What Does It Mean to Survive Death?

What Does It Mean to Survive Death?

9781938434099sIn my Eschatology study last Thursday (Oct. 15, 2015) I tried to answer an audience question. Here it is:

Is the sense of the presence of Jesus today dependent on the historical Jesus surviving death? Or, is it more like the presence of a departed parent that lingers after death?

And here’s the video, set to the point where I discussed the question.

I’m not terribly satisfied with my answer. What’s more, I am never satisfied with my answer to this and similar questions. What’s even yet more, I doubt I will ever be satisfied.

I’m sure some will find this surprising. I can certainly talk about heaven in a very present and real sense. I claim that I do not cross my fingers during the Apostles’ Creed when I come to “resurrection of the dead.” On the other hand, those who see life after death more as the presence in our memories as someone after death seem to think this is quite adequate. For me, it is not. Well, it might be.

A common modern view of life after death sees this as a simple result of our unwillingness to admit that we are truly bound by time and destined to come to an end in the sense in which we live now. Belief in the afterlife is a way to avoid this end. We don’t want to be something that exists in the memories of others or who impacts the universe through the echoes of what we were and did in our physical lives. Thus we imagine an afterlife.

There is another possibility, one that was mentioned in a recent video interview I conducted with Dr. David Moffett-Moore. I believe he was quoting someone else, but I’ll credit him for the moment. (I haven’t located the precise portion of the interview.) He said we could be seen as spiritual beings having a physical experience rather than physical beings who have spiritual experiences. I want to consider the possibility that the reason many of us see some sort of survival is not that we are carrying out wish fulfilment, but rather that we detect the echoes of this other reality. The reason we sense that the person isn’t gone is that in that spiritual sense, they are not.

And that leads automatically to what “that spiritual sense” might be. And there the problem gets complicated. Just how do you talk about something for which we have only distant echoes? Plato’s cave and the shadows seem easy by comparison. Then there is 1 Corinthians 2:9, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived ….”

What we tend to do with this, however, is to take what we have already and make what no human heart has conceived be more of what we already have. We have our physical life, our comforts, our friends, and so forth, so in this other realm we will have more of those things. More people, better relationships with them, more stuff (or less need for stuff, but more satisfaction), a bigger, better place. It would be just like moving to the mansion down the road, the one we couldn’t possibly afford, only much, much more! Bigger! Better!

But what if what we can’t conceive is something we can’t conceive? I don’t mean that the mansion we can’t afford, but can have when we get to heaven, is so large we can’t imagine it that large. What if the concept “mansion” is simply the wrong one? What if no matter how we conceive of that mansion in size, splendor, comfort, or anything else, we’re no closer, because it’s simply the wrong thing to be imagining?

Here are some questions I tend to hear when talking about this: But is it real? Is heaven a place? Is it just imaginary?

And here’s the problem with our language. If I say you’re going to live in a new house, but it’s really not something you can understand, you just don’t have the concepts, you’re likely to turn to the most likely alternative: It’s imaginary; it doesn’t exist. So in order to make heaven truly inviting and special, I’m asked to affirm that it is real—just as real as my house that I can see through my office window. Just as real, but better. Well, if that’s the “real” then I can’t possibly tell you that.

We really can’t conceptualize it. On the one hand I don’t want to limit it to the chemical processes of memory inside physical bodies alone. On the other, I don’t want it to be some place else in three-dimensional space, like a fine housing development out in space somewhere. I think we get echoes from it in our minds and spirits, and we have to tie those echoes to something we can conceive, but that doesn’t mean the concepts we form are the whole story.

And I’m very dissatisfied with my answer, but it’s the only one I have. With it, I live in continuous hope.

(Let me recommend the book whose cover I show at the top of this post: The Journey to the Undiscovered Country. Bill Tuck spends some time with the various concepts he finds and looks at the echoes as they occur in scripture.)


3 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Survive Death?

  1. Henry…This is really honest and I deeply appreciate it. One of the great problems in the world of religion is that many people speak with absolute certainty about things deeply mysterious. The recognition that we are not God is the starting point for entering into God’s depth…Thank you! Bob

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