Chapter 5: "And the Life Everlasting"
Thousands upon thousands, Sunday after Sunday, end their confession of the Christian faith with these words: "and the life everlasting." How many believe them? For those who do, what do these words mean? Even among theologians no topic is touchier. Many of them would rather not discuss it. They often use, sometimes heatedly, phrases and symbols, words like "resurrection" and "life eternal," but all too often they have changed the meaning so that these symbolic phrases do not stand for life after death. For such confessors, the biblical question still remains: "If a man die shall he live again?" Or perhaps the question does not remain because it has long ago been silently answered in the negative.
On a large university campus the faculty member who represented the university on the Religion in Life Committee came to me for a private talk.
"I have no Christian faith," he said, "but I want others to believe. Am I being dishonest? I believe that there is no God who controls history and that when I die, I’ll be cold and hard like a chunk of cement. And that’s the end of it. More than that: I know practically every active layman among our churches, and at least seventy-five per cent of them believe exactly as I do. Do you think I should tell the students my stand or should I go on pretending to believe? I have a daughter and I want her to believe. I think faith is wonderful for those who can have it, but I myself can’t make myself believe. All these fanciful claims of religion don’t spell anything for me."
I looked at him and loved him. What had I to say?
On another occasion a distinguished theologian, an honest and humble spirit, had invited me to dinner. A few of us finally warmed up in conversation concerning life’s basic meaning and hopes. The great man’s face was sensitive with the world’s hurts. Before us sat a giant intellect and a saint’s heart, visibly shaken by my suggestion that the Christian faith could not be genuine apart from faith in life after death.
"For me," I had said, "your thinking is profound and illuminates all my experience. You are one of the two men who have helped and stimulated me the most. If only you could believe in a personal God of providence who initiates action for the world’s good and who answers prayer; and if only you could believe in life after death!"
Pulling back a bit with pain, the theologian spoke to this effect:
"Lately I have been far from happy about my position that individual life ends at death. My thinking offers no explanation and hope, for example, for idiots. As a matter of fact, I have been considering that even reincarnation offers more of a solution. I may come out for it in my lectures within the next four or five weeks. The Christian position where people are changed all at once at death does not seem to me to take the meaning of this life seriously enough. Why should we have all the trouble of striving in this life and what does it amount to in the end if we are all magically changed? Augustine left the idiots in limbo. The Roman Catholics at least have purgatory after death. That is some better. They take the moral problem more seriously."
Such in general ran his line of thought. A profoundly learned and thoughtful man whose very face showed the deep sensitivity of his nature, thus pondered the three main positions that seem open to us on the question of everlasting life.
Many of Christianity’s leading theologians in America have wrestled silently and come to no confident conclusion, or have been forced in honesty, not to deny life after death, but to admit frankly that they cannot be convinced of it. What are these three positions and what attitude should we take toward them?
The first is that eternity is a quality of life; it is participation without the right of duration, in the case of man, in the life everlasting; the second is that life is a continual stream of choices and consequences, of living and dying, of repeated reincarnations in this world; and the third is that God reawakens us to life after death in another realm beyond this earthly existence.
Our attitude on all these questions should be one of humble faith and openness. Each of the above positions will be developed only in kernel. Some would say dogmatically that only the last of these is Christian; a very few would call the second Christian, although historically it definitely is not; many others would allow the first as well. In our day, however, the nature of the Christian faith itself is being reinterpreted. Perhaps any view that honestly interprets life in the light of what it sees in Jesus as the Christ has the right to claim his name. Some believe that the very survival of Christianity depends upon such a bold facing of modern man’s knowledge. Every man’s report should be as humble, honest, and open as possible in this realm. In such a spirit I advance the following suggestions.
The first view of life eternal is that it is a matter of man’s participation in God’s life. It emphasizes quality rather than duration. It is a kind of life rather than length of life. Man as such is not eternal. He is a creature. He lives and dies. But man is not therefore merely an animal. On the contrary, he is a child of God capable of eternal life, of sharing God’s own presence and power.
For some this is the only honest answer to man’s deepest dread: that life is meaningless. To be sure, we shall all die and be no more. But meantime we are more than we know. At least we do not thus postpone our problems for some fancied existence. We know and take seriously the fact of death. This kind of eternal life is also something we can experience and be sure of here on earth.
For some this means participation in life eternal amidst the busy demands of ordinary life. Life is hard and we are frustrated. It is next to impossible to be the kind of person we want to be -- husband, wife, son, daughter, or friend. We fail and feel guilty. We work, and sometimes we succeed even to the point of enjoying the success; but at other times we are disappointed with the results or ache over our own lack of satisfaction in achievement.
Sometimes we feel like the thrifty New England housewife who kept using the apples that were spoiling in the barrel so that most of the apples she used were the spoiled ones while the good ones were always there for the eating! We worry over the one or two things that bother us and fail to be grateful for the many things that are right. We are anxious over possible threats to our planning or living while we never rejoice over the many securities and satisfactions life brings. And what is worse, we cannot by willing change this basic life attitude.
Therefore the offer of forgiveness for those who hold this position is good news. The Gospel of grace means for them that we can be accepted beyond our desert. We are glad for even partial participation in a strength not our own that quiets our anxieties and takes the edge off our fears. We are grateful for the faith that life is not meaningless. In this view while God may not be personal, there is peace to be had. We shall all die, they say, but while we live we can find the resources to be better persons, better family members, better members of the church and the community. If religion gives us no more than this, we can honestly and humbly be thankful for eternal life, for our being touched and moved by our participation in it.
Others who hold this position have more hope, even though they, too, believe that death ends all for each and all of us. They believe that we can become new beings by the power of the Gospel. They believe that by the participation in God’s life the basic quality of life itself can be changed. For some of them this experience is a matter of being found at least from time to time within a "Gestalt of grace," a pattern of Gospel power. In either case we do not have and cannot command this power of eternal life. It is a free gift of God. Or in other terms, it is the possibility for us within the hidden resources of reality in its dimension of depth.
For still others of this group who hold that eternal life is an aspect of our experience in this life, everlasting life offers the possibility of being caught up into the ecstasy that can never be contained within time and space and that can never be explained from within our finite and evil existence. It is mystic union with eternity itself. It is sharing beyond explanation in joy at the depth. It is participation in the freedom from self and society, and from the whole world of things, that only those can know who have ever broken through the spiritual time and sound barrier of existence.
All these interpretations offer eternal life by participation. They hold that eternity is timeless, that eternity transcends completely and indescribably the failings and finiteness of time. Reality beyond the limitations of space-time existence has somehow come into people’s lives to help them, whether by touching their lives by a new quality of beauty and strength, by offering, that is, a new level of being, or by releasing them into the mystic ecstasy of immediate participation, beyond all knowledge, in eternal life itself.
While life lasts, they say, there is beauty in the wave, even in the breaking of it. At last, however, every troubled sea finds rest. The divided life is freed from the fever of existence. It sinks back into the ocean of being, after having been used on the surface, to rest in the depths of calm. The weary returns home. The tired finds rest. The separated bit of being finds its harmony within the whole to which it now fully belongs. There is peace.
For most people even this view of life eternal may seem unreal. They know only the humdrum of existence with its duties and demands, its bits of hopes and joys, its many sorrows and its final death. But many testify to the reality of the presence and power of eternal life in the midst of ordinary existence. The quest then becomes an eager reaching for a life less frustrating and more fulfilling. The central hope of life becomes the partaking of eternal life for the power of a new being, whether by touch, by newness of life, or by rapture. And after patient service comes the peace of silence; after life’s wrestling, rest in reality.
For those who know this reality of eternal life, there is no denying it. Problems remain, however, to haunt the thoughtful. If the world should come to an end, our total existence would be as though nothing had ever been. Then, too, what final justice or hope is there for idiots and the morally diseased? For them, within the point of view of this position, there is no eternal life. There is a certain snobbishness or parochialism in a view that provides eternal life only for the elite. Most people are untouched by such a high claim, and since death ends all, they become untouchables.
For that matter, many of those who hold this view neither act nor look as though this doctrine had vital reality. It seems often a kind of substitute faith for the classical Christian view. The theologian at the dinner party, we recall, had come to see how empty was the hope and how limited. He wondered, therefore, whether reincarnation did not offer far more hope. It does!
Reincarnation is eternal life without beginning or end. Each life keeps being reborn. Its character is responsible freedom. Reincarnation, from many angles, is the most reasonable explanation of life and the one viewpoint that most fully corresponds to our actual world while still having an eternal standard of right, wrong, and salvation.
