February 18, 2014

Heart and Soul: Theology

Perhaps it was the rainy morning that set a somber tone and got me to remembering. But it was also nearing the twentieth anniversary of this friend’s death, and it had been quite a few years since I had last gone looking for his grave. The cemetery was only a little out of my way, and, on a whim, I made that small detour from a journey I had made many times.

As I parked the car and ducked through a gap in the hedge, I noticed the apparatus and preparations for a burial later in the day. The small green shade tent would be more likely to protect mourners from drizzle than sunshine. The mound of dirt waiting to fill the new grave was similarly covered, perhaps to protect from the weather, perhaps to make its final use less obvious.

When the grave I was looking for was new, it had been a sunny winter afternoon, and I knew it was near the fence that fronted the road. Heading in that direction, I stepped carefully along the neat lawn cemetery rows. I reached an access road, then headed left along a row of grave markers that had recently been cleared of grass by a grass trimmer.

Mostly ignoring the names in favor of the dates on this row, the markers assured me that I was in the right area. But the grave I sought wasn’t in this row, and as I neared the fence, I turned back on the next parallel row.

This second row was similarly fruitless, and I was soon working my way back toward the fence on the third row, from which the creeping grass had not recently been trimmed. I had to go slower to make out the names, but somehow, in my mind, I didn’t expect that the grave I was seeking would be overgrown.

But then, because I didn’t expect it, I was suddenly there. Just a small window of the grave marker was visible through the flat, encroaching grass. But there was something familiar about this glimpse, and I quickly identified it as the spot I was looking for.

Part of our outrage is simply a result of the mystery of death.

Without thinking, I began ripping away the grass with my hands. It had been a wetter-than-usual summer, so it might not have been long since it was last cleared, but it seemed to fit with a grief, a sorrow, that was now two decades old. It’s still there, it’s still real, but it’s kind of overgrown.

I had not brought any flowers with me to the grave, but I soon had a small bouquet of torn grass that I placed neatly beside the marker. I brushed the plaque clean with my hands, removing stray pieces of grass and small clods of damp dirt. My hands were stained with red mud for the rest of the day.

More Than Death

We all have these kinds of stories. It is a profound part of what it means to be human. Every religion, philosophy, and culture throughout history has had to grapple with this somber human reality. Every grave we stand beside—whether a gaping hole, a pile of fresh earth, or a cemetery plot almost obscured by passing years—challenges the core of what it means to be human, and everything we believe about what life is or should be. And of course, we all have those moments and experiences in which we contemplate our own death, and consider that, in what seems the “natural” order of things, at some point we will no longer be part of our current lives.

Unsurprisingly, almost every religion, philosophy, and culture brings with it some kind of belief in some form of afterlife. Perhaps the most significant exception to this is the most dogmatic forms of modern atheism. Still, even among some of these philosophers and thinkers, we can sometimes find attempts to argue that their deceased colleagues, friends, and family members do continue to matter in some nonmaterial way—perhaps their genes live on, or their ideas, “spirit,” or memories continue to count in some way.

In the more religious sense, believers have often looked for the next life in the form of heaven, Valhalla, reincarnation, nirvana, or some other stories of the house of the gods or underworld. In some formulations these realms have an influence on the physical and day-to-day worlds; in others the two or more phases of life are quite separate. The Bible reminds us that God “has planted eternity in the human heart” (Eccl. 3:11).1 And a quick survey of religious and cultural beliefs supports this observation. Faced with the mysteries of death, human beings seem quick to fill the gaps.

Many of these beliefs have two practical results. First, there is often an element of reward or punishment in whatever comes after this life, giving ultimate meaning to right or wrong done in the present life. And second, the beliefs—usually assumed to point to something better after death—ease the process for the dying and the bereaved. We want there to be something—and something good—beyond death.

The Last Enemy

Despite any and all these beliefs—whether ancient mythology or contemporary psychology—we generally do not respond well to death. Something elemental within us recoils from death, whether our own or of those around us. For a time we might be able to convince ourselves with the theory of a life well lived coming to a peaceful sunset, but we still miss our grandmother after her death, and shed genuine tears at her departing. Worse yet are the unexpected, violent, painful, “untimely,” and senseless deaths that are heartbreakingly common in our world and our lives.

