I’ll tell you a secret. It is something every pastor knows. Also, any therapist, social worker or anybody else who deals with people at a deeply personal level. For many people this is not “the most wonderful time of the year.” For many it is a sad and troubled time. Advent invites us to consider even the darkest parts of our world and of our lives. And that is a good thing, because often the deepest truths are found in the darkest times. That certainly has been true for me. Continue reading
Category Archives: eschatology
“Heads Up!” A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, Year A
Advent is my favorite season of the church year. It has a different feel to it than the other seasons. There is a sense of yearning in Advent. A sense of anticipation. It is a time of watching and waiting. A time to remind ourselves that there are forces at work beyond our control. Continue reading
“By the River” A Sermon on Acts 16: 9-15 and Revelation 22: 1-5
You may have noticed there is a lot about rivers in the service. A river is featured prominently in both our readings for today. One is an actual river in the ancient city of Philippi, where Paul went to pray, and where he met Lydia. The other river is from John the Divine’s vision of the New Jerusalem, where a river runs through the heavenly city. Continue reading
“How then shall we speak of the atonement?” A Reflection for Good Friday
(This essay was first written in 1995 for my study of the atonement with Professor Richard Bauckham at St Andrews University in Scotland. It later appeared as a chapter in my book When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement. Some of the references, therefore, are dated.)
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” The death of Jesus Christ was understood by the earliest church, not least by Paul himself, as a divine act of reconciliation between God and humanity. Which is to say that Christ’s death on the cross was understood from the beginning as an atoning death. Continue reading
“First the Bad News . . .” A Sermon for Proper 28, Year A
You all know those jokes that begin ‘I’ve got good news and bad news . . .” Well, in this sermon I’m going to flip it around and talk about the bad news first, because there is lots of bad news in the appointed lessons for today. There is talk of a dreadful “Day of the Lord.” There are dire warnings of impending disaster. Continue reading
“Holy Weeping” A Sermon on Romans 12: 9 -18 and Revelation 21:1-4
Our two scripture readings today both speak about crying. The first reading speaks to the church on earth today, what I was taught as a child to call the church militant, and the second reading speaks to the church in heaven, what I was taught to call the church triumphant. Perhaps those terms are too martial for us today, but by whatever names it is the distinction between the church here and the church hereafter.
In the first reading Paul admonishes the Roman Christians on how to be the church now, and one of the things he tells them they need to do is to “rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.”
The second reading is from the Revelation of St John the Divine. I have a soft spot for the writings of St John the Divine, as I was baptized at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, which is the world’s largest gothic cathedral (so I come by my high church inclinations honestly.)
In this beautiful passage from Revelation, St. John describes the holy city, the New Jerusalem at the end of time and history. He says then there will be no more crying there because God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
So in engaging these two texts about the here and the hereafter, I started thinking about the function of crying in our lives, and especially in the church. I did a little research on crying, and discovered that we don’t know all that much about it. There are several competing theories about why humans cry, including those theories of evolutionary biologists who think it may have some social function. Continue reading
“He’s Back!” A Christmas Story with a Happy Ending
My friend and former Pittsfield colleague Karen Gygax Rodriguez is the Pastor of the Federated Church of Green Lake, Wisconsin. On the Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, the baby Jesus figurine was stolen from the church’s nativity scene.
The police investigated, but had no leads. They speculated that the thief was from outside Green Lake, since “everybody knows everybody here, and it would have been returned by now.” Continue reading
“He will come like child.” Rowan Williams’ “Advent Calendar”
I have long been an admirer of the estimable Rowan Williams, the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, since the time I saw him give an awkward, brilliant, and humble paper in 1989 in Oxford. Since then I have read with profit his thoughtful theological books and essays. But I just learned that he also has written poetry. I came across this fine Advent poem today. It is from his first collection of poems: After Silent Centuries (Oxford, 1994), and is now available in The Poems of Rowan Williams’ (Oxford, 2002 and Grand Rapids MI, 2004).
