My first brush with death was when I was about five years old, at play around a forbidden railway bridge close to home. I managed to climb down on to a parapet from which I could not get back up. So, I attempted to make my way down a near vertical fifteen foot stone buttress instead. I was hanging by my fingertips when I was rescued in the nick of time by an older lad called Jackie Davies, who lived across the street from us. Afterwards I was a bit puzzled about why my parents and neighbours were upset. Without understanding, I discovered that the prospect of death can terrify people.
I was eleven when Grandma Harris died in the bedroom next door to mine in our small miner's terraced house. The curtains of the windows on to the street were drawn, and an eerie hush descended upon our otherwise talkative household. Solemn looking strangers came and went in connection with the preparations for her funeral. Grandma used to hide pocket money for me to find among the old china ornaments on her dressing table. In the days before the funeral, her door was locked. I was not allowed to enter. The household hush evoked that same scent of fear I did not understand. It seemed to convey a dread of great upheavals, things unknown, unspoken about. Questions without answers.
With the passing of many more years, I learned that there is a greater dimension to the question of who I am, and all of us have to face it sooner or later. Who am I as a finite mortal creature with countless generations before me, not to mention those to come? What is my life in the context of a cosmos whose life-span is billions of times my own? I must die, as all created things must eventually die, but what happens then?
The thought of annihilation, even after a happy fulfilled life, is a source of dread when we are healthy and happy and all is going well with the world. Death threatens to put to an end to all that has helped make me who I am. Dying is undeniably a natural process in the life-cycle of all biological organisms, indeed of the universe, of matter, space and time. What came from infinite nothingness returns to its source. Accepting the theory is one thing, facing the hard facts of dying is another. Death still arouses deep fears and poses un-answerable questions. Does life, must life, end in personal extinction?
When people suffer greatly, it is not unusual for them to welcome death, regardless of their fears. Death is often sought as an end to suffering. Oblivion seems preferable to torment. Suicide is a choice some have taken since the dawn of time. In the Bible, also in ancient Greece, the suicide of defeated warriors, (e.g., Saul in 1 Samuel 31:3-5) occurred without attracting negative comment. In traditional Japanese culture suicide is an honoured alternative to the shame of defeat. This sentiment was exploited for military ends by the ‘kamikaze’ pilots in World War Two, and again in the utterly different setting of radical Islamic resistance to foreign oppression by Arab suicide bombers in different parts of the world, half a century later.
In the last half century, attempted suicide by those harming only themselves has ceased to be a crime. The right to voluntary euthanasia or 'assisted suicide' is now being made lawful in some countries under controlled conditions for people in extreme suffering to bring a terminal illness to a swifter conclusion. The ethical debate about terms of reference to secure and respect a person’s ‘right to die’ with dignity when they choose is now occurring all over the world. The battlefield is no longer the only situation in which ending one’s life prematurely is accepted.
Despair and misery can weaken natural resistance to illness and undermine health. Some sufferers from chronic ailments or infirmity lose the will to live and let death overtake them when weakened by self-neglect, excess of alcohol, or just living carelessly and becoming prone to fatal accidents. In war-time, reckless and cruel behaviour is a symptom of loss of self-worth, a loss of the sense of meaning in life and the will to live. Underlying the death-wish in situations not afflicted by oppression or war, is the same sense of being violated, of being robbed of the essential conditions that make it possible to live and thrive.
People suffering from mental disorders, or wounded by traumatic events, or abused emotionally and sexually can suffer grievously, not only from their misfortune, but also from lack of sensitivity to their plight on the part of others. When life feels no longer worth living, victims react accordingly. The toleration of suicide however, does not address the deeper question of how to stop life for many who suffer becoming intolerable.
If we enjoy some measure of "shalom", our vital forces protest vigorously at the thought of death. It seems like an offence, an insult to our humanity. We need to know why this ultimate evil is necessary. Why does God make us mortal? Where is the blessing in it? We need somehow to make sense of it, or feel condemned to live in a universe ultimately hostile to us. What hope do we have if death is the end?.
We know we exist within time and space. When we are young time seems to pass by slowly. As we age it seems to accelerate. Birth, growth, decline and death are part of every aspect of what creation is. We are not born knowing why it is so, and what purpose is served by the divine plan. Giving meaning to death is part of our attempt to give meaning to life. The desire to 'be forever' is part of what it means to be human. For thousands of years people have raised monuments to themselves in stone or in song. To be remembered after death is the simplest expression of 'immortal longings'. I cannot be sure who I am, unless my existence is acknowledged in some way by others. To be utterly forgotten is annihilation.
We seek to give meaning to death in varied ways. One common attitude is noble resignation in the face of the inevitable, the view of the ancient Stoic school of philosophy. Comfort is taken from the knowledge that one's successful achievements continue to do service, or that one's influence and identity live on in one's offspring.
