October 20, 2017

Cliff’s Edge - The Produce of the Dead

I recently read Patrick Hunt’s Hannibal, about Hannibal Barca (247 BC—c. 181 BC), perhaps the greatest military commander—ever. From Carthage (today’s Tunisia), Hannibal is best known for leading troops, including war elephants, from Spain, over the Swiss Alps, and into Italy, where he dismembered Roman armies for years before being lured back to North Africa and, eventually, to defeat. (Had Hannibal attacked Rome itself, Daniel’s prophecies—written centuries earlier—most likely would have foretold a future different from the one we live in now).

In 216 BC, in the notorious battle of Cannae, Hannibal routed the Romans, killing 55,000 to 75,000, and losing about 6,000 of his own. “Historians,” wrote Hunt, “estimate more dead soldiers at Cannae than in any other day of battle in Western history, and that 30,000 gallons of blood were spilled in that one day.”

Today our eyes can float over the placid fields quietly sprouting life where tens of thousands died. But who were those fathers, those sons, those brothers whose dreams, hopes, passions, and ambitions vanished on a scream or a moan, and not the residue of a dream, a hope, a passion lingering in their chemical remains?

The God who can create and maintain 100 billion galaxies . . . could easily handle everything about everyone who ever existed here.

That’s one battle. Who can keep track of all the wars (not battles, wars) since 216 BC? And natural disasters? How, for instance, could I have lived for 62 years and only last week heard about famine in Vietnam that killed a million people in 1945? What kind of world is this in which a million people starve to death and others don’t know about it? And of each one of those million men, women, children, and babies who slowly withered back into the ground that so betrayed them, I know not a name nor a face.

Does anyone?

And even if some still do, soon none will.

“Look, Lola,” wrote Louis-Ferdinand Celine, “do you remember, for instance, a single name of any of the soldiers killed in the Hundred Year’s War? . . . Did you even try to find out any of them? . . . No? . . . You see? . . . You never tried. . . . As far as you are concerned they’re as anonymous, as indifferent, as the last atom of that paperweight.”

Think about how close, how immediate and essential your sense of self is. You know existence only through your own consciousness; consciousness is how you experience life, which is why you cling so fervently to it, as did the billions of dead before us whose consciousness was just as real, just as immediate, and just as precious to each of one them as yours is to you. Yet each one of theirs has crumbled into what can be best described by The Periodic Table of Elements, and nothing more.

And, we don’t need to be reminded (do we?) that we’re made of the same stuff as they, literally because some of their atoms are now ours (a bit of Euripides could be in your bones, a bit of Genghis Kahn in your belly).

Is this, then, their only legacy, to be scattered atoms of the same urstoff as cockroaches? Or even if you are, as we inevitably must be, the direct produce of the dead (think great grandparents and before), to what ultimate avail? Either through our seed or eggs, or our atomic debris, we also (if time lasts) will morph into the stuff of future generations, which (if time lasts) will too disappear into history as did Cannae’s dead.

Secular writers gripe about the absurdity of being beings whose being cries out for answers in a world that not only offers none but is the burning and painful question that, itself, needs to be answered. In contrast, Scripture time and again promises ultimate judgment, justice, and the final reckoning of all things—the only thing that saves all things from being worth nothing.

Everyone else might have forgotten the names and faces of those who died in the Vietnam famine, but not the God who knows our “thoughts from afar” (Ps. 139:2), or who has numbered “the very hairs of your head” (Luke 12:7). He knows everything about those people and about the billions of others repatriated to the ground that first bred them, and His promise that He “will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Eccl. 12:14) applies just as much to a Cherokee scalped in a tribal war 400 years ago as it does to anyone reading these words now.

The God who can create and maintain 100 billion to 200 billion galaxies, each with perhaps a few hundred billion stars (and how many planets around many of those stars?) could easily handle everything about everyone who ever existed here.

“A life which disappears once and for all,” wrote Milan Kundera, “which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing. We need to take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.”

Kundera would be correct, but for the gospel. Of the billions who have disappeared—whether at Cannae, or in a fourteenth century African war, or anywhere—not a single one has disappeared to God, “who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:1, NKJV). Regardless of how many who will not be saved by it, Christ’s death was universal; it was for everyone—from an Egyptian maiden eaten by wild beasts 3,500 years ago, to Hugh Hefner. Each one of the world’s forgotten billions will be back, in one resurrection or another. And before it’s over, “every knee will bow before me; and every tongue will acknowledge God” (Rom. 14:11), which means that the Lord will make everything as right as possible from a world gone wrong.