|"Forget images of playing harps up in the clouds"|
When young children – and many adults – do something for a while, they soon get bored and ask “What’s next?” We’ve done that, been there, achieved this, arrived here, so what’s next on the bucket list, or the life plan? It’s what drives us to gain promotion, get more money, upgrade our lifestyle. Contentment is sometimes wrongly equated with stagnation and boredom.
But the biggest question of all – what’s next after death? – is not one we spend much time on until tragedies or advancing years intervene. Almost every culture and religion has some kind of belief in afterlife and Christianity is no exception. So what, if anything, is next, and why should we think about it?
Death: an obscene intrusion into life
Life is precious. When death intrudes, whether by “natural” or violent causes, individuals grieve, communities mourn, and strangers may gather and offer support. In some well-publicised and usually violent or tragic cases, shrines spring up, Facebook fundraising takes place, and memorial concerts are arranged. Life is glorious and to be celebrated. Death seems obscene, wrong.
We have “a profound inability to conceive of nothingness,” author and columnist Caitlin Moran wrote. Three years earlier she had declared, “I want there to be an afterlife, now.”1 The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences has been offered for anyone who can show a way of conquering death.
There have been three modern attempts to postpone or escape death. The welcome rise of medical expertise including transplant surgery, along with improvements to diet and public health, has succeeded in lengthening average lifespans considerably in developed countries. However, it can also have the effect of lengthening life artificially so much that a person becomes a breathing corpse. By contrast, good palliative care aims to enhance, not necessarily extend, a person’s remaining days.
The technique of cryonics, which deep freezes newly-deceased bodies in the hope that they might one day be resuscitated has been available to rich people for several decades, mostly in the USA (currently for $200,000). And there is growing interest, fostered by science-fiction writers and partly illustrated in the Channel 4 TV series Humans, in “transhumanism”, in which electronic hardware and software extracts memory and personality from the brain as well as replacing worn-out tissue.2
Contrary to some popular misconceptions, biblically death is not seen as a friend but as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Alfred Lord Tennyson caught the conviction that death is an unwelcome intrusion into life at the start of his long poem In Memoriam. It was written over several years in response to the sudden death of his close friend Arthur Haslam, which threw Tennyson’s faith into confusion:
Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.
“Not made to die.” But we do. Some believe there is nothing beyond death. We live on only in others’ memories, through our achievements, and through our genes in our offspring. That is largely how people in Old Testament times viewed life beyond the grave. Apart from a hazy idea about a shadowy existence in Sheol and the occasional glimmer of insight such as Job’s “after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (19:25), future hope for ancient Israelites lay more in genealogy than regeneration. It is only in the New Testament that a clear and at the time revolutionary concept of life after death appears.
The famous reaction of Jesus Christ – “Jesus wept” – when his friend Lazarus died suggests that there is even divine grief and anger in the face of death. Translators struggle with the Greek original of John 11:33. The NIV suggests “he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled”. The New Living Translation has “he was moved with indignation and was deeply troubled”. It was not just because he had lost a personal friend whose home had been a welcome retreat for him.
The 19th-century theologian B.B. Warfield described Jesus’ anger thus: “It is death [itself] that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death and whom he has come into the world to destroy. Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage: and he advances to the tomb, in Calvin’s words, ‘as a champion who prepares for conflict.’ Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites on our behalf.”3
Death, this seems to imply is somehow an “unnatural” intrusion into life. Yet cold logic tells us that death is part of the cycle of life. Plants and animals die, their remains recycled by the seasonal rhythms. Age takes its toll on all living things. Everything physical slowly decays or wears out. Even stars like our sun, in their unimaginably long timescale, are born and eventually die and are consumed.
This creates a problem for interpretations of the creation stories in Genesis which suggest that death entered the world only after the rebellion of Adam and Eve. (This can be implied from Paul’s teaching in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22.) Was everything before then as indestructible as modern plastic? Where did the humus nutrients for plant life come from if not from decay? Were all the animals vegetarian? Generally, commentators regard the threat of “death” after eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17) as a purely spiritual alienation from God, which is probably how Paul intended his teaching to imply.
So in their pristine Paradise, how did death occur? Could Adam eventually have become crippled with arthritis? Could Eve have developed breast cancer? C.S. Lewis in his science fiction novels speculated on a kind of painless, joyful translation of an un-fallen race from this life to the next. We’ll never know. This is now, and everyone dies, sometimes prematurely, sometimes painfully, sometimes peacefully. But the New Testament suggests that God has not left us to mope over what might have been, but gives us a glimmer of hope for what could be.
Resurrection and re-creation
The Bible does not teach that human beings are immortal. On that basis, it is possible to believe that death is the end for all, or that life after death is granted only to some favoured souls. It also rules out any concept of reincarnation; we don’t go on and on in different forms. Instead the New Testament introduces a whole new concept: resurrection.
