Sunday Meditations: Hope of an Afterlife

I’ve been a little blog silent for a while.  The series on how ethics are pursued in the Bible (and beyond) was an intensive effort for me, and I was all meditated out.

When I was in college, I asked a guy in my Intro. to Philosophy class if he would still be a Christian even if he would still end up in Hell.  After class, he caught me on my way out and said, “Probably not.”  That kind of honesty is what spurs good spiritual growth.

The ideas around what happens to us after we die are a big part of the messaging in the evangelical world, today.  The entire story of God and His people is told in a way that orients it around what is perceived to be the key problem: sinners who die go to Hell.  This begs a solution: Jesus paid the penalty for your sins so, if you believe, you will not go to Hell and will go to Heaven, instead.  This also defines an ongoing ethic: Try to help as many people not go to Hell as possible and, along the way, make sure you are living/believing in such a manner so as not to end up in Hell, yourself.

I’ve written before about some of the weaknesses I think this story has, both from a biblical perspective and a practical one, and I don’t plan on revisiting all that.  I do want to use it to stage a question: how much of our Christian hope hangs on a specific idea of the afterlife?  It’s a worthwhile question for a couple of reasons.

One reason is that, even though the subject of what happens after death does arise in the Bible a fair amount, it’s hard to take all the biblical data and create a picture that makes all the data fit nicely and neatly.  Depending on what passages you look at, some sound like death is simply the end.  Others sound like our spirits all collect in some common place.  Some indicate an ongoing spiritual experience that can include reward or punishment.  Other passages seem to indicate a physical resurrection.  Some passages indicate that we are conscious and aware after death, while others describe the experience as being “asleep.”

Arranging the material chronologically helps some, especially as we pull in commentary and extrabiblical literature to help us out.  We begin with the idea that everyone dies and goes to a final rest that is more or less common to everyone.  The way your life continues in world history is through your descendants, hence a huge Old Testament emphasis on having lots of children that is not really picked up in the New Testament.

As we move forward, we pick up ideas like their being places of imprisonment or bliss after you die.  There are pictures of national resurrections of Israel that cause / overlap with / become a nascent hope of a physical resurrection.  By the time we get to the end of the New Testament, we have two resurrections: one of the martyrs at the time of the coming of the Son of Man, and one at the final judgement.

But even this does not give us sharp boundaries.  These historical ideas of the afterlife are not like Neapolitan ice cream with well-defined strata.  Bits and pieces of these ideas end up in places we would not expect them, going in both directions.  Diversity exists on the issue at many points in biblical history and in the church going forward.  So, today, while we might generally agree on some common eschatological elements (e.g. the Apostles’ Creed “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”), what happens to us after we die is murky and seems always to have been – for obvious reasons, I guess.

But the second reason is more practical.  I sometimes wonder if our conception of the afterlife does not become our source of trust and hope as well as our motivator for action.  In other words, it becomes an idol.

Death is a scary prospect, and the older I get, the more this specter likes to hang around.  We don’t want to die; we want to go on.  But there is a subtle, yet important, difference between saying, “I am not afraid of death because I trust that God will take care of me, even beyond death” and saying “I am not afraid of death because I know I’ll be in Heaven after I die.”  One of those commitments urges us to commit our spirits into the hands of God believing He will do the right thing.  The other commitment urges us to believe in a particular metaphysical outlook and draw our confidence from our certainty in that concept.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that trust in God for what happens to you after you die and a belief in Heaven are incompatible.  But my question is: where is your trust, really?  What if you don’t go to Heaven when you die?  What if you wink out of conscious existence until God restores you in a new earth?  Or, to really challenge ourselves, what if God had given no indicators about resurrection at all?  What if, when we died, we just stayed dead and that was that, as far as we know?

My point is this: if we take away your certainty about the afterlife, do we also take away your devotion to God?  What is the basis of your faith?  On what grounds is God worthy of worship?  Are loving God with all one’s heart and loving your neighbor as yourself worthy pursuits even if the reward of an afterlife isn’t waiting in the wings?  Is your pursuit of following Christ primarily a mechanism by which to ensure your own survival?

Like most things, this is a process.  I believe at this point in my life, I am slowly (sloooooooooowly) coming to the position of trusting God instead of my cherished outcomes, and I like to think this is a deepening of what it means to have faith – to recognize that my Self is not something I created and does not belong to me by right.  It was given.  It’s a gift.  When the time comes when I no longer have that gift, I can throw myself into God’s arms trusting that, whatever He’s going to do, it will be right.

And when we look back at those little intrusions of the hope of resurrection into the earlier parts of the Old Testament, we discover something interesting.  This forecast does not come from supernatural revelation, but from someone assuming that God will keep His promises and concluding that the grave cannot be the end.  The faith of those saints was not in a doctrine of the afterlife or a specific conception about exactly what would happen, but their trust was in the faithfulness of God.

And if God has made promises, and God is trustworthy, and God is capable of delivering on them, there is nothing that will prevent that from happening, not even death itself.  In this way, the hope of a life after death is a negotiable byproduct of first and foremost being convinced about who God is and what He is like and placing your trust in that God, both for the trajectory of this life and whatever may come afterward.