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I know that my redeemer lives
And at the last day he shall stand upon the earth.
And though this body be destroyed I shall see God
I myself will see him, my own eyes,
Recently in a St.
Louis airport café a widow asked me to explain my beliefs about the afterlife.
Since her husband’s death a bit over a year ago, she has felt cut off from her
Church. The shadow of death falls between her and the community of faith. Now
“it’s coming on Christmas” and she does not want to face another Feast of the
Nativity so alone. She wanted some way to reconcile faith with the hard fact of
death. I had 5 minutes to set out a theology on the nature and destiny of
humankind. It seemed to help. I hope so. But it left so much unsaid! This blog
post too will leave much unsaid, but I hope it will be a little more thoughtful.
A disclaimer: I can’t
prove what I say. If I could prove it, it wouldn’t be faith. None of us has a
photograph or a soil sample of “that undiscovered country from whose bourne no travelers return.” Death is a
mystery. What I hope to present is my faith, grounded in the Church’s
teachings, a “reasonable faith,” meaning a faith for which I can state a
reason. It isn’t a proven fact but it isn’t just wishful thinking either.
The question matters.
It matters for how we live now. As the years pass, I am not too concerned yet
about my own mortality, but more and more of the people I love have died and I
do miss them. I want to know what I can
dare to believe about their present and their future. Their passing teaches me the
mortality of those I love who are still here. At a service following the recent
mass shooting in Las Vegas, a Jewish cantor sang these words to a distressing
It is a fearful thing to love
that which death can touch.
What is it that death
cannot touch? Who is it safe to love? A life in which love is not possible, now
that scares me far more than my own death. But what faith, what hope makes love
possible in the face of death? Those are the questions that demand answers to
the mystery of “that undiscovered country.”
God. Our faith begins and ends in God.
We used to speak of logical “proofs of God” – ontological proofs, cosmological
proofs, moral proofs, etc. Now we speak more humbly of “warrants for belief in
God” – meaning reasons that support our belief. For now, let’s just say it is reasonable to
believe in God. The God in whom it is reasonable to believe is not a superbeing
on a distant star. The God in whom it is reasonable to believe is not a being
at all. Our God is the source of Being itself. Our God is the ultimate origin
and ultimate destiny of everything, us included. What’s more our God is infinitely
good, worthy of worship and devotion. So, we start with this Lord of Sea and
Sky, the Be-All and End-All of everything, us included. What then, if anything
does God have to do with us?
this body be destroyed I . . . .
Job’s words open a
huge question. Who is this I who
shall do these things though this body be
destroyed? It is not a small slip of the tongue. It is his point. Job says,
though this body be destroyed I shall see God
I myself will see him, my own eyes,
I and not another. Job believes his
identity is not limited to his protoplasm. That is a good thing. Cells are
constantly dying and being replaced. It has been said that we roughly speaking
swap out our bodies once every 7 years. I would now be on my ninth body,
working on 10. Yet, I still feel myself to be the same person. I do not have
the same skin. Nor do I hold the same opinions. I do not look the same. And yet
I am somehow myself. There is a core to our being. We have all sorts of
subpersonalities with their quirks and idiosyncrasies. But at the center, I am
still me. What is that me, that core self, and where did it come from and where
is it going?
We come from God. It
is that simple. We come from the heart and mind of God. We say that without
hesitation because God is by definition the Source and Destiny of everything.
So, then, if we come from God, does God forget us? Does God cease to care for
a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no
compassion on the child she has borne?
may forget, I will not forget you.
See, I have
engraved you on the palms of my hands.
If we, in our mortal
frailty are capable of abiding love, how much more so is God who is infinite
and eternal, and whose very nature is Love! As long as God remembers us and
cares for us, we cannot fall out of existence.
Lady Julian of
Norwich, in the 14th Century, fell victim to the Plague. She was so
clearly dying that she received last rites. As the priest held the crucifix
before her dying eyes, she had 16 Visions of Divine Love, then recovered and
lived to describe those visions in the first book ever written in English by a
woman. One vision was of a hazelnut that seemed so small, so frail, so flimsy,
she wondered what keeps it from falling into nothingness. She asked what it
was, and God told her it was the entire universe. How can it exist, it is so small? she asked.
