Life After (and Before) Death
I’ve been thinking about life after death lately. This is not a very respectable thing to spend one’s time thinking about, at least not in “progressive” theological circles. “The church has too often been too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good” and all that. Well, yes. Certainly, many zealous Christians down through the ages have obsessed about the afterlife to the quite culpable neglect of this one. Locating all one’s hope in an unobservable and undefinable future can have the effect of partitioning it off from empirical scrutiny and absolving those who hold it of any responsibility to pursue God’s justice and peace in the present. Fair enough.
And yet, we still die. And we still live in a world where death—in all its forms—roams and menaces and haunts our steps. And we still wonder what, if anything, might come after this life where we inevitably do too many of the things we ought not to and leave undone far too many of the things that desperately need doing. There is an unfinished quality to both our lives and our world. I was at two funerals last week. Both bore witness to the incomplete and fragmentary nature of this life, if in profoundly different ways and for very different reasons. Life after death is not just a passive panacea for the sadness we may feel about life’s inevitable brevity. It is, and has always been, among the more urgent existential questions thrown up by the human condition.
I preached a sermon recently on what happens after we die. It led to a fascinating conversation later in the week about liberal Christianity’s incapability to articulate a compelling eschatology. If conservative Christian theology spends too much time on the next world and not enough on this one, then liberal theology often errs in the opposite direction. Talk of life after death, if it is talked about at all, is described as little more than a tool used by those in power to maintain, legitimate, or ignore oppressive structures and ideologies, to privilege familiar voices, to offer false and undeserved consolations. Whatever truths might be buried in these critiques— and there are undoubtedly a few—it is an exhausting narrative that offers little hope beyond that which we can secure for ourselves.
You may have noticed that despite our frantic efforts and the zealously moralizing impulse of our times, we actually aren’t super good at realizing our own hopes. We can’t even agree on what we should be hoping for much less make any grand progress in achieving it. And so, we condemn and call out and shame and mobilize and protest and counter-protest and raise the volume and the temperature and the stakes while the world of sin and death grinds ceaselessly on. A friend who has spent a lifetime in the world of social justice work recently told me that all they heard these days was that they needed to “do the work,” whatever “the work” happened to be, whatever “ism.” “obia,” or “privilege” needed to be more effectively combated, dismantled, or acknowledged. “I’m so tired,” they said. “If I hear someone tell me to ‘do the work’ one more time, I might lose my mind.”
“The work,” as it happens, never ends. And while a good deal of it is worth doing, some of the more zealous moral discourse out there betrays a naïve and dishonest anthropology. There is no utopia that can be created by fallen, fragile, and finite human beings. No matter how laudable our intentions might be, we will create and maintain imperfect systems and structures. Wherever we go, there we are. This isn’t to say that there aren’t better or worse options. There are, clearly. And the task of political and moral discourse is to sort through some of these things as best we are able. But we must acknowledge that what we are able to do falls vastly short of our need (and, too often, our rhetoric). We need a hope and a word that stretches out beyond this temporal frame.
Jason Micheli recently reflected on some of these matters in a post called The [Victims of War] You Will Always Have with You. He speaks of the Augustinian conviction that “our compassion for this world can only be sustained by the promise of a better world to come”:
We need God. Otherwise… we’ll attempt to gild our moral endeavors into an idol, a world without war or racism, for example, or a world without suffering. Such an idol will only leave us exhausted from our endeavors, self-righteous towards those who are not so engaged, or disillusioned that the need never ends.
Exhausted, self-righteous, disillusioned. It would be difficult three more succinct descriptions of our time than these. We need more than this. Or perhaps far, far less. Another friend in the NGO world told me that he’s recently grown in appreciation for high church liturgies and spaces. “They’re so much more comfortable with the mystery and otherness of God,” he said. “So many preachers these days—particularly those in more liberal churches—seem only to want to tell us that we need to do more and better for Jesus. It’s exhausting.” I couldn’t help but cringe.
At their best, strong convictions about life after death—about a God who promises the future we need—feed back into this life in hopeful and honest ways. They do not absolve us of social responsibility but neither do they place upon us burdens too heavy to bear. They do not release us from the obligations of justice but neither do they sanction our strutting about like little gods. They don’t allow us to project all our hopes on to a vague and fuzzy eternal canvas, but neither do they give us permission to act in hellish ways in our disdain for heaven. They do not give us a free pass to twiddle our thumbs waiting for eternity but neither do they ignore the fact that eternity is stubbornly set in the human heart.
I took the picture above in Bethlehem four years ago. It’s an beautiful image on an ugly wall symbolizing an ugly reality. It speaks to me of the human task of pursuing God’s beautiful vision in a thorny and unfinished world, while never forgetting that we are not God.