Rest in Peace
Death has been on my mind a lot lately. Not my own, necessarily, although I do think about that more than I probably ought to. But just death as a phenomenon. Both of my grandmothers have died in the last six months. Several people in my orbit could well be approaching this threshold. I just returned from a pastors conference about death, funerals and the Christian hope. Death has been a hard thing to avoid lately.
For most of my life, I have stubbornly rehearsed the familiar Christian maxim that death is the final enemy to be defeated, the destroyer of human flourishing to be fought against with everything we have. Death is bad, full stop. I still feel like this most days. But of course death is also the most natural thing you could hope to find. Everyone dies. Everything dies. Christianity has always insisted upon the unnaturalness of death but we must acknowledge that this is, on the face of it, a thoroughly counterintuitive claim in light of observable reality. It’s not hard to imagine how some would write off post-mortem hope as so much wish projection and fear assuagement—”projecting our paltry selves ad infinitum,” as Christian Wiman puts it.
At the conference this week, a friend commented in one of the forums that they don’t spend much time thinking about the post-mortem component of the Christian hope anymore. Who can say what, if anything, lies beyond? Maybe what comes after death is something like a sabbath rest—the cessation of struggle and pain and conflicted pursuits. Maybe death is when we finally get a really long break from our tormented selves. We Christians tie ourselves in knots trying to do enough, believe enough, think clearly enough to prepare ourselves for eternity. What if it’s all a bunch of puritanical striving toward nothing. What if, in the end, we are destined to simply rest in peace?
A theology reading group that I’m a part of has been reading Dale Allison’s Night Comes over the past few months. It’s a book about death—about what might become of us, what we might hope for, and what death might mean. In keeping with the theme of the book (endings), I skipped to the end of the book even though our group is still in the middle. Allison’s last few paragraphs caught me off guard, initially. And then, after a few more readings, they began to resonate a bit more deeply.
Although some might find this a tad morbid, part of me, with a sort of reverent curiosity, now looks forward to [death]. Most of the time, to be sure, life is full, and I’m all for staying with the familiar as long as possible. On the usual morning I eagerly anticipate the coming day, and on the usual evening I return thanks for most of what’s happened.
On occasion, however, the adventure seems stale, and it’s not so easy to feel grateful. The world, which is ever full of wonder, isn’t the problem. It’s rather me. I repeatedly resolve to do better, and I fail. I set out to pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful, and my attention wanders. I aspire to love God with all my heart and soul and mind, and my neighbor as myself, but I get distracted.
My incessant failures are more than frustrating, and sometimes I grow weary of myself. My fatigue can be such that I long to quit this stage for some other stage, to wake up in a new and different world, to swap my current self for something better, to undergo whatever will turn Romans 7—“I can will what is right, but I cannot do it”—into nothing but a bad memory. As it became evident long ago that this isn’t going to happen in this world, I don’t always mind the aches and pains and the memory glitches that attend aging. They remind me that night comes. My hope is that light shines in the darkness.
Maybe all of us, in our more honest moments, feel this way. Or, maybe not. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s only introspective melancholic types who think along these lines. I admire those whose conviction about what comes next seems unshakeable. I really do. I have never been able to manufacture such certainty about the topography of the afterlife and I’m not sure I ever will. I take comfort in the fact that Jesus said a mustard seed of faith was enough.
But I, too, hope that light shines in the darkness. Desperately so. I long for life where the reality of Romans 7 recedes into a shadowy and unremembered past. And I am still convinced that the bare existence of this hope is itself powerfully suggestive of what might lie on the other side of death’s door. The good, the true, the beautiful—these cannot just be pleasant and useful fictions to keep our overactive prefrontal cortices occupied for a few decades on a chunk of rock hurtling through space. They somehow have to mean more than that.
They point, surely, to the God who has set eternity in the human heart and who finally offers rest, wholeness, consummation, forgiveness, peace and, yes, even life, unnaturally eternal and eternally unnatural.