He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.
© Rowan Williams
(Photo by R. L. Floyd, 2015, “Autumn leaf after the rainstorm,” Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, Lanesborough, MA.)
“What’s the Point?” Reflections on a Christian Eschatology
In Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall, there is a great scene (click picture above) in which Alvy Singer, the character played by Woody Allen, flashes back to his childhood in Brooklyn. His mother takes him to the family Doctor, Dr. Flicker, an avuncular man wearing a stethoscope, and smoking a cigarette. Alvy’s mom tells Dr. Flicker that 9 year-old Alvy is depressed.
Doctor Flicker: Why are you depressed, Alvy?
Alvy’s Mom: Tell Dr. Flicker.
[Alvy sits, his head down, his mother answers for him]
Alvy’s Mom: It’s something he read.
Doctor Flicker: Something he read, huh?
Alvy: [his head still down, quietly] The universe is expanding.
Doctor Flicker: The universe is expanding?
Alvy: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!
Alvy’s Mom: What is that your business?
[she turns back to the doctor]
Alvy’s Mom: He stopped doing his homework!
Alvy: What’s the point?
Alvy’s Mom: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!
Doctor Flicker: It won’t be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we’ve gotta try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here!”
I was looking for this quote yesterday, and when I found it I put the Yahoo clip on my FB page. A child psychologist friend of mine, who is also a professor, wrote this comment:
I always refer to it when I teach developmental psychology, and I ask how many students remember feeling this way: “What’s the point in doing anything because the sun is going to go out in several billion years?” Many, many young people remember the precise moment when they first felt this way….
Alvy the young fatalist is a stand-in for all of us faced with the futility of a finite world, and with our own mortality. Because Alvy is right that everything comes to an end.
That is our topic for today, “the End.” I loved the way Gail (Miller, our chair) framed the subject for us for this meeting: “The End! How do we talk about the End? – End of time – End of life – End of… Where are Christians headed? In this life and the next? What does Christian Eschatology look like?”
There are many directions one could go with this set of questions, but the common assumption that they would all share is that there is an end. And (pun intended) this is where I want to begin.
I want to begin with Alvy Singer’s question, “What’s the point?” If there’s an end, “What’s the point?” And there is an end. Both our life and the life of the planet we live on are finite. The mortality rate as of this morning is still 100%, and the very best science predicts the likelihood that our sun, which is a star, will some day in the distant future blink out leaving earth without the conditions for life. Whether the expanding universe itself is finite is an open question, but for the purposes of this discussion finitude is what we are faced with.
So how do we talk about Christian hope in the face of our finitude and the finitude of our world? My own answer to this is quite simple. First let me say what we cannot do. We cannot construct hope out of the materials given to us by the fact of our finitude. Christian hope lies elsewhere.
Alvy read the best science and rightly despairs of what that narrative has to offer. But that narrative, though the reigning one, is not the only one. Science can tell us what it can tell us and we are grateful for it.
But science, so good at measuring our universe and examining our bodies, can not tell us what either means.
Marilynne Robinson writes,
The modern fable is that science exposed religion as a delusion and more or less supplanted it. But science cannot serve in the place of religion because it cannot generate an ethics or a morality. It can give us no reason to prefer a child to a dog, or to choose honorable poverty over fraudulent wealth. It can give us not grounds for preferring what it is excellent over what is sensationalistic. And this is more or less where we are now. (The Death of Adam, p 71)
To enlarge our thinking and engage our imagination about what the end of things means we need to look elsewhere than science, and the elsewhere I want to look at is the Christian Story, and especially what it tells us about the character and identity of God.
And, as those who know me will not be surprised, that among the many places in the Christian Story we can turn to know the character and identity of God, it is in the cross of Christ that we get a particularly decisive picture. And by the cross I mean, as our brother Paul did, the decisive act of God that focuses on Good Friday and culminates in Easter.
