A Heart for Eternity

Newsweek magazine (July 2002) devoted its cover story to ‘Heaven’. It explored ‘How Visions of Paradise Inspire – and Inflame – Jews, Christians and Muslims’. Certain things in the article implied a cynical attitude, however, the author made a useful observation when she noted that, "the urge for heaven is universal". She suggested that we have this urge because people perceive death to be very negative and "threatening", and so they look for an escape hatch. Heaven provides an answer to death, promising eternal life beyond the grave.

If you read this article and your faith was wavering you may have been tempted to think that eternal life and heaven are just products of our own wishful thinking. Perhaps you would like to know if there are reasons to believe in eternal life. The answers provided here are based mostly on beliefs shared in common between Jews, Muslims and Christians.

THE PROPHET MOSES recorded the story of Adam and Eve which contains a seed of hope of eternal life. Our first forbearers were banished from the paradise garden of Eden because they disobeyed God. Along with banishment from God’s presence they experienced death, sickness, grief and other kinds of suffering. They had not experienced these unpleasant things while living in Eden. Their life changed radically but they did not forget the sweet memories of ‘paradise’. Their children and grandchildren kept these memories alive. Generation after generation was buried and disappeared into the dust but their deep longings could not be suppressed. This yearning seemed irrepressible – the desire to live forever and not be parted from our loved ones.

Modern sceptics have argued that death is the end of the road. They say death is just another normal event of life and we should take it in our stride. However, in spite of this appearance of normality, most people find it hard to simply accept death and carry on with life.

KING SOLOMON wisely commented, "man goes to his eternal home and mourners go about the streets". He described our instinctive reactions to losing loved ones as if we had a homing instinct – like homing pigeons. He wrote, "God has set eternity in their heart." The longing God implanted in our heart acts like an internal compass directing us to our true home. Another saying of Solomon underscores the connection between eternity and mourning, "It is better to go to a house of mourning," he said, "than to go to a house of feasting for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart ... The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure." (Ecclesiastes 12, 3, 7)

If God has given us an innate longing for eternal life, will He not fulfil it? If He has implanted in us a yearning and vision to enjoy life, like our first ancestors tasted it in Eden – without sickness and death – surely he will do it! The last chapter of the Bible pictures this sweet vision of heaven, saying, "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain". The Qur’an similarly envisions paradise as a place where there is no grief or death. In fact, the hope of eternity, unspoiled by death, is a theme that is repeated over and over again by the prophets.

THE PROPHET ISAIAH envisioned this hope of salvation in chapter 25 where he prophesied, "On this mountain, God will destroy the shroud that covers all peoples ... He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces." (Isaiah 25:7,8) Elsewhere, Isaiah provides clues, giving us a glimpse of how this will be done and who the special "servant" will be, through whom God will accomplish this awesome thing.

The ‘servant’ who will do this unusual feat is the Messiah – the one Jewish people call, Ha Mashiah and Muslims call, Al Masih. Isaiah the prophet spoke of the Messiah as God’s "servant" and foretold that he "will bring [God’s] salvation to the ends of the earth." (Isaiah 49:6)

There are two similarities between these two prophecies that suggest they are speaking of one and the same person. First, both passages foretell something that is worldwide and all-encompassing in its scope. Secondly, both prophecies mention "God’s salvation". This second similarity is clearly seen in verse 9. Notice the people’s response when death is destroyed, "In that day, they will say, ... He saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in Him, let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation." (Isaiah 25:9)

Who might this person be? Many Jews do not want to consider the possibility that he could be Jesus Christ. Muslims, on the other hand, accept Jesus as God’s servant and Messiah. But it is not so simple for Muslims to acknowledge him as the one who "will bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth". Some of them hesitate to accept this because they are wary of anything related to the Christian idea of ‘salvation’. Isaiah does not foretell the Messiah’s death in this passage but still the mere possibility that this is implied could make some Muslims uneasy. If this is your feeling, or perhaps, if you are a Jewish reader and you feel this prophecy of Isaiah does not seem consistent with the earlier writings of Moses and Solomon, I would encourage you to patiently read further. You might be pleasantly surprised.

