By Bruce G. Epperly
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
It seemed like a trick question at the time. The Sadducees, a Jewish religious group, skeptical of survival after death, ask Jesus to ponder the nature of marital relationships beyond the grave. “A woman has seven husbands, all brothers; each of which dies; leaving her childless to the end of her days. Who will be her husband when the Messiah comes and the dead are raised on the final day?” Jesus’ initial response doesn’t clarify the issue, the worthy ones in the resurrection age will “neither marry nor be given in marriage…they will be like angels” not needing husbands or wives.
Taken literally, this passage denies any intimate relationships in God’s resurrection age….now this can be a relief to some, who may fear that they will have to spend an eternity with their current mate, or have to deal with two or three former spouses! It also challenges the popular theology found in Keith Urban’s love song, “I promise you one thing -if there’s life afer this, I’m gonna greet you with a warm, wet kiss.”….but, again, I suggest Jesus is responding to the nature of the question, rather than providing a treatise on life everlasting.
Now, I think Jesus’ response is meant to be a type of Christian “koan,” a mysterious saying, challenging us to let go of control, even theological and intellectual control, and place our future in all its mystery in God’s care. “God is the God of the living,” no more, no less, is all that Jesus leaves us with by way of understanding his vision of survival after death.
But, still we wonder . . .
Now, Christians and non-Christians have wondered a great deal about the fate of the dead – more realistically, our fate and the fate of those we love….and in this post-modern, pluralistic age, we can entertain a variety of images of survival after death besides the skeptical image of “dust to dust, and nothingness.”
Today, I want to explore a few options with you, with one word of warning – we see in a mirror darkly, we can’t fully know all the answers, but we may be able to get enough light to enable us to face our own deaths with courage and grace. Accordingly, I am going to paint a picture, not give an exact description of
Now, many of us, including myself, were raised with a dualistic understanding of survival after death – at death, some go to heaven, others go to hell, depending on their relationship to Jesus. Just a few weeks ago, I spoke with a man at the oncology ward, who glowingly noted that the night before, his dying sister, “accepted Jesus as her savior.” In his eyes, death and hell could no longer claim her – at death, she would truly come home, welcomed by Jesus and the community of the saved.
While I support this viewpoint’s trust in God’s love in Christ and hope for everlasting life, I struggle with “what it means to accept Jesus as your savior” and “the problem of those who don’t accept Christ and, then, must receive eternal punishment.” You see, belief is not necessarily intellectual or doctrinal, or entirely a matter of trust….Also, the inability to accept Jesus is not always a matter of willfulness, sin, or turning away from God; it could be a matter of the culture of our birth; the religion we grew up in; or how we were treated by those who call themselves Christians…it could also be a matter of a happy or traumatic childhood, or our chemical structure, DNA, that may predispose us to depression or other mental health challenges. Finally, I struggle with the dualism of saved and unsaved – the saved aren’t always that good, nor the unsaved that evil….Further, would a truly loving God punish infinitely for the sins of finite lifetime. It is said that one church father noted that one of the joys of heaven is hearing the shrieks of the damned. In contrast to such as self-serving and individualistic view of salvation, I would suggest that as long as there are some creatures in deep pain, none of us can fully experience God’s bliss. Can there be a heaven, in an interdependent universe, if some remain tortured in hell? As you can see, I believe that this dualistic viewpoint is neither adequate theologically, spiritually, or ethically for us to affirm.
Others see this life as part of a long succession of lifetimes…we have seen a growing interest in past-life narratives in which persons, through hypnosis or mystical experience, come to know the relationship between this life and their previous lifetimes. From this perspective, held in various forms, by Buddhists, Hindus, a minority of Christians, and persons in new age/new spiritual movements, this lifetime in its particularity arose from the energy and actions of a previous lifetime and will lead to and condition what happens in the next lifetime. In some sense, from this perspective, we truly do choose our parents, DNA, talents, and social setting that we bring to this lifetime. The goal of this great journey from lifetime to lifetime is eventually union or oneness with the ultimate reality; the drop of water finding its home in the great sea of eternity.