It exists, God answered, because I love it.
In another vision,
Julian described the soul. Even in the spiritual Middle Ages, Julian did not describe
the soul as a ghostly wisp of spirit. Rather she saw it as our core self, our
true self, the thing we mean when we say I.
And she said, that
our daily lives, our thoughts, feelings, and actions might well be severed from
Christ. But our soul, our core self, is never separate from Christ who is the
core self of the cosmos. The division is not between God and us. It is within
Our true life is
already in God. It has always been in God. It will always be in God. Each day
there is a dying, a dying of the body and of the personality we were yesterday.
But our self, our core being, our life is in God.
You have died. Now your life is hid with Christ in God.
If God is eternal – by
definition, God is eternal – and God is love as our faith holds, then our lives
are held eternally in God’s love.
But shall we remain ourselves?
The view of some Eastern religions is that our individual identity is a problem
to be overcome and eventually it is overcome as we fall like drops and dissolve
into the ocean of eternity. That is plausible. But we Christians have another
view arising from two paradoxical truths we hold in in tension:
First, there is a
unity to all things, a Being underlying and uniting all beings. That is what we
mean when we say: God is one.
Second, this one God
is constantly proliferating diversity. The one God who is the essence of
Reality itself spins out the universe in all its multifarious complexity.
And God said, “Let the waters teem with living creatures
and let birds fly above the earth and
across the vault of
So God created the great creatures of the sea
living thing . . .. And God saw that it was good.
blessed them and said be fruitful and increase
God is procreative.
God’s nature is not to suck all things into Godself but to scatter Being out
into the Void making this wild menagerie of creation. God is procreative and
God is relational. God delights in relating with us as the unique individuals
that we are, that God created us to be. Theologian Karl Rahner said, Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable word
of God. Can a word of God be lost? Can a word of God be silenced? God does
not love humanity as an abstraction. God loves each of us in our individuality
and for our individuality.
That means our image
of eternal life is not a drop dissolving into the ocean, but a dance or a
banquet, an occasion of mutual delight. We are lost in wonder, love, and praise but we are still ourselves wondering,
loving, praising, while God laughs in cosmic joy at our homecoming.
I myself will see him, my own eyes,
Reward and Punishment? What to
believe about reward and punishment in the afterlife is quite a quandary. On
the one hand, carrot and stick religion has been used to browbeat and
intimidate people for too long to endure. Such a religion is not the child of
mystic insight but rather is the tool of a domination system to keep people
compliant. See for example, On The
Necessitie of a Publik Religion by Benjamin Franklin. It portrays God not
as Love but as a vindictive Judge demanding our fear but unworthy of our love. It ratchets up spiritual ambition and dread to
make a selfish religion. I practice my religion to advance my own interests and
save my own hide.
universalism, gives us a considerably more appealing God. The doctrine that all
the cosmos will be redeemed has roots in Paul, was expressly taught by that
giant of Early Church theology, Origen, and has been proclaimed by greats in
the Anglican tradition like F. D. Maurice and Charles Gore. But this too has a
problem. Universalism denies or at least diminishes the significance of our
earthly lives. If we all end up the same, what difference does it make what we
do, think, or feel?
C. S. Lewis offers an
Anglican middle way. It is not about what God does to us. It’s about who we
become. Lewis observes our tendency over the years to become more and more the
way we are. We become more extreme versions of ourselves. A little virtue over
the course of a lifetime may grow but life is not long enough for it to become
too big. If the trend continues into eternity, however, one could become
beautifully holy. Conversely, a little vice will grow worse though the years.
But life is short so the worst it is apt to do is make us a disagreeable old
person. If that vice grows on through eternity, however, it could produce a
Our happiness is
found in relationship with God. That relationship will be considerably more
harmonious for the holy than for the monstrous character. Indeed, Lewis
suggests elsewhere that heaven and hell may be the same reality experienced
very differently by people depending on the state of their souls. Do we want to
be nearer my God to thee?
