Not long ago, I encountered a woman whose husband of 56 years was dying after a prolonged illness. In great anguish, she went through a period of wondering if God even heard her prayers.
Gradually she accepted that death was at hand, but tearfully added, “What about heaven? Will I see my husband again in heaven?”
Amid distress, the writer of Psalm 42 calls out to God, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully?”
So also today people of faith call out with similar words amid medical crises, seeking assurance of God’s enduring presence, both now and in the life to come.
By some reports, references to heaven are not frequent in the halls of medicine. As a physician-turned-chaplain, I am attuned to talk of death, dying and afterlife because I believe it is vital that I be so.
Simply listening to critically ill patients and their families long enough will yield such references. Even in their silence, I suspect others are thinking about what will happen to their souls after bodily death.
Still others need permission to even speak such questions aloud, fearing it will be taken as a sign of “giving up” or not “battling” the illness.
One possible reason for the avoidance of conversation about heaven is a strong desire on the part of the families to not let go of the focus on maintaining the life of a loved one. But once death comes, the question “Will I see him or her again?” becomes more important.
We, in the church and in medicine, cannot be dismissive of questions about death, immortality and heaven.
While there are probably no answers that will bring universal agreement, not having any clear answers does not mean we should avoid the conversation or fail to engage people’s hearts as they face end-of-life questions.
Poetically speaking, questions about the hope of heaven are from the heart more than the head. “The heart is the fountain of our being,” said John Claypool, “where both the scars of woundedness and the wonder of healing balm are to be found. Ideas, images, concepts and energies that can make a profound difference are there.”
They do not come from our reason for, as Blaise Pascal put it, “the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know … it is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason.”
The writer of Revelation 21-22 expressed a heart-felt and hope-filled vision of heaven, saying: “God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21:3-4).
Likewise, Paul spoke of that time when he would fully see and understand: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
This, I believe, is a snapshot of heaven, of eternal life, of our hope.
It is an act of faith to cry out to God, and that faith is the beginning of hope – hope that is often mixed with fear and anxiety.
In times of crisis, our spirits search feverishly for a word of hope. Platitudes and optimism will not suffice.
So let us not be mute in the face of those who cry out like the writer of Psalm 42: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?”
Bill Holmes is an ordained Baptist (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship) pastor and part-time hospital chaplain. He retired from medicine after 34 years of practicing and teaching pediatrics and pediatric neurology. He is also a doctor of ministry student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. A version of this article first appeared on Church Health Reader and is used with permission.