While there is much to commend this viewpoint, I see three problems with a literal understanding of reincarnation: first, most of us don’t learn at a conscious level from our previous mistakes or good fortune in a prior lifetime (we seem to begin all over again with each lifetime, despite the inheritance from the past); second, in the linear cause and effect realm of karma, some would suggest that the wealthy and healthy really deserve what they have, and the poor and sick deserve what they have, since they are inheriting the fruits of past behavior. This certainly led to the caste system in India in which outcasts deserved their low social status. The ethical inadequacy of a linear understanding of reincarnation as cause and effect from life to life is found in new age guru Louis Hay’s viewpoint that some persons with AIDS might have been Nazi jailers, since in this lifetime they resemble death camp prisoners! Once again, this viewpoint suffers, like the dualistic understanding of heaven and hell, from too much individualism – in a relational world, our fate is not entirely in our hands, but is the result of a world of interdependent relationships in which individual is always part of a greater relational or spiritual community. Third, the loss of the personal self which is the goal of some understandings of the journey from life to life denies the importance of our current lifetime – if this lifetime is important, something of it must be preserved, either in our self-awareness as we grow in stature, or in the memory of God to whom all hearts are open and all desires known.
Still, I believe there is much to commend this viewpoint’s sense of justice from life to life and also its confidence that eventually, even it takes a thousand lifetimes, all will find enlightenment, nirvana, or oneness.
In Christian thought, the other option is some form of universalism – we all be saved, all of us…the question is: “will we be perfected all at once?” or “do we continue to grow in relationship with God’s everlasting life?” This latter approach, focusing on the interplay of everlasting life and everlasting growth is my viewpoint. While I don’t have all the answers, let me share my faith and understanding, with humilty and subject to correction and revision at any time.
I see survival after death in evolutionary and adventurous terms. Like the Hindu-Buddhist-New Age vision of reincarnation, I see the afterlife as a time of growth even if we never take on another body. None of us ever die complete or fulfilled; we have a lot of work to do when our life ends – for we have missed opportunities to love and heal, we have been hurt and we have hurt others. As good as we have been in this one lifetime, we have not fully embodied God’s vision for our lives. Accordingly, God’s work in our lives remains unfinished at death; God calls us to greater and greater stature, love, and perfection of experience in our post-mortem adventures.
But, universalism must include everyone, or it can’t be universal…and this is where it gets sticky, theologically and ethically….In a universalist vision, even a Hitler may be given the gift of life after life and personal healing, but – whether in a twinkling of an eye or a billion earth years – he must also come to terms with the pain he caused and experience the forgiveness of those millions he hurt. Does he deserve this grace? Of course not! But, remember Hitler himself was apparently a traumatized child, who inflicted his own brokenness on others….Do we always deserve grace? Of course not, but the one who heals our “small” sins, surely has the patience, insight, and love to cure our “big” sins and the “monumental” sins of others.
This afterlife evolution is dynamic and personal but not individualistic….the notion of resurrection of the person affirms that survival after death will be “more” not “less” than this lifetime….God will transform and invite us to experience our freedom at its best and our creativity at its best, in relationship with the whole universe journey….the vision of shalom is salvation, healing, in community, and not isolation….we will rejoice in new and creative relationships as well as the relationships we have prized in this lifetime….we may even experience intimacy, not unlike sexuality, beyond the grave…this is speculation, but in the “reign of God,” God’s city of joy and fulfillment, glory, wonder, and praise, embrace all that we are, rather than erasing what was important in this lifetime, and surely that must include some form of embodiment, even if it is radically different from our current state. Still, finite, in our lives beyond the grave, we will nevertheless experience God with fewer obstructions and greater clarity.
This universal dynamic and relational journey will be a true wonderland, calling us to experience the fullness of life, to grow, to get new tasks; perhaps, even to minister to others on the earth plane. Perhaps, some of us may become “angels” and “bodhisattvas,” beings so filled with love that our greatest desire will be help our earthly – or other planetary – companions find joy, healing, and release.
At the end of the day, everlasting life is about God’s love, grace, and vision, and our openness to grow into adventure toward embodying the mind of Christ. God is the God of the living…of the evolving…of the growing and the loving…God is not finished with us in this life…nor will God change God’s attitude to us when we die…the One who calls all things into life – even our non-human companions – will bring all things home on a holy adventure in which there is neither sunset nor dawning…in which light and darkness alike give birth to beauty, wonder, and love, now and forever more.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.