From this standpoint there is no problem as to the origin of life. There is no origin. Each life is eternal by nature. Similarly there can therefore be no question as to the end of life. There is no end.
Furthermore, life is a matter of free choices continually. The choices come weighted with the consequences of our past choices, but, ever and ever, there is a chance to better our lives. Even though the cards of life are dealt to us according to our past, we are always free to play creatively for the future.
In reincarnation, what we do is put into a reservoir of deeds. Whatever we receive in life, of good or bad, is due to what is in the reservoir. We do not, to be sure, get everything at once. An evil deed may create consequences that are funneled back at a much later time. But we are what we do. We get what we deserve. Some interpreters of reincarnation emphasize deeds as acts, others as knowledge, and still others as love, but from whatever aspect of self we act, the result is stored in the reservoir. Life exhibits, therefore, perfect justice within an order of responsible freedom.
Rebirth may be into the order of human beings once again; or according to the classical form of the doctrine, transmigration into the animal realm; or into a higher order of heavens; and at the highest, the delivered self can escape from the round of rebirth to rest within the reality of eternity. This reality has been interpreted as consisting of being, plus intelligence, plus bliss. Such resting is identification with reality. It is being accepted by, and accepting, the center of what is truly real and right, which alone can fully satisfy what is real and right in man.
Such identification is finding the bliss of being in intelligent fulfillment. It is escape from the severed and fragmentary life. It is love’s union beyond our divided understanding of it. It is freedom with no overagainstness. It is perfect peace through full finding. Beyond the mere vision of God, it is full participation within the bliss of his perfect being, beyond the lacks and faults of human emotion. This identification is the negation of all that we know, the very finding of the perfect attainment we hoped for in our knowledge.
Here is fruition without frustration. Yet the spirit is free, and responsible choice remains. Those who wish can keep striving, losing or gaining partial satisfactions; those who will can find eternal life itself and enter into it.
No wonder our theologian friend was attracted. Who can see and not admire such freedom and justice, with such a wide spread of possibility? No credulity is needed to believe in irrational beginnings or in miraculous endings. The problem of evil is met fully without hopelessness.
Interest in this doctrine is rising sharply. All over the United States and Canada, I have come across people who believe in reincarnation while professing Christ. A Presbyterian minister, for instance, told me that in a ministers’ discussion group to which he belonged, most of them had confessed, once they had "let their hair down’" that they had abandoned the Christian point of view of eternal life in favor of the doctrine of reincarnation. Recently several leading writers, religious and secular, have openly or subtly taken leads along this line.
With classical Christianity at the crossroads, decisions have to be made honestly and creatively. For most educated people, the world view of the Christian faith as a whole in its supernatural dimensions is a shell. Emptiness is bound to suck in some faith. What shall it be? The traditional views of immediate translation into heaven or hell are hollow. Emptiness cannot be filled by emptiness! Perhaps taking the Christian center and rethinking in its light the doctrine of reincarnation may be a creative step. Certainly this second view, of reincarnation, is far more reasonable, considering all problems of beginnings and becomings, than the first view’s claim that there is no rhyme or reason to our origins and ends before and beyond this life.
I personally have been long and heavily tempted to make a try at such a synthesis. Now with the world becoming one, if it remains, and with our leading Western universities importing religious teachers from the East to teach students the religions that brought forward views like reincarnation, not to mention the success of missionaries in our midst from non-Christian religions, we Christians had better think long and deep concerning these religions, not only to be honest with ourselves, but to do justice to the central realities of our faith.
Reincarnation is certainly an improvement on the emptiness of naturalism. No wonder our great-minded and great-hearted theologian pondered the possibility of reincarnation as a step beyond his own position, which is basically in our first category as described above. I even suggested to him that evening that with his creative capacity he might develop a view going beyond both reincarnation and traditional Christianity to some form of fulfillment implicit in the Christian faith, but not yet brought to light. The classical Christian center seems to me to involve, in any case, a far more just and dynamic view of eternal life than has so far been expressed in traditional formulations, a view which accepts and incorporates whatever is true in the first two.
