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A Christian Perspective on Death

John Breadon's picture

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The poet Philip Larkin wrote a poem about the difference between the generations regarding sex and religion. In it he wondered whether anyone looked at him when he was young, carefree, and fun-loving and thought: 'That'll be the life; No God any more, or sweating in the dark about hell and that.' Larkin wrote that poem in the 1960s and was well aware that subjects like God and hell were going out of fashion. Already they seemed as ancient as penny-farthings and croquet because people had moved on to simpler, less difficult beliefs.

This process has been going on for a long, long time, but especially since the 1960s the focus of many human lives in the Western world has been on getting the most out of this world, rather than the life to come. The Church has always had a great deal to say about the Four Last Things, namely death, judgement, heaven and hell. But today fewer and fewer people appear to be interested in them.

Let's begin by stating the obvious: someday we will all die. It's never an easy thing to hear. We generally prefer not to think about death usually because we're too busy living. But everyday we inch a little closer to the grave, our final resting-place, whether we like it or not. The Bible, unlike glossy magazines and the beauty industry, is very blunt on the question of death and decay. Job 20 verse 7 tells us that people will 'perish forever like their own dung; those who have seen them will say, \Where are they?"'

A famous image for death is the snuffing out of a candle's flame: once it burned brightly, the next minute … nothing … a fading tail of smoke. But what if the smoke didn't actually disappear but went somewhere else – somewhere we can't see? Here we begin to move into religious explanations about death and what lies beyond it.

 

Life after death

 

For Christians the physical world is not the only world or the only human reality. They believe in life after death, or eternal life. But eternal life is not and never will be part of the natural world. What we experience is that things live for a while and then die; all flesh fades. Eternal life comes only from the Maker of heaven and earth (or at least until scientists perfect the art of immortality). It's in God's nature to give good gifts and one of these gifts is to live – like him – forever in his presence. To tell the story of this fabulous gift involves telling again the story of Jesus.

 

Jesus and eternal life

 

Every Sunday Christians recite the words that Jesus 'was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried'. So far that's normal. But then, they go on to say, 'On the third day he rose again.' What!!? Yes, Jesus broke the law of change, decay and death so that we ordinary humans might have hope that death is not the end. The New Testament is full of this resurrection hope. Read 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 'But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For

since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.'

Rather like our world today, in Jesus' time many religions coexisted. They didn't often agree on the big questions and all had different things to say about death, judgement and the afterlife. Indeed, the Pharisees, a Jewish group Jesus enjoyed debating with, didn't believe in an afterlife at all. But the New Testament assures us that Jesus did – and that he confidently went around encouraging others to think the same way. Most famously, during his crucifixion, Jesus turned to the thief on the cross beside him and said: 'Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.' (Luke 23: 43). This must have been very good news indeed for the thief. Is it good news for us, I wonder? Who, after all, really desires The End, complete and utter oblivion? We might go on holiday to 'paradise' for two weeks in the summer – the word paradise means 'park of pleasure' – but wouldn't we rather live there – for ever?

Jesus' words to the thief throw up more questions. Does our soul or spirit go somewhere immediately after death? Is it held in a queue?

 

Judgement

 

Do we go straight to judgement? Judgement is a word with a serious image problem. At its worst, we believe the Last Judgement to be that moment when all we've ever done wrong is broadcast for all the world to see. Horrible. But Jesus, it seems, took the idea of a Last Judgement seriously, and though it's ebbed and flowed over the centuries, so too has the Church. Though it may appear harsh and lacking in mercy (especially if it leads to hell), judgement is really concerned with justice. We know that life on earth can appear very unjust. The balance demands to be corrected by someone, at sometime and somewhere. A Last Judgement guarantees that we'll all get exactly what we deserve.

 

All the big unknowns

 

It should be said that the details surrounding the four last things (death, judgement, heaven and hell) are hotly disputed. For instance, where precisely is heaven? Does hell really exist and who goes there? Do we get our bodies back, or will we actually float around on clouds? If we're given a resurrected body, what age will it be? And my favourite question: in eternity, what will we actually do? Theology, the art of speaking about God and his ways, is not an exact science. It's more like catching butterflies, and the mysteries that surround death are, perhaps, the hardest butterflies to catch of all.

If this all feels like too much to think about, go back to basics. Consider your own life and how you go about living it; consider, if it makes any sense, the link between how you live now and what might come later, after death. Look up at the night sky occasionally and try and imagine heaven. And keep your sense of humour. After all, we're in this predicament together; we all have death in common.

 

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