The afterlife is a subject that many people, Christians included, would rather avoid, but it is much to important to be ignored. Paul Griffin suggests some ways of understanding life after death
It is entirely reasonable that human beings should have doubts about the resurrection of the dead. It is not reasonable that a Christian priest should nurture such doubts, since it is on the fact of the resurrection that our Lord’s reported words and actions are clear, and since on that belief our faith largely rests. Yet I detect in the liberal mind a strong wish that the whole business would go away, a wish most evident when you ask a clergyman to speak about the afterlife, and are met by an evasion like: ‘No point in talking about it, surely.’
No point? But this is one of the basic worries of man, and preserving tight lips on the subject concedes it to the self-styled agnostics. How they love sneering at visions of clouds and harps and the rest!
I suppose the clouds and harps derive from that great vision of John on Patmos. Like all revelation about matters beyond our mortal ken, the vision is figurative. John is not saying, for example, that there are four horsemen that affect the world, but that it is as if there were. Anyone who takes the image literally would be better off reading Terry Pratchett, who I fear is very funny on the subject.
So when Jesus himself speaks of the afterlife, he can only be figurative. When he speaks of a great gulf fixed between heaven and hell, we presume he is not speaking topographically: he means it is as if there is such a gulf. Indeed, we ourselves are being figurative in speaking of life after death. Jesus tells us we may have eternal life. Whatever ‘eternity’ may mean – and one has to fight against its boring overtones – it is a life in which ‘after’ and ‘before’ lose the meaning we give them.
It is at this point that the Christian teacher finds his audience muddled, and is tempted to reiterate that there is no point in talking about it. ‘We can’t know,’ he will say happily, and turn to another topic.
Life on earth
Of course we cannot know. We are not asking to know the details, but we would like to understand as much as possible of what our Lord has told us. He says he has gone to prepare a place for us. He also says that we are already living in what he calls the Kingdom of God, or of Heaven, presumably by way of a foretaste. Our eventual destination will be with him, a state or place in which it seems, for example, that there is no marriage, nor giving in marriage.
Having read this, it is easy to assume that leaving our vale of tears will mean freeing us from all the horrid disadvantages of life on earth, time, and only in a sense marriage, among them. The trouble is that life on earth is not entirely a vale of tears, but offers wonderful moments as we enjoy God’s bounty; moments, moreover, which depend on the existence of time. Great art, life itself, is largely dependent on sequence, on cause and effect. Mozart needs each note to succeed another, Shakespeare needs each word to succeed another. Lovers, including Jesus himself, follow the laws of cause and effect. Even a picture tends to look forward or back.
I suppose it can be maintained that Jesus is merely slumming it by coming among us, but I myself do not feel that. He is making a life (and death) that is in accord with God’s will, as we all should; and he seems to be saying that a loving life on earth is imperishable, indestructible. Time to him is not just a prison, but a mysterious sort of release. Yet there are aspects of life on earth we badly want to lose.
That the complete package of life on earth is not a part of the Kingdom is clear from the fact that Jesus explains that some human beings will be absent. This often gives great offence, to those who insist it is inconceivable that God would let any human finally go. While I sympathize, I cannot dismiss what Our Lord is reported as saying on the subject. At the least we have to accept that much of our life on earth is not fit to be transported into the Kingdom. Sin and much more cannot come, unless in a commuted form, and thanks to Christ’s sacrifice.
Can we help congregations to see and believe all this? Not, certainly, by refusing to discuss it. I am much heartened by the work of modern physicists, who increasingly talk of dimensions beyond our earthly ones. These were once limited to three, but time is now admitted as a fourth; and many physicists think in more dimensions than that, and speak of parallel universes, ‘strings,’ anti-matter, and goodness knows what else, aware, I hope, that they too are embarking on the figurative in order to portray reality.
When I think of my approaching end, I comfort myself in a prosaic way by thinking of our universe as if it were one of those long bars of soap we used to have years ago, with all things, people, and events inhabiting the bar. If, as we believe, there is a Kingdom of Heaven in a fifth dimension, I can envisage it as another bar, much bigger and at right angles to our own, intersecting it, including it, and proceeding to infinity, as length, breadth, height, and time do. When I die, I can contemplate slipping out of our bar into the vaster one, via a sort of sieve which we call judgement, and finding there all the good things of earthly life and a great deal more.
This is mighty comforting, especially when I associate it with some words of Rupert Brooke, himself ostensibly non-Christian and liberal in the less happy sense of that much-abused term, yet the grandson of an Anglican Canon, and one who pondered much on the afterlife:
And think, this heart, all evil shed away, / A pulse in the eternal mind, no less / Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given; / Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; / And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, / In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
This is speculation, yes; but it does offer something conformable with what Jesus is reported as saying, without denying the best thoughts of our scientists, and indeed of our poets. Such speculation is surely preferable to turning our backs on the whole problem, and offering nothing to legitimate enquirers.