More common is the willingness to endure death in the belief that the soul is thereby freed to enjoy an after-life, as a reward to enduring the sufferings of this life. This after-life contains the ideal features of earthly existence, transplanted to an other worldly, non-material realm – often called ‘Paradise’, after the original dwelling place of humankind in Biblical mythology. This notion appears in popular Jewish, Christian and Muslim attempts to come to terms with death.
It has featured strongly in the justificatory rhetoric of Islamic suicide bombers in recent years, and demonstrates forcibly how weak faulty spiritual ideas can be abused and exploited for political ends. However, such pathological abuse of trust in the realm of religion is hardly exclusive to Islam. Killing and being killed in God’s name has been a feature of Christianity since the early days of the legalisation of Christianity.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, and in popular folk culture worldwide, belief prevails that after death the soul can return from the non-material realm to live again in another body. Each life is seen as an opportunity for learning and moral progress, and there can be many such returns to earth. There are people who claim verifiable knowledge of past lives to support their belief in re-incarnation. For them, the aim of living many earthly lives is to perfect the soul until it becomes one with the divine, and moves beyond the need for rebirth. Breaking out of the cycle of time and mortality and entering the infinite and eternal is final fulfilment. Re-incarnation is a way to understand personal destiny, rather than the fate of the your community or the world you live in. Surveys of religious belief in Western Europe have shown that the idea of re-incarnation is accepted by half of those responding.
“What will happen to me after death?” is our secret pre-occupation. The councils of the church, both Eastern and Western, neither accepted nor condemned popular belief in re-incarnation. The issue did not figure seriously on the Christian agenda, because the church refused to separate the question of personal destiny from common destiny - my history from the history of the cosmos. The church persisted in telling a different kind of story in response to questions about the meaning of life, death and the universe, due to its origins in Judaism, and because of the life and death of Jesus.
Hebrew culture rejected the idea that time in its totality is cyclical, like the seasons of the year. Time was celebrated as a journey taking humankind in a specific direction. It had its beginning in creation, and its conclusion in God's re-creation of the universe at the End, when the Messiah appears. Hebrew history records important human deeds, but sets them in an account of God's dealings with people and the lessons he taught about life according to his will. God takes the initiative in his covenant relationship with them. Their faithfulness always falls short of his, but no matter what befalls them, their standing as God's chosen children remains steadfast, in life and in death. Christianity inherited and built on this earthy foundation.
The influence of Hellenic culture and philosophy on the world during New Testament times tended to separate the other-worldly and transcendental dimension of life from the mundane and material. The church ever since has striven in its teaching to maintain a balance, to show how inter-related they are. The idea of material and spiritual realms remained, but has not been adequately defined. Christian tradition speaks of them in a variety of ways, with varying degrees of tension and opposition between them. The Gospel maintains that both material and spiritual are reconciled in the movement of God towards human beings in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
For this reason, St Paul could write, in his first letter to the church at Corinth: "If our hope is for this life only, then we are of all men, most to be pitied." (1 Corinthians 15:19) The present fact of human mortality is linked to human estrangement from God's will and purpose. As Paul puts it: "the wages of sin is death.", and continues: "but the gift of God is eternal life." (Romans. 6:23) What we learn of God through Jesus Christ enables us to realise that there is more to existence than the cycle of birth, life and death, whether this is confined to one or many 'lives' in historical time. Our view of God's plan, of necessity, falls far short of the reality. Paul asserts, in rather adventurous detail, that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean much more than a unique display of divine power and mercy towards sinful human beings. They reveal in a new way the moral and spiritual foundations of creation, and this gives mortal beings a new frame of reference for understanding their existence.
Christian teaching is reticent about life after death, despite the wealth of speculation found in religious creative arts. There are no comforting certitudes about the hereafter in the Christian scriptures to compare with the Qu'ran's descriptions of Paradise, or the accounts of passage through death to re-birth in Buddhist and Hindu tradition. Popular Christian belief is derived from imaginative interpretation of some passages from New Testament letters, and above all from the Revelation to St John.
Christian confidence in the face of death does not arise from detailed reassurance about what happens next, but relies rather on the secure relationship of love and trust for God made known through Jesus. It recognises honestly our limits in conceptualising what is beyond experience. Hope for life to come rests upon the change already happening in a person here and now through knowing God in Jesus. His resurrection offers us glimpses of human destiny and all creation in relation to God, and this takes us to the limits of our imagination.
St Paul could do no better than speak of the mystery of the risen Christ in arguments that use biblical and poetic imagery. This would have been less strange to his audience, perhaps, than to us. But, he tries to speak of matters about which we are still poorly equipped to speak. Christ, he writes, is: "the first fruit of those who sleep (in death)". "Since by a man came death, by a man comes also the resurrection of the dead; for as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15:20-22) St. Paul connects the resurrection to the beginnings of the human story.
In Genesis, the disobedience of the prototype person, Adam, introduced mortality to the world. As a result, nobody for any reason can escape death. However, the obedience of Christ the second Adam, the prototype person free from sin, overcomes the finality of death. Mortality is no longer to be equated with annihilation. Jesus is raised to life by the sovereign power of God, a sign of mercy and pardon. Through him, new life is open to all. It begins with the changes we are free to make to the way we live here and now, but does not stop there.
