everything in my mansion for it - Stephen reluctantly agreed (minus the bribe of course).
It took a while, in eternity's window of time, to reach God's mansion and it was huge. Words cannot describe it adequately. I think it will take a lifetime to visit every room. I was in awe and clearly speechless.
The journey to the front door required that we walk past what appeared to me to be a gigantic beach. It was a beautiful sight. Again the awe I felt preceded and even superseded the words I could muster to express it. The wind and the waves were beyond the grand and the majestic.
The sea was gentle yet regally aggressive. I marveled at the sight before asking Stephen about those bottles left by the side of the beach. The bottles had messages written in it. Stephen smiled at me and picked up one bottle and told me that each bottle represents a confession of sin on earth. He said that God hears their confession and they arrive here as symbolic messages in a bottle.
And what does God do with them? I asked. Stephen replied that God throws then into the ocean before him. He said he remembers them no more. So God takes each of the bottles and hurls them far and wide? I persisted. Stephen nodded. Then, I muttered to myself saying that God must have left these bottles here - and there were innumerous of them - because he did not have the time to throw them away. Another day I guess, I mused.
Stephen chimed in and said not quite. These bottles were left here because they are not done yet. You see, Stephen turned to me and said, the confession has to be complete before God throws them away. The life represented in each of these bottles is a life that is still repenting as it matures along the way. For most of them, the recidivism rate is rather high.
Many suffer from withdrawal symptoms as they cannot let go of one or two pampered and jealously guarded sins. Only when they have truly overcome it, and they turn back to it no more, then the confession is complete and the bottle will be shut for good. There and then, God picks it up and hurls them beyond the horizon.
I see, I said and requested that we proceed to the enter God's majestic mansion. I was trembling as I walked into the white sterile hall of God's heavenly residence. The design was Spartan-like and minimalistic. Nothing fancy. Nothing embellished. Nothing cluttered. It was indeed a breath of fresh air for me.
Stephen reminded me that my visit here is limited and unauthorized, so I had to walk in and walk out as fast as possible. I told him to lead the way and he brought me through a long cavernous corridor leading to the back of the mansion.
As we walked, I noticed a room, dimly listed, with a huge box. I asked about it and Stephen told me that that is the prayer-request room. I told him I had to see it and Stephen relented. We entered the room no bigger than a typical living room on earth and I saw strewn pieces of paper on the floor just next to the huge box. I read one of them against Stephen's admonishment and they were cries for help, desperate petitions for deliverance.
I asked Stephen why they were left on the floor and did God answer them. Stephen explained that God sometimes answers them and they are disposed of. But sometimes, God doesn't answer them. He leaves them here, on the floor.
Stephen told me that this is a very personal and private room for God. He usually leaves this room with tears in his eyes. So I couldn't resist the urge to ask my guiding angel why God doesn't answer these prayers. Doesn't he care? What is holding him back? Is his power constrained because of our cursed free-will? What about gratuitous sufferings, can't he intervene? What does he do with these unanswered prayers lying on the floor?
Stephen did not reply to my questions. He just shook his head. I persisted and he told me that such things are best left for me to ask God himself.
But Stephen picked up the pieces of paper from the floor and told me that God hands them over to Jesus. And everyday, without fail, Jesus would go to the adjoining room to intercede for each of them.
I then asked to see the room and was led to a room that was even dimmer than the one before. It was warmth and there was an elevated stage in front. I also saw what appeared to be musical instruments unlike those I had seen on earth. They were big and grand and I supposed very loud.
Stephen told me that Jesus would hold each prayer request in his hand and kneel here to intercede for as long as it takes. I supposed the stage and musical instruments were part of the worship, I asked. Stephen nodded and said that the host of angels would release a heavenly chorus to comfort and empower the supplicants on earth. This was how God keeps his line of communication and encouragement with each of the soul whose name is written on the pieces of paper.
As I couldn't help myself, I repeated the same questions I asked earlier about how easy it would be for God to intervene - not indiscriminately but at the very least, most discriminately, starting with those most deserving, in particular, cases involving gratuitous and inhumane sufferings.
Stephen again gave me the you-ask-him look, this time even more insistent. Reluctantly I backed off and we continued down the corridor. My mind was still vexed by unanswered questions left in the intercession room. I was very unsettled.
As we walked on, I could see the end of the corridor and I caught what appeared to be beautiful rows of mountains against a glorious skyline. But before we walked to the end, I saw another door. It was decked with all kinds of precious metals the kind that I have not seen before. It was a huge door and I asked Stephen about it. I was very curious to enter into that room.
This time, Stephen was a little distressed. He told me that that is the end-time planning room. That room is where God plans to return to earth as foretold in the Revelation. I was completely stoked and insisted that we take a peek, just a harmless gander. Stephen's countenance transformed completely and commanded that I refrain from doing so.
Again I could not resist myself and begged for just a peek. Stephen stood firm. Just when I was about to reach for the doorknob, a booming voice from behind us resonated with an echo that was overwhelming, "Son, what are you doing?" We froze. We were stunned, still. Stephen was sweating. That was also when I woke up and was covered in cold sweat. Cheerz.