Virtual Voices

Finding heaven and hell in Walmart

Religion

I trekked into Walmart for milk and bread but didn't make it past the magazines and books.

I looked. I counted.

Eight? How could Walmart stock eight different books, non-fiction books to be precise, all on the topic of the afterlife?

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The kind of books that Walmart sells are the kind of books that sell. The discount retailer moves a heap of books out the door by stocking titles with "buzz" already surrounding them.

Lined up face-out on the shelf, they each promised to give me something I needed to know about heaven or hell. I scanned and skimmed them, and found four variations on the theme:

  1. Heaven exists. I've seen it. Or, my kid has seen it.
  2. Heaven exists. I've read about it in a sacred book.
  3. Hell exists. I spent 23 minutes there.
  4. Hell (sort of) exists. But love wins in the end.

I did not skim these books alone. Next to me, a woman picked up a bright-yellow paperback, the one with the cute, crew cut kid staring out from the cover. She smiled, then she put the book back on the shelf.

"Have you read it?" I asked.

"Yeah," she replied. "Several times. It's great!"

What makes a person pause from their shopping to pick up a book already owned and recently read? The woman's smile was like that of a balding baby-boomer in a baseball card shop, recalling childhood memories of time spent with his long-gone collection. He loved those cards to tatters.

The smiling woman basked in the memory of her journey down the yellow-book road. Then she pushed her shopping cart into the "20 items or less" lane and purchased shiny tins of gourmet cat food. Heaven or hell-whatever your reading choice may be, someone still has to feed the cat.

(Note to reader: This column has nothing to do with the individual merits of the aforementioned books. If you've been waiting around for the praise, or hammer, to come down on them, please excuse me for wasting your time. Whether the theology in these books is biblical or balderdash is not my concern . . . today.)

Whatever happened to secularism? The fact is, many people are reading and talking about the afterlife these days. This is consistent with survey results that report more than 80 percent of Americans believe in some sort of life after death. This belief may take Buddhist, Baptist, or Oprah Winfrey form, but the belief is out there nonetheless.

One may counter by saying that this conversation exists because these books are published, and I would agree with you to a point. On the other hand, shrewd publishers find and print books in response to existing cultural chatter and consumer desire.

Either way, Christians must not miss taking note of and acting upon this very simple leading cultural indicator: People really want to know what happens after death.

The Apostle Paul wrote, "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse" (Romans 1:19-20).

Paul answers the question of why Walmart carries books about the afterlife. Man does not live by milk and bread alone. All people have a knowledge of God and of eternity written on their hearts, and everyone eventually comes around to asking the question, "What's going to happen to me when I die?"

Christians, we have been justified by God's grace, in Christ, that "we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:7). Let's listen for these afterlife conversations taking place around us and be ready to give a "reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15).

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