Although the idea had crept into Judaism during the previous few centuries, it was still contentious and unclear in Jesus’ time. Hence the cynical question by the resurrection-denying Sadducees about which husband would live with a hypothetical seven-times married widow in the next life (Mark 12:18-27). Jesus’ teaching about his own forthcoming death and resurrection was received with bemusement by his disciples (e.g. Mark 8:31-32; John 14:1-6).
What transformed their understanding was the undeniable fact of Jesus’ own bodily resurrection. Despite his attempts to prepare them for the unimaginable, it was only when it happened that they understood. In the book of Acts, it was Jesus’ resurrection, not his atoning death on the cross, which dominated the apostles’ preaching and inspired the rapid growth of the fledgling church. The resurrection demonstrated God’s power and love, and paved the way for anyone who believed in him to enter eternal life.
And it was Jesus’ resurrection that formed the basis of St Paul’s relatively brief teaching about what lies in store after death for the rest of us. Like Jesus, we too will be raised from death. In what is probably his earliest letter, he tells his readers not to grieve for those who already “sleep in death” as if there is no hope for them. “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).
|Human imagery cannot begin to comprehend|
spiritual and eternal reality
In 1 Corinthians 15:20 he calls Jesus the first instalment of those who will rise at the last day, when God creates a new “kingdom”. He suggests that the bodies we shall receive will be spiritual and enduring rather than physical and mortal. This tells us only enough to be sure that life after death will be conscious and tangible.
The book of Revelation, often appealed to as a picture of life after death, certainly portrays heavenly scenes but only in figurative language. It must be remembered that the vision given to John was not intended to describe the future life in any detail but, in veiled language, to encourage persecuted Christians that their enemies would eventually be vanquished and their faithfulness to Christ rewarded. The picture of a new heaven and a new earth as a cubic city made of gold and precious stones (Revelation 21) was never meant to be understood as a sneak preview of God’s photo album but as an artist’s or visionary’s way of saying that “it will be perfect and unblemished, beyond your wildest dreams”.
Forget the caricatures and conjectures
The idea of life after death has attracted many caricatures, mythical conjectures and hopeful assumptions and it’s hard even for Christians to throw them off. So forget joining angels on puffy clouds to strum harps all day. And thankfully forget the idea of heavenly equivalent of an endless church service. The image of worshipping throngs in Revelation 7 – whose joy stems from God’s victory over their persecutors – has to be matched with Paul’s assertion in Romans 12:1-2 that true and proper worship is serving God wholeheartedly.
Forget too the idea of a perfected life as we know it on earth. At the end of Julian Barnes’ book A history of the world in 10½ chapters the hero asks to be taken away from heaven because he’s fed up of going round the golf course in 18 strokes – a hole in one each time. Couldn’t the creator of the universe come up with something more interesting, he asks. He probably has, but we know precious little about it because we cannot conceive of “life” beyond the material world.4
Then there’s the idea of some glorious reunion party in heaven. Paul does imply that we’ll meet again those who have gone before in the 1 Thessalonians passage quoted above, but that doesn’t seem to be the key concept of heaven. TV presenter Emily Maitlis told Stylist magazine, “When I was a kid, I used to think of death or heaven was about endless concentric circles of people you’d met throughout your life – some randomly, some intensely, some for moments – popping up and back into it to say hello. Then they invented Facebook and I realised how unappealing that actually was.”5
So what can we know?
Here’s some bullet points from the scriptures, to feed the thoughts and conversations we all need to have about life after death.
· There is something next. Jesus’ resurrection – the Easter story – points to that. Jesus rose, and is accessible to us through prayer and in experience. He told Martha at Lazarus’s grave “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live even though they die.” He told his disciples he was going to prepare a place for them (John 11:25; 14:2).
|Life after death will be completely different: sculptor Phillida |
Barlow's "upside down house" defies imagination
· It will be radically different to life now. “Heaven” is an unimaginable dimension beyond space and time. It will be tangible but not as things are now. It will be a timeless dimension. Eternity is not time extended infinitely, but a whole other dimension. Theoretical physicists and cosmologists currently suggest that there are already more dimensions in the universe than we can conceive, and perhaps also other universes. Our imagination (and often our faith) is time-bound and rooted to our concept of matter as we know it. Yet Jesus’ resurrection body had unworldly properties, behaving more like some of the elusive elementary particles of matter discovered by researchers that behave in distinctly non-material ways. As he was, so shall we be.
· It will be good but not a mere escape. St Paul declared that “I desire to depart and be with Christ which is better by far”. But this was not the weary cry of a man worn down by constant deprivations, ailments, and crises. He decided that actually “it is more necessary for you [Philippians] that I remain in the body” (Philippians 1:23-24). He didn’t want to go there yet because he had more work to do here in order to comply with God’s good purposes. When Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 15:19 that if we have hope in Christ only for this life, “we are of all people most to be pitied” he did not intend to fuel Nietzsche’s later assertion that heaven is a myth devised to comfort weak people. Paul was this-life affirming; the hope of eternal life was an added incentive to remain faithful to God’s calling now. The promised upgrade to come doesn’t detract from the call of the present to build God’s Kingdom as best as we’re able.
