Only Those of Us Who Believe in Heaven Have Hope

stairway to heaven

Last night, my wife and I were talking about death: about how we are the youngest of the older adults in her family; that we could have a spate of deaths over the next decade. Polly’s parents are in their 80s and her surviving aunts and uncles are getting up there in age too. Death comes for one and all. Sooner, and not later death will come knocking on our doors and say it’s time to go. We will be permitted no protestations, given no second chances. For me personally, at that moment I will have taken my last photograph, written my last blog post, and hugged and loved my family for the last time. Death brings an end to everything but the memories we leave behind in the minds of those who loved us or called us friend.

The permanence of death is one of the reasons men invented Gods, the afterlife, heaven, and hell. Most people have a hard time believing that this life is all there is. Believing that humans are somehow, some way superior to other animals or their deity’s special creation, people hope life continues on after the death. For Christians, the Bible promises them if they worship the right God, believe the right things, and live a certain way, that one day their God will resurrect them from their graves, give them new bodies that will never suffer, age, feel pain, or die, and grant them title to a mansion in a new Heaven and a new Earth. Those of us raised in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches likely remember the song, Mansion Over the Hilltop:

I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver and a little gold
But in that city where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one that’s silver lined

[Chorus]

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And some day yonder we’ll never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold

Tho’ often tempted, tormented and tested
And, like the prophet, my pillow a stone
And tho’ I find here no permanent dwelling
I know He’ll give me a mansion my own

I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver and a little gold
But in that city where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one that’s silver lined

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And some day yonder we’ll never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold

Tho’ often tempted, tormented and tested
And, like the prophet, my pillow a stone
And tho’ I find here no permanent dwelling
I know He’ll give me a mansion my own

Video Link

This song perfectly illustrates the view of eternity held by millions and millions of Christians. Life is viewed as little more than a preparation time for death and moving into new digs in the sweet by and by. Atheists, on the other hand, place great value on this life, on the here and now, because this is the only life we will ever have. Once we draw our last breath, we will either be turned into ashes or worm food.

I woke up today to find Polly in somewhat of an agitated mood — an uncommon state of mind. Her mother had called earlier in the morning to let her know that her elderly IFB preacher uncle was in the hospital. He had to have emergency surgery to remove 12 inches of his bowel that had turned septic. Polly told her mom about the conversation we had last night about how everyone is getting old and dying. Polly mentioned to her mom that our oldest son had been looking at some old family photographs and said of one photo, sixty-six percent of the people in this picture are dead.  Polly’s mom replied, well you know, only those of us who believe in heaven have hope.

That’s been Mom’s approach of late, to begin every sermon one liner with well, you know, reminding her daughter that what she plans to say next Polly already knows. Out of respect for her mom, Polly says nothing, but I fear the volcano is rumbling and will someday erupt. Polly said to me, this is what I should have told her: Those of us who don’t believe that shit don’t have to worry about getting into heaven or worry about did we pray the prayer, believe the right things, or do the right things. If Polly actually said these things to her mom what would cause the most offense and outrage is that Polly said the word shit. Imagine the outage if it became known that Polly can, on occasion, use the F word. I am sure that her salty speech would be blamed on her continued corruption at the hands of Satan’s emissary, Bruce Gerencser.

I have no doubt that Mom is feeling her mortality and she wants to make certain that she will see Polly again in Heaven after d-e-a-t-h. You know, the whole unbroken family circle thing. While Polly understands her mom’s angst and wishfulness, she does find the mini-sermons irritating and offensive. Mom likely thinks, with death lurking in the shadows, that she needs to put as many good words in for Jesus as she can; that repeating Bible Truths® will turn back her daughter’s godlessness and worldliness; that if just the right words are spoken, the Holy Spirit will use them to pull Polly kicking and screaming back to the one true IFB faith. Now THAT would be entertaining!

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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7 Comments

  1. Harry Hamid

    They mean well. I’m sure of it. Without their putting all that much thought into it, I’m convinced that believers are chilled at the thought of one of their loved ones being lost forever because they slipped into disbelief.

