After Death: Life in God by Norman Pittenger
Dr. Pittenger, philosopher and theologian, was a senior member of King’s College, Cambridge for many years, then Professor of Christian Apologetics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, before retiring in 1966. Published by The Seabury Press, New York, 1980. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 6: Resurrection: Our ‘Risen Life’
Jesus Christ is ‘risen from the dead’ and hence he is now and will be for ever participant in and effective for God in his ‘consequent aspect as related to the world. That, I have maintained, is what is being affirmed in the New Testament declaration that he is risen’. But the New Testament also makes plain that Christ is not risen alone. It is Christ with his ‘members’, with those who have been incorporated into his ‘body’ and who are therefore associated with him in this intimate manner, who may be spoken about in such terms.
This at once brings us to a consideration of the significance of the phrase ‘in Christ’ a phrase which St. Paul uses many (perhaps a hundred times), if we include all the writing associated with his name, excepting of course the Epistle to the Hebrews.
If the fashion in which the basic New Testament proclamation has been interpreted in the preceding chapter has validity, then talk of the resurrection of Christ is a way of affirming that God has received into his own life all that the historical event, designated when we say ‘Jesus Christ’, has included: his human existence as teacher and prophet, as crucified man upon his cross, in continuing relationship of others with him after that death, and along with this what has happened in consequence of his presence and activity in the world. All this has been taken into God; all this is immediately known to God; all this is treasured in the divine memory; all this qualifies whatever we are prepared now to say about God and about the divine relationship with the world and more especially about that relationship as it has to do with human existence.
So, we may ask, what about you and me? What about those of us who in one way or another have been made ‘partakers of the divine nature’ through Christ and have in him found newness of life, security and joy in living, and the conviction that we are given worth or value through our intimate association with him? To matters of this sort we must now turn.
Before we do this, however, we need to say something about what in conventional Christian idiom have been styled ‘the last things’: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Unless we do this, we shall see the entire subject in a disproportionate way. For we shall then be all too likely to dismiss death as a mere incident, to think of judgment without due seriousness, and to regard heaven and hell (our possible human destiny, for good or for ill) as nothing more than ‘fairy-tale’ talk. Let us then devote a few paragraphs to a serious consideration of those traditional ‘last things’ and attempt to see what, in their own perhaps odd way, they may have to tell us about ourselves and about human destiny.
First of all, death. In earlier chapters in this book I have probably said enough on this subject. We all will die, I have urged; all of us will die, I have also said. Death is no insignificant incident, to be taken as it were ‘in our stride’; rather, it is the finality of our existence, because the book of our life will have been concluded and the final words of that book will have been written. But it is also a sign of the finitude of our human existence; and therefore the recognition and acceptance of it must qualify all that we do in this world. We are expendable; we are not the center of things; we shall not ‘pass this way again’, since when the final page is written that is for us the conclusion of the story so far as our worldly existence is concerned. Yet Christian faith would say something more. It would insist that in the very fact of our finitude, symbolized by our death, we still have a value or worth which is not destroyed and which in some fashion is persistent in the very structure and dynamic of the universe.
Then we turn to judgment. Day by day we are undergoing judgment or as I should prefer to put it, we are being appraised. We appraise ourselves in the light of our human possibility and we are appraised by others in our relationship with them. We are appraised in terms of what we have or have not contributed to the realization of justice, goodness, and love in the world. Have we, or have we not, made what may be counted as a valuable contribution to that ongoing movement? This is a searching and disturbing question. Even more so is the further question of our having done or not done what was in us to do towards the fulfillment of the divine intention in the creation. When all is said and done, has our existence made any difference in that respect? Can we think, honestly and without special pleading, that we have really mattered in the long run? What is there in us and in our achievements which is worthy of preservation in God?
When heaven and hell are brought into the picture, once more we can speak in what might appropriately be called existential idiom. Without projecting all this into some future state ‘beyond death’, we can ask whether there is here and now some awareness of a movement towards our human fulfillment or, on the contrary, a sense that our human movement is towards futility and meaninglessness? We might say then that heaven, in this present moment, is the realization of our potential humanness; and that hell is the denial of that realization, through our own choices and their inescapable consequences.
Now it will have been apparent that for each of these ‘last things’ there is both a present and a future reference. ‘We die daily’: so it is often said, not only with reference to the death of our bodily cells and their replacement by other cells every few years, but also in respect to our possible human growth. In a well-known saying, this time from Tennyson, ‘men may rise on stepping-stones of their dead selves’. This is the present reference. But the future one is simply that there comes a time when we do die totally and that this our mundane existence then comes to an end. About that I have spoken often in this book. Likewise with judgment or appraisal. We have seen that we are being appraised in the present; and also that at the end of our days there can be a final appraisement of what, in the long run and after our this-world activities have been brought to their finish, we have really been worth -- what we have amounted to, so to say, when everything is taken into consideration.