New life is good for all time and beyond time. Though we must all die, God's mercy and good-will offer to all new possibilities of life beyond the world we know. As Paul says elsewhere: "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, God has prepared for all who love him," (1 Cor. 2:9) St John's Gospel speaks of being in a right relation to Jesus as eternal life.
Jesus proclaims: "He who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." (John 11:25b). We exist now and become full persons because of God's love for us as His children. If we exist after death, it is not because our souls have built-in properties of immortality, but because God remembers who we are. All of us without exception. What better way to express infinite knowledge and power? We trust God to hold on to us, never to lose us nor forget us - neither us, nor the community we are part of.
When the scriptures of the New Testament were being written, Christians believed the end of the world and God's judgement upon mankind were imminent. Resurrection of the dead was envisaged as taking place at the end of history, so that all who ever lived would together be brought to account for their lives. After this, the whole of creation would be renewed, beyond the limitations of the material mortal cosmos, to be the everlasting dwelling place of God with humankind. All and everything is finally to be fulfilled with its proper place and purpose in the divine plan - all summed up in Christ.
These ideas provide a grand plan, a big picture lacking in the personal detail that could reassure individuals facing death. The vision originates in a community which draws its vitality and meaning from its relationship to the risen Christ, a community in which lives are so interconnected that St Paul speaks of Christians as "members of the body of Christ" (1 Corinthians12:27). Wherever they meet in prayer, the gulf between each other, between heaven and earth becomes smaller and bridgeable. Fear and loneliness can turn death into a cruel, dehumanising experience. But, a shared hope in God and the experience of a faithful community's love and support for the living and the dying, can transform the end of physical existence into a foretaste of eternity.
Deathbed conversions are joked about, a person enjoying the illicit pleasures of the world, only to be rescued from dire consequences by turning to God at the last minute. The reality is somewhat different. Those who accompany a dying person, (whether a believer or an unbeliever), find it natural and healthy that they seek in their last days something that will help them make sense of the whole of their lives. It is not surprising that the story of Christ's passion and death is a key, enabling dying people to re-engage in a relationship with God at a deeper level than ever before.
In early Christian times, pagans were impressed and convinced not only by Christian ethical and social behaviour, but also by the care they gave to the dying, and the reverent disposal of mortal remains. At no stage was the physical body neglected or abused. St Paul described the body as "the temple of the Holy Spirit". (1 Corinthians 6:19) Even with the spirit gone, it remained a sacred image of the person deserving respect. That a taboo on dissection arose and persisted for so long was understandable. Reverence for the body also gave rise to the spurious notion that the corpse buried would, by resurrection, be reconstituted exactly. In some cultures this encouraged resistance to cremation, which was seen as a pagan disrespect for the human frame. This taboo has been over-ridden in the past two centuries. Attitudes have changed due to improved understanding of what 'body' refers to in Christian thought.
St Paul, trying to get to grips with the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus, attempted to explain the difference between a material and a spiritual body (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-50). To him, resurrection was not about reconstituting the matter of a person's corpse. In his day, a miracle might raise someone from death or near death, just as today's emergency medical techniques make this almost routine. But, resuscitation is only a material event. It is not of the same order of reality as resurrection, which embraces moral and spiritual being as well as life in the flesh.
Paul speaks of the dead being clothed with an immortal spiritual body, a divine gift. His thinking did not separate life and personality from appearance and identity. Remember 'This is my body, meaning - I am here'. It did not make sense to speak of a bodiless person. Resurrection power transforms a person's moral and spiritual being, as well as the outward physical expression of personality and appearance. Paul had seen moral and spiritual transformations occur in converts to Christ. What was begun on earth would be completed hereafter. The realm beyond time and space, belonging only to God, was one in which his children would receive spiritual bodies. They would be re-membered, and become whole. Death is portrayed as sleep to the end of time, awaiting re-clothing with a spiritual body appropriate to life beyond time and space. Death does not annihilate a person, but is a transitional state of unconsciousness before fulfilment in Christ.
The idea of final accountability for what we have become in relation to God, of the judgement on our souls, has long infused dread into thoughts of death. Divine justice, love and mercy have been tainted with terror by the erroneous projection of crude human ideas on to God's exercise of just sovereignty. Jesus' teaching on God's universal compassion, better understood today, does not mean that the blameworthy get away with evil doing. Each evil deed has its evil consequences: suffering for the sinner as well as the victim. Our own actions serve to judge and punish us.
The Christian conviction is that God's mercy remains greater than all our sins. It is not God's will that anyone should suffer everlastingly. The offer of life is extended to all who ever exist. An evil doer who freely refuses a relationship with God cannot be forced to accept mercy. They choose their own suffering and annihilation. We cannot know how many, if any, finally refuse God's offer. Every human being inherits a share in the generosity of One who does not forget who we are, when nobody else is left to remember us. On this foundation of generosity, the Christian hope for life beyond this life is founded.