Immortality: “Where Do We Go From Here?”

March 28, 1999


Where Do We Go From Here?

When I was asked some time ago to talk about the emotional subject of eternal life, I planned to use a single Sunday and then go on to something less risky. But I discovered that I couldn’t turn loose quite that quickly, so this morning’s sermon marks the third and final response to that request. Please keep in mind that I was asked to say how I felt, not to say what you should feel, so if you disagree with some things, or pity me for not having absolute certainty, I hope that what’s said can at least challenge you to take an honest look at your own feelings.
In a brief historical survey, I’ve already mentioned that through many centuries of Old Testament history the Jewish people did not believe in a hereafter. When they finally did, their hopes had nothing to do with one of their own named Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth was still far off in the future. Their new faith came instead from exposure to a Greek-influenced culture which had developed ideas about immortality hundreds of years before the coming of Christ. When he appeared, it was in a thought-world with deeply polarized ideas on the subject. He grew up among priestly Sadducees who totally rejected the idea of resurrection as modernistic nonsense, and pious Pharisees, popular with the masses, who believed in it strongly. Jesus is represented as agreeing with the Pharisees, and for many Christians that settles the matter.
But it remain open for millions of others who see Jesus as a child of his times, and the Bible as a culturally-influenced record of life and thought in first-century Palestine. So even in today’s church you find those who would never dream of questioning the concept of eternal life, and others who confess that for them it raises more problems than it solves. They may hope it’s true, and be reluctant to disturb another person’s faith, but they confess that belief in an afterlife is not a great motivating factor in their determination to live by Christian ethics.
This group would agree with what I once heard columnist Sydney Harris say during a Wichita visit — that he has no interest in the ancient mythology of golden streets, harps, and pearly gates,“ and that what strikes him as essential in the Christian faith “is to love even when you do not like, to give even when you would rather take, to lose yourself in eternity by finding yourself in time. Whether immortality or nothing awaits us at the end, religion is but a hollowness and a mask unless we become what we are meant to be in the present moment.” The words are a good prescription for those who spend more time talking about going to heaven when they die than than they spend making earth a better place while they live.
You know, of course, that depth of conviction varies a great deal in people. Faith may run deep or live only on the skin, and it’s obvious that for all the talk about how glorious heaven will be it’s hard to find people who seem eager to get there. Even when life is painful and terribly restricted, most people who claim to believe in a blissful hereafter will do everything in their power to avoid it as long as possible. So, thoughtful people have wondered whether most of us really believe as strongly as we say, or whether the idea of an afterlife is more a kind of pleasant insurance policy that may or may not deliver but in either event has not cost a great deal.
One thing to keep in mind as we think about this together is that faith in an afterlife has not automatically made people live better, while rejecting that hope has not automatically made people selfish and unkind. I have known a great many people over the years who live profoundly Christlike lives even though life after death seems highly doubtful to them. They hate to come right out and admit their scepticism for fear it will upset someone, so they cheerfully join in the laughter at all those thousands of jokes about St. Peter at the gate, and avoid serious discussions about whether such images have any validity. My next-door neighbor was here last week, and told me later about a conversation she once had with her aged but still sharp mother in a local nursing home. She noticed at one point that her mother seemed reflective, so she asked what she was thinking about. “O, I was just thinking about heaven and hell,” her mother said. “So what do you think about them?” “I certainlydon’t believe in hell,” the mother said. “I can’t believe in a God who would punish people forever for mistakes they made in this short life.” “What about heaven,” her daughter asked. “Do you believe in heaven?” “I don’t know whether I do or not.” “Don’t you want to see Dad again?” Long pause….and then, “Will I have to cook for him?”
You really can’t blame her for talking about an afterlife as if it might be an extension of this life because the classic Biblical description sounds like one of those posh gated residential areas for the wealthy: walls of jasper all around, streets of gold, gates of pearl, mansions up and down the avenues, a perfect climate, plenty to eat, and free medical care. (Someone is thinking, Where did he come up with the part about food and health care? Well, go home and read carefully the 21st chapter of Revelation , where the description of heaven includes, on both sides of a crystal river, the tree of life which bears different kinds of fruit each month, a la Harry and David’s Fruit of the Month business. In addition to fruit, this tree has leaves with power to heal). Now I would guess that bright old mind took all those descriptions to be figurative rather than factual, but — just in case — she wanted to register her vote against having to spend eternity cooking three meals a day. This woman had spent her life worshipping God in church, building up her community, doing what she could to promote peace, justice and brotherhood, but I think that deep down she had grave doubts about life after death. She had read widely and the simplistic portrait of an afterlife in the book of Revelation may have struck her as simply more proof that in all cultures, including that of first century Palestinian Jews and early Christians, people project a heaven of their own making.
You may have noticed that I’ve said nothing in this brief series about what are called “near-death experiences,” and the reason is that I do not know how to judge those stories. They are eagerly believed by those who seek proof of life after death; others chalk them up to hallucinations. Why, they ask, would such blessed assurance be granted to one in a million and denied to the vast majority? Do they happen in response to eager expectation, on grounds that we see what we hope to see? One way or another, proof seems impossible, so that alleged phenomenon remains open for debate.
I will close this brief series as I promised, with a comment on my personal feelings about immortality. There was a time in my life when I would simply have parroted a few Scriptures heard from my boyhood preachers, but I have lived to learn that the issue is far more complex than they would have had us think. Questions about an afterlife have arisen for me, through life experience and through reading, for which I have no certain answers — a confession which will upset anyone present who has bought into the notion that preachers should know all the answers or go into some other line of work.