Part of our outrage is simply a result of the mystery of death. For all our various beliefs and sciences, death remains the great unknown. But it is even worse than that. As well as an insult to all we hold dear, work for, and value, death is an assault on our most basic human being. Again, the Bible offers an honest summary of our predicament: “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26).

Freed from any pretensions about death as a natural part of life, we no longer have to feel guilty about not being able to come to terms with death. In the Bible’s worldview, we are right to be horrified and heartbreakingly affronted by death.

Death had no place in God’s original creation. We were created to live eternally, and nothing could be less natural than our lives coming to an end. In the Bible’s story death and the sin that brought it are tragic aberrations. We do not have to be friends with death; we are at most only unwilling, uncomfortable, and temporary acquaintances. Indeed, we rightly and literally resist death with all our mortal being, even if only weakly and ineffectively.

A Different, Bigger Hope

Rather than some kind of individual, one-by-one afterlife, the Bible’s primary hope—and promise—is for the end of death itself. Ultimately, it is not about each of us going “beyond,” hopefully to something better. The Bible’s big story is about a new creation where “there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever” (Rev. 21:4). Most other afterlife scenarios leave the bulk of suffering humanity to toil away under the burden of death, with its fear, outrages, and tragedies. The Bible points us to a different and much larger hope.

The Bible describes death as a sleep (see Eccl. 9:5, 6; Ps. 146:4; John 11:11-14). Like sleep, it is temporary, and the next thing the sleeper is aware of is an awakening—resurrection, in Bible-speak. Compared with other beliefs and philosophies, there is no time missed for the departed. Those who remain alive can be comforted that their friend or family member is not suffering, struggling further, observing the sorrows on earth, or haunting them.

Like many other traditions, the Bible unashamedly talks about different outcomes after death for the good and the bad, the “righteous” and the “unrighteous” (see John 5:29). But this is not so much about merely doing right or wrong—it is about the choice offered to all people throughout history, although sometimes in different ways. Did the person choose to
be part of God’s eternal kind of life and accept a place in the plan for the final defeat of death? Or did they choose to stick with the death and devil they knew?

God’s plan is to end death. That’s what Jesus taught, lived for, and died for: “Everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). In rising from the dead, He proved that death can be, and now is defeated.

Our experiences of life are so colonized by death that it can be hard to imagine life without it. But when we reflect on the variety of hopes and beliefs about what happens after death, the biggest possible hope is that death itself will be no more. Ultimately, we don’t tackle death one by one, even if we are victims of it in the meantime. Instead, led by the resurrected Jesus, all of the human race that chooses to be part of this death-defeating project will overcome and destroy death together in a glorious uprising of resurrection and re-creation.

Back in the Cemetery

I pause at the grave for just a few minutes before I notice other people arriving, perhaps connected with the burial about to happen across the driveway. I head to my car, but, looking back over my shoulder, I still see the small pile of grass that now temporarily marks the spot I just left.

As I start the car, a song is just beginning that proves that there are “coincidences” in real life that a writer couldn’t get away with if they were making up the story. “Life is full of light and shadow/ O the joy and O the sorrow.” It’s a song called “Shadows,” by the David Crowder Band, from an album only recently recommended to me by a friend.

“When shadows fall on us/ We will not fear/ We will remember.”2 I remember the shock and challenge this death was to me 20 years earlier, in my final year of high school. There had been other deaths, but almost always older people, like grandparents. This death was new, shocking, horrible.

There are still questions and hurts, about this and so many other tragedies, disappointments, and sorrows. Yet “When all seems lost/ When we’re thrown and we’re tossed/ We’ll remember the cost/ We’re resting in the shadow of the cross.”

Even 20 years on there’s still more to the story. Death is—and will be—defeated. And when it is, I hope and believe, our friendship will resume.

  1. Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
  2. “Shadows,” from Church Music, by David Crowder Band, © 2009 Sparrow Records/sixsteprecords. All rights reserved. Manufactured by EMI Christian Music Group.