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From earth to eternity

From earth to eternity

As I write this, my elderly mother is in hospital again. There are purple bruises on the back of her hands and crook of her elbows, where needles and cannulas attempted to seek a viable vein. Once more, I was confronted by my own mortality.

Where do we go when we die, what is eternity, is there an afterlife, where are the locations of (the unseen) heaven and hell in the (seen) universe? Different religions propound different answers.

What is on the Other Side

In the story of Lazarus (Jn 11:1-44), Jesus raised him to life after he had already been entombed for four days. By then, according to his sister Martha, Lazarus’ body was already “stinking”. Emphatically dead, yet at Jesus’ command, Lazarus walked out of the tomb, incomprehensibly whole, dressed in his burial clothes. If he had some exciting tale about the afterlife, it is not recorded in the Bible.

On the other hand, the Bible records what Jesus told his disciples, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come” (Jn 8:21). Thoroughly misunderstanding, the Jews who heard this clamoured to know if Jesus was going someplace to kill himself, to which Jesus replied, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will indeed die in your sins” (Jn 8:23-24).

Besides virtually claiming divinity, Jesus saying he is “from above” makes the case for us to believe that heaven is somewhere above us rather than below. He later “ascended” into heaven.

For Christians, eternity will be spent in either heaven or hell. Revelation 21 describes in awe-inspiring detail what we can look forward to in “a new heaven and a new earth”. Other religions and philosophies hold different views. Some teach cycles of reincarnation. In Greek and Asian mythology, eternity is spent in an “underworld”, while an atheist friend of mine is convinced that death is a “full-stop”, and after we die there is “nothing”.

What is eternity, and does it kick in immediately upon our mortal death, or at the Second Coming? This will always be a mystery. Since we know of none who have returned from a real death (like Lazarus’) to tell their tale, eternity can only be what we believe it is from the Bible. (Anecdotal near-death experiences are a whole other thing and not relevant here.)

Finally, the answers the Bible gives to us demand faith, which is the hard part. For the Christian, the Bible is the infallible, inerrant Word of God that is the key to unlock eternity. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb 11:1 NIV). By the Bible’s definition, if you can see it to believe it, no faith is required. As Christians, we “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7 NIV).

Preparing ourselves for the Other Side

What can we do to prepare ourselves for death? Irrespective of our religion, this is probably the easiest to answer.

Of late, there are more public conversations about growing old and the needs of the elderly in Singapore. At a book launch of Singapore Ageing: Issues and Challenges Ahead on 11 April 2023, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cited the statistics, “Our population is not just ageing, but ageing rapidly. In 2010, about 1 in 10 Singaporeans were aged 65 and above. A decade later, in 2020, it has risen to about 1 in 6. By 2030, another 10 years later, it would be almost 1 in 4 Singaporeans over 65.”1 How we tackle ageism and its attendant plethora of needs, he said, will determine whether seniors in Singapore “are healthy, savvy, actively engaged in productive and meaningful activities, and well-respected, and society benefits from their collective wisdom and experience”.

But death can happen to anyone at any age. The Bible sets an average longevity of “threescore years and ten” (Ps 90:10 KJV), which is 70 years. This is not far off from the average human lifespan in recent centuries. While vast progress in medical science has helped more people to live longer than 70, it is interesting that Moses, who wrote this psalm, was born in 1393BC and lived for 120 years himself. He must have written this under divine inspiration (2 Tim 3:16).

I daresay every one of us hopes that we will pass on before we reach the stage of being bedridden and totally dependent on others for the basics of daily living. And everyone craves significance, even though we know that the tangible manifestations of it, like wealth, honour and fame, are fleeting and won’t matter a jot to us when we are ashes.

In short, the quality of our lives matters. We are born with two innate desires: to live well and to leave behind a good legacy. This is consonant with the biblical truth that we are born to be significant, for we are created by God in the image of God (Gen 1:27), and for a good, clearly specified purpose (Gen 1:26, 28). Here is God’s answer to our questions: Why was I born? What is the meaning of my life?

A good death

I first heard the expression “a good death” at the wake of a neighbour who had died in her sleep at the age of 80. Her husband said she had not suffered from any major ailments prior, and her passing was calm and peaceful. His disclosure was met with murmurs of approval: how enviable, and desirable, such a good death!  We all know that death does not come presented in a list of options we can choose from. How then can we ensure we have a “good death”? Can dying of a painful terminal illness, or in an accident, never be a “good death”?

There are many highly-recommended books offering insights and practical advice on how to live our days meaningfully before we set foot in eternity.2 Practising kindness, helping others and serving God by serving our community, are ways we can spend our time to amass quality years. Practical advice includes keeping ourselves healthy, mentally and physically, by eating nutritious food, exercising, maintaining social contacts, financial prudence, making an advanced medical directive and a will—in general, putting our house in order. The writers offer common wisdom in pithy phrases: to live well is to die well; add life to your years, not years to your life. And to state the obvious, to live well in the ways described above, is all that we really have any control over.

In the Christian lexicon then, a good death, contrary to conventional thought, should not be about the manner of our death, how easy or painless or quick, but the manner in which we have spent our God-given days.


True, in our human estimation, some deaths are more tragic than others—to be gunned down (Maximilian Kolbe at the hands of the Nazis in a concentration camp, Rachel Joy Scott who refused to deny her Christian faith in the Columbine High School massacre), or to die of a terminal illness at a relatively young age (Paul Kalanithi, of cancer at 37, whose book When Breath Becomes Air became his much-celebrated swansong).

But when we consider the intangible legacies left by people like them, it would be arrogant to say that they did not die a good death. Death comes for us all eventually and unpredictably. To prepare ourselves for eternity, as far as we can envision eternity, we should commit to the mission of doing all the good we can on earth.

Doing good on earth

Christians do not have a monopoly on the teaching that we should do good in our earthly lives. It is a tenet in many, if not all, religions and philosophies of the world. What sets us apart from others is the guidance we can freely obtain from the Bible, and the help of the Holy Spirit to inspire, counsel and encourage.

The apostle Paul offered a cogent summary of doing good when he exhorted the Ephesian church: “live a life worthy of the calling you have received”. He followed this with, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-6 NIV).

David Goetsch, in his essay centred on this passage wrote, “The message in Ephesians 4:1 is about how we live our lives, not just what we achieve or who we are to the world.”3

In our quest to prepare for eternity, we should start with an honest assessment of whether we are truly living our lives daily in accordance with God’s word.

1 https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/PM-Lee-Hsien-Loong-at-the-Singapore-Ageing-Issues-and-Challenges-Ahead-Book-Launch

2 Some of these titles are Through the Valley: The Art of Living Well and Leaving Well by William Wan (2) The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren, (3) Half Time: Moving from Success to Significance by Bob Buford.

3 https://www.david-goetsch.com/post/walk-worthy-of-your-calling-ephesians-4-1

Artworks by Dominique Fam. Dominique is an illustrator and worships at Wesley Methodist Church. Published with the kind assistance and permission from Sound of Art (https://www.soundof.art/).

Uphill (2022)

A depiction of our day-to-day walk through the hills and valleys of life, as we take uneven steps and make uncertain strides toward our destinations. The roads we walk on may have been travelled by many who have passed the same way before, but it is providence that guides us and illuminates our paths.

Upward (2023)

Based on Philippians 3:12–14, Upward is a depiction of our navigation through life’s challenges as we get older. We may take a familiar route, but God’s grace guides us afresh each new day. Produced specially for Methodist Message.


Lucy Cheng worships at Wesley Methodist Church and teaches in their BeTween ministry.