Here is the love that will not let us go, a love so deep, so broad, so high, as one of our hymns describes it, that it will die for us. So again like Paul, to the facts of finitude, “we preach Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 1:23)
Which is to say I want to argue for a cross-shaped eschatology, one that sees the facts of finitude for us and our world in the template of Good Friday and Easter. ( For a fuller working out of this idea see my “The Cross as an Eschatological Act of God” in Hope for your Future: Theological Voices from the Pastorate. Edited by William H. Lazareth. Eerdmans, 2002.)
Jesus’ death ends his life. But beyond the discontinuity of death, God raises him to new life. There is continuity in that he remains identifiably himself; he bears the marks of the Roman nails on his hands and feet. Yet he is also different. Some don’t recognize him. His glorified body is and isn’t his earthly body.
Imagining this continuity and discontinuity of Good Friday and Easter provide us the model for a proper Christian eschatology.
In that light how do we think and talk about the end? First of all we need to be honest about the impact of the end, just as we need to be honest about the fact of our own death. I once got in trouble for opening my Easter sermon by saying, “On Good Friday Jesus was as dead as a door-nail.” But it’s true. Good Friday was a dead end, and symbolizes all the other ends that flesh is heir to, the end of promise, the end of hope, and the end of all human possibilities.
To get a sense for how it felt then, recall that story you all know well when Jesus meets some of his followers on the road to Emmaus. He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” Jesus asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:13-35)
That was the end of that, so, as young Alvy would ask, “What’s the point?”
But that wasn’t that. That wasn’t that. The resurrection changed all that, and changed the world.
But it wasn’t too long before the earliest Christians realized that the kingdom of God in its fullness had not arrived, and so they looked for a second Advent, in which what had begun, even in their midst, and what was promised, would be completed and fulfilled.
So even now, all these years later, we Christians, and our church, live between the times, between the first coming and the second coming. We live in the already of Christ’s appearing, and the not yet of his reappearing in glory to consummate all things.
So our faith is profoundly eschatological. But you would often never know it from being in our worship. For example, the church year has a peculiar feature about it. We end the year on Christ the King Sunday with a flurry of eschatological texts, and then we immediately begin a new year in Advent with another flurry of eschatological texts, and then we don’t really have to think about eschatology in between.
But we should think about. I have been reflecting on something Steven (Small, the local pastor) once wrote to me in reflecting on his Advent Christian background:
A deep hope in the return of Christ is at the center of my eschatology in particular and it informs my theology in general. The Adventists gave us some real gifts: a more gracious view of a loving God through their understanding of conditional immortality for one. There is a tendency to snicker in mainline circles when it comes to discussions of the Second Coming. (But) if we truly believe that Christ has died, and Christ is risen, why would we not be quite certain that Christ will come again.
And as pastors, if we have not thought carefully about eschatology, what do we have to say to those who are facing the end, whatever that end may be: the end of their life, the end of their vocation, the end of their marriage, the end of a relationship with a family member, the end of a dream, a hope, a promise?
Alvy’s question, “What’s the point?” has no good answer apart from faith, and that faith is an Easter faith that lies on the other side of Good Friday.
Because when there was no hope, no human possibilities, when we were done and there was no point, God was not done. And that is who we are, the community that looks for more at the end. The community that believes that God is not done. That God is never done.
The end of life is a fearsome thing. But the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the God we worship. Can that end have dominion over us?
The end of the world is a scary thing. Even 9 year-old Alvy knew this. But the God who created the world, can not this same God redeem and save this world, and create a new heaven and a new earth?
What can we say at the end? What can we say at the several endings that mark our life and our world?
This is what we can say: That God is with us at the end as at the beginning, and all the way through. “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, saith the Lord. Behold, I make all things new!” Amen.
I preached this sermon on February 7, 2013, at the First Congregational Church (UCC) of West Boylston, Massachusetts for a meeting of the New England chapter of Confessing Christ in the United Church of Christ.
