1991 brought us the most excellent movie, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, exploring the rich depths of life after death with all the acumen of two intellectually bankrupt high school slackers.
Most people who believe in an afterlife assume that you go straight to your final destination: heaven if you’ve been good, hell if you’re evil (or for fundamentalist Christians: hell if you don’t believe in Jesus). But Christians teach of a final judgment, a bodily resurrection, a new heaven and a new earth. Catholics traditionally teach about purgatory, the time and space before final judgment where saints are made perfect through suffering as they purge themselves of sins. Protestants have largely rejected the idea of purgatory as unbiblical.
The United Methodists don’t have strongly articulated doctrines on heaven or hell. Their Book of Discipline is almost silent on the subject, which is fine, because it’s best to stay silent on that which we can’t really know. Yet we need to be able to say SOMETHING about heaven and hell, and what happens after death. Candidates going before the Board of Ordained ministry have no idea if their answer should lean toward conservative eternal damnation or the more liberal leaning towards God’s ultimate victory where all are saved (similar to the idea of purgatory, everyone must face their sins in a sort of hell that ultimately leads to redemption). But even more, people need their pastors to have something pastoral to say when they ask what has happened to a dead loved one.
John Wesley taught of paradise and hades as sort of waiting rooms before final judgment. Wesley rejected the idea of a purgatory of suffering, but his intermediate state, or waiting room idea still carried the thought that one could grow in holiness after death. Wesley taught:
“But what is the essential part of heaven? Undoubtedly it is To see God: To know God: To love God. We shall then know both his Nature, and his works of creation and providence, and of redemption. Even in paradise, in the intermediate state between death and the resurrection, we shall learn more concerning these in an hour, than we could in an age, during our stay in the body. We cannot tell indeed how we shall then exist, or what kind or organs we shall have: the soul will not be encumbered with flesh and blood; but probably it will have some sort of ethereal vehicle, even before God clothes us “with our nobler house of empyrean light,” –Letter of John Wesley to Miss B (17 April 1776).
While we can sing along with Mercy Me, “I Can Only Imagine,” I think the things that most guide our imagination about heaven are Christ’s teachings and parables on the kingdom of God, which of course can be summed up here:
“Be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes.”
– Bill S. Preston, Esquire, Theodore “Ted” Logan, & Abraham “Abe” Lincoln