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.)
My friend Chris Eyre writes about the reality (but not necessarily physicality) of the resurrection and discusses our preaching. Here’s a line from his conclusion:
But really, I think we probably should be preaching that you should follow Jesus irrespective of the fact that it may lead to poverty, homelessness and even death.
Probably when you saw the title to this post, you thought I was going to talk about taking care of the homeless. And you should. Do it! But this is about what might happen to you and me as followers of Jesus, and how that preaches in the modern world.
I think this deserves some discussion, irrespective of where you come down on the nature of the resurrection.
The Sunday School class I currently attend uses a random selection process for the questions we’ll discuss. Class members put questions in a container, and we draw a question for each week. Last week the question was: Why am I such a doubting Thomas?
As we were discussing how much we doubted, what we doubted, and why, someone commented that what we believe as Christians really is quite bizarre if you haven’t gotten used to it. Most commonly we would cite things such as the resurrection. I believe that one person who died about 2,000 years ago didn’t stay dead, but came back to life. That’s a fairly bizarre thing to believe, or better to base an entire system of belief on.
The person who made the comment cited the belief that Jesus died for our sins and thus we can have salvation. I believe that’s equally bizarre. Who these days would think of such a thing? The idea of atonement was much more common in the ancient world, but not so much in western civilization today.
And that brought another question, which seemed to be addressed to me. Did Christianity seem less bizarre back in the first century. My answer is “yes,” though different things would seem bizarre and likely in different ways. As I’ve already mentioned, the atonement would seem more natural, provided one was drawing on a range of ideas prevalent in the ancient world, but there are aspects of it that are odd. For example, the idea of a single, universal atonement, reconciling the whole world to God, was unique to Christianity, I believe.
I don’t think it came out of thin air. There are many, many parallels that come close, but I think the full idea of atonement as expressed especially by Paul, is unique.
But what first comes to our modern, or even slightly post-modern minds, is generally the question of miracles. But there is where I think we differ less from the ancients than we generally think. We imagine that they were much more naive about miracles in general than we are, that they would tend to believe whatever miracle might be claimed. I see little evidence for this. In fact, the resurrection was very hard for either Greeks or Jews to believe, and was often a stumbling block, as noted, for example, in Acts 17:32.
I observe two things. First, there are quite a number of miracle stories even today, and plenty of people to believe in them. Second, there is plenty of evidence of ancient people who were quite unwilling to believe miracle stories. In both cases, such belief tends to be easier regarding miracle stories in one’s own religious tradition than in those of others. As a Christian, I find it much easier to accept the idea that Jesus ascended to heaven than that Muhammad did.
I’d suggest that this has a substantial impact on the way I read the Bible, as opposed to how I might read other literature, especially religious literature. While I look at evidence regarding historical events related to my faith, at some of the most critical points, it is faith, without that much sight involved.
One important reason to recognize this, I think, is that it will impact the way we relate to other people. When we understand that, in a sense, one must put on a whole new religious culture before our religious faith makes sense, we may be somewhat more charitable. I’m afraid I may lean the other way. I find doubt and even rejection of things I hold dear quite reasonable, despite the depth of my own commitment to those beliefs.
So I may not believe at least six impossible things before breakfast every morning, I do believe some things that, to someone outside my faith tradition, are bizarre.
Adrian Warnock issued a 10 day empty grave challenge, asking Christian bloggers to write about the resurrection at some point before Easter. Even though I have yet to read his book (I’ll get to it sometime!), I thought I’d take him up on his challenge.
Now the fact is that my experience differs from Adrian’s in that I have found that most churches I have attended tend to be pretty happy about the resurrection, but much more likely to neglect the cross. They have generally been quite happy to discuss the resurrection without any concern for why it was necessary. Unfortunately, however, I believe that if one neglects the cross one can hardly fully understand the resurrection.
A song from my youth, Henry de Fluiter’s Homesick for Heaven:
I’m homesick for heaven, seems I cannot wait,
Yearning to enter Zion’s pearly gate;
There never a heartache, never a care,
I long for my home over there.
I may seem to be deviating from the topic, but I grew up with this concept. A desire for the coming of God’s kingdom is a kind of standard in Christian discourse. We want to go to heaven, with the obvious subtext “not too soon.”
Now I had always thought that I really was homesick for heaven. But it took the time when my son was sick and death was threatening to teach my what homesickness really meant. I am aware that I bring up this one incident constantly in discussing, but living through the death of a child is an event that will change your life for better or worse.
But the experience that I relate to the resurrection is not death, but an earlier time in our experience. James had gone through surgery to remove one lung, and was in intensive care. Prior to the surgery I had committed to teach a series each Sunday for a month at a church about 2 1/2 hours away, at least as I drive. The pastor told me he’d understand if I canceled, but he wasn’t going to withdraw the invitation.
Saturday night I stood by James’s bed side and dithered as to whether I could make it. James was trying to say something to me, but was muffled by the tubes, so I came closer so I could hear. He said one word to me: “Go!”
I went. On those trips I was sustained by the music of the kingdom. I recall in particular one song, “Singing with the Saints” —
I’ll be be sitting at the throne with an angel band,
Shoutin’ hallelujahs to the great I am
If you think it’s a dream, well it ain’t
I’ll be singing with the saints.
I played that music loudly all the way. One of those Sundays–I don’t think it was that first one because James was able to talk to me–my wife Jody tried to call me on the cell phone as I drove and I didn’t hear it ring. When I did notice the call and called back they were shocked that I had missed the call due to the music. You see, I very rarely listen to music that loudly.
But in that experience there were moments when I sensed I could feel the grass of the fields of heaven. I felt a homesickness for that land that I had never felt before. I understand that others whose view of life and whose faith (or lack of it) differs from mine. I know that they too endure great difficulties and come through them. But for myself, it was that part of my faith, not particularly the future hope, but the moments experiencing eternity here and now that sustained me. I realized that I was a native of that kingdom for just a moment. As St. John Chrysostom said of the patriarchs:
What then? Did they mean that they were “strangers” from the land that is in Palestine? By no means: but in respect of the whole world: and with reason; for they saw therein none of the things which they wished for, but everything foreign and strange.
Before that I only thought I was homesick.
I’m reminded of a quote from Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, p. 37:
…The Eucharist has so often been explained with reference to the gifts alone: what “happens” to bread and wine, and why, and when it happens! But we must understand that what “happens” to bread and wine happens because something has, first of all, happened to us, to the Church. It is because we have “constituted” the Church, and this means we have followed Christ in His ascension; because He has accepted us at His table in His Kingdom; because, in terms of theology, we have entered the Eschaton, and are now standing beyond time and space; it is because all this has first happened to us that something will happen to bread and wine.
In worship we are not merely commemorating historical events, or looking forward to future events, but we are experiencing our true homeland. When we truly get a taste of that true homeland it changes who we are and the way we look at the world.
When we study and meditate on the resurrection, I believe it should take us through that journey. We cannot do so without Good Friday and Silent Saturday. The first reminds us of the nature of evil and of the hardships we all encounter. It reminds us of the price of the kingdom. Silent Saturday is that time of waiting. Victory doesn’t come in an instant, but requires patience and determination. Easter Sunday is the victory of the kingdom.