A little while ago I was speaking at a convention on the topic of heaven. As often happens, several people came up afterward to ask questions and share comments and stories. Over the next several minutes the conversation slowed and eventually the crowd drifted away leaving one man standing quietly. Once the others had left he came up and, as the tears began to fall, he told me that his twenty-four year old son had passed away a year before.
As we talked about the various understandings of the afterlife, he noted that several people had recommended he read the book Heaven is for Real, the bestseller that recounts the alleged firsthand account of a three year old visiting heaven. (During my talk I had offered a brief critique of the theology in Heaven is for Real.) This grieving father noted that he had not enjoyed the book (nor, for that matter, did I).
Instead, I recommended to him a far better book for a father bereaved of his son, Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son. In this book Wolterstorff (a famous Christian philosopher) describes his process of grieving upon the untimely death of his son. As I said, it is a far better book, one that offers profound theological reflection on God and suffering with the pastoral touch of a true wounded healer.
Then the grieving father made the following observation:
“When I get to heaven, if there are two lines and Jesus is in one and my son is in the other, I’m running to my son first.”
The father made this statement with a deep conviction, but with a sense of scandal lingering in the background, as if by sharing this view he was stepping out onto theological quicksand. So I quickly agreed with him. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child. As a parent, I’m right with that grieving father. I too would run to the line of my child first.
Is that a problem? Should there be a sense of scandal in this prioritization? Theologically speaking, does the Christian who expresses that sentiment do something wrong? Have they failed to love God as they ought?
After all, when a would-be disciple proposed delaying his commitment to Jesus until he had buried his father, Jesus brusquely replied, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:22) And when he was informed that his mother and brothers were waiting to see him, Jesus blew them off with the quip: “’Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matthew 12:48-50) Given that Jesus subordinated familial ties to commitment to him, one might reasonably conclude that he would be miffed with any parent who stated their preference to embrace their child first in eternity.
I can see how a Christian might reason in that way. But let me offer an alternative perspective.
Let me start with a pastoral point: even if you think it is the case that one’s familial ties ought to be subordinated to their commitment to Jesus, God forbid you should ever “correct” a bereaved parent who expresses the sentiment that they want nothing more than to see their child again. This is not the time for a theological corrective. It is the time to shut up and be with those who suffer. As Nicholas Wolterstorff says, join those who suffer on their mourning bench of grief, waiting for the dawn.
As for Jesus’ radical teaching that marginalizes family, the biblical commentaries on those passages are vast. I’m going to set aside discussion of those commentaries here to make a simple but important point. Who do you think Jesus is?
Think about it like this. Imagine that you leave your family for several months to work overseas. When you return and meet them at the airport, you run to embrace your child first. Do you think your spouse and siblings are going to be offended that you hugged your beloved child first? Goodness, if they are, I would submit that this says more about the emotional immaturity of your spouse and siblings than it says about you.
If Jesus is who Christians say he is, I don’t think for a minute that he is going to be offended by a grieving parent who runs to embrace their child first in eternity. On the contrary, Jesus is the kind of person who would stand to one side with a beaming smile as he took in the beauty and joy of that blessed reunion.