Christian Teachings about Life after Death: A Pastor Ruminates
I have been asked to speak about “Christian teachings about the after-life.” This is final installment in a series of helpful presentations on preparing for death. There have been presentations on wills and bequests, end of life care, grieving and the like. And once again Max (Stackhouse) has asked me to bat clean-up and talk about theology.
One of my friends in the church said to me last week, “Oh, your talk is theology, so it won’t be practical.” She was kidding, I think, but let me respond to her remark by suggesting that a theology about death and what comes after it may be the most practical aspect of all for the Christian preparing for death. It is a shame how theology has come to have a bad name, even in the church.
Because theology is not some specialty for professional theologians, but simply the way we talk about God. That is what theology means, the logos of the theos, the word about God. And everybody has a theology, at least implicitly, so the more we can make it examined and explicit the more chance we will get it better rather than worse.
So right off the bat let me suggest a better title for what I hope to do here. I much prefer the phrase “life after death” to the term “afterlife,” because I think the former rightly expresses the Christian belief in the reality of death, while the latter can obscure the boundary between death and whatever comes after it.
I want to explore with you four ideas or concepts: 1. The reality of death, 2. Immortality of the soul, 3. Resurrection of the body, and 4. Eternal Life. Finally, I want to summarize the features of an adequate Christian theology of life after death, and the promises of the Gospel that are our hope in the face of death.
1.The Reality of Death
The first concept to ponder is the reality of death. Some of the earliest thinking about death in the Bible is about its not only ending one’s natural life, but also severing our relationship with God. For Israel human purpose was to praise God, and death put an end to it. This relational view was visualized in spatial terms, so that places like Sheol and “the Pit” were places far from God.
Christianity inherited this relational view of life with God, and sees death as its cessation and the opposite of the fullness of life that God intends for us. So unlike some other religions that view death as an illusion or an escape, for Christians, death is real, as are the sense of loss and grief that accompany death, which are also real and nothing to ashamed of or denied. I have said at countless funerals: “There is nothing unchristian about grief; Jesus himself cried at the grave of his friend Lazarus.”
Moreover, Jesus himself died, and his own death provides a template for thinking about this. The creeds say quite simply, “He died and was buried.”
So accepting the reality of death is an important first step in thinking about it properly as Christians. In my nearly forty years of ministry I sometimes counseled people who wanted to deny or blunt this reality. People often asked for much-loved sentimental poems to be read at the funeral. I would gently suggest something more appropriate, but I was pastorally sensitive enough to allow their selection to be read if they insisted, knowing that I would get up and say something quite contradictory in my homily.
Let me give you some examples of poems that deny or minimize the reality of death, and I apologize in advance if these are your favorites.
Here’s a line from A. L. Frinks’ the Rose Beyond the Wall:
“Shall claim of death cause us to grieve
And make our courage faint and fall?
Nay! Let us faith and hope receive–
The rose still grows beyond the wall,”
Another and even better known poem about death is James Whitcomb Riley’s Consolatio:
“I cannot say, and will not say
that he is dead. He is just away.
With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand,
he has wandered into an unknown land.”
“We do not sorrow as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13), but we do sorrow. So while as Christians we have much more to say than death is real, it is where we must start, reminding ourselves that Jesus, in his human nature, really did die, as all human beings do.
To make this point I once began an Easter sermon years ago by saying that “On Good Friday Jesus was as dead as a doornail.” I wasn’t trying to be shocking, but I was surprised by how many people took offense to this statement.
I know something of death. Both my parents died too young, I have worked in a funeral home, been an EMT, and a minister for nearly four decades. I have been present at many deaths, and each time I have been struck by how clear the line is between the living and the dead. And yet everything I know about death is on this side of it, as it is for us all. But one thing I do know about death: it is real.
So if the first theme is the reality of death, how shall we properly think and talk about what comes after?
2. Immortality of the Soul.
One very prevalent idea of life after death is immortality of the soul. I would like to explore this popular idea with you, and show you why it is an inadequate view for Christians, admitting that in my early years it was my own view.
