When was the last time that you thought about death?
Does it sound morbid to say that I think about it a lot?
Now, sure, it’s probably natural for someone who’s been fighting cancer to think about death somewhat. After all, for many people it is a sharp slap in the face that, contrary to popular opinion, they are probably not the exception to the rule of mortality. But this isn’t a new thing for me. I have thought a great deal about death for a very long time. Sometimes it has scared me. Sometimes it has made my faith waver. Because, in the end, we all have to face the Great Dark.
Some people are healed of cancer. Some receive miracles and victories and happiness. But, in the end, every miracle is temporal. Not a one of them lasts forever. Eventually everything — and everyone — turns to dust. Eventually death comes for us all.
And, if the materialist worldview is right, oblivion will swallow each of us up, and that will be our end. There are no happy endings. There is only tragedy.
A couple of years ago I was studying the Old Testament. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the early Jews felt very similarly to the materialists. Even King David. He didn’t believe in an afterlife as we do, but in Sheol: a dark shadow world where people could not truly be said to be alive.(1) His son, Solomon, one of the wisest men in history according to the Bible, said, “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?”(2) Then, later, he said, “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.”(3) Most early Christians did not believe in an afterlife per se, either. They believed in a resurrection of the dead, but until that happened their brothers and sisters slept a sleep only God could wake them from.(4) This was a highly controversial idea even in first century Judaism, though, and it had squarely divided the Levites. Some of them chose to hope in the resurrection (the Pharisees), but the scriptural purists (the Sadducees) did not believe in any such thing.(5) In fact, our idea of Heaven arose mainly from a very interesting source: the Greek philosophers, especially Socrates and Plato.(6)
These realizations brought me to my crisis of faith: not in God, and not in Jesus, but in Heaven. In the afterlife. In the question, “Is there more?” Or were the early Jews right? Would we all, in the end, be devoured by the ravenous Nothing? By the Unending Black?
But then an idea occurred to me. Creation begins in blackness. What if, in the blackness of our oblivion, the Creator was shaping something new?
Around this time I began studying near death experiences. These stories of people who came back captivated me. They expressed the wonder and the joy of the afterlife that I had lost.(7) I studied consciousness. I strove for a deeper understanding of Heaven.(8) And a spark ignited afresh that had previously guttered to embers.
What if there is more?
What if there’s hope?
What if we desire another life – a better world – for a reason? What if we have heard rumors of eternity because the rumors are true?
Why did Jesus tell the other man on a cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”?(8) Was Paul talking about a near-death experience in 2 Corinthians?(9)
What if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel?
As our Western culture has become mortified of death, the Christian Church has followed suit. For instance, it is taboo in much of Christian music now to sing about Heaven or what comes after, because we have sanitized our inevitable future and focused solely on the here and now. I am not saying it’s not good to sing of God’s everyday grace, but we are doing ourselves a disservice by not imagining the future. We are missing the end of the story. And the end is this:
Every life ends in tragedy, for every life ends in death. Darkness eats away at the vision, the chest gives one final heave and is still. All those hopes, dreams and memories, all the friends, laughter and love, are eradicated in one instant of oblivion. Mourning in a moment swallows joy whole. But then, in the midst of the tragedy, in the macabre stillness, there is a burst of light. The man once dead casts off the shell that has encased him, and rises from the ashes of his spent existence. And so it is that at the final call, the last tolling, when the villain has won, death has swallowed life and all lies dark and wasted, that the Great Author throws one final turn in the story. And suddenly, the life, in a blaze of glory, rises anew. Reborn. With a new chance. A new hope. And only then is there the possibility of a happy ending.
A happy ending is really only the chance of a new beginning. Without God there is no new beginning. Without Heaven and the afterlife and the Kingdom there is no victory. And without the Lord Jesus Christ there is no example. Jesus’s greatest message of hope wasn’t only that he died for our sins. It was that He showed us that it was possible to rise again.
“No chilling wind or poisonous breath
Can reach that healthful shore.
Where sickness, sorrow, pain and death
Are felt and feared no more.”(10)
In the end, Life Springs Eternal.
- Psalms 6:5; Psalms 18:5; for more on Sheol, check out the Wikipedia page at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheol
- Ecclesiastes 3:21
- Ecclesiastes 9:5
- John 5:29; 1 Corinthians 15:12-21
- Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18; Luke 20:27; Acts 23:8; for more on the Sadducees and Pharisees, check out this page: http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/please-explain-the-difference-between-the-sadducees-and-the-pharisees-in-the-gospels
- Randy Alcorn, “Heaven” (Tyndale House Publishers, 2004), 475-482. For more on the Platonic influence on Christianity, check out: http://geekychristian.com/christianitys-platonic-heaven/
- Jeffrey Long & Paul Perry, “Evidence of the Afterlife” (HarperOne, 2010). Howard Storm, “My Descent into Death” (Doubleday, 2005). Richard Sigmund, “My Time in Heaven” (Whitaker House, 2010). Mary C. Neal, MD, “To Heaven and Back” (Water Brook Press, 2012). For more on Near Death Experiences, check out http://www.nderf.org.
- Luke 23:43
- 2 Corinthians 12:2-3
- Samuel Stennett, “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand” (1787).
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