[The next life]

Dear Donagh,

…. Most of my life I took for granted that there was a next life.  Now I'm not so sure any more.  Is it childish to imagine life going on forever and ever?  I began to question it when a friend of mine told me she believed her dog was still alive even though he was killed on the road last year.  Is belief in life after death a bit like that…?  Karen

Dear Karen,

I hear this question very often in the last few years.  Thanks for asking it.  It’s good to be forced to look at the hard questions again and again. 

I agree, there are some very fanciful notions about the next life, many of them very materialistic, even hedonistic.  A suicide bomber thinks that for murdering as many innocent people as possible he is going to be rewarded with a large number of virgins in the next life: that is just barbarism held in place by a male fantasy, an adolescent male fantasy – sex and violence in their extremes. 

The Christian faith has very little to say about the next life – and wisely so.  “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has the human heart conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9).  That is a negative statement.  When pressed for a positive statement, a Christian will only say that heaven is the presence of God.  This says everything and nothing.  It says everything that Christians want to say about the matter, and nothing that might be just a projection of our own worst qualities: greed and self-delusion.     

I wrote a few words on this very topic on another page of this website (Gospel Commentary, May 30, 2017).  For your convenience I'll reproduce them here.

“This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (verse 3).  In other words, eternal life is a relationship with God and Jesus.  This relationship is real now, in this life; it doesn’t have to wait until after we have died.  There is a human tendency to project things into the future (that's how we cheat ourselves frequently).  When it comes to ‘eternal life’ we tend to project it right out of this world.  This is not a religious instinct; it is just a normal lazy tendency to put everything off till another time.  The religious instinct is to dive in here and now.  Eternal life is now, not later on.  You could shock your friends by saying that there is no such thing as a next life.   All life is now.  As you live, it is always now; when you die it will be now; after you have died, it will be now.  Nothing was ever done or ever happened in the future. 

The expression ‘pie in the sky’ was a parody of a pious hymn called ‘The Sweet By and By’.  If we don’t stay with the here and now, we are left dreaming about a sweet by and by.  Look through the gospels and notice how often Jesus uses the word ‘today’.  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4.21).  “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).  “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).  Our hunger for life, like our hunger for food, can't be put off till tomorrow. “Give us today our daily bread” (Mt 6:11).  The hymn went: “In the sweet by and by / We shall meet on that beautiful shore.”   After the death of Jesus the downhearted disciples went back to the only thing they knew: fishing.  In the grey light of dawn (so not through rose-tinted spectacles) they saw a familiar figure on the shore.  “[John] said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake” (Jn 21:7).  That shore was not in another world, it was here; and the time was not the sweet by and by, but now.  It was here and now, and Peter dived in. 

Everything turns on the meaning of the Greek word ‘aiṓnios’.  It is translated as ‘eternal’, but unfortunately it is often misleadingly translated (even in the Liturgy) as ‘everlasting’.  ‘Eternal life’ is not about time stretched out into a never-ending future; it is not about quantity, but rather quality of life.  In the context, Christians want to say it is God's kind of life.   That means that it is as mysterious as God is; we can no more say what it is than we can say what God is.  Yet we live in it at every moment; notice the present tense throughout these verses of John’s gospel: 3:36, 5:24, 6:47.

Another crucial point is the distinction between immortality and resurrection

There were so-called proofs of the immortality of the human soul, blamed on Plato and Aristotle.  I wonder how many people were convinced by them over the centuries.  In this area there is always the likelihood of self-delusion.  It would be a hard job to persuade us today that we are so wonderful that we couldn’t possibly disappear completely. 

Resurrection, by contrast, is a surprise, not a proof.  Those first disciples were shocked to experience the presence of the risen Christ: the three women came to the tomb to take care of the dead body, but when they experienced his presence “they fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them” (Mk 16:8).  In Luke’s gospel they are “perplexed” and “terrified”, and when they told the story to the male disciples, these would not believe them.  But when they saw for themselves they were “amazed” (Lk 24:4, 11, 12). 

In the New Testament the whole person (body and soul) falls into the power of death; and if there is any possibility of deliverance from this power it is not established by arguments about the immortality of the soul, but rather through faith that God will raise us up as he raised Jesus our brother.  In the Liturgy it says, “In him our hope of resurrection dawned.”  It is our identification with Christ (we are his body, St Paul keeps repeating) that grounds our hope of resurrection. 

We won't sort it all out today, Karen.  It will take an eternity!


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