When you reach a certain age there’s a lot of planning to do, and because the choices narrow down, the focus on consequences becomes more important. At thirty-five you can make a few mistakes, as I certainly did, and recover. At seventy, while you still may have many years to live, you just don’t know, and the stakes are very high for a bad gamble. And of course even more so if you are married with children and grandchildren.
Income. Social Security. Life insurance. Investments. Medicare supplemental insurance. Reducing expenses. Long term care insurance. Visiting family members. Running out of money. Where to live. Volunteer work. Child or grandchild support. Travel. Where to be buried. Downsize or redo. Senior living or stay at home. Obituary draft.
And those major issues come after you’ve crafted a thoughtful will, and before either of you gets seriously ill.
There’s a lot to do and to plan for as we get older, and wise choices when we are young typically give us more and better choices nearer the end. So seek wise counsel and choose well, with lots of margin for the unexpected.
My wife and I have been grappling with this list, some issues more, some issues less, for years. And of course we pray about them, seeking His guidance and wisdom, because we’re followers of Christ. His hand of grace is clearly evident in shaping some of our key decisions, and in minimizing some clear mistakes.
Notice that all of this list is about what to do before we die, to minimize the potential negative impacts on us, our family, and our friends. We’ve been focused, as I think most of us are, on planning between the present and death. We haven’t thought with much specificity about what happens after death, other than knowing, as believers, that we will spend eternity with God in Heaven. Those last words have been little more than generalities, a promise of an undefined but presumed joyful relationship with our Creator and other believers. But nothing specifically to plan for–not like planning for everything on the above list.
This week I read Heaven by Randy Alcorn, and it blew me away. It’s been around a while, so you may have read it; if not, please get it. I consumed its 500 pages in a few days.
Heaven when we die, and the New Earth when Christ returns, are going to be incredible. Alcorn is not a pitchman for a product—he’s a respected theologian and author. The book took him three years to write and is meticulously researched and footnoted. While by definition it must be speculative, his key conclusions are based on scripture, and he makes even the most enticing brochure you’ve ever read for an exciting cruise seem boring.
Worship. Relationships. Ruling. Responsibilities. Conversations. Family. Homes. Joy. Kingdoms. Cultures. Animals. Sports. But no pain, disease, jealousy, hate, death, tears, lust, or anger. Forever.
I can’t possibly summarize Heaven in this short space. Please read it. For purposes of this discussion, suffice it to say that Heaven and the redeemed New Earth are so exciting and enticing that you will really look forward to being there. Even if the necessary birthing pain is death.
My point is that while I’ve been planning for every possible detail up to death, reading this book has reminded me of the need to plan now for eternity after death. And eternity is a whole lot longer than the next few years here, however many there may be. And therefore much more important.
How do we plan for eternal life in Heaven? Here are three basics:
1. Get your AfterLife Insurance policy. If you are not a follower of Christ now, read Heaven. Read the Gospel of John and then the rest of the Bible. Talk to believers. Think about what you have done and about what God has promised for eternity to those who stop trying to save themselves, and instead turn to Jesus as the one who has already done it all. Repent for what you’ve done wrong, ask for His forgiveness, and ask Him to take over your life while still on earth; and believe.
If only a small percent of what Alcorn describes turns out to be true, it will be incredible. Bottom line: believing in Jesus means eternity with God, whatever the details may be. Why would anyone pass up insuring that future, when the alternative is either oblivion or eternity without God? Even if every Christian is wrong, what do you have to lose? And if Alcorn is even partly right, you don’t want to miss it. And there are no do-overs after death.
So check it out. As Jim Elliott famously said, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
2. It’s not something believers talk about much, but running through the Bible is the clear promise that there will be rewards in Heaven for those who do God’s work on earth. And there will be more rewards for those who do more, especially quietly and as servant leaders.
I have no idea how God keeps score or gives rewards, but the rewards must be good if they’re anything like Alcorn’s descriptions. And while works have nothing to do with salvation (Jesus has already done it), it appears that works have everything to do with Heaven. God knows our hearts, and to whom much is given, much is expected.
So here is a second partial planning list for our time while still on earth. Pray. Feed the hungry. Shelter the homeless. Visit prisoners. Forgive. Defend the weak. Give to the needy. Comfort the sick. Mentor. Do justice. Speak the truth. Love kindness. Bear witness to God’s goodness.
It’s not complicated. As a friend once told me, “Find out where God is doing something, and join in.”
And since God proclaims that in His economy it is more blessed to give than to receive, I believe that as we plan and then execute these actions for eternity, we will also be blessed here in ways that we cannot imagine. A double dip!
3. The only two things that will last eternally are God’s Word and people. His truth and our relationships are eternal. Nothing else is. And as my friend Ken Boa says, one thing we won’t be able to do in Heaven is to tell unbelievers about Jesus. That door will be shut. Alcorn speculates that in Heaven we will have an understanding of what is still happening on earth (before the New Earth replaces it), and we will be able to pray for those on earth, as the martyrs do in Revelation 6. But we will no longer be able to instruct our children, have a cup of coffee with a seeking friend, invite a co-worker to a Prayer Breakfast, or help a mourner make sense of grief and suffering.
So now is the time to do that, to tell others. The only time. I imagine being in Heaven and having a young woman introduce herself and tell me that neither she nor her family would be there had I not invited her father to a Prayer Breakfast twenty years ago. And with humility I will remember that I almost didn’t dial his number because I wondered what he would think of me. And now his whole family is spending eternity with God and the other saints! How great is our Lord, to use such imperfect people as me to do His work! And where is a phone?
The key point here is that Alcorn’s book Heaven has a nearly exuberant approach to the details of eternal life after death. If you’ve been talking with seekers about the downside of spending eternity in Hell without much result, here is a way to instead talk about the joy of spending eternity in Heaven, which should definitely motivate further thought, study and engagement. Clearly both futures are true, but God touches different people in different ways, and I am suggesting this “positive” approach for a non-believer who is getting up in years. And, frankly, for anyone who is very ill, or who has recently lost a loved one.
Whatever approach you want to use, now, while you are still here and able to do so, evangelize. Reject passivity. Keep books or tracts in your car to give to check-out people and restaurant servers after you have had a brief conversation. Circle back with old friends and family to see how they are doing. Is there a strained relationship that needs your reconciliation? Watch for unexpected openings in conversations, and don’t be bashful—you never know how God has been working in someone’s life right before the moment when he or she is with you, longing for something but not knowing how to ask. Be helpful and winsome. Hand them a copy of Heaven.