For All the Saints: Thoughts on the Afterlife

For all the Saints

This is for all you fans of Jeopardy.

You are a contestant.

You are on a roll.

You have the next choice.

“Theology for $1,000, Alex.”

The panel reads:

“The resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.”

What is the question?

“What do Christians believe happens after they die?”

The last line of the Apostles Creed.

You’re still up.

“Theology for $2,000, Alex.”

The panel reads:

“I have no idea!”

The question?

“What exactly does that mean?”

Because it’s all very vague and mysterious.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

2 Corinthians 4:7-5:1

7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12So death is at work in us, but life in you.

13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—‘I believed, and so I spoke’—we also believe, and so we speak, 14because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

5For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

If someone would ask you what you expected to happen after you died, you would likely not say “the resurrection of the body and the live everlasting”

You would say, “I will go to heaven!”

Where we want to be but…

We are – in no hurry.

We sound a lot like Augustine who confessed that as a young man, he prayed:

“Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.”

And so we tend to pray, “Lord take me to heaven – but not yet.”

Why would we pray that?

Two reasons really.

First, we like it here.

Regardless of the trials and tribulations of our lives, there is much about life we like!

The experiences of our five senses allow us much joy.

We always look forward to the next experience.

There is always hope that something good is on the way, even when times are bad.

That is what keeps us – alive.

Hugh Poland, described that attitude in his article “Kids of the Kingdom”:

My 5-year-old daughter, Kayse, grew more and more excited about her first day of kindergarten, and her 3-year-old sister, Jayme, watched her with great fascination. On the Sunday before the first day of school, Kayse fell and skinned her knee.

Tears began to flow, and Jayme, seeing the blood on her big sister’s knee, tried to comfort her by saying: “Don’t worry, Kayse, if you die, you’ll go to heaven.”

Buy Kayse wailed even more. “I don’t want to go to heaven,” she said. “I want to go to kindergarten!”

We hear that story and we think it’s funny because it’s kind of the way we all think.

So what does happen when we die?

The resurrection of the body and the live everlasting!

What exactly is resurrection?

The definition of resurrection has a long history and has generated tremendous debate over the centuries.

But for our purposes this morning, resurrection is what happened to Jesus.

He was dead and became alive again in a body that had his scars, was recognizable (when he wanted to be), had physicality, and ate food.

Yet he could also pass through locked doors and appear and disappear at will.

So it was Jesus but in somewhat of a different way.

Such a resurrection body would not wear out and that would live forever in the presence of God.

The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

There are many who believe in an afterlife, yet when they get to that line in the Creed sort of mumble over it.

It’s just a bit hard to conceive.

Taking and reassembling our dead remains into our bodies …

Many can’t go there.

One of my old seminary professors, Dale Allison, a New Testament scholar, wrote a book called “Night Comes; Death, Imagination and the Last Things”.

He couldn’t go there and wrote this:

[R]esurrection language must be a way of suggesting … a future that can only be [described] through sacred metaphor and sanctified imagination. In other words, resurrection, like the parables of Jesus, characterizes God’s future for us via an analogy, in recognition of the fact that we can’t do any better. We see dimly.

We can’t conceive what resurrection is like.

So we rely on metaphor.

That is what Paul is doing in our scripture reading.

He is using metaphor to describe the promise that Jesus makes about our eternal life.

… the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence

… an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure

… a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens

That promise is the Good News.

In many ways, this kind of metaphor supports an easier view of our eternal lives.

The view most of us have of what heaven is like.

A spirit floating free of its earthly prison – forever.

In something we call heaven.

But heaven is also profoundly mysterious.

What is it like?

There are many descriptions offered both in scripture and outside scripture.

There was even a Time magazine cover story called “Rethinking Heaven” a while back.

It is a good article that describes the different understandings of what happens when we die from mostly a Christian perspective.

The next month there was this letter commenting on the Time Magazine article.

Marc Herbert from Walnut Creek, California, wrote:

Your story [about heaven] says that 85 percent of Americans believe in heaven. That’s incredible. They think of heaven as quiet and peaceful, with no need to do anything. [That] sounds pretty dull to me. What do you do with all of that free time? And it goes on forever and ever!

That’s our concern, right?

Allison addresses this, too.

In his book, he says this about the afterlife:

Some have urged that, if you are … astute, you’ll conclude that heaven, by its very nature, entails unbroken monotony. The argument is this: Given an infinite amount of time, everything would repeat itself again and again, with the inevitable result that a world without end would be tedium without end.

Doesn’t sound all that good.

But that is not what the Bible describes.

Jesus preached and Paul taught resurrection.

The resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.

When?

At Jesus’ return.

And until then?

What happens to us when we die?

This, too, has been the subject of great debate.

I am not going into those.

I can tell you that I think scripture is very clear on this point.

At the moment of death, we are in paradise!

That is what Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross next to him.

“Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Today.

That’s what Paul means when he says, “to be gone from the body is to be in the presence of God.”

Immediately.

And that certainly is Good News.

In paradise and in the presence of God is a good place to be.

Today we celebrate All Saints’ Sunday.

We commemorate those of the faith that have gone on to that house not made with hands, often referred to as the church triumphant.

That is where our departed saints are right now.

What does that look like?

There are many books written and stories told by people who have what we call near death experiences.

Allison had one.

He describes it this way.

…I saws a blue sky filled with what I can only call – words fail me – “bird souls”. They were slowly gliding through the air and singing what I dubbed, when I soon thereafter wrote it all up, “the song of creation”. This was a place of beauty and bliss beyond comprehension, and I could stand the unsurpassed joy for no more than a few seconds, after which I willingly withdrew.

But that is still not the resurrection.

Because God did not create us to live that way.

We were intended to experience the universe with bodies.

With our senses.

We like to touch, taste, smell, see and hear the world around us.

To experience it.

That is what God intended.

For that we need bodies!

And these bodies need souls!

Listen to Genesis 2: 7:

7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,* and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

Life requires body and soul.

If we are to have eternal life, we need both soul and body.

Which is why God promises a resurrection, and why we want one.

We are promised a rejoining of body and spirit.

A living being that will allow us to experience a new creation the way we were meant to.

That is what Paul is talking about when he says:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

And that is the Good News!

But Jeff, you say, we still have the problem of the eternal tedium!

What about that?

Allison cites Gregory of Nyssa, one of the ancient church fathers when he writes:

Gregory of Nyssa believed eternal life will mean always moving from new beginning to the next, so that one will never arrive at any limit of perfection: fresh possibilities will always come into view. If God is truly an infinite mystery, how could such a mystery ever be exhausted?

This reminds me of how C.S. Lewis described the resurrection at the end of the last Narnia book, The Last Battle.

The characters have all died and time has come to an end.

They are seeing the New Narnia for the first time.

The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was … that …[t]he new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if ever you get there you will know what I mean. It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore-hoof on the ground and neighed, and then he cried: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that is sometimes looked a little like this. “

And that is what we will say.

“I have come home at last! This is my real home! I belong here. This is the place I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why I loved the old Earth is that is sometimes looked a little like this. “

That is the promise.

That is the Good News.

Our eternal home with God is a great mystery.

But it is as Allison put it:

 If God is truly an infinite mystery, how could such a mystery ever be exhausted?

As Paul put it:

… an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure

… a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens

That’s good enough for me.

The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

AMEN

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