    Me, I’m not comforted at the idea of having to be me forever, or in eternity, or whatever. I enjoy being me and having my life, but at some point, enough is going to be enough. It’s okay.

    Reply
  2. Zoe

    My mom drops her one liner’s into the mix too. Only she’s not IFB or for that matter a “Christian” as we mean it. My mother’s beliefs morph. Just when I think I have something concrete she slides it a bit but always she maintains that somewhere along the line each of us as a soul saw our lives ahead of us and made an agreement to come. In other words, we knew what we were signing up for. As well, at that moment our death date was fixed. Nothing can change it.

    For years my mother would go on about giving people hope. But mom would say Polly’s mom’s hope is wrong and Polly’s mom would say my mom is going to hell with her hope (IFB right?) My mom says she doesn’t fear death. I think she does. When I think about my former IFB people-group I remember almost everyone fearing death in some way. I always wondered why. Why would we fear it when eternity was going to be glorious? The mansion, the streets paved with gold, the sitting at the foot of Jesus asking questions and getting answers for ever and ever . . . bliss, bliss and more bliss. His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me . . . use to be one of my favourite hymns to play on the piano.

    A few years ago I let mom know that I hear every word she says. She looked at me with a blank look. I told her that I think she’s full of angst because she thinks I’m ignoring her or not listening. Still no response. I did this all with a gentle controlled voice. I so identify with Polly wanted to let the shit fly but for me I think my mom wants a fight. I don’t because I think if I fight with her or argue with her she gets some sort of pleasure out of trying to be right.

    Anyway, I told her I hear what she is saying, I hear what she believes but that just because she believes it doesn’t mean I do or will or that I agree with her. Just because you tell me this stuff mom doesn’t mean I think you are right. It seemed to work. She went from sermonizing to one liners. I can take the one liners.

    Reply
  3. Rebecca

    I think this is an issue that we all can face at one time or another, the need to pull people to where we are at, and this idea that somehow choosing the correct words or the seemingly wise and balanced argument will do the trick.

    This generally does not work because people hold to their convictions and beliefs for a myriad of complex reasons, come of which are rooted in emotions, and past experience, all of that.

    This can also happen even among people of faith. For instance, I would greatly love to persuade some Christian people to let go of their anti gay convictions based on what I think is a misinterpretation of the Scripture, among other things.

    Last week, I heard a bunch of people discuss Genesis One, and debate about how Adam and Eve got along outside the Garden facing tigers and dinosaurs, and such. I couldn’t believe it, and very much wanted to set everyone straight. 🙂

    But, how do we always know when it’s wise to open our mouth, or to remain silent? Obviously, if something is abusive or causing harm, that’s a greater concern…I usually attempt to do my best to sense if people are genuinely open, and wanting to have a discussion. But, sometimes I’ve been wrong about that too.

    And, plus, “we all see through a glass darkly” in a sense. |So, in some measure all of us can be mistaken.

    Anyway, I think it’s not always an easy matter, for sure, especially when well meaning family is involved.

    Reply
  4. ObstacleChick

    My mom died 3 years ago from cancer, and a few months before she died she started in on me about “being saved”. I never came out and told her we were atheists, and living 1000 miles away made it easier to not have a confrontation about it, but I think she suspected and she certainly knew that we weren’t going to church for a few years. But I guess she was coming to terms that cancer was getting the best of her, and she sent me an email talking about when she was “saved” at age 11 at a Billy Graham Crusade, and how my brother was 9 when he made his “profession of faith” and how she thought I was about 12 (yes, that was the age when I went down front and got baptized so everyone would leave me alone about “getting saved”). My mistake was that I had admitted to her as an adult that I’d just done it to get everyone off my back about it, and she said she had been afraid that I’d done that. Then I told her I made my peace later (without actually telling her what my peace was hoping she would come to her own conclusions). But anyway, in the email, she was saying that she hoped that she lived to know that her children, her daughter-in-law, her son-in-law, and her 4 grandchildren were all “saved”. I didn’t address the issue, saying that we were all going to be fine without going into detail.

