'Non-believers assume that we’re afraid of death and are too weak to face up to it. It’s not so much that we’re afraid of death that we believe in an afterlife – though for some a visceral fear of death is a real and constant thing. Rather, our concept of death and life comes from our understanding of God and his purpose for us and for all creation.'
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
My grandmother had dementia in the late stages of her life, and one day my mom was visiting her in the nursing home. During a conversation, she asked, ‘What are you thinking about?’ and my grandmother responded, ‘I wonder what Bud’s doing in heaven.’ (Bud, of course, was my late grandfather.)
My Mom responded, ‘Well, I don’t know – what do you think he’s doing?’ To which my grandmother pulled a face and said, somewhat derisively, ‘He’s probably playing cards.’
This is how many of us think of heaven, especially if we are thinking of our loved ones. It gives us comfort, perhaps especially if our loved ones died after not having been able to pursue their leisure activities for a while, to think of grandma in heaven gardening or grandpa bowling or something like that. Even if we may not really think that’s what heaven is like, it is comforting to imagine our loved ones being in that great garden or bowling alley or even seated at that great green folding card table in the sky.
Different cultures have different ideas about a life after this one. We may be aware of the common Native American concept of ‘the happy hunting ground.’ Ancient Egyptians buried their dead with food and perhaps people to keep them company in the next life. The ancient Greeks believed that after one was dead, one went to a shadowy netherworld in which one led a dark disembodied existence, to which even the lowest kind of life in the light would be preferable.
For some Eastern religions, the life after this one is believed to probably be a real human life after this one, with the goal of a religious life to be to get off the wheel of reincarnation, to achieve eternal bliss by detaching oneself from the passions and false loyalties of bodily life. And of course, many do not believe that there is anything after this life at all – that as we were unconscious before we lived, so we will return to unconsciousness after we die. Just as we ‘were not’ before birth, so we will not ‘be’ after death.
Why do Christians believe otherwise? Non-believers assume that we’re afraid of death and are too weak to face up to it. It’s not so much that we’re afraid of death that we believe in an afterlife – though for some a visceral fear of death is a real and constant thing. Rather, our concept of death and life comes from our understanding of God and his purpose for us and for all creation.
We believe that God created us for relationship with him; and if an eternal God creates us for relationship, this relationship is permanent. This is why death is seen in the Christian tradition as an enemy; it interrupts the relationship we have with God.
But in a very real way in the Bible, death is seen as a consequence of the fall. Spiritual death comes in the Bible before physical death. It is because the human beings took of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that they were removed from the garden where the tree of life was. Death interrupts the relationship with God – both spiritual death and physical death.
However, because Jesus died for us and rose again, death is stripped of that power. It is neither extinction nor a path to a shadow of existence nor another turn of the wheel. Rather, it is transformed from defeat to victory. The relationship to God is restored and cleansed.
In the Sundays of Easter we are now moving away from the stories of Jesus’ appearances after he was raised from the dead and more toward the stories of how life begins to reign in his holy ones through the Holy Spirit. Jesus speaks of the relationship between him and his people as the relationship of a sheep to a shepherd. He says that he ‘gives’ them eternal life.
This is an important difference between our beliefs and other beliefs. An afterlife is not simply what comes after life sort of like the next chapter always comes after the present one is finished. The resurrection to eternal life is a gift of God.
This is not simply life forever. I used to lie in bed as a kid and be terrified of the concept of everlasting life – the concept of getting up in the morning, tearing another page off the calendar – day after day and year after year and millennium after millennium. But that’s not what our faith talks about. There are no calendars in heaven. There’s no sense of time – at least, not time in the sense we understand it.
I was recently at a friend’s party and had a wonderful time. I had about an hour’s drive on the way home, and was thinking the whole way home about my friend and the party and the good time we all had. The drive seemed to take about five minutes. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. It’s the same thing when we have access in our memory to things that happened decades ago as if they had happened a day ago or even a minute ago. Time moves differently when we are joyful in the presence of God and others.
The book of Revelation does not speak of card-playing in heaven. What it does, however, is speak of heavenly worship. But just as time works differently in God’s kingdom, so does worship. Worship on earth echoes the worship of heaven, but it cannot be equated with the worship of heaven. So heaven is not an endless church service, as if we would be stuck here forever. Even I might get a little bored with that.
But worship in heaven might be best described as being joyful in the presence of God and others. Revelation describes that as the martyrs and saints singing praises to God and honoring him with their songs. As a singer, I am in favor of that.
Maybe, though, who knows? Would Jesus be opposed to sitting down with my grandfather and a couple of friends and playing a hand of pinochle? One in which the delight was not necessarily in the winning, but in the being together and in the strategy and taking as much joy in how others play as well as in one’s own play? I don’t necessarily think so, but there is a certain poeticism to it. And not having been there yet, I can’t say for certain that it doesn’t happen.
Finally, eternal life doesn’t just begin after death. It begins now and is perfected in the life to come. The life of Tabitha in the first lesson was a participation in eternal life. The widows cried and remembered her love and good works. Peter’s action served to show that God still gave Tabitha life, and it was the completion of the life she enjoyed before her death. The relationship was not ended, but restored.
Jesus promises to be our good shepherd, even in the valley of the shadow of death, and promises that we will be in the house of the LORD forever. Let us worship today believing that in this worship we receive a foretaste of the feast to come, and rejoice in the victory he has won for us and for his people. Let there be joy!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!