The Christian view of life after death is not easy to describe. The authority for it is Christ as the context of God’s love. Our standard of truth is: "God is faithful.’’ That affirmation on the subject of life everlasting implies everything basically Christian. In humility and honesty we must leave the far future in God’s hands. As Roger Shinn puts the case: It is not so much what we believe as Whom we believe. All that is needed is to draw the implications of the main confession.
With the first point of view in this chapter I agree that life everlasting is basically a participation in the life of God. It is first of all a quality of life. We are not interested in mere continuation of life. That could be both bad and miserable. It could be a decidedly selfish wish, based both on the fear of death and on a drive to be at the center of things. It could also amount to a postponing of life’s present problems for the sake of some fancied solution by or after death. The New Testament talks of a new life, a new being, not a mere continuation of life. For this reason many biblically minded thinkers dislike the term "immortality" and use the term "resurrection" instead.
Nor should life be thought of as eternal in its own right. That would mean that man himself had become self-sustaining forever. That would imply that man can become independent of God. To speak in such fashion is indeed to make man God. It is to be Platonic and not Christian. The Christian knows that man is mortal by nature. The breath God gave him in creation is the breath of earthly, not of eternal life. Man lives and dies as a human being. His life beyond this life, whatever it is, is surely a life of relation to God. It is a life of participation in God’s immortality. It is a new being, a new quality of life. With this main assertion I reaffirm my agreement.
Nevertheless, must we substitute quality for quantity? Why not have both? The better life is, the more it deserves to continue. If the basic meaning and reality of our lives are partaking of God’s love, that quality ought to insure the quantity. If everlasting life is life beyond the evils of temporal change and failings, why should not everlasting life last? The posing of quality as an alternative to quantity not only prejudices the question, but makes the answer necessarily deficient.
The longing for such a life is no more selfish if it is desired for a lifetime, or for eternity, than for an hour. For that matter, life everlasting in Christian terms is the death of selfishness. Such is its quality. No one can enter eternal life in reality unless he is willing to give up his own centrality in order to find a true center in God and in a community of love. Such a losing of self into life everlasting is the basic threat to selfishness. How, then, can the hope of such life after death be selfish?
To face God and eternal life aright, each person must face reality. Flight from God is the flight of fear. Acceptance of God is the acceptance of the love that involves the acceptance of self and others. It is the acceptance of life. How, then, can a genuine faith in life everlasting involve the postponing of problems in this life for the sake of some mysterious solution in the next?
We can, consequently, accept the positive truth of this first position without falling prey to its negative conclusion. We accept participation and permanence, quality and quantity, a new life now and in the world to come.
The second position presented reincarnation as eternal life without beginning and without end, the life of continuously responsible freedom on man’s part and of continuously perfect justice on the side of reality. This view, we saw, makes a strong attempt to be honest and realistic in its dealing with the mysterious question of life after death. Reincarnation offers life after death for each and for all. We have stressed this position in the belief that Oriental religions will be heard from with great vigor in coming generations. Many of the emphases of reincarnation are of utmost importance for Christian thinkers who have done little, for instance, with the question of the meaning of animal life and pain.
The most appealing part of reincarnation is its reasonableness and its morality. If all we knew of life were that it had always been here and had always been a mixture of good and evil, reincarnation would be even more tempting than it now is. As it is, we know that our main evidence is of a lightning quick history which has burst out of the unknown. In the light of Christ, our most adequate context for understanding the meaning of our total experience, we see that our world has not always been here, but has come into being as a special creation with a special goal. There are still problems aplenty and no one can be glib about ultimate matters. Our little world history, however, points toward God’s deeper meaning for us, not only in the future of our world within this cosmic process, but in the future of all life beyond death.
The governing thought in reincarnation I can accept insofar as it stresses both our responsible freedom and perfect justice in the universe. To this justice, however, the Christian faith adds God’s perfect love beyond our own deserving and capacity. God is seen in Christ as the sovereign Love who controls all the conditions of this life and beyond.
We can also maintain and develop reincarnation’s inclusion of the animal world as an enriching aspect of the Christian faith. Christians must be increasingly sensitive to God’s purpose for the whole of creation. Even animal suffering has its place there. The fulfillment of animal life in some way is surely in accordance with God’s most inclusive plan. I have tried to indicate several ways of such fulfillment in Evil and the Christian Faith. The God of perfect love is even more concerned with animal life than any ultimate reign of justice could be!
For a Father’s love, however, each and every individual is everlastingly important. The Christian faith because it believes in a personal God of love believes also in the perpetuation of human personality. God whose love is everlasting loves every individual forever.
Life everlasting denies the perpetuation of what is falsely individual. The selfish and the finite who take themselves too seriously cannot participate in God’s perfect love, while the truly personal life of love lives forever in it. The Christian faith teaches the perpetuation not only of the personal, but of the person. Such perpetuation is not only by participation in the divine life but by the eternal partaking personally of it.
Would a God of love create us to find no fulfillment beyond this life? Is the wish for fulfillment selfish? If we have to choose between believing in a selfish man and a selfish God, it is far better to keep faith in the ever-faithful God of creative concern. Thinking to be noble in not desiring life after death, we become most ignoble in our accusation of God as the creator of such a world as this with nothing more to follow! The Christian views of God and of life after death are inseparable. Apart from life’s continuation there is neither conquest of evil nor fulfillment of life. God is not the God of frustration but of the fullness of love.
Eternal life involves, naturally, the divine fruition of community. Man is not a person apart from others. He lives in, through, for, and by community. Individual life as such is a myth. True individuality is always reality of self-being as a social self. The Christian faith promises, by its very bedrock authority of God in Christ, that Love cannot lose his own.
How, when, and where we shall live after death we cannot tell, but we know that we shall be as Christ is. For us to try to predict the details of personal and community fulfillment is far harder than for a cocoon to envisage the life of a butterfly. No earthly eye has seen, no earthly ear has heard, and no earthly mind has conceived what heaven will be like. All we know is that the God we meet in Christ will exceed immeasurably every expectation and all imagining.
We have no right to believe, of course, that a magical change will take place at death. The meaning of this life has to be taken with all seriousness. Morality would be violated if God were to translate all immediately into the eternal perfections. This much we can surely learn with profit from the doctrine of reincarnation. The Christian view must be fully as moral, fully as patient, and fully as dynamic as any and as all alternate positions.
A weary life desires escape from all life’s problems. There is much appeal in the Buddhist doctrine of nirvana, which literally means "being blown out" of existence. Fear is fond of such an escape. Death as cessation is dear to a large side of our experience. We cannot build on our desires, however, one way or another, but only on God. When we build on God we shall find his mercy underlying the next life still offering us the challenge of growth and the chance for new grace.
Life everlasting can be had only by freely accepting God’s life of love. Love alone is eternal; love alone is free. Perfect love casts out fear. God has given us freedom of choice in order that through it we might find freedom of life. Freedom of life comes only as, through freedom of choice, we learn that God’s will for us is best.
God made us for fulfillment through freedom. In making us for himself, he created us for unconditional and universal love. We are free only as we find this kind of love from, for, in, and through God. The anxiety of the loveless is a chain of fear.
Our earthly experience and whatever similar experiences may be in store for us beyond death exist for the sake of our free choosing of God as we learn from the consequences of our action that God and his way alone are worth having. God never shoves heaven at us; like the father of the Prodigal Son he leaves us to come to ourselves as we discover the results of our lives. When we are ready, however, he is already there to offer the freedom of love and the reality of eternal life.
The final outcome is in God’s hands. We can trust him for the best result possible. He will find, but never force. He will free, but never force. He will fulfill, but never force. God is Love and he is faithful. Does not such faith give light on the way and strength to walk it?
The Christian who believes, in line with all classical Christianity, that Christ truly rose from the dead knows -- whatever elements of truth the doctrine of reincarnation may have on the lower levels of life -- that for man the final truth is personal resurrection. The disciples encountered the same person they had known before he died. To be sure, the resurrection of Jesus is a mystery both for history and for thought. So is man’s living again. But in both instances we are dealing with the mystery of the faithfulness of God.
When God is unreal and unknown, life after death becomes either a threat or an escape. When he is known as real, living, and Lord, our faces turn toward death with the quiet assurance of those who put their lives into fulfilling hands. Life everlasting, in the Christian sense of fulfillment, has the deepest meaning of all for those who within a life of love have already begun to glimpse the faithfulness of God. For them argument has less and less relevance, for they rest on the reality of God.
"And this is eternal life, that they know thee, the only real God, and him whom thou hast sent, even Jesus Christ."