I’d like to say a few words this morning on the subject of life after death.
“What happens to us after we die?” is one of those religious questions that people in our culture are accustomed to asking at least once in their lives. When I taught philosophy at Utica College, I used to give a whole series of lectures on this subject. I’ve paired down and digested some of those lectures for today’s sermon, so you’re getting a little taste today of what it was like to be one of my students (but don’t worry, there won’t be a pop quiz at the end of church).
There are not a few voices out there today claiming that the whole point of being religious is to secure for oneself a more pleasant afterlife. But this hasn’t always been the case.
For the ancient Israelites, the problem of life after death was a non-issue. It’s not that they didn’t believe in it; it’s that they never even thought to ask the question. For them, the great religious question was not “What will happen to me after I die?” but “What will happen to our people in this life?” The blessings and curses of the Torah all have to do with Israel’s collective prosperity in this world.
The closest the ancient Israelites got to asking and answering the question of life after death is in their concept of Sh’ol. Sh’ol is the Hebrew name for the realm of the dead. They never speculated about what that realm was like. One’s status in that realm was not dependent upon one’s actions in life. There was no concept of eternal judgment, reward, or punishment. For the ancient Israelites, Sh’ol was just “the place where dead people go.” Modern English versions of the Bible have typically translated Sh’ol as “the grave.” When people die, they are simply “in the grave.” Life stops at death. That’s as far as the ancient Israelites got with the question.
By the time of Jesus, the Jewish people had been influenced by several of the cultures around them. Many of these cultures had a more elaborate view of the afterlife. For the first time, that question showed up as a blip on their theological radar. Jewish thoughts on the matter went on to influence the early Christians in their thinking. By the time we get to the apostle Paul in the mid to late first century, Christians had come to believe that there would be a day in the future when Jesus would physically return to earth and the dead would be resurrected, raised back to life like Jesus was, physical bodies included. This was the dominant view of life after death that one finds in the New Testament and in the early church.
As the centuries went by, Christianity became more and more influenced by Greco-Roman culture and less influenced by its Jewish roots. People started reading some of the great Greek philosophers like Plato, who taught that the mind and the body were separated at the moment of death. The body dies, but the mind lives on in an ideal realm where it can contemplate goodness, truth, and beauty in their pure forms, unencumbered by the limitations of physical existence. Christians who read this found it appealing. Translating Plato’s ideas into Christian terms, they decided that the “ideal realm” was the kingdom of heaven, where God lives. After our bodies die, they thought, our souls go to heaven where they can see God directly.
This last perspective is the one that has become most prominent in Christianity today, which is interesting for Christians because we say that our faith comes from the Bible, but the belief that people’s souls go to heaven when their bodies die actually comes from Greek philosophy rather than the Bible. But even within the pages of Bible itself, we can see that there is more than one concept of life after death.
In this morning’s gospel reading, we can see two of these worldviews at war with one another. On one side, you have the Sadducees, who believed in Sh’ol, the grave: that life stops at death. On the other side, you have the Pharisees and the Christians, both of whom believed in resurrection. Luke probably decided to include this story in his gospel as a defense of the early Christian position over and against the Sadducees’ position, but I don’t particularly care about that aspect of the question, right now.
We could sit here all day and speculate about the technicalities of the afterlife (i.e. “What goes where, when, and how?”) but I would rather focus on the questions “Who?” and “Why?” when it comes to life after death.
The “Who?” is God. In the Bible (Acts 17:28), the apostle Paul quotes the Greek philosopher Epimenides, saying that we “live, and move, and have our being” in God. Later, in Romans 11:36, Pauls says that all beings are on a journey “from God, through God, and to God.” So, when we die, in the words of biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg, “we do not die into nothing; we die into God.” The same God who loved us into existence and loves us and holds us now in life will continue to love and hold us after death. When we die, we do not wander into the darkness; we are welcomed into the light. When we die, we are not enveloped by oblivion; we are embraced by eternity. When it comes to the “Who?” of life after death, the answer is that we put our trust in God, “in whom we live, and move, and have our being,” “from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things,” “the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last,” “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
When I imagine our return to God at the end of this journey, I like to imagine rain drops falling into the ocean. When the rain drop hits the surface of the ocean, what does it experience? In one sense, it ceases to exist; it becomes nothing. But this isn’t entirely true, because the water molecules that made up that rain drop are still there, they’re just part of the ocean now. So, in one sense the rain drop becomes nothing, but in another sense it becomes part of everything. Likewise, when the rain drops of our souls return to the infinite ocean that is God, what will we experience? Will I still know that I am Jonathan Barrett Lee? Will you still know that you are you? I honestly don’t know and I won’t try to speculate or offer you a theory that may or may not later prove to be true. Any analogy I make right now will most likely fall short of reality, anyway.
Even my favorite ocean metaphor doesn’t really work because the truth is that we are already living, moving, and existing in and through the ocean of God right now. We don’t have to wait until we die to experience that. The infinite ocean of God is already within you and me, and around us in the earth, sky, sea, and stars.
And if the apostle Paul is right in saying that we “live, and move, and have our being” in God and that all things are on a journey “from God, through God, and to God” (and I think he is), then the illusions we create for ourselves of separateness and superiority are nothing more than lies we make up in order to stroke our own insecure little egos. If we truly realized how loved we are as children of God, we wouldn’t need to make distinctions like “I’m better because I’m white/male/straight/American/Christian and she’s black/female/gay/Korean/Muslim.” If we really embraced who we are in God, we wouldn’t need to split those hairs (because they’re all growing on the same head). But because we do live in a world where people don’t know who they really are in God, we do have to spend time rectifying those errors and healing those divisions. We are called upon by God to participate in what the apostle Paul called “the ministry of reconciliation,” which leads me to my final point: the “Why?” of life after death.
Why do we ask these questions and formulate these theories about life after death? We do it because we need to know that our efforts on behalf of this “ministry of reconciliation” are not done in vain, but have lasting value. We need to know that our little stories are part of some Great Story being woven by the ages. We need to know that life matters and we are not alone. And as we put our parents, friends, lovers, and children into the ground, we need to hear that there is a love “strong as death” and a passion “fierce as the grave.” As the lid on that coffin closes, or when we lie in hospital and our breathing becomes more labored as the end draws closer, something within us is screaming. Something within us feels the urge to sing with that great poet, John Donne:
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee…
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
We feel the urge to sing in the face of death and sing we do. “Even at the grave, we make our song.” We sing to remind ourselves that there abides with us a Love that wilt not let us go.
In defiance, we sing:
I fear no foe with thee at hand to bless,
ills have no weight and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still if thou abide with me.
In faith, we sing:
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths it’s flow
may richer, fuller be.
O Light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray,
that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.
O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
and from the ground there blossoms red
life that shall endless be.
Brothers and sisters, I’m here today to tell you what happens after we die. I’m not here to talk about the “What/Where/When/How?” of life after death. I’m here to talk about the “Who?” and the “Why?” The “Who?” is God and the “Why?” is because your life does matter and you are not alone.
So, when your day comes (and it will), whether it comes sooner or later, whether you are old or young, whether it comes suddenly or gradually, whether you are alone or surrounded by loved ones, I give you permission, as you feel yourself fading, to close your eyes for the last time in the peace that comes from the knowledge that “you do not die into nothing; you die into God.” The God who has loved you in life is the same God who will continue to love you in death. As you go, you are not enveloped by oblivion, you are embraced by eternity. You do not wander into the darkness, you are welcomed into the light.