But is the vice-ridden
person then lost forever? Not so. Only God and that which is of God are
eternal. Those things that are not of God are mortal. Over the course of
eternity, the vices lose their energy so that all will be redeemed.
In one book from the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan sends the
children on a mission sternly ordering them to stay on the path. Do not wander.
But, of course, they do wander and become lost in the forest. There they
encounter Aslan. Remorseful, they confess their disobedience and ask Aslan if
all is lost now that they cannot get to their destination. Aslan assures them
they will still make it to the destination, and they can achieve their mission,
but the road will now be much longer and much harder.
consequences to our actions, our thoughts, our feelings, our practices, and our
habits. They can make our path shorter or longer, easier or harder. But we cannot
defeat the love of God which was and is and ever shall be. The love of God is
our destiny. In our freedom, we can resist it, but we cannot resist it forever.
Conclusion. Many have speculated
about that undiscovered country. I hope
I have added nothing new. I am just recounting teachings from the Church – not
universally agreed upon but teachings, nonetheless -- the wisdom of the ages as
I have received it. If God is God as we believe God to be – the Source and
Destiny of All, the Being and the Void, the Meaning of the cosmic story – and
if God is as we believe God to be – Infinite Love, procreative and relational,
holding the cosmos in being by loving it – then I trust this ancient teaching
is a reasonable belief. I will stake my life on it, and dare to love that which
death can touch because death touches us all but holds none of us forever.
All hail the power of Jesus’ name
Let angels prostrate fall . . ..
Ye chosen seed of Israel’s race
Ye ransomed from
the Fall . . ..
A hymn sung out of
centuries of spiritual tradition can say so much with a single word. Ransomed.
There is a whole doctrine of the Atonement in that familiar hymn, but it is a
doctrine that is not in the least familiar to modern people.
Atonement means how we are
saved. Jesus went to the cross. I say each Eucharist, The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him
in your hearts with thanksgiving. Jesus went to the cross for us. But how does
that work? Why should his suffering and death make any difference for the state
of our souls?
It’s an old question.
Since the 16h Century, one answer has prevailed in popular understanding. God
has rules. If they are broken, someone must be punished. That also is one of
God’s rules. Jesus suffered in our stead to satisfy his Father’s need for
retribution. Many cling to that interpretation of the Cross with love and
devotion. Others, myself included, are repelled by it. A God defined by
retribution is not who we want to worship or become like. I might go on at
length and in stronger language about why that atonement doctrine strikes me as
abhorrent and damaging to human souls, but I will leave it at that and go on to
other understandings that may be more helpful.
Hooker argues that we
can’t see an atonement doctrine in the New Testament because the way we ask the
question, our basic assumptions about ourselves and the nature of the problem,
are all so different from the 1st Century worldview that the New Testament
isn’t answering the question we are asking. We assume that each of us is a free
moral agent who makes bad choices and should have to pay for those choices. We
want to know how Jesus’ death gets us off the hook.
But the New Testament
is concerned with the salvation of communities, indeed the entire cosmos. The notion that we are each an
individual moral agent making our own free choices, and we are saved by making
the right choice to embrace Christianity, was called the Arminian heresy as
late as the 18th Century. The New Testament is about Jesus shedding
his blood to form a covenant bond with humanity. That covenant connects us to
God and to each other. That connection is our eternal lifeline. But Hooker does
not claim this is a fully fleshed out atonement doctrine. It is the starting
point for Christian theology for centuries to come.
Ransomed, in our hymn, evokes
the first developed atonement doctrine. Its author was the 2nd
Century saint, Justin Martyr. He saw sin as a power that holds us in bondage.
Paul had said much the same. Justin went on to say it was as if we had sold
ourselves into this bondage, made a pact with evil so to speak, like the man
who sells his soul for some momentary advantage. Something malevolent holds the
title to our lives.
Does that make sense?