    I remember back in my Christian days being terrified of death – absolutely terrified that I would have made the wrong decision somewhere and be judged as unworthy and sent to eternity in hell. I mean, my church and school taught that one could “know” and be assured of one’s salvation, but whenever a sermon would come up about that, I’d begin to doubt and would pray the sinner’s prayer again “just in case”. My family members would talk about heaven a lot, usually in context of “when I get to heaven, then (fill in the blank)” – typically something about “I won’t have arthritis anymore”, “I’ll finally be young and skinny”, “I won’t have diabetes anymore and can eat anything I want”. As a young person, those things were meaningless to me, but I was promised that all my questions would be answered and I would finally know everything I wanted to know about every single subject from science to history to social sciences….

    Now that I don’t believe in an afterlife, I enjoy life so much more. I feel free to appreciate the beauty in this world. I make plans to travel instead of thinking I’ll have eternity to do whatever I want. I spend more time with people I care about. I don’t fear death anymore – because I don’t think there will be some judge who may cast me into everlasting torment for making a wrong decision.

    But the one thing I do regret is that my questions won’t be answered. I won’t find out if we ever discovered a unified theory. I won’t find out about the life on other planets (I believe that based on the size of the universe, statistically it’s probable that there is/are life on other planets). But otherwise I am at peace.

    Reply
  5. Rebecca

    Obstacle Chick, to my mind this is one of the greatest tragedies in the more fundamentalist churches, this emotional and manipulative push to have young people walk down an aisle, recite a canned prayer, and then to assume this is what it means to know God.

    Of course, mainline churches can do the same thing with the emphasis on having kids “confirmed” at a certain age no matter what. I was confirmed in the Lutheran church as a young teenager, and really had no idea what I was actually doing, just reciting the words that I was “supposed” to say.

    It definitely goes against the concept of loving God with our whole mind, IMO. I think it actually reflects more on the parent’s convictions, and/ or insecurities.

    Reply
    1. ObstacleChick

      Indeed. My family kept pushing me and pushing me to go forward to “make a profession of faith” when I was about 12 years old. The more they pushed, the less I wanted to do it. To this day, I still cannot even articulate why I did not want to do it. Part of it is that I don’t like being told what to do. Part of it was that I was shy and did not want to go down front in front of the whole church. Part of it was that I didn’t like the concept that we were all considered evil, rotten, disgusting pieces of dung that could only be made acceptable through groveling to Jesus.

      I am not sure if confirmation and bar mitzvah’s are much better. There is a course of study and a timeline that each child must complete, and once all the studies and volunteering and projects are complete, they are confirmed as full-fledged members of the religion. I remember my husband’s 1st cousins (twins) going through their Catholic confirmation, and we talked to them at their after-party. They felt great about it, basically because they had successfully completed their requirements and they were getting a ton of adulation and gifts from family. Now both are in their early 30s and are “nones”. My kids’ friends, the majority of whom are Catholic, have all gone through their confirmations. They don’t talk about it. They all went to CCD for years, they were all confirmed, and literally none of these kids ever talks about religion, unlike fundamentalist Christians who often cannot shut up about it. They just see it as something they “have to do”. One of my friends is from Poland (she and her husband both), and their parents are seriously pressuring them to have their 4-year-old and 7-year-old twins go through CCD and 1st communion and continue through to confirmation, in addition to going to Polish school on weekends to learn Polish language and culture. My friend told me, I don’t believe all that crap, and I certainly don’t want to spend time and money on it but they’re all pressuring us and we don’t know how we’re going to get out of it. I feel for her that there’s so much pressure to “do religion” just to shut everyone up.

      As you said, it’s totally more about the parents than it is about the kids.

      Reply
  6. mary

    Seems many of us went forward to be saved just to get our parents to leave us alone. I still somewhat identify as Christian, but I no longer believe in an afterlife. I believe we live then we die and that’s it. It does seem more peaceful to me to understand that this life is all we have. Thanks to you Bruce for being willing to write and share with all of us out in internetland.

    Reply

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