Then again there is the present reference in talk about heaven and hell; to this we have just referred. But there is also a future one. We might put this simply by saying that either we are, or we are not, taken into the life of God, however we may wish to conceive this ‘taking’. In the Bible we are told that God is ‘of purer eyes than to behold iniquity’; perhaps this might be re-phrased to tell us that into the divine life evil as such cannot be received, while good is always received and treasured. In saying this, I have been thinking of evil as such, having italicized the ‘as such’ for it may be (and for Christian faith it must be) characteristic of God as Love-in-act so to exercise his mercy that something that in itself was evil, sinful, or wrong can become by that mercy an occasion for good. This would not deny nor remove the evil, but would put it in to a context where some potentiality for good may be realized. In any event, there is a future reference here which cannot be dismissed merely by talk about ‘wishful thinking’ or human pretension.
Although not included, strictly speaking, among the ‘last things’, an intermediate state -- commonly called ‘purgatory’ in the Western Catholic Church -- is also part of the more widely accepted picture. In Protestant circles this was rejected, for historically understandable reasons, at the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. In our own day, however, there has been some return to the concept among many Protestants, indicated by such practices as the renewed belief that one may pray for those who have departed this mortal life. With Catholic Christians, of course, no rejection ever took place. But what does purgatory mean?
First it has to do with a state supposed to be entered upon at the point of death by those who have in them, so to say, the potentiality of reaching heaven -- of attaining fulfillment in and with God and enjoying the vision of God. Before heaven, however, there is a necessary process of cleansing, renovation, and purgation of remnants of the evils committed in mortal existence. Central in the whole concept is the conviction that only those who are ‘pure in heart’ can ‘see God’. Hence a preparation for that vision is required; this purgatory provides.
Just as there is this post-mortem side, there is also an existential aspect which has to do with life in this world. Every man or woman must undergo, even here and now, a process of cleansing, renovation, and purgation. The Christian disciple is not one who has arrived at perfection; he is ‘on the way’ -- and this requires what traditionally is called ‘mortification’ or the killing of whatever is unworthy and the ‘sanctification’ or development of whatever is good. Thus we might say that ‘mortification’ and ‘sanctification’ -- becoming holy, through response to God’s action -- is the earthly counterpart of the purgatorial process. The conception, then, has its double aspect, as do death, judgment before and following death, and heaven and hell. Interestingly enough, what is suggested here is the same point upon which we have already insisted: that life for human beings is a process of ‘becoming’ and is not to be understood as an entirely completed and finished affair.
All this must be borne in mind when we come to consider human destiny and what might be beyond our death. We should remember that to be human is to be compounded of body and a rational capacity, along with the equally important capacity to act by willing and the reality of our deep human sensitivity or aesthetic awareness. To speak of personal identity needs also to be properly understood from our position. It is not a matter of a substantial ego to which experiences ‘happen’, so that we might detach the former from the latter after the fashion suggested in the common notion of immortality of the soul when that soul has been ‘separated’ from the body. But then such a soul would not really be the identical self that existed before such separation; and it was part of the insight of Thomas Aquinas to see that to talk meaningfully of a personal life after death must involve the soul (should it exist at all) or the self in and with the bodily vehicle or organ which, on that theory, it had possessed and must once again possess in some post-mortem state. Of course for Thomas and for traditional thought more generally, we have seen that there were problems at this point. What could be said about a post-mortem soul’s existence until the time when it was re-united with a transformed body? And what was happening to the body before that transformation? Questions like this may well be taken as arguing against the general presuppositions with which Aquinas was working.
Furthermore, if we recall that to be human is to be social, so that our relationship with others is integral to and largely constitutive of our own identity, then our thought about survival of death must be very different from the highly individualistic view so popular in the past. Something much more like the ‘communion of saints’ must be accepted. If here and now I am myself a personal identity only through my living with, by, towards, and from other personal identities -- and indeed by my contacts with the entire natural order from which I am an emergent but of which I still remain as a part -- then those others and that order must have their place in the picture. Indeed the very phrase ‘communion of saints’ can also be translated, when we consider the Latin communio sanctorum and the Greek koinonia hagion, as signifying ‘participation in holy things’. While in its original use this was probably a reference to sacramental participation in the consecrated bread and wine of the eucharist, there is a possible further extension of its meaning so that it will include a relationship with the whole natural order, seen as a sphere of the divine activity and hence as a way of contact with the God who is operative within it. Here the insight of some of the Eastern Orthodox divines may be of help to us, not to mention the fashion in which (to give one example) we find Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov speaking of the holiness of the very dirt under his feet and of everything else that surrounds him in the non-human creation.
