Thursday, July 17, 2008

Some Liberal Theological Thoughts On What Happens When We Die

This is part of a larger project, I guess, on giving a positive statement concerning what I believe. Rather than be all critical, or at least only critical, I thought it might be important to talk about what I believe in a positive manner.

One subject that really gets me - and I am serious about this - is the whole issue of heaven. When I was but a wee little lad, I wondered where, exactly, in the Bible people found detailed information on what happens when we die. All this "believers go to heaven, non-believers go to hell" business has no basis in Scripture. I see no way one can even tease it out through an interpretive scheme.

The best counter-argument I come up with is to discuss the passage in which Jesus debates the Sadducees on the resurrection. At the time Jesus lived, two of the main bodies of Jewish thought were the Pharisees (with whom Jesus often sparred, but mostly over details rather than in any serious break) and the Sadducees. The latter were a group that held official posts in the Temple. They were seen as compromised politically and religiously because the Temple was desecrated by the image of the Emperor in the forecourt and the Roman flag flying over the top (for details, see N. T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God). A main difference between the two groups was that the Pharisees held a belief in the resurrection of the dead; the Sadducees denied such a belief. When questioned about the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees got all literal and legal and asked Jesus what happens to a man after the resurrection who has remarried because his first wife predeceased him; to whom is he married? Like most literalists, they thought they had him there . . .

Jesus responds by telling the Sadducees they were thinking of the time after the resurrection in the wrong way. The old rules will not apply.

Paul, educated by the renowned Pharisaical rabbi Gamaliel, embraced he idea of the resurrection of the dead, and expands upon the notion, in most detail in 1 Corinthians 15.

As Jurgen Moltmann points out in the first section of his The Coming of God, in which he deals with the question of personal salvation in light of Christian eschatology, even these detailed accounts leave many questions unanswered and unanswerable. He wrestled gamely with them, but the results are as much speculation as anything.

These detailed discussions do not contain anything about pearly gates. They do not speak of a place in the clouds. The "streets of gold" reference comes from the New Jerusalem passages in Revelations, which deals with the final consummation of history.

I will be honest enough to say that, even though I say it every time I recite the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed, I am troubled by the whole "resurrection of the dead" thing, Paul's argument in 1 Cor. 15 notwithstanding. Perhaps it's true. Perhaps not. Yet, I feel far better being troubled by my misgivings over an actual historical doctrine of the church than I am about whether I will float away on wings to a cloud city or spend eternity stoking the furnaces of hell. These are myths, the syncretistic result of melding various incongruous non-Christian myths and beliefs about the afterlife and baptizing them.

The clearest thing I get out of a reading of Scripture about what happens when we die is this. At some point, those who have died "in Christ" will be raised from the dead, gather around the throne of the Father and the Lamb who was slain, and sing a hymn of praise. Those who are not so lucky get chucked in to the pit reserved for the devil and his angels, but once that bundling and chucking occurs, the entire thing gets wiped away, annihilated. Since the alternative - that when we die, our bodies are worm and fly and bacteria food, and anything that makes us uniquely "I" becomes energy for new life on a bit of a smaller scale - results in the same thing as the Bible's description of what happens to unregenerate at the end of time (annihilation, the removal from existence), I fail to see how this is, well, scary or frightening. Since I will be no more, worrying, caring, being sad about it, mourning my loss - these are among the myriad things on the endless list of things I will no longer be doing. Indeed, it makes no logical sense to speak of an "I" in this state at all.

More to the point (at least for me), is that I really am not all that vexed by the question of what happens after we die (if that sentence has any meaning at all). I do not believe that is why Jesus taught what he did, and suffered and died. I do not believe the Church exists to make sure I, or anyone else, ends up with a harp floating on a cloud. I do not believe that a God defined by the prodigal grace we see in Jesus would, through some arbitrary decision unrelated to any act or decision on my part, would separate us from that prodigal grace.

I suppose spending time writing what I believe about something I don't think about all that much might sound odd, even self-refuting. Yet, final questions, including about our own finality, are part and parcel of living. Different belief systems offer different answers, and I really don't know how to deal with them except to say the Bible offers this as an answer, but whether one believes the answer (and its underlying premises) is neither here nor there. Since all we need do is confess that we believe Jesus is the unique manifestation of God for all humanity, I really don't see what the big deal is.

Virtual Tin Cup

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