· It will be a place of knowledge and understanding. Our questions will be answered, our doubts resolved, at last. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
· It will be a totally new creation without the built-in blemishes and weaknesses the present one endures. It will be without suffering, pain, and conflict; justice will be seen to have been done; evil will be banished (Revelation 21:4; 22:5). The question as to why this life is blemished and prone to accident and decay is perhaps only one that can be answered in the next life.
· There will also be continuity with this life. The biblical picture of “paradise” begins with a garden in Genesis and ends with a city in Revelation. In between is the call to contribute to the building of God’s “Kingdom”. God is not about to destroy everything good that we’ve done corporately and individually. Somehow all will be renewed, and thus incorporated into a new creation depicting what we should and could have done had we been more faithful to God’s purposes. Paul writes of the “redemption” of creation, not its wholesale demolition (Romans 8:18-25).
More questions than answers
Once you begin thinking about the topic, many other questions come to mind. What happens between the time we die and the return of Christ and the inauguration of the new creation? Paul suggests the after-death experience will be like sleeping, which presumably means from the point of view of the deceased there’s no passage of time at all – we’re oblivious to it.
But is there some kind of intermediate state, a place of preparation, a dressing room, if you like, before we take our place on stage before the King? Scripture is virtually silent on the topic and focuses on this life as the training ground (see the parable in Luke 16:19-31 which seems to rule out any “second chance”). Yet we all retain our human imperfections. We need to receive our new set of spiritual clothes (see Matthew 22:1-14; Revelation 7:9-17; and compare Paul’s imagery of changing clothes in Colossians 3:1-14 and the promise that we shall be changed in an instant 1 Corinthians 15:51-54). The jury is out; we wait and see.
And then there’s the question of the last judgement. “We will all stand before God’s judgement seat … [and] each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:10,12). Is this an exam with rankings, to determine which position we will attain in the next life? Paul suggests that our work for God will survive, or be incorporated into the great transformation, and we will be rewarded. Those whose lives here have contributed nothing to the Kingdom will see their worthless activity “burned up” but they themselves will suffer loss yet still be saved (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Is this a hint of differing levels of heaven? But how can a perfect new creation be anything other than egalitarian? Otherwise I might think I ought to have a better spot than someone else, and all the old rivalries re-emerge! Again, we have to wait and see; it’s not for us to speculate, but simply get on with being the best we can for God.
And that leads to the final question: who will be there? There’s plenty of room (or rooms) for all, Jesus suggests in John 14:2. Paul seems to leave the door open to people who have never had the opportunity of hearing the Gospel clearly in Romans 2:12-16. But Jesus also speaks of hell as well as heaven. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father who is in heaven”; all others will be driven from his presence (Matthew 7:21-23; 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31). Tyrants, murderers and the selfishly immoral appear to be excluded (Revelation 21:8), yet Jesus promised paradise to the dying thief on the cross who may have repented to Jesus but who had no time to make amends or communicate to others (Luke 23:40-43).
The imagery of a loving God torturing sinful souls for ever is probably a distortion of the biblical teaching. Better, perhaps, to think of the exclusion as permanent, and that the realisation of such a fate may result in agonising regrets; beyond that, scripture again seems to be silent. Biblical scholars these days are talking more about exclusion from the Kingdom in terms of eventual annihilation after the initial realisation, than of unending terror. Apart from other considerations this underlines that fact that humans are not born immortal. Death could be the end, for some, after the painful and damning judgement that they’ve wasted their life and missed out on some glorious future.
These warnings are not given as a basis to speculate about the fate of others. They are for each person’s cautionary personal examination. When Peter presumed to ask about the fate of John, he was rebuked by Jesus (John 21:20-23). Judgement of others is to be left to God. We’ve got enough to do just to sort ourselves out (see Matthew 7:1-2).
There’s just one potential down side, which is why all this is worth thinking about. There could be people in the next life who currently we can’t stand. God loves them as he loves us. And they will be there, just as we will be, not because of any merit on our part, but courtesy of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection on that first Easter. One way of preparing for what’s next is to live and think in Christ’s way now.
And the sure way of being confident that however flawed we remain we will still be welcomed into heaven is to take heed to Jesus’ promise to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). And if the answer is yes, John much later in life assured his readers, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God. … Whoever has the Son has life” (1 John 5:1,12). We do not need to go fearfully into death’s good night.
Think and talk
1. Work through each section and its Bible references. If you can, discuss the implications with a group of others.2. What have you done to prepare yourself and others for your inevitable departure from this life?
References1. Caitlin Moran, The Times Magazine, 7 October 2017 and 22 February 2014.
2. My short story Time to go explores an aspect of this. See http://gentlertales.blogspot.com/p/time-to-go.html
3. B.B. Warfield, The person and work of Christ, quoted in R.V.G. Tasker, The Gospel according to John, IVP 1979, p.140.
4. The Julian Barnes story was quoted by Bishop Tom Wright, “Imagine there’s no heaven – not such a hellish idea” in The Sunday Times, 20 April 2003
5. Quoted in The Times Diary, 16 June 2016.
© Derek Williams 2018