These considerations will once again come to the fore when in the latter part of this chapter I make some positive suggestions as to human destiny after death. For the moment, however, let us turn to the New Testament stress on the relationship of the believer with Jesus Christ himself. In the Pauline literature much stress is laid on membership in the ‘body of Christ’. This means the church, to be sure; but it would be absurd to think that by saying ‘the church’ we are pointing to the institutional establishment which goes by that name. Such an organized body is indeed part of the picture, but the ‘mystical body of Christ’ (in the well-known liturgical phrase) is not identical with it. The church in the Pauline sense may be defined as Christ in and with his members. If the Epistle to the Ephesians is Pauline in outlook, this suggests also that for him and for his interpreters Christ without or apart from his members is not really Christ at all. So likewise with the Johannine image of the Vine and its branches. In this image the Vine is Christ himself; the branches are those who, so to put it, ‘belong to the Vine’. They are Christ’s people. A vine with no branches would be a very strange vine; but so also would branches which belonged to no vine be very odd. The two go together. And it would be correct to say that the Christian reality for the Johannine writer is vine-and-branches as one total entity, just as for the Pauline writer of Ephesians and for St. Paul himself that reality is head-and-members, Christ with his people.
It is not easy to re-state the point of these images in prosaic idiom. Indeed, it is probably quite impossible to do so at all, since their meaning is conveyed through imaginative or poetical insight. But at least we can make some suggestions as to what these images have to tell us in our concrete experience.
First of all, I believe that we can say that we have to do here with the response which is being made to ‘the love of God which was in Christ Jesus’. That response brings about a uniting of the human with the divine Love. The divine Love was enacted in and expressed through the event of Christ; and that event was so much tied in with the activity of God that it could not be defeated, even by death with all its horror and loss. Now to be caught up into union with such Love, with God as Love-in-act, is ‘eternal life’, in the phrase used in St. John’s Gospel. Hence there is a sort of ‘eternality’ which is integral to such life in union. Conversely, one who has begun to live ‘in love’ has also begun to live ‘in Love’ -- that is, to live in God, and in God as he has disclosed himself in the event of Jesus Christ. There is no other God than that; and God, so understood, is not confined to the Christ-event but is universally at work and hence universally present. The significance of the event of Christ, understood in this context, is that it defines in a vivid and classical instance what God is always and everywhere ‘up to’ in his creation.
In the second place, to be ‘in Christ’ is to be so much at one with the reality enacted and expressed in his human existence that this reality ‘comes alive’ in those who are his members. It is their ‘principle of life’, something much more profound than can be indicated by talk about their goodness of life and their concern for righteousness, truth, and the other virtues. To be a ‘saint’, in New Testament thinking, is not merely to be a moral person, although most of us have been led by inadequate teaching to assume that this is what is meant. But on the contrary, for the New Testament a ‘saint’ is a man or woman or child who so fully belongs to God in Christ through a continuous response to his impact upon one, that the very Love which is God is the central and all-controlling principle of existence. In such a man or woman or child, what William Law once styled ‘the process of Christ’ is at work with signal efficacy. Most of us, let us honestly confess, are pretty poor specimens here; there is so much of the ‘old Adam’ in us that this ‘new Adam’ has to struggle for expression. But the deepest truth about us is that there is this principle of Love-in-act working in us. The horror of our existence is that we are not always or even usually ready to let Love’s work be done without our opposition and our refusal to cooperate and thus to increase our willing response.
Yet this sanctification (as theology phrases it) is never in isolation; it takes place in community, so that to belong to that Love is to be together with our brothers and sisters who each in his or her own way is also responding, however partially and imperfectly that may be. It is here that the ‘communion of saints’ comes alive in our thinking, not just as something which may be true after our death but as something which is the case in the here and now of our Christian discipleship. And it is here, too, that we may sense our wider belonging with the whole created order, natural as well as historical or human. Thus to share in the Love that is God is to be one with the ‘rightness of things’, to be in accord with the ‘grain of the universe’, with a responsibility to reverence the creation and a readiness to care for it in its creaturely integrity.
Yet we live in the midst of a ‘perpetual perishing’, and we ourselves will have an ending. What then may happen to us as well as to the world itself? Here Christian faith, interpreted with the help of the process conceptuality, can come to our aid. What does it have to tell us?
Some words of Whitehead’s are relevant. I quote from Process and Reality: ‘The image -- and it is but an image -- the image under which [God’s creative working] is best conceived, is that of a tender care that nothing be lost. The consequent nature of God is his judgment on the world. He saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of his own life. It is the judgment of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved. It is also the judgment of a wisdom which uses what in the temporal world is mere wreckage’ (Cambridge University Press 1928, p. 525).
