Next Gathering: Thursday, February 5, 7 p.m. @ Beau's 4108 West Maple Road, Bloomfield Hills, MI 48301
"The Great Beyond," the wife told me, smiling. The man had kept a file folder for years where he placed songs, prayers, scriptures, and bulletins from memorial services - things that he liked and thought might be nice for his own service one day. He knew whatever came next for him would be a mystery, but he could at least make some preparations for his family who would be trying to figure out how best to remember him and honor his life.
The items in the folder, however, were more than just funeral planning materials. They gave us a glimpse into the man's understanding of life, death, and "The Great Beyond." The hymns he circled expressed a particular theology. The prayers with stars in the margins gave voice to his faith. The scraps of scriptures had been his hope and his truth.
There are all sorts of ways to try to cope with the lack of knowledge we have about life after death. The most popular method currently seems to be the outright denial of our mortality and monumental efforts to prolong life at all costs. That is why I was so deeply impressed by this man who collected and neatly filed his impressions on the afterlife. He confronted the reality of his death head-on, acknowledging in the title of this file the limitations of what was knowable. It takes the deepest form of courage to face the unknown, to prepare for the unpredictable.
There are the growing number of best-selling books written by those who have died and been resuscitated. Their accounts of the afterlife have given people hope and meaning because they shed some possible light into this uncharted abyss. Very little, if any, of their accounts have any relationship to the gospel. While some of them involve an encounter with someone believed to be Jesus, none of them have been asked to show their Christian I.D. card or account for their theological position on soteriology. While none of the accounts that have gained great popularity seem to contradict Christian scriptures, very little of what they experienced makes any sense of what the bible says (or what we think it says) about the afterlife. It seems peaceful and lovely, but not particularly Christian. Plus, several of these works have been de-bunked or called into question, making it perhaps an unwise choice to base our beliefs about "The Great Beyond" on the eye-witness accounts of a very small number of best-selling authors.
But this does not mean that we are bereft of any guidance on the afterlife.
As Reformed Christians, we look to scripture first and foremost to guide our understanding on these matters. But this can present a formidable challenge. While scripture promises us a resurrection like Jesus' (Romans 6:5), we have differing accounts of Jesus' resurrection, ranging from the earliest (the Shorter Ending of the Gospel of Mark), which concludes with an empty tomb and three terrified women, to the resurrected Jesus making numerous appearances and other people being resurrected along with him (Matthew 27:52-53). The resurrected Jesus has a body that is scarred from the cross and very real and tangible, but it also seems that he can disguise his appearance and walk through locked doors. While the earliest Christians were expecting this resurrection of the dead to happen immanently, after two thousand years of waiting, we have come to understand that there is something in between this life and the resurrected life. And Jesus is not mute on this topic. However, the picture Jesus paints of life after death can be clouded with apocalyptic imagery (Matthew 25:31-33) or maddeningly vague (Matthew 19:29).
Over the centuries, Christians have spilled much blood and ink over the question of what happens after we die. The idea of resurrection pre-dates Christianity as there were clearly Jews living in the time of Jesus who were waiting and hoping for this event (John 11:23-25; Mark 12:18-27). The notion of a spiritual life extending beyond this life seems to have its genesis in Christianity, but it borrows from the Neo-Platonic school of Greek philosophy and is most fully developed by the Gnostic community which was largely dismissed by institutional Christianity. As Christianity attempted to synthesize various accounts of what Jesus said and did with the theology it inherited from both its Jewish and Greek adherents, disagreements and debates ensued concerning how Christians should live and what happened when they died.
Central to this debate was (and is) the question of atonement, or salvation. The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines atonement as "The death of Jesus Christ on the cross, which effects salvation as the reestablishment of the relationship between God and sinners." Now, you may notice that this says nothing of life after death. It addresses the "reestablishment of relationship between God and sinners." But in a cosmology where the only eternal being is God, the only path to eternity is in relationship with God. Right relationship garners us eternal life. Broken relationship leads to eternal death or possibly even eternal damnation.
In numerous parables, Jesus talks about a separation of the good and the wicked, righteous and unrighteous. Those who are deemed to be outside right relationship with God are "thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth," while those who have found favor with God will be invited into the kingdom banquet. These references are all over the map in terms of how a person is to avoid one fate or pursue the other. They are full of agrarian metaphors that are difficult for modern readers to interpret and understand. Truthfully, the people who heard them first-hand were mostly baffled. The disciples had to ask Jesus several times to explain himself. What all of this adds up to is that these parables of sorting the wheat from the chaff may not be the best places to look for our truth about life after death. Many scholars today feel that Jesus was using these parables to teach about life in the here and now rather than life after death, calling his followers to live in a particular way, not for their eternal salvation but for the good of God's kingdom on earth.
So where do we turn in scripture to shed light on the darkness of the afterlife?
Being a pastor, I plan more funerals than the average citizen, and as I've done so, I've begun to consider my own "TGB" file - scriptures, songs, and liturgies that express my own beliefs and hopes about The Great Beyond. Among the scriptures I find most helpful are John 14, where Jesus promises that where he is going, we may be also, and he goes to prepare a place for us and will bring us to him. I find this to be about as concrete a promise as we can get in scripture, and it comforts me. Another favorite is the end of Romans 8, where Paul assures us that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
At the next Untapped Questions, I hope we can discuss your own "TGB" files and what might be in them. Dr. Ernest Krug will be on hand to share insights from the medical and theological communities about the end of life and what comes after. I hope you'll join us.