It did to 2nd Century Justin and it is a recurring theme in
literature. We may personify the “something malevolent” as Satan, or we may
think of it as the system or the domination system or “the tears in the nature
of things” or the world “grinding on its axle.” Some like to take a happier
view of human nature. We are all good. We just need to celebrate our own
goodness. Meanwhile, the Myanmar Buddhists commit ruthless genocide against the
Rohingya Muslims. ISIS decapitates victims. A lone gunman slaughters 58 people
at a country concert in Las Vegas. The government proposes to cut off food and
medical care to the poor. Crime statisticians project over 1,000 forcible rapes
in Las Vegas in 2017. Freud, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and countless great minds
have seen a darkness in humanity. We do not behave well. Belsen. Auschwitz.
Newtown. Hiroshima. Sand Creek. Wounded Knee. The gulags.
Against this damning
evidence stand countless acts of generosity. The lives of the saints, the love
of family members, and the kindness of strangers. Behind those outbursts of
decency is our sense that we are better than we often behave. Which of us has
no regrets? Which of us has not done things that could not have come from our
souls, our true selves?
Justin believed we
are intrinsically good but have fallen into a state of bondage to something
that exercises power over us. The way to free us from that power was to pay its
bloody price. God in Jesus ransomed us
because we were hostages to evil. God in Jesus redeemed us, bought us back from the power that held us in sin’s dread sway to quote another
familiar hymn. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JHV75MENqk
Yes, Jesus bled and died for us, but it wasn’t to satisfy God’s need for
vengeance. His sacrifice opens the possibility of freedom to come home to God. The
evil hates the good. The good one’s suffering and dying pays our debt to the
evil, and sets us free to be ourselves again.
atonement theories were formed after St. Justyn Martyr. I don’t omit them
because they were bad but because, coming as they did from a different time and
place, I don’t think they will speak clearly to the hearts of people today. I fast
forward to the 13th Century. Peter Abelard was one of the first
academic theologians. He taught at the Sorbonne in Paris, and is chiefly famous
for his illicit love affair with his student, young Heloise. Her father had him
castrated. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the warmongering contemplative monk, who
wrote perhaps a bit too much about the sublimated eroticism of the Song of
Songs, was obsessed with castrating Abelard’s influence in theology. But
Abelard and Heloise continued their devotion from afar, and their letters are a
classic of Western literature. https://www.amazon.com/Abelard-Heloise-Letters-Writings-Classics/dp/0872208753/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1509044130&sr=1-1&keywords=abelard+and+heloise
It is perhaps not surprising that Abelard would understand the Cross as an act
of love evoking a responsive act of love – and not surprising that powerful
voices in the Church repressed his interpretation.
Abelard taught his
students a theory of attraction generally known as the moral influence theory of the atonement. Our problem is not
guilt in the sense of a liability for rule-breaking. It is that we have failed
to love God, who is the heart of Reality itself. That separates us from
everything. We cannot rightly love anyone or anything, not even ourselves. We
live at one step removed even from our own lives because God is the heart of
our own lives. This God is not a superpower on a distant star. This God is the
context of our experience, the one in whom “we live and move and have our
being” but we do not love God and so we are cut off (like castrated of course,
but also cut off is what it means to
be cursed). As Justin saw the problem as bondage, Abelard saw it as alienation.
But God, not a
superpower on a star but the heart of Reality itself, still loved us, love us
enough to take on our troubled state and go to the cross to be there with us.
God plunged into the brokenness of human experience as a parent might plunge
into the ocean to save a drowning child. But God’s plunge was not an
instrumental act. It was not if I do this
it will achieve that. It was a joining us in our suffering as an act of
We see that. We turn
our eyes to the cross. We see God’s love and it evokes our love back. It is
loving God that restores our connection to everything. It is loving God that
heals us our core spiritual wound. God should not have had to die to prove his
love, but he did. He died to win our hearts, and winning our hearts, he makes
Since Peter Abelard
was laid to rest in Paris, and Heloise grieved his passing, many more atonement
doctrines have been articulated. It is ludicrous for me to offer my
explanations alongside those of giants like Justin and Abelard, and more wrong
that I should offer them instead of those from far wiser theologians. But I
will offer a few of my own thoughts, simply because I can explain myself better
than others – and I live in the faith that I have never had an original
thought, nor aspired to think one, so these surely come from someone whose name
I have just forgotten.