Let me share something about that with you. My own theology of death and what comes after it was shaped, at least in part, by my childhood bedtime prayer, a somewhat terrifying one from the New England Primer:
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but in my child’s imagination I had adopted a somewhat Platonic dualism about the human person, separating body and soul into the perishable and imperishable.
My own children, at the insistence of my wife, had a more sanitized version of that prayer that didn’t get them pondering sudden death in the nighttime. Whether they are better off for this is open for discussion. But in my own early thought-processes I figured that if such a sad event as my childhood death did take place, it would only be my physical body, and this invisible spiritual thing “the soul” would go swiftly to God. This is the essence of the idea of immortality of the soul.
I was taken aback to be told that this view, while widely held, was not particularly Christian. I learned in seminary that the Hebrew word translated as “soul,” nephesh, more rightly means “self,” in other words, the whole person. Harrell Beck, my wonderful Old Testament professor, liked to say that your fingernails are as much a part of your soul as any other part, which is to say human selves are embodied. Or as I like to think of it: we don’t have a body so much as we are a body.
It is from the Greeks, and especially from Plato, that we get the notion of a disembodied soul housed in a physical body, an idea that still clings to many Christian ideas about an afterlife.
These ideas were ambient in the ancient Near East and in the Hellenistic world in which the New Testament was written, and they lived in uneasy tension with the more holistic Hebraic views of personhood. We even get a whiff of Greek dualism in the New Testament, such as in First Corinthians, one of the undisputed letters of Paul. He writes in 1 Corinthians 5:1:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
So if the disembodied immortal soul flying away from the perishable body is not the Christian theology of life after death, how are we to think about it?
3. The Resurrection of the Dead
Resurrection of the dead is the cardinal Christian idea of life after death. It is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus, which pervades all New Testament thinking. In Jesus’ resurrection God has vindicated the humiliated and crucified Jesus, and begun the eschatological process of the salvation of humanity and the world, a process to be completed at the end of history, when Christ comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.
This distinguishes Christian theology from other views that see life after death as something intrinsic to the human person. Resurrection of the dead, on the other hand, is about the discontinuity between life and life after death. The rupture of death is overcome only from God’s side by God’s action. So resurrection of the dead is not resuscitation, but a new creation analogous to the first creation. It is not resurrection of the flesh, but resurrection of the body, a new kind of life that we can only guess at. When Paul speculated on what kind of body we would have in the new life he employed the oxymoron “spiritual body” to refer to what form are we raised.
There are clues to this mystery in the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. After Jesus is raised he appears to the disciples in bodily form; he is the same, but also transfigured in some way. The accounts contain mysteries: sometimes he is recognized, but other times he is not, as in the road to Emmaus story, when the disciples only know him when he breaks bread. Yet he still bears the marks of the Roman nails in his hands and feet.
However we want to take these narratives they point to the consistent conclusion that the new life postmortem is embodied life. The Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead is a theological interpretation based on the death and raising of Jesus. The expectation of a resurrected body also emphasizes the continuity of personality and the integrity of personhood. I said that Christian views stress discontinuity between life and life after death, but here we see continuity of personality after death. So we have both discontinuity and continuity as the person really dies, but in the new life is the same person as before death, although changed. So it is not some spiritual part of you that lives the new kind of life; it is you, embodied and recognizable to God as you. This contrasts to various views of a disembodied postmortem existence, such as immortality of the soul and reincarnation.
It is important to remind ourselves that, while we are not surprised by the claim of Jesus’ resurrection and have difficulty with the idea of a general resurrection, for the people at the time of Jesus death it was just the opposite. A general resurrection vindicating Israel involving a Davidic messiah or the Son of Man was part of the general religious imagination. The resurrection of an individual however was not, which is why the raising of Jesus was understood as the beginning of the eschaton, the final reckoning, restoration and vindication of God and his faithful. We hear this in the language of Jesus being the first-fruits and the forerunner.
