Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Is Grandma watching over me?

My article from this week's newspapers deals with the question of relatives watching over us from heaven:

Q:  After the recent death of a relative, a friend tried to comfort me by saying that the relative was “watching over” me from heaven.  Is this true, and how do we know?

I’m not sure how far it goes back, but this belief has become increasingly popular among many Americans, even Christians.  And while it may have a bit of truth at its core, it goes farther than Scripture goes in describing the lives of our loved ones who have died. 

The first thing to consider is that “heaven” as we think of it is only a minor theme in Scripture.  Most of the Bible’s descriptions of afterlife are about something else – namely the Resurrection at the Last Day. 

At death, the body is buried, and the soul is judged.  For those who rely entirely on Jesus for forgiveness of sins this has the result that their soul goes to be at rest with Jesus.  However, this is not the soul’s final destination.  Instead, the body will be raised to be reunited with the soul on the Last Day, after which eternal life is lived in the body as a whole person. 

What we typically think of as “heaven” is referred to by theologians as the Interim State, indicating that the time while our souls rest with Christ is only an in-between time during which we await the full, embodied life which will commence at the Resurrection. 

From scripture we learn that these souls who rest with Christ are not unconscious or asleep, but seem to have some awareness of what is happening on earth.  We see this as the figures in Luke 16 are aware of events on earth even while they are at rest or in torment, and the souls under the altar in Revelation 6 long for the Resurrection of their bodies and the vindication of their fellow martyrs who suffer on earth. 

Scripture, though, does not credit the dead with "watching over" us, appearing to us, contacting us, or otherwise intervening in any way here on earth. Those things are the sole ability of the Lord, and Luke 16 makes very clear that there is no return, communication, or intervention between this world and the deceased.

It also seems preferable to speak of the saints with the Lord as "aware" of events here on earth rather than sensory language like "see" or "hear," since that sensory language implies a body, which they lack until the Resurrection on the Last Day. The language of watching over also might give the impression that they are occupied with earthly events or attentive to minor or embarrassing details here on earth or cause concern that they sorrow over the sin and suffering they witness.  Instead, they are occupied with the Lord while they are present with Him, and it seems that in some mysterious way, their souls share in some portion (even if incomplete) of His perfect knowledge and understanding of earthly events.

Ultimately, while it might be comforting to think of our deceased loved ones as watching over us, we have an even greater promise – namely that Christ Himself watches over us.  While they are beloved, they are merely human  and have not received supernatural power or authority, while He is the possessor of all divine power, and He who has forgiven our sins has promised that He will order all things for the good of our souls and the forgiveness of our sins so that we too would join Him and them in the eternal, resurrected life that is without end. 

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