Much of the evil in
the world is a kind of violence. Sometimes it is literally violence. Other
times it is psychological aggression. It works in two ways: action and reaction
– I hurt you so you hurt me back, then I hurt you back and on it goes. Or more
commonly, it circulates in a kind of roundabout karma. A hurts B who passes on
the hurt to C who passes it to D then F and so on till it gets back to A. Then
the karmic circle repeats over and over. “What goes around comes around,” we
say. The circles of karmic violence enshroud the entire earth.
But what if there
were a disruption? What if unspeakably unjust violence were inflicted on a
deeply good man, who in his incomprehensible goodness, did not pass it on. What
if from the Cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them.” The pattern would have a
significant hole in it – so significant that a few years later, that good man’s
disciple (Steven) would be dying as his persecutors pelted him with rocks and
he too would raise his eyes to heaven and pray for his persecutors, and so it
would go until Martin Luther King would absorb the violence perpetrated against
him in love. Note: it is not just that the first man taught non-violence. He
had to live it and die it to break the circle. That sets others free to do
But suppose the
problem is not violence. Suppose it is as John Bradford, Brene Brown, and
others have said: shame. There are things about us that we do not accept. We
pass judgment on ourselves either directly as conscious shame or more
pathologically as narcissism. What if a man who might have been so whole, so
complete, so fully human and divine at once, that he could have easily lived
shame free, chose – chose – to join
us in disgrace, allowed himself to be condemned, mocked, stripped naked,
tortured, and hung on a cross for hours of taunting. Suppose he did this to
share our experience, to join us in it, and to accept us, to accept us all the
way, to accept all the things about us that we cannot accept in ourselves.
Now here’s a slight
variation on Justin. If the notion of bondage to evil or pacts with the devil
sound too superstitious for you, might you allow that actions have
consequences, that evil actions have evil consequences. There are as the social
workers tell us “natural and logical consequences for our actions.” But when
you add them all up, all the wrongs we do, the end result is the destruction of
everyone and everything. The wrongs we commit – and I am one who commits them –
are mind boggling and heart wrenching. God of course is above the reach of
evil. We cannot hurt God, only each other and thereby ourselves. But what if God
chose to save us? What if God chose to become vulnerable so as to absorb enough
of the consequence of our sin to save us from destruction – not so completely
that we could not still learn and grow from experience but enough to preserve
our lives and our souls? That would be an atonement. This way of thinking is
not precisely what St. Athanasius said in the 4th Century, but it
seems to me to be in line with his thinking.
Or suppose it is
about conforming human life to God’s will. Suppose that matters because God’s
will for us leads to life and joy and blessing while our rebellion and arrogant
self-will cut us off first from God, then from each other, and finally from our
own true nature, which lies deeper than our will. Now imagine that this is not
just an individual choice – being that such a notion was first invented in the
17th Century and has not held up to the insights of psychology since
the 20th – no, not an individual choice to obey God or rebel against
God, but rather a positon all humanity makes. Suppose, as St. Irenaeus of Lyons
said in the 2nd Century, just as in business transactions, we have
an agent to cast our lot on our behalf. Someone, literarily represented by Adam
chose rebellion. So, the human race lives in rebellion against God for all of
history – until – until – someone
becomes so fully human, so perfectly human, that he attains the status of agent
to make this decision for our species. And suppose that person, were in a
Garden, where obedience would lead to torture, disgrace, and a miserable death,
but disobedience could have led to quite a nice life on the Mediterranean, and
suppose that man, that agent for all humanity, chose obedience. Thereafter,
disobedience still happened. But the fundamental stance of humanity had
changed. Jews, Christians, Muslims and other faiths would credibly insist that
a good life is to be lived in obedience to God.
My point is not to
sell you on any single way of understanding what it means that Christ died for you. It is to say it is
a holy mystery about which any explanation can at best be partial. At different
times in my life, I have been more at peace with one explanation only to find
another spoke more clearly to my heart a few years later. My appeal is that we
should look on the cross with sufficient humility to know that God’s
sacrificial love is beyond our understanding. But there are many ways the Cross
touches our lives for hope and healing. Even partial understandings can help,
but finally it is not ours to comprehend but rather to say, “thank you.”