Woody Allen has to be one of the most quotable people in North America, don’t you think? His quotes make you laugh, but they also make you think, because he has the courage to voice the questions and doubts and fears that most of us don’t even dare to name. And this is particularly true on the subject of death. “Dying”, he says, “is one of the few things that can be done just as easily lying down!” And again: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying!” “I am not afraid of death”, he says; “I just don’t want to be around when it happens”. And, “I don’t believe in the afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear”.
What’s going to happen to me after I die? This is one of the questions human beings have pondered throughout history. We go through life, we work hard to achieve something, we find someone to love and if we’re fortunate we build a family and experience good and positive and lasting relationships. But what does it all mean if it all ends in death? What’s the point of learning, if my brain’s just going to go demented and then die out? What’s the point of love, if sooner or later you’re going to lose the one you love? Is it really possible that all these years of laughing and working, eating and sleeping, learning and loving are going to end up in nothing more than the decay of my body in the grave?
Human beings have always pondered these questions. An ancient writer used the illustration of a great banquet hall at night, full of light and food and feasting and song. The windows are open as they usually were in the ancient world, and a little bird flies in one of the windows, flies around the hall for a few minutes, and then flies out one of the other windows. That’s what our life is like, the writer said: we come in from the darkness of the unknown, and after we die we go out to the darkness of the unknown again.
But human beings have rarely been satisfied with this answer. Ancient people used to leave tools and articles of clothing in the grave to help the dead person in the next life. Some people have tried to contact the dead, and others believe that the dead have contacted them. Some people have been afraid of what comes after death, and have paid money for masses to be said for the safety of their souls. Some have believed that when we die we go to a better place. Others have been skeptical: we just die, and that’s the end of that.
The Christian faith is firmly on record as teaching that there is life after death. As we’ve been going through this Advent season we’ve been looking at some of the phrases from the Nicene Creed that touch on our Advent hope. Today I want to consider the last sentence with you: ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. What does this mean? What do we actually believe about life after death?
Not surprisingly, the early Christians had these questions as well. Two of the earliest books of the New Testament to be written were Paul’s first and second letters to the Thessalonians; scholars think they were written around 50 A.D., some twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Christians in Thessalonica were worried about what had happened to their fellow-Christians who had died; were they all right? Yes, says, Paul; there’s no need for you to grieve as if you had no hope. We believe that just as Jesus died and rose again, so God will raise the dead with Jesus. We who are alive when the Lord comes again, he says, won’t precede those who have died; when the last trumpet sounds, they will be raised, and we’ll all meet the Lord, and we’ll live with him forever. So encourage each other – build each other up – with these words.
Now that’s an odd answer, don’t you think? Nowadays if Christians were feeling doubtful about life after death, we’d expect their pastors to talk to them about heaven, that lovely place where those who love the Lord will live with him forever. But Paul doesn’t mention heaven at all; he talks about being raised from the dead at the sound of the last trumpet. What’s that all about?
Well, it’s helpful to speculate as to what the question was that the Thessalonian Christians were asking. Because when you read Paul’s answer, it doesn’t seem as if the question was, ‘Is there life after death?’ Rather, the question seems to have been something like this: ‘Paul, you taught us that even though Jesus’ rule over all things is hidden right now, one day it’s going to be plain to everyone; every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, and his kingdom will come in all its fullness. But some of our fellow-Christians have died without seeing this. What’s going to happen to them? Are they going to miss out on seeing the Kingdom of God?’
Let’s look a little more closely at how Paul answers that question. What about these Thessalonian Christians who have died? Where are they now? And what’s going to happen to them in the future?
Where are they now? 1 Thessalonians 4:13 says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope”. Or at least, that’s how the New Revised Standard Version puts it. But there’s a little footnote that tells us that the NRSV has made a little change in the translation, presumably to make Paul’s meaning clear. You see, Paul didn’t actually say, ‘died’, he said, ‘fallen asleep’; “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep”. And in fact this is a very common New Testament metaphor for death: falling asleep in Christ. It comes from the late Old Testament period, from the book of Daniel, where we read these words:
But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:1b-2).
Why do these authors use these ‘sleep’ metaphors? For a couple of reasons. Firstly, from the point of view of the observer, there are obvious similarities. The sleeper is usually lying down; their eyes are often closed; there’s no activity going on. And the same is true of the dead. But the second reason is the more important one: sleep is a temporary state. The sleepers are going to wake up! And that’s what’s going to happen to those who sleep in death, too: one day they are going to wake up. They are going to be raised from the dead.
From the perspective of the observer it looks as if the dead are asleep; what does it look like from the perspective of the ‘sleeper’? Do they experience ‘dying and going to heaven?’ Do they see a great light and go through a tunnel and all that?
We have to be very careful here, because a lot of what we think is Christian teaching actually comes from the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato taught that the physical life we live in this present world is a very inferior life, full of imperfection. He used the illustration of a cave at night, with a fire burning and people sitting around it. The fire would cast shadows on the wall of the cave, and that, said Plato, is what this life is like – our present existence is like shadows on the wall of a cave. But our future life will be the reality to which the shadows were pointing. In the future, after we die, we’ll live in the world of ideals. We will get rid of this physical existence completely, and be pure spirits; that’s when we’ll find perfection. In other words, we die and go to a better place where we won’t have to bother with all this messy matter; we’ll be pure disembodied spirits.
If that sounds like Christian teaching to you, that just goes to show how Plato’s ideas took over the church in the early years of the Christendom era. But in fact, if you read the New Testament carefully, you’ll see that it doesn’t have a lot to say about dying and going to heaven.
In fact, you can make a very good argument from the New Testament for two different positions. One would be a variation on the ‘heaven’ idea: we die, we go to be with Jesus in Paradise, and we wait there with him until the day of resurrection when we will resume our physical existence in a renewed heaven and earth. The other idea would be that when we die, we simply fall asleep. And you know how it is when you’ve had a really good sleep: you don’t remember a thing about it. The next thing you know, you’re waking up and it seems as if no time has passed at all, except that you feel refreshed. That will be us: we will fall asleep in Jesus, and it will seem to us that the next thing we know is resurrection day!
To tell you the truth, I don’t really know which of these views is the right one. And I really don’t care, because the one thing they both have in common is that what happens immediately after death is only temporary. The really important thing – what Tom Wright calls ‘Life after life after death’ – is the coming resurrection.
So back to 1 Thessalonians 4.
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever (4:16-17).
It’s easy to get distracted by the strange mythical language of these verses: the trumpet sound, the clouds, the air and so on. Some Christians have taken them literally, and have produced wonderful bluegrass tunes like “I’ll Fly Away’ to celebrate them. But in fact the early Christians didn’t think that; they understood that they were dealing with symbolism here. The trumpet, the clouds, the air and so on were all coronation language; the believers, dead and living, were being invited to be present at a coronation ceremony for the Lord of heaven and earth. They were being invited to be present at the final consummation of the Kingdom of God.
That in fact was how Jewish people like Daniel began to think in terms of the resurrection of the dead in the first place. Suffering people looked forward to a time when God would set them free, a time when there would be an end to oppression and injustice and violence, a time when God would establish justice and peace forever. What a blessing it would be for people to be alive at such a time! But how unlucky to have died before it happened, and never to see it! Surely a God of justice would not allow that to happen! And so you get the beginning of the idea that when the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness, God will raise the dead to life again – a physical life – so that all can share together in the blessings of God’s new world.
And that’s why the Nicene Creed ties together these two ideas: ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. Our Christian hope isn’t a selfish one: it’s not just about ‘what will happen to me after I die’. It’s about the future of God’s entire creation. All the material things we know with our senses – the taste of food, the feel of the sun on your skin on a warm day, the caress of a lover – these are good things made by a good and loving God. When the last day comes God isn’t going to abandon matter as a bad idea and opt for a purely ‘spiritual’ world, as Plato thought. No – the Bible tells us that what God is going to do is ‘make all things new’ – to renew them, like an old book that you take to a bookbinder to be made new and strong again – the same book, but with a new lease of life. God is going to heal the wounds of creation and restore it to his original dream. And he’s going to raise his people from the dead so that they can enjoy life as he originally conceived it, before evil entered his world.
Of course, this raises many questions that we haven’t been given answers to. In the time of Jesus, the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection. Jesus once had a dispute about it with them, because they assumed that if you believed in the resurrection, that meant you had to believe that everyone would go on being married and having kids and so on, but Jesus cautioned them about that; it’s going to be very different, he said. And I’ve sometimes been asked where we’re going to put everyone! After all, a lot of people – billions, presumably – have died and gone before us. If they’re all going to be raised, where are we going to find room for them all on this little earth? The answer is that we don’t know; there are a lot of things that God hasn’t told us about his future plans, and it would be foolish of me to speculate.
What’s our resurrection body going to be like? In his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, Paul deals with this issue, and again he grasps at metaphors. You sow a seed in the ground he says, and it springs up into a plant. The plant obviously has a connection with the seed – barley seed doesn’t spring up into flax – but the plant is also different from the seed. The present body is like the seed; the resurrected body will be like the plant that springs from it.
Paul spells out some of the differences for us: ‘What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power (1 Corinthians 15:42-43). Obviously the resurrection life is not simply going to be a rerun of this present life, only lasting forever. Our future existence will be physical, but on a whole different level than the life we live at present. Exactly what that means, we just don’t know.
What we do know is that the Advent hope is about the renewal of this world. It tells us that the future of this world is in the hands of God and not of the forces of evil and destruction; that the last word will be God’s word and not the words of tyrants or mass murderers. The symbolic language of the book of Revelation tells us that the day will come when the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth, when God will make his home among us and live with us forever, when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more; the time when God will say, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:2-5).
That’s our hope, and so we can face death with a different attitude. We laugh at Woody Allen’s jokes about death, because he voices the fears we so often feel but are afraid to put into words. But the scriptures encourage us to lay those fears aside. They don’t pretend that death isn’t a huge blow; Paul doesn’t tell his friends in Thessalonica not to grieve for those who have died. What he says is that they do not need to grieve ‘as others do who have no hope’ (4:13). We will grieve, yes, but only as I might grieve if I was going to be separated from my loved ones for a very long trip in which I would be unable to contact them at all. The unbeliever grieves because death is a final separation. But we Christians are encouraged to trust that beyond that separation there will be a great reunion, on that bright morning when God renews his whole creation, when Jesus is acknowledged by all as Lord of heaven and earth, and when the human family finally finds the peace and justice we’ve been longing for, for as long as we can remember.
You and I will see that day. We’ve got reserved seats at the coronation. Thanks be to God.