My father loved to tell the joke about the man who looked in the paper every morning to see if his name was in it. If not, he dressed and enjoyed the day. I never understood the joke until I was old enough to learn about the obituary page.
I never used to look at it. Today I do. Some notices are very short. Others, the length of the page because the man or woman was a VIP—a very important person. Some notices are accompanied by pictures, some of which are quite dated. Only yesterday I saw a death notice of an 82-year-old man with a picture of when he was in the U.S. Navy during World War II. How would it look if my eventual death announcement appeared along with my baby picture?
Some notices are very religious. About a year ago I kept score to determine the ratio of religious versus nonreligious obits. In my town, a bit more than a third of them make reference to our Lord. So and so “has gone to be with Jesus,” “has reached the heavenly mansions,” “went to be with her Lord,” “into the arms of Jesus,” “went to his heavenly home,” “God called her home,” and so on. Surely a wonderful witness! At the same time, I can’t help but wonder at some of them. I know there are far more who believe in heaven than go to church.
What happens when a person dies? I remember an old devout church member telling my father that one minute after his death he would know more than all our seminary professors put together. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, the same man told me that our president went to hell. Apparently he had more answers than all our seminary professors even before he died.
It’s good to be aware of our limited knowledge. Two monks had a disagreement over what heaven would look like. They decided that the first one to get there would come back and tell the other about it. When it happened, the one who came back said both of them had been far off the mark. He said, “Totaliter qualiter”–wholly other!
The question has been put to me more than once about what heaven is like. I can only say what the Bible says and no more. I always add the story of the two leaves hanging side by side in a tree in the fall of the year. Said the one leaf to the other, “There used to be so many of us, and now we’re the only two left. Where did all the others go?”
Said the other leaf, “I don’t know. None of them has ever come back to tell us.”
I have long been an admirer of John Stott, the Anglican clergyman and author. He is as biblically orthodox as June 21 is long. His books and biographies have often guided me in my thinking. But when he considers eternal damnation for those who go to the other place, he blinks. He considers the possibility that damnation forever and ever is not forever. I part company with him there, but only so far as to say that we should leave that question in the hands of a holy, just, and merciful God.
As for universalism, the view that all go to heaven is not my own. I’m aware of the narrow gate and the few that will find it (Matt. 7:14). At the same time, I’m also aware of the numbers of the redeemed, according to the last book in the Bible: “Ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousand thousands standing around the throne of the Lamb” (Rev. 5:11, KJV).
These are some of my thoughts when I read the obituary page. But most of all, I think of Dwight L. Moody, the great evangelist of a former day, who said, “When some of you read in the paper that I am dead, don’t believe it for a moment, for I will be more alive than ever before.”