In Whitehead’s words just quoted we have a statement of the way in which according to the understanding of things from a process perspective, the value and worth of the achievements in the creation are both established and preserved. To that kind of understanding the specifically Christian faith makes an addition which provides a much more adequate assurance about such establishment and preservation. For Christian faith has to do with the nature of God as disclosed in the event of Christ. The divine nature, like the divine activity, must then be grasped as nothing other than the ‘pure unbounded Love’ which in Jesus was vividly manifested, as he has been responded to and as through him a vivid and decisive enabling of human life has been made possible. This brings with it the conviction that such a God -- the only God there is -- can be trusted to do what is necessary if that phrase about his losing ‘nothing that can be saved’ is to be meaningful. In the simplest sort of language God is certain to do everything that can be done to give abiding significance to human, as to all other, existence. God’s ‘tender care’ is ceaselessly concerned to give worth and value to the creation; and even more profoundly, God does this by taking the world’s accomplishments, and also those who have done the accomplishing, into ‘the immediacy of his own life’.
God remembers; and what is in the divine memory is no incidental or accidental matter, but the very reality of the creation kept in him for ever and hence ‘come alive’, as we might put it, in God’s ongoing reality. David Edwards, Dean of Norwich Cathedral in England, has put this point in moving words: ‘Certainly one great advantage of thinking about God’s memory of us is that it helps us to see that our eternal life is more than this life going on for ever; it is a share in God’s life and God’s glory, when nothing is between God and us’ (Asking Them Questions, Oxford University Press 1973, p. 56). Edwards then goes on to ask, ‘Does that involve what is commonly called "personal survival"?’ To this he replies, ‘. . . not if that phrase means that no big difference is made by death . . . [but] God will continue to love you, the you he knows, and you will have your own place in the glory of God!’
In this sense, then, Jesus Christ himself is remembered by God; and those who are ‘in Christ’, as members of his Body or as branches of the Vine which he is, are also remembered. For my part, I am concerned that it is this which is the absolutely central Christian affirmation, not least because the stress is laid on God and on God’s action, rather than on ourselves and our ‘conscious’ awareness of such ‘being remembered’. Certainly it is legitimate to entertain the pious hope that in our being thus remembered there may be some kind of ‘conscious’ awareness. But it is not legitimate, and to my mind it is quite mistaken, to talk as if without such an awareness on our part there is only a ‘second best’. To be incorporated into the life of Christ and hence to be taken into the divine remembrance of Christ: here is the heart of genuinely Christian hope, whatever else we may think proper to desire and (in a secondary sense) hope for.
But this must raise the question about what ‘happens’ to those who have not known Jesus Christ, unlike those of us who are plainly the conscious members of his body. The answer ought to be plain enough. The God who in the event of Christ is disclosed and active is the God who can be trusted to do what is for the best of all his children, whether or not they have the explicit knowledge of him which we who are Christians believe has been granted to us. Doubtless there will be included in the divine memory, and hence in the divine life, countless millions who have never had the privilege which we know to have been our own. It is not for us to ‘close the gate of heaven’ to others; and one of the worst features of conventional Christian teaching has been the all too frequent assumption that until and unless such persons have been brought, usually by our own efforts, it is thought, to share in such explicit knowledge they are ‘lost’. The missionary concern of the Christian fellowship, when that fellowship is true to its deepest insight, makes no such claim. Rather, that concern is to share with others, so far as this is possible for us, the joy of Christian discipleship and thus to give a name to whatever enablement, ennoblement, and enrichment of life those others may have experienced.
Finally, we should urge that the place where and the time when the Christ who is for ever integral to God’s ongoing life is most plainly made integral also to our own human existence, is the Lord’s Supper, the eucharistic action, the Holy Communion. As we ‘make the memorial’ and enter upon the remembrance of the death of Christ, his resurrection, and his ‘ascension’ into the life of God, the reality of that total Christ, with all its redemptive power, ‘comes alive’ for us. It is not without significance that in the New Testament narratives of the resurrection of Christ, it is said (as in the story of the walk to Emmaus in St. Luke’s Gospel) that ‘he was known to them in the breaking of the bread’. There in that eucharistic action the Lord ‘risen from the dead’ becomes the living reality which gives us the assurance of our being ‘in Christ’ and therefore through him participant in God’s never-failing remembrance. If ‘by faith with thanksgiving’ we know ourselves to be indeed ‘very members, incorporate in his mystical body’, we need have no fear that God will forget us. In the most complete way possible, we may dare to say, we have the assurance of life in and with God, in the mode which preserves both the integrity of the divine nature as Love and also the value and worth of our finite human existence.