Immortality: “Eternal Life: Quantity or Quality?”

March 21, 1999


Eternal Life: Quantity or Quality?

If you were not here last week it may help to know that his morning’s sermon about immortality  is  my second response to a request made  by a member of this church.  She grew up in a religion with pat answers to such questions;  what she wants now is to hear how other people, not bound by creedal requirements, have approached the question of eternal life.   I used  last Sunday to point out what is often overlooked — that the Old Testament part of our Bible is almost totally silent about life after death,  an idea which the Jewish people adopted late in their history.  This  explains why we never read anything about Abraham or Moses going to heaven, or the wicked King Ahab going to hell.  Other religions had talked of an afterlife for centuries before our Old Testament was written, but its authors either knew nothing of such things or else thought that they  made no sense.  Their emphasis was on this life, not on the possibility of life beyond the grave. 

This is why, when we turn the page from Malachi ,  the last book of the Old Testament, to Matthew , the first book of Christian scripture, we  find ourselves in a  radically changed world.   All of a sudden almost everybody takes for granted that there is life after death with eternal bliss for a rather sparse number of good people and eternal torment for others.   It’s obvious  that some kind of evolution has occurred in the interval between the two halves of our Bible,  but no preacher of my childhood ever pointed this out.  Nothing was ever said about why the Hebrew God would keep the concept of eternal life secret for so long from his Chosen People, or about how it apparently entered their religion through  contact with  Greek culture a few centuries before Jesus was born.

And  this  raises a couple of questions.  In the first place, since  Jewish people had prayed for centuries to the same God Jesus prayed to, why would this God not have offered  his so-called Chosen People the comforting promise of eternal life?   The fact is that when Hebrew patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob  died, their only epitaph  was that they had been  “gathered unto their fathers” — which meant simply that they been buried, just as their ancestors had been buried for generations before them.  Not so much as a hint that they might enjoy eternal bliss in the presence of God for having been faithful. 

And, in the second place, one has to wonder exactly what Paul meant in one of his letters by saying that Jesus brought “immortality to light through the gospel” [2 Tim 1:10].   Immortality certainly was not an idea that had waited to show up until the coming of Christ.  There were civilizations on earth that had believed in life after death for hundreds of years before Christ was born.  It is, after all, the most attractive idea ever presented to the human mind — that even if  for a little while we have a difficult life on earth, we have a chance  to spend eternity in Paradise.   And not alone, or among strangers, but with some we had loved on earth.  Such a prospect is almost irresistible, but the fact is that  many good and thoughtful people either cannot believe it at all, or else they have widely differing ideas about what eternal life  might be like.  

I think none of this would surprise Jesus if he were with us in the flesh.  As I have mentioned, he grew up in a religion with strongly opposed ideas about immortality.    The powerful priestly party known as the Sadducees thought faith in an afterlife was just so much new-fangled nonsense.  They held fast to the old traditional Jewish belief that this life is all there is.  But the party of the Pharisees, more popular with the masses,  had bought into a later belief  that the dead would be resurrected and either rewarded or punished for what they had done in life.  

There was even a third Jewish group  known as the Essenes, who rejected the teachings of both the other  parties:  the total scepticism of  the aristocratic Sadducees, on the one hand, and on the other what they saw as a rather crude Pharisee faith  in the resurrection of the body.  These “Dead Sea Scroll people”  believed in life after death, but only for the soul — which at death is released (in their words) “from the prison house of the body….and borne aloft”  [to]…. a place which is not oppressed by rain or snow or heat but is refreshed by the ever gentle breath of the west wind coming from the ocean.” [Josephus, Jewish Wars ,2, 154f.]  So the world Jesus knew  was as sharply divided as our own world, with some saying of eternal life, There’s no such thing ;  others saying, Yes, there is, and it will include our bodily shapes ;  and still others saying that only the soul will survive to dwell in a climate that sounds very much like Southern California.   

It almost certainly would have been the popular faith of an aftdrlife that influenced Jesus  as he grew up, and we know for sure that it had shaped Paul’s mind as he was schooled by Pharisee professors.  After he became a disciple of Christ and reached  Athens on one of his missionary trips,  he decided to make a speech in the public square of that intellectual capital of the western world where every man with an idea was free to lecture to anyone who would listen — a place that must have been something like Hyde Park in London where you can wander on a Sunday afternoon from one soapbox to another to hear politicians, preachers and philosophers proclaim their theories.

On this particular day, nearly 20 centuries ago, Paul uses more elegant language than we have heard from him before, and even lets his highbrow audience know that he can quote one of their own Greek poets.  Perhaps he felt that as a foreigner and a Jew he might need a little extra status  to get his message across.  He uses a clever psychological gambit to introduce his speech, and goes on to say some eloquent things about the nature of God and religion, to all of which  his  audience listens  patiently until he mentions  resurrection of the dead, at which point some of them laugh at what they considered nonsense,  and others say with what may have been freezing courtesy, “Let us hear more of this some other time.” 

Early Christians who wrote  the New Testament shared Paul’s Pharisaic belief in personal immortality, so when they speak of the matter it is some sort of bodily resurrection they have in mind.   But as churches were formed, and believers talked among themselves about the concept of life after death, all sorts of opinions developed  — and this has been the case ever since.  One person’s idea of eternal life has nothing to do with a bodily resurrection and favors Plato’s  image of  pure souls  contemplating Absolute Good forever and ever.  Another believes in Emerson’s idea of a kind of great  Oversoul which after death absorbs our individual souls.   Someone else decides that only reincarnation makes sense as one thinks about immortality. 

But those opinions are too abstract to comfort  most people, whose idea of eternal life is simply this life made better:  a perfect climate,  freedom from growing sick or old,  and bodies so much like the ones they had on earth that they will be recognized by family and friends.  I have heard enough comments to know that some of you count on that kind of afterlife, that some others  feel such a description is too childlike and we’ll just have to wait to discover the real truth, and that there are still others who are  quite willing to accept the idea that this life is all there is.  In different stages of my own life, I have shared all three  of those feelings — a kind of theological roller-coaster ride which I will describe next week.

But for the moment I would like you to consider what other people have said, because that may either strengthen what you already believe, or it may open you up to new ways of understanding what the phrase “eternal life” might mean.  Because if you give it serious thought it’s really hard to imagine “eternity.”   In fact, in the past two weeks I’ve been tempted to just mail a certain cartoon to the good friend who asked me to talk about immortality.  It has a grandfather sitting on the couch with his puzzled grandson, who has obviously been wondering about the same topic.  Grandpa says, “Eternity is a hard concept to grasp…. unless you’ve ever waited in a fabric store for Grandma.”

On a little higher level, let’s  begin with some ideas Norman Cousins expressed in one of his thoughtful essays.  He finds a great deal of ego involved in our hopes for eternal life.  The powerful survival instinct that makes us fight to the bitter end to stay alive, also makes us want desperately to believe that somehow our personal identity will survive even death itself.  After all, each of us has been the center of our own universe since the day we were born.  How can we possibly cease to exist?  A few people, here and there, have overcome that feeling and can face the prospect of  extinction serenely,  but most  cannot.  

Norman Cousins  wonders how many might be able to  accept a less self-centered form of immortality in which we lose personal identity and simply become part of all that has ever been, and all that ever will be.  Many already feel such a link with the past.  Given a good imagination, and the willingness to read and listen, we have felt ourselves deeply connected to  lives that came before ours.    I had a graduate seminar once in which I lived so intensely and intimately with a quirkily brilliant19th century essayist named Charles Lamb that that for years I felt I had known him in person.   I have felt that even more strongly about the Carolina writer, Thomas Wolfe —  living so deeply in his letters, short stories, and novels that it was hard for me to remember that he was dead.    On two pilgrimages to Asheville, North Carolina I strolled from room to room in the house where he grew up, and sat on the front porch swing where he spent so many hours daydreaming, and my life seemed reach back much further than the sum of my birthdays.  The past is dead only if one lacks the imagination to bring it to life.

So is it possible to imagine one’s future in the same way — as a continuation of one’s life in all the generations yet to come?  There is not much self-centeredness in such a faith, but for some people it has been all the comfort they need.  You may wonder if such a conviction would  provide enough motivation for people to live noble lives.  Well, it certainly has in thousands of cases.  In this scenario, immortality  becomes a product not of the hereafter but of the here and now.

 Speaking of the “here and now,” I remember a New Testament author who says his reason for writing is so his Christian readers “may know that you have eternal life.”  Present tense.  This life he calls “eternal” is a gift from God, he says, and those who know Christ have it.  [1 John 5].  Koine Greek scholars say the Greek word aionios which is translated into English as “eternal” points more to quality of life than to quantity, to intensity rather than to duration.   Could this mean that there is a way to live which is so in harmony with all things bright and beautiful that it cannot be a prisoner  of time?   I don’t know, but I must admit that the idea appeals to me far more than those sermon illustrations some of us heard which set out to quantify the word “eternal.” 

Remember the one about about how a bird  picks up a grain of sand on the Atlantic coast, flies west with it to the Pacific beaches, drops it, picks up another grain and flies back across the continent….over and over until every last grain of sand has been exchanged between the two shorelines.  There would be a pregnant pause while this huge expense of time soaked into our heads, and then the preacher would say dramatically that even  after  that incomprehensible task  was finally finished,  eternity would have just begun.  I thought it was pretty exciting at age14, but after a while it came to seem only theatrical, with no useful meaning. 

The idea of eternal life as qualitative rather than quantitative, as intensity of life rather than duration, makes sense to many Christians.  Someone put it this way:  when you are with someone you deeply love, the nature of time changes.  An hour passes like a moment, a day passes like an hour.  Does a person who has found a great and joyous purpose in life experience something that could be called “eternal”? 

Put a couple of remarks together for a moment.  First, that “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son,” and then the Son’s statement that “I am come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Is it possible that when you dwell in the kingdom of God, in the kingdom of right relationships, the life you experience has about it a quality which can be called “eternal”?  I realize that this is deep water, but some profoundly Christian thinkers have given such a meaning to the phrase “eternal life.”  If what they say makes any sense, how do we live so as to be in touch with what is eternal? 

We have to create our own answers, if they’re  to have power over the way we behave, but they could start out like this:  We keep ourselves aware of how precious  life is, so that we learn not to waste it.  We dedicate our energy and intelligence to protecting our home on this unique planet from those who would rape it in the name of  quick profit.  We find ways  to escape the prison of self so we can walk in the shoes of others.  And there’s more….. but it’s your turn.  Use a few minutes this week to think of what you would add to that list, and come back next Sunday for some concluding and more personal thoughts about the meaning of “eternal life.”

            Quicken in us, our Lord, that combination of warm heart and

            open mind that can turn  questions into blessings and deepen

            our understanding of your purpose for our lives.  Amen