Chapter 5: What Happens After Death?

Christian Affirmations
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 5: What Happens After Death?

None of our questions is so real, so poignantly real, as this one. For it is not of ourselves that most of us are thinking when we ask it; rather, it is of others, especially of those whom we have loved. Can it be that death, grim as it is, brings to a close the beauty of life as we have seen it in those loved ones? Or is there something more, so that this life is but part of that wonderful fellowship with others which is, for most of us, the best and dearest and richest of our experiences?

The Christian faith is explicit on this point. It affirms with a sure confidence that death is not the end; that there is more; that the fellowship which we have here enjoyed is not ended when those we love have died. On the contrary, it declares that God has prepared such good things for those who love Him that no words of ours can describe, for eye hath not seen nor ear heard the fullness of the destiny which is ours.

But only ours "in Him." For Christianity has not built the case for life after death on philosophical demonstrations, like Socrates’ argument for immortality on the ground that the soul is one and therefore indestructible. Nor yet has it built the case on the necessity for some balancing beyond death of the goods and ills which we suffer here. It has not even been much impressed by arguments from so-called psychical research, true as some of the results of those studies may be. The Christian affirmation is based on two basic Christian assurances. The first is the one stated by our Lord, Jesus Christ Himself: that life in communion with God is life in communion with the living God, and that those who are in such communion share in His life. "They live unto him"; and what lives unto God cannot die. That is to say, because God is good and because God loves us, He grants us a participation in His life and hence a blessed confidence m Eternal Life here, now, and forever.

But the second and more important Christian assurance is that Christ Himself, our Lord and our Master, is risen from the dead. "Death hath no more dominion over him"; and in that He lives, we who are "in Christ," as St. Paul puts it, have been given a share in His conquest of death. No matter how we may interpret the evidence in the last chapters of the Gospels, in the Acts of the Apostles, and in St. Paul’s and in St. John’s writings, one thing is perfectly plain: the first Christians knew with absolute certainty that Jesus Christ could not be, and was not, "holden of death." They knew Him as alive from the dead, in the full integrity of His human nature as also in the full reality of His divine nature. And so they went out to preach and to live the Gospel of the Resurrection: Christ is risen from the dead and is become "the first fruits of them that sleep."

So the Christian answer to the question "What happens after death?" is that God, in His gracious love for men, will and does re-create human personality as He first created it in His image -- and although we, by our sin, have spoiled that image, yet by God’s loving work for us and in us, we may be "re-made" in the image and, reflecting God’s likeness, live eternally in His presence, with our brethren, in the glory of the Heavenly City.

Now the Christian statements about this subject are given us in a set of symbols, often called the Last Things. They concern Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. But they also concern the fulfillment of God’s purpose in the whole Creation and not just in human life: they include the very world itself, the stuff of material things as well as the stuff of human personality. Let us not forget that they are pictures, not literally, prosy statements such as one might find in scientific discourse. They are pictures, symbols, because it is only by such that we, who are men, could understand; and they are necessary, too, because they speak imaginatively, not prosaically, and call forth our own rich imaginative response.

Let us see what the symbols, the pictures, are really saying.

We die. And death is not just an unimportant incident in a man’s life. Death is the end of our life here; but more significantly death is the measure of our human situation. We are mortal men. Death teaches us that we must live as men who know that we are not to live here forever; we pass this way but once. Hence death should be approached by us with high seriousness, not dismissed or disguised or forgotten. For us who are Christians, this means that we must be those who are never afraid to die, never afraid to meet God. We must be ready.

And after death, the Judgment. Here it is very important to remember that our language about the Last Things is symbolic, not literal. It is poetry, but the poetry of religious discourse is truer than the prose of scientific statement. So judgment is conceived in pictures. We are to be judged, we say. But this is not a legal matter; it is an appraisal of us, individually, in terms of the value of our life in this world. "We shall be judged," Saint John of the Cross says, "by love." What has this life of mine amounted to? God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, knows more than I do about my life; and if I am sure that the God who will appraise me is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, I can be sure that the appraisal will be both generous and searching. I shall not "get away with anything," but I shall be appraised with charity rather than with abstract and cold "justice."

Yet our little human lives, individually speaking, are but part of the totality of God’s Creation. There are millions who have lived and will live on this planet; there may be millions of persons elsewhere in this vastness of God’s Creation; there is the natural world itself, from star dust to starry nebulae. How does it all measure up to God’s purpose in creation? How has it all contributed to that purpose, by which everything has come to be, and towards which everything is intended to point? Here we are thinking of what theologians call the Last Judgment. But in that over-all appraisal, where do I fit in? what have I done, in the context of the whole magnificent plan and purpose of God? how have I played my part? It is of these things that the final Judgment is the symbolic picture.

Yet note that in that picture we are not thought of as "souls" only. We are total personalities, compact of soul and body, so that one cannot be thought of without implying the other. The Christian Church says that immortality of the soul may be a fact; it says that resurrection of the body is a fact. But by "resurrection of the body," the Church does not mean that the chemicals which make up my physical body will be restored and raised to glory. It means that all that I have lived, experienced, and done "in my body" -- and that is everything I do, experience, and live -- is so much a part of my total self that in the re-creation of that self by God there is some continuing instrument or organ of experience which makes possible for me both personal existence and also participation with other men and life in a world which is more than just personality. We are not to look for some pale disembodied soul-existence, but for a rich, embodied life -- although the "body" will be one appropriate to the heavenly state, not one fitted for a world of physics and chemistry.

Notice, though, that in the symbolism of the Last Things, the resurrection does not occur until "the end," when all men will be raised together. If we take this literally, it is nonsense; it introduces temporal succession -- past and present and future -- into the eternal realm, and this is absurd. But the picture is an affirmation that no man lives to himself alone, nor to God alone. We are "raised" together because we live together. As the story of man’s Salvation in Scripture begins with his solitude in a garden, so it ends with his life in fellowship in the Heavenly City. We are members, one of another, in God; we live one with another, in Him, both here and forever.

So also things are important. The "great day" will include God’s summing up "all things" in Himself. The stuff of this material world is somehow to be transformed. What it means to God, what purposes He had in its creation, what values He achieved through it, will all be "saved," too, as we are "saved." That is why the pictures of the City include pearly gates and streets of gold, to symbolize the reality of things and their value to God. Thus personality and the things which are its environment will be taken to God, transformed and made new, and God will be all in all.

When we die, however, we are not perfect. We are not prepared for the vision of God, for we are still in selfishness and sin. So it is that the Church, building upon some passages in Scripture, pictures a state of preparation short of Heaven, where our gold is to be refined, our dross consumed. Once again we must not think of this mechanically, or as if we had a blueprint upon which we can chart the progress of the personality towards God. Rather we must say, in simple confidence, that those whom we have trusted to God are safe in His hands, that He will prepare them as He sees fit for His open presence, and that we may pray for them -- as we believe they pray for us -- that they may go on towards Him.

If we have in us any of the stuff of goodness, God will indeed take us to Himself, in fellowship with our brethren, in a City where He reigns and where we may reign with Him. If we have no such stuff of goodness, we are, in fