Living and dying—and living after dying—have been on my mind lately, as seems appropriate for the season. Lots of religious people think fleetingly about the death and resurrection of Jesus for a few days immediately before and during Easter. I’ve been making a serious study of this topic for some time, which is part of what living with cancer will do for you. Staring death in the eye robs it of its power. And it’s commonly accepted you don’t get to heaven (or whatever fate awaits you) without first dying—unless you’re Elijah riding a chariot of fire. I anticipate making a more conventional exit some day. Thinking about the inevitable makes perfect sense to me.
I can guarantee you, however, that talking about death and the hereafter will not add to your popularity. Death is our culture’s dirty little secret. Science and medicine hold out the promise of life without death. Secular culture convinces us that we can postpone aging forever; if you doubt me, just carefully watch the ads on TV. Things don’t get much better in Christian circles. It’s one thing to believe in a God whose son died an atoning death on a cross, and who three days later rose from the grave. That’s standard-issue Christianity. Jesus was uniquely qualified to do the miraculous. The suggestion that God’s children will some day themselves be physically resurrected seems to cross a line into the bizarre and phantasmic.
That, however, is precisely the great Biblical truth that keeps me going. I believe that I will one day touch the face of God, not metaphorically or in a pleasant dream but in a completely reawakened state in a physical world that will make our present existence seem like troubled sleep. In the afterlife I will be truly present in bodily form in a reality congruent with creation. My body will be incorruptible (no more cancer!). I will be immortal. I will have all of eternity to explore a new conjoined heaven and earth, to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
I will make no attempt to unpack the theology of that paragraph. Others can do it better than I can, including N.T. Wright, Arthur Roberts, Randy Alcorn and John Stott. My reason for mentioning this is that it answers the question: If I were to die today, where would I go? Everyone has some sort of answer to that question. This is mine. It’s obviously informed by my Christian faith, and by the urgency I feel about my earthly life. Knowing something about what lies beyond this world gives me profound hope. It equips me to take the time I have more seriously, and to continue working for God’s kingdom here and now. It brings me joy.
By the way, I agree with Wright that a robust Christian doctrine of the resurrection, as part of God’s new creation, gives more value, not less, to the present world and to our present bodies. What we do right now matters enormously. I have no interest in just holding out for the sweet by and by in a disembodied heaven in the clouds. A future resurrection should be a major motive for treating our bodies properly in the present time. God has a very high opinion of our flesh and blood, as he did his son’s—enough to bring it back to life. The coming restoration of all of creation should also motivate us to care deeply for the earth and everything upon it, and create an urgent desire to oppose human injustice. All that we read in Genesis that was made by God was made good. It will be renewed, yes, but it is not to be desecrated in the meanwhile.
To my observation, what most people believe about life beyond death—if they think about it at all—tends to be very conservative. Almost every memorial service I’ve attended, and the few sermons I’ve heard preached on the subject of resurrection, go Platonic on the fate of the body. We’re told, or it’s implied, that the spirit at death leaves the body and goes to be with God “in heaven.” There it rests forever in peace and tranquility, free of the suffering and decay it endured in this world. This future expectation bears more resemblance to Greek philosophy than to orthodox Christian faith.
If this vision of our eternal destiny is meant to be comforting, I can see why many would want no part of it. It’s insipid piety. It not only sells God short, but sells us short as well. The Creator has a great drama in store for his people, of which our little dramas are, as it were, the plays within the play. We are living them now. They do not end with our deaths. The purpose of being a Christian is not simply to go to heaven when we die. It is to participate in his kingdom building in this life, and then later to enter an even better place where God will dwell with and among us. It’s a two-part package.
It’s been said that if there was no resurrection on Easter morning, then there would be no church and no Christianity. What God has done through his son is that important. The astounding and unexpected physical resurrection of Jesus in the flesh is not only something that should give us hope, but also validates all of human existence. Thanks to the creative plan of God, we can experience greater depths of beauty, mystery and love—both before and after death—than the wildest visionary has dared to dream. I can face the most demoralizing medical workup knowing that what I experience is not the beginning of the end but the prelude to the beginning. Jesus has abolished death. Like him, we too must surrender our mortal bodies, and then we'll live again as the people we are today, only perfected and forever.