Let’s have a talk about death

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American theologian Dr Greg Carey asks us to ponder death and the possibility of an afterlife.

By Professor Greg Carey

Eschatology is quite a big word. It has 11 letters, after all.

Divinity students routinely ask me to spell it out on a board.

But eschatology is big in a more fundamental sense: it is the theological word that spells out our dearest hopes: what, if anything, lies beyond death; where history is ultimately headed; and what is ultimately real.

Modern people may have some reservations about a word like eschatology.

By definition, no one can truly know what lies beyond this life, how the story of the cosmos will turn out, or even what lies beyond the world of our perceptions and our telescopes.

This objection holds a fundamental truth.

Someone else might point out that “hope is not a strategy,” as they say in the business world.

That objection is true as well—if we limit hope to empty optimism.

But Christian hope cannot be reduced to empty optimism, the kind of wishful thinking that projects our longings onto the stars.

We encounter this kind of wishful thinking when a loved one dies: is she smiling down on us right now, has she been reunited with her parents, do her deceased pets await her?

Those are the fantasies that comfort us.

Christian hope is grounded in the faithfulness of God.

God has revealed God’s own character in creating a world like this one that features love and courage, frailty and even wickedness.

God formed a people from Abraham and Sarah, delivered them from slavery through Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, established them as a people, and proved faithful to them through conflict and exile.

It is that same God who lived among us in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus and who has granted us the gift of the Holy Spirit through the power of Jesus’s resurrection.

As Paul indicated, hope, along with faith and love, is one of our primary strategies.

For now, let us consider the question of an afterlife.

Despite what so many Christians say, the Bible does not offer a clear picture of what awaits us. This is true for several reasons.

First, when biblical authors address ultimate things, they tend to use the language of symbol and metaphor.

What is it like to be like angels in heaven (Mark 12:25) or to shine like the stars in the sky (Daniel 12:3)?

Let’s not even start on pearly gates and golden streets.

A second consideration leads us to account for the diversity within the Bible itself.

Many of the Jewish Scriptures describe death as joining the ancestors, a diminished kind of social afterlife with some continuity with our present selves.

The New Testament primarily, but not only, uses the language of resurrection.

We encounter diversity there too. Paul expects the dead to rise and experience a glorious transformation of their bodies (1 Corinthians 15:35-57), while Matthew presents us with a bizarre scene: at the moment of Jesus’s death, the dead saints rise from their tombs and wander through the holy city (27:52-53).

What happens to them after that? Yet Luke describes the rich man and Lazarus going to their appointed destinations immediately upon their deaths (16:19-31), a promise Jesus gives to one of those crucified alongside him (23:43).

Ancient Judaism included numerous views concerning the afterlife, and it appears that Paul and Luke followed different options.

Indeed, the funeral liturgies of most denominations make room both for the idea of a resurrection at some point out in the future and for the notion that the deceased reside with God right now.

So what is a Christian to do? If we desire to be informed by Scripture’s witness, these complications confront us with the necessity of interpretation—interpretation shaped by profound humility.

I believe Scripture gifts us with ways for articulating our hope that also guide us in living in the here and now.

Our task involves applying a disciplined imagination to these texts to discern the values that may shape us.

Here I will offer just a few thoughts.

First, I tend to emphasise the New Testament’s primary image, resurrection.

“Resurrection also reminds us that we are mortal: our lives now and in the future depend upon a life-giving God,” writes Dr Greg Carey.

Resurrection has many benefits. First, unlike the notion of an immortal soul, resurrection allows us to name that death is real, and it is devastating.

It is the final enemy, as Paul puts it (1 Corinthians 15:26). If we wish to grieve well, it is all but necessary that we not minimise death.

Resurrection also reminds us that we are mortal: our lives now and in the future depend upon a life-giving God.

This news causes us to live in humility and gratitude. Even when we receive a serious diagnosis, as I have, it is surprisingly comforting to remember simply that we are mortal and live only by the goodness of God.

I know this, having received such news myself. We will not live in the fantasy world of endless youth, even of immortality.

We will find no attraction in memorialising ourselves, much less in seeking some technological solution that will prolong our lives forever.

Finally, the notion of resurrection is embodied, and it is social.

Many expressions of Christianity focus on the spiritual rather than the embodied dimensions of life.

Unfortunately, those Christianities often fall short in living out an embodied love of neighbor.

An embodied resurrection means that God reclaims and redeems our whole lives, lending holy significance to the right now.

It also leads us to imagine a joyful afterlife, the great banquet that includes all the saints (Matt 8:11), or the New Jerusalem with its diverse fruit, fresh water, and open gates.

It may seem ironic, but resurrection grounds us in this present world.

To be honest, I find myself surprised to have devoted so much scholarly work to the question.

I very much tend to live in the here and now without consideration for what may await me.

But I take great hope in believing that what God begins in us and in the world, God is faithful to complete (Romans 8; Philippians 1:6).

For me at least, that conviction makes a difference.

Dr Greg Carey is Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary in the United States and last month presented the first Northey Lecture of the year at the Centre for Theology and Ministry.
His latest book is ‘Death, the end of history, and beyond’

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