The raising of Jesus then is the primary theological template by which all things are measured, including death and life after death. Consistently in the New Testament death is viewed through the lens of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In 75 places in the New Testament the principle Greek adjective that means “dead,” nekros, is the object of either egeiro “to awaken” or anastasis, “to raise.
This raising from the dead makes Christianity an Easter faith, and so the Christian sees death in Easter light. Because Jesus is raised we too will be raised with him. This is a far different idea than immortality of the soul. Let us take a few moments to contrast them.
The great scholar Oscar Cullmann wrote an important book in 1956 called Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead in which he starkly contrasted these two views. Some of his critics have complained that he contrasted them too sharply. They may be right, but the book remains an important one for understanding the predominant Christian views.
Cullmann’s thesis is, and I quote, “The widely accepted idea of ‘The immortality of the soul’ is one of the greatest misunderstandings of Christianity. The concept of death and resurrection is anchored in the Christ-event, and hence is incompatible with the Greek belief in immortality.”
Cullmann deftly illustrates his point by looking at the death of Socrates in contrast to the death of Jesus. He writes:
The death of Socrates (as described by Plato) is a beautiful death. Nothing is seen here of death’s terror. Socrates cannot fear death, since indeed it sets us free from the body. Whoever fears death proves that he loves the world of the body, that he is thoroughly entangled in the world of sense. Death is the soul’s great friend. So he teaches; and so, in wonderful harmony with his teaching, he dies — this man who embodied the Greek world in its noblest form.
Cullmann then turns to the death of Jesus:
In Gethsemane He knows that death stands before Him, just as Socrates expected death on his last day. The Synoptic Evangelists furnish us, by and large, with a unanimous report. Jesus begins ‘to tremble and be distressed’, writes Mark (14:33). ‘My soul is troubled, even to death.’ . . .
In Luke 12:50 it is completely impossible to explain away the ‘distress’ in the face of death, and also in view of the fact that Jesus is abandoned by God on the Cross [Mark 15:34], it is not possible to explain the Gethsemane scene except through this distress at the prospect of being abandoned by God, an abandonment which will be the work of Death, God’s great enemy.)Jesus is afraid, though not as a coward would be of the men who will kill Him, still less of the pain and grief which precede death. He is afraid in the face of death itself. Death for Him is not something divine : it is something dreadful. . . .
Here (in Jesus’ death) is nothing of the composure of Socrates, who met death peacefully as a friend. To be sure, Jesus already knows the task which has been given Him: to suffer death; and He has already spoken the words: ‘I have a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how distressed (or afraid) I am until it is accomplished’ (Luke 19:50). Now, when God’s enemy stands before Him, He cries to God, whose omnipotence He knows: ‘All things are possible with thee; let this cup pass from me’ (Mark 14:36). And when He concludes, ‘Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt’, this does not mean that at the last He, like Socrates, regards death as the friend, the liberator. No, He means only this: If this greatest of all terrors, death, must befall Me according to Thy will, then I submit to this horror. Jesus knows that in itself, because death is the enemy of God, to die means to be utterly forsaken. Therefore He cries to God; in face of this enemy of God He does not want to be alone. He wants to remain as closely tied to God as He has been throughout His whole earthly life. For whoever is in the hands of death is no longer in the hands of God, but in the hands of God’s enemy. (Oscar Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead)
Here Cullmann has eloquently expressed the New Testament view of death as the enemy of God. For another example we can turn to Paul, who calls death “the last enemy.” Because death in the New Testament is not merely the end of biological life, it is also a power that insinuates itself into our living of these days. I’ll say more about this now as we turn to the idea of eternal life.
4. Eternal Life.
The final concept I want to explore is eternal life. One of the problems we have as moderns in understanding the world of the New Testament is its conception of time. There is a persistent eschatology that sees events both in the present and the future. Theologians refer to this as “the already and the not yet.”
Advent is a good time to talk about this, for while we have too often boiled Advent down to merely preparing for celebrating the birth of Christ, it is also a season of anticipating Christ’s second coming.
We see this in the memorial acclamations of many Christian liturgies: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. ”
Eternal life is one of those concepts that sits in an eschatological frame, or to put it another way, has an “already but not yet” quality about it. In early Christian preaching Jesus is said to offer eternal life to his followers, not just post-mortem, but now before death. In John 5:24, for example, Jesus says. “The one who hears my word . . . has eternal life: he does not come unto judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
But this realized aspect of eternal life does not take away from the reality of death, and the promise is that eternal life in its fullness lies on the other side of the resurrection.
The words said at many graveside committal services speak of “the resurrection to eternal life.” For example, this one from the Book of Common Prayer:
“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty
God our brother or sister N.; and we commit his or her body to the ground;
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Notice the reality of death here expressed in the ashes and dust.
As I mentioned earlier, death in the New Testament is more than the final cessation of biological life, but also a power that can insinuate itself into our living. In some sense the realized eternal life in Christ is the opposite of the power of death, which Christ defeated by his cross and resurrection.
And eternal life is not an individualistic state. Eternal life is life with Christ and in Christ and by extension a life in community, in the church, which is his body. Many contemporary speculations about life after death are very individualistic, but the Christian hope is a corporate and communal hope, the hope to join the communion of saints.
There is a wonderful sermon by Jonathan Edwards, the second pastor of this church, on 1 Corinthians 13: 8-10, called Heaven is a World of Love in which Edwards explores the metaphor of the communion of saints as a heavenly choir.
How many of you know it? (No hands) I wish it were better known because it is a better example of the essential Edwards than the terrifying Enfield sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which everybody seems to know.
In Heaven is a World of Love Edwards begins by beautifully describing heaven and all its social arrangements, and in so doing puts forth a protest against the social arrangements that we know so well on earth; for in Edward’s heaven there is no pride or jealously, there is decency and wisdom, and an equal prosperity among all. He says, “Love (poured out from God) resides and reigns in every heart there.” And then he says: “Every saint there is as a note in a concert of music which sweetly harmonizes with every other note, and all together employed wholly in praising God.” So life after death is life in community.
5. What then can we say about life after death?
Having said all this, and leaving much more out in my brief time today, what can the Christian cling to in the theologies of life after death? I’ll sum up my main points:
- Christians understand life after death through the lens of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- For the Christian, death is not an illusion or an escape, but a reality. Death is God’s enemy, yet God has overcome it through the cross and the raising of Jesus from the dead.
- Life after death is not intrinsic to the human person, but a gift of God in the raising of Jesus Christ.
- Life after death is bodily life with continuity of personality and integrity of personhood. It is not a part of you that lives the new life, but you.
- Life after death is relational and communal, where we join in the communion of saints across all times and places.
- Life after death is relational and imagined as spatial, nearer or farther to God.
- The purpose of life after death is for the praise of God. In the words of the Shorter Catechism, “The chief end of men and women is to love God and enjoy him forever.”
- Both the living and the dead live between the times, in “the already but not yet” between the first and second coming, as we wait with the church on earth and the church in heaven for the Day when Christ comes in glory at the consummation of all things.
The basis for all this is, of course, faith in the God we know here and now, the God revealed in Jesus Christ. In Don Hammond’s (the outgoing interim pastor) graceful ministry among us he has said again and again in a variety of ways something like this, “Whoever you are, whatever you have done, know that you are truly and forever loved.”
The Christian hope for this life and the next is rooted in this Gospel truth about the love of God, that God’s grace is greater than our sin, that God’s love is stronger than anything else in the world, even death, the last enemy, which God defeated on the cross.
There are numerous eloquent witnesses to this love in the New Testament, but none is better than this by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8 and I will close with it:
If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I delivered this paper at the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, MA on December 9, 2012, the Second Sunday of Advent.