A peculiar fact about humans is that we sometimes talk a lot - a whole lot - of subjects about which we know little. I'm thinking today of the subject of Heaven.
It's old news by now that Alex Malarkey has come clean that his story of visiting Heaven, as contained in his book The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, was a made-up tale. Much money was generated by that book for the reason, I think, people believe and want to believe in Heaven. They long to know what Heaven is like. They lovingly await being reunited with dead loved ones. They look for a less troubled existence, and some even find time to look forward to meeting their Pilot "face to face," as Tennyson so movingly put it in his immortal Crossing The Bar.
Believe it or not I once was a Sunday School teacher. It was a small church and I think now I was much too young, much too uniformed to be doing that. Truth be told, though young I was, I was still better qualified than many of the older members of the church I attended. Christians are "willingly ignorant" about the Bible, and though they express a devotion for their Bibles, relatively few spend much time perusing its pages.
But from my youth I always had my nose in its pages. By the time I was in my late teens I had accumulated an impressive library of theological works. And I put those to use.
I don't remember exactly when but at some point I began to feel a lack of ability to speak about Heaven. That was because, believe it or not, there is a paucity of material in the Bible that describes it. As a Protestant Christian I was bound by Scripture rather than tradition.
Oh, like most Christians, I was familiar with John 14:2, where Jesus explained to his disciples: "In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you." I even knew and could sing all of Mansion Over The Hill Top. But when it came to scriptural authority I came up short.
What about those Pearly Gates and Streets of Gold? I found those alright. I found them in the closing chapters of John's Revelation. I found them as a description - not of Heaven - but of a refurbished earth and a New Jerusalem. It suddenly seemed to me that the Bible was not teaching about an eternity in the clouds, but rather about, literally, a Heaven on earth.
It was many, many years of study that led me to a revision of my ideas about Jesus. I began to see him (not as founder of a new religion, but) as a teacher of Judaism - an apocalyptic form of Judaism. And as a Jew, Jesus would naturally have thought in terms of God's covenant with Abraham. In his vision of God's Kingdom it was an earthly state, a restored Jerusalem, which he seemed to have in mind.
When I moved away from the Bible as divine revelation from God I also moved away from my views about Heaven, whether as an earthly restored Jerusalem or a "beautiful isle somewhere." In short, it led me into something of an agnostical position concerning it.
I still retain a great interest in the stories of those who have glimpsed something they think of as Heaven as contained in the great body of recorded near-death experiences. But as Malarkey's case demonstrates, there is the specter of fraud lingering about.
I don't think we need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. We needn't dismiss every such experience. I do think these experiences seem to be highly personalized experiences, and perhaps that is what Heaven might ultimately be: primarily a state of mind.
That isn't a revolutionary thought for me because I think mind is the ultimate reality.