You may have heard me tell this story before, because it has made quite an impression on me.

Charley Wade was pretty old when I came to ABC, but he was still active in his career as an electrician. We bonded because both of us grew up around people in the building trades. His father had been a carpenter/contractor, and his older brother inherited the business from him.

At one point, Charley suffered a severe stroke. He didn’t recover consciousness immediately, and he lay in a coma for several days. I visited him in the hospital a couple of times and prayed at his bedside. One day, I received word that he had awakened. I went to the hospital that afternoon and found him surprisingly alert. Though he was a man of few words, he couldn’t wait to tell me his story. Here it is, as I remember it:

“Pastor, I went to heaven. I walked on the streets until I found the many mansions.* I found my father and my brother there, doing their carpentry. They said, ‘Go back, Charlie; we’re not ready for the electrician yet.’ So, I came back, and here I am.”

It’s my memory that Charley lived another few months, and then the heavenly mansions were ready for the electrician.

Now, my rational mind tells me that Charley didn’t actually go to heaven. I don’t believe the popular accounts of people who have made that journey and returned to tell us about it (and to make money writing a book). So, it’s my belief that this was an unconscious mental journey Charley experienced as he lay in the coma, a kind of dream trip led by the images and expectations of the afterlife which he had been taught in his childhood, mixed with his own life experiences.

It’s fascinating that Charley’s view of what heaven will be like was seen through his electrician’s eyes. It makes me think of the idea attributed to Native Americans of the afterlife as a “Happy Hunting Ground.” For people dependent on hunting wildlife for food, the ultimate bliss would be to be in a place where game was plentiful. Every cultural group throughout the world is likely to have a unique picture of what heaven may be like, influenced by their lifestyle and values.

The Bible itself presents a number of metaphors for heavenly existence. The most obvious is the source of the word itself, the literal, physical heavens. The clouds, the sun, moon and stars, all seem mysterious and out of reach. It’s natural for earthbound humans to look up, beyond the clouds, when they try to picture eternity (Psalm 103:11). As the disciples witnessed Jesus’ ascension, they described him as rising in a cloud into the sky (Luke 24:31, Acts 1:9).

But there are other pictures of the afterlife in the Bible. Among the striking images we find are: a spiritual Kingdom that contrasts with earthly kingdoms (Matthew 7:21), a City with streets of gold and jeweled gates (Revelation 21:16), a large Building with many rooms (John 14:2), a glorious Temple for continual worship (Revelation 11:19), a new set of Fine Clothing (2 Corinthians 5:2).

In our Advent sermon series, “Home for Christmas,” we’ve come to the final emphasis: that God has destined us for an eternal home. In the Worship Service on Christmas Sunday, we’ll try to look past all the wonderful metaphors for the afterlife that we find helpful, to see if we can find some clues to the ultimate reality behind them all.

Meanwhile, Charley, keep the lights on for me.

— Pastor George Van Alstine

* Reflecting on the words of Jesus in John 14:2