It was my father’s death many years ago which forced me to confront for the first time how deeply convinced I really was that he and I might resume our relationship someday on another plane of existence. On a sunny Saturday afternoon 34 years ago this month, I was summoned to a small town in Oklahoma by the news that my father had suffered a massive heart attack. Over the next few hours, as I sat watching my father die I thought of all the consolations I had heard ministers offer about the certainty and even the nature of life beyond death.
I had already spent some years in ministry myself, passing along in sermons what I had been taught about personal immortality, using the familiar prooftexts, repeating the illustrations I had heard without questioning their logic. So would I feel complete confidence now that the theories and promises had become intensely personal? And then my father died — the man who for so long in my life had meant strength and firmness and the most incredible energy and will, the man to whom I always wanted to bring the news of my small successes, the man whose love I could count on without fail if I had to confess a failure. I looked at his face as the doctor told me it was over, and I looked at his face again at the funeral as the mortuary makeup man invited me to appreciate his overdone magic, and suddenly and quite unexpectedly I knew something with an overpowering intensity. I knew that no matter what I had always heard, or how persuasively I had repeated it to others, I had at that moment no deep and certain conviction that I would see and know this man again in the ways preachers of my childhood had always promised.
See him with the unique elements of face and form and personality that made me recognize him instantly in a crowd: the man who walked fast and worked fast with almost manic energy, the man with bright blue eyes and a voice different from all other voices in the world. And suddenly I realized that the ways of defining eternal life which I had always heard, held in that moment no absolute comfort or meaning for me. It was not so much a rejection of what I had always taken for granted as it was an honest recognition that I did not feel sure enough to smile and nod when well-meaning friends told me how we would meet each other again.
What I knew that day was that survival of personal identity after death, much as I might wish it to be true, raised as many questions for me as it solved. People talk glibly of souls, but I know nothing of souls except as they are expressed through physical presence, so I really do not understand what it means to speak of reunions and recognitions. I found a clipping last week which I had filed away at some time in the past because for me it pointed up this problem in such a poignant way. The clipping is in memory of a woman who died at age 78, but the family chose a photograph taken when she was in her beautiful, energetic early 40’s, and wrote these words beneath the picture: “We believe this resembles how….she will greet us in Heaven.” My reaction to this kind of hopeful guesswork is filed with perplexity. I remind myself of that distant cousin of mine who came to Jesus one day and said in the same breath that he both believed and doubted. Jesus seemed to understand that kind of tension. Perhaps, on occasion, he had felt it in himself.
I’ve hinted at the power of ego in nurturing the hope that our individual lives must not end but go on and on, forever. But ego often diminishes as one gets older, and last year, when I finished an autobiography for my children and grandchildren, I closed it with an Epilogue which said: “Memory is sweetly selective, but life has seemed so right and glorious to me that even now I should be loath to give it up. Yet when thoughts of death do come, I comfort myself by remembering that as precious as my own life has been to me, it is only one of so many billions of others that to feel myself unique seems rather foolish. Over 50 years ago, reading for the first time The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam , I knew the Tentmaker had it right: And fear not lest Existence closing your / Account and mine, should know the like no more; / The Eternal Saki from that Bowl has pour’d / Millions of Bubbles like us, and will pour. When we think of our kinship with all the billions who have lived before us, and all the bilions still to be born, our individual lives seem less important, and it becomes more difficult than ever to fathom the conventional approach to eternal existence somewhere else.
I would be delighted to wake up from life’s dream someday and find myself in a paradise of eternal and infinite delight, but I am completely at peace with the possibility that this may not happen. I will confess, however, that there is something that bothers me. I’ve been lucky to live a life remarkably happy and free from birth defects or debilitating disease or crippling from some terrible accident. If I knew positively that there is nothing more after this life I would still thank God for the gift of it, and for the even greater gift of having loved and been loved.
But I think of millions who have not been as fortunate in this life, and I must tell you that when I have walked away from visits to mental institutions and veteran’s hospitals and rehab centers where the mangled wrecks of human existence spend their bleak, brief years, I have wished with all my heart that they might have it all made up to them in a life free of suffering and hopelessness. Will it happen? I don’t know. I only know that no one would rejoice more than I to have it happen.
One cannot live well without a sustaining philosophy of life, and mine has not changed since I wrote the following words at the end of a sermon many years ago. I’ve listened carefully for a long time to all the pros and cons of life beyond the grave, and my definition of eternal life tends now to be qualitative rather than quantitative, measured in intensity rather than in years, but I would treat tenderly the faith of millions whose dreams are innocent and good. No lovelier idea has ever captured the human heart than this hope of final union with God in a land where tears are only a memory.
But when the moment comes for bowing out, I hope I can feel that the adventure has been so exciting that if it should turn out that nothing happens later, I shall not feel cheated. Not unless, with beauty all around me, I had no eyes for it, nor with people along the way to love, I had refused to love them. In which case, I would already have missed heaven….and I would not expect that loss to be made up.
It is some comfort to me to find that nobler spirits than my own have shared my uncertainties, so I leave you with one man’s ultimate definition of trust in the absence of certainty. No one I know has published better sermons than Frederick Buechner, no one I know has presented the beauty of belief more poignantly, but he, too, wrestles with the fact that someday death will steal away his life and that he knows nothing of what may lie on the other side of that event. He does not pretend to have answers he does not have, or to act as if he knew much about what he considers the great unknowable. He says he knows only one thing: “…..that I do not need to know and I do not need to be afraid of not knowing. God knows. That is all that matters.”

Into thy hands, Eternal God, each one of us commits our faith
and our doubt, our hopes and our fears, and asks for tender
mercy when the sum of our life is totaled. Amen.

Into thy hands, Eternal God, each one of us commits our faith and our doubt, our hopes and our fears, and asks for tender mercy when
the sum of our life is totaled.