TESTIMONY OF THE QUR’AN   There are two incidents in the Qur’anic account of Christ’s life that are consistent with Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah bringing God’s "salvation to the ends of the earth." First of all, there is the birth of Christ, which tells how an angel from God appeared to Mary instructing her to name her baby (Jesus - English, Yeshua - Hebrew, Isa - Arabic).

According to Jewish and Muslim belief, names have meanings. One would expect Jesus’ name to be especially meaningful, considering that God Himself chose it. I’m sure no one seriously suggests that God would have chosen randomly as in a lottery draw! In actual fact, the name Jesus means ‘God is salvation’ (or ‘salvation of God’). This meaning of Jesus’ name is acknowledged by a prominent Mufti in Pakistan. (Islamic Names – Revised and Enlarged Edition by Muhammad Imraan Ashraf Usmani, p.77)

The Qur’an records a second incident in Jesus life, which is consistent with Isaiah’s prophecy. It says he healed those who were born blind as well as people stricken with terminal illness, like leprosy. It also says he raised the dead (Surah 5.113; Matthew 11:5). If one ponders perilous circumstances, like a drowning victim being rescued, or a heart patient being saved by a surgeon, one sees how natural it is to describe such near-death experiences in terms of being ‘saved’. We know that Jesus healed people who were almost dead and he even raised up some people who had gone over the brink of death into the grave. It is proper, therefore, to describe both these situations as ‘saving’ people’s lives. Jesus demonstrated God’s saving power, i.e. His salvation, by fending off the threat of death and also by overcoming death’s grip on those who were in the grave! When Jesus exercised this saving power he was, in effect, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy of death’s destruction. We can even say he was fulfilling the meaning of his name.

MESSIAH’S TESTIMONY   Jesus spoke of the miracle of raising a few dead people as a hint or glimpse of something much greater that is still coming – the day of resurrection "when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out". The paragraph climaxing with these awesome words of Jesus reads as follows; "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. To your amazement, he will show him even greater things than these. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. ... I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live ... Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear" (John. 5:19-29)

Notice how Jesus mentions the miracle of raising the dead as something that has "now come" but then he focuses our attention on a greater coming event when "all who are in their graves will hear his voice". In the prophecy of Isaiah we noticed that the Messiah would "bring salvation to the ends of the earth". It is significant to see this worldwide scope is implicit in these words of Jesus. However, we read elsewhere a clear statement by Jesus, "I did not come to judge the world but to save it" (John 12:47) It is clear from this statement that Jesus saw himself as bringing salvation to the world in keeping with what Isaiah prophesied.

It may be difficult for you to understand and accept that God’s plan was to raise "all who are in their graves" through His Messiah. But that’s not all, there is something else, equally profound and intriguing. We know that the Messiah raised the dead. He overcame death’s grip on other people but how would he, himself, face the challenge of death? Would he succumb to death or would he conquer it?

ISLAMIC VIEW OF QIYAMAH   Islam teaches that Jesus Christ will die after returning to earth and living out the rest of his life. He will be buried next to Muhammad and stay in the grave until the day of resurrection (qiyamah). This is in stark contrast to the picture Jesus described, where he will raise up "all who are in their graves". We need to examine this contradiction more closely taking into account Isaiah’s prophecy of death’s defeat. One detail in Isaiah 25:7 that we have not paid attention to, is the place where death will be destroyed.

PREDICTING THE PRECISE PLACE   Isaiah states that death’s destruction will happen on "this mountain" but we can only determine what mountain this is by looking to the previous paragraph. There we find it mentioned: "Mount Zion and in Jerusalem" (Isaiah 24:23) Jesus confirmed this prophecy when he foretold that he would face death in Jerusalem. We read that "Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life." (Matthew 18:21) The outcome of Christ’s encounter with death was that he rose from the dead. The obvious implication is that Jesus won the victory – death was defeated.

Thankfully, however, God’s Word does not leave us to read implications behind events. God explains clearly what Christ’s resurrection means. We understand Jesus resurrection to be a demonstration of his victory over death because scripture says that Jesus "shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives where held in slavery by their fear of death." Also we read, "Christ Jesus has destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light" (2 Tim. 1:10)

Jesus Christ claimed to "hold the keys of death and Hades" (Revelation 1:17) But this claim makes no sense at all, if he did not conquer death by rising from the dead. Christ’s resurrection takes on special meaning in another situation where Jesus spoke reassuring words to a grieving woman, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." (John 11:25)

THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM   Earlier we mentioned how Adam and Eve disobeyed God. As a result they suffered banishment from Eden and died. It is important, now, for us to take a closer look at this turning point to see whether it reveals any helpful clues. On the face of it, sin seems to play a pivotal role in man’s fall. The Law of Moses confirms our suspicions – that there are indeed evil roots behind the tragic reality we call death.

Scripture tells us that whenever an Israelite died those who carried him to the grave became ritually defiled because of this close contact with death. For a period of one week they were not allowed to enter the Tabernacle. During this time they had to perform ablutions with special water mixed with ashes from sacrificial red heifer (Numbers 19).

The prohibition against entering the worship centre showed that God was repulsed by death. God made it very clear that He disliked death, by saying that anyone who had been in contact with death was defiled – even if they had only touched a grave or a bone. This negative attitude is not unlike what God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel, saying, "Why will you die, O house of Israel? I take no pleasure in the death of anyone ... Repent and live." (Ezekiel 18:31,32)

Now that we know God had a plan to defeat death, we should not be surprised to see the repulsion and displeasure God feels toward death. But the question arises, "What is it about death that is so distasteful and displeasing to God?" "Does God feel repulsed like humans, by the stench of a decaying corpse?" Not exactly, though perhaps, this image may provide a helpful analogy.

The prophet Ezekiel gives us a glimpse of the root of the problem when he says, "Repent! ... then sin will not be your downfall" (Ezekiel 18:30). Another clue we mentioned earlier is found in Genesis 2:17 where God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. God warned Adam that if he disobeyed, he would die. It is no secret how the story ended – they sinned against God and His word proved true – they died. They were banished because of sin and became separated from God. Because they sinned, they were forced to live the remainder of their lives on ‘alien’ soil, so to speak, where death reigned. Knowing the back-ground of this story, it is understandable that God was displeased with death.

If we ponder the nature of paradise we will gain another glimpse of why death is so repulsive to God. It is interesting to see that death never existed in the first paradise (Eden) nor will it exist in the final paradise, so it makes sense that God forbade anyone tainted by death from entering the Tabernacle, where His Shekina glory dwelt.

When we realise God sees death as tainted by sin, then we can better understand why God’s attitude against death is so intense. It also helps us understand God’s plan to do away with death. You will also remember that this prophecy mentions the comforting promise of God wiping away tears. God conscious people recognise that tears are not just an indication of how much we miss our loved ones. They point us toward our ‘original home’. Our sorrow echoes the heartache felt by our first ancestors when they were banished from Paradise and their relationship with God was broken. This vision of being reunited in fellowship with God rings true with our belief in a compassionate God who wants to welcome us ‘home’.

As we’ve been pondering these things, I trust you have felt your heart resonating with the truth of this remarkable promise that God will one day destroy death and wipe away tears. Our deepest longings are not simply to live beyond the grave but to be reunited with the One who is our dearest Friend. These heartfelt longings are not just ‘wishful thinking’ as sceptics would mockingly accuse us.

In conclusion we need to clarify something about sin. It should not surprise us to learn that God is opposed to both sin and death and therefore, His plan of salvation involves doing away with both of them. A careful reading of the Law of Moses and the prophets shows that sin offerings and guilt offerings were a foundational and crucial part of scripture. Through these sacrifices sinners were forgiven of their sin. If we made a detailed study of sin and God’s remedy for doing away with it, we would find a series of clues pointing to an ultimate solution. All these clues, like the prophecies relating to death, are fulfilled in the death and resurrection of the Messiah.

If you have been encouraged by this insights on eternal life, and you want to know more, please write to us: starsign77@hotmail.com

Articles by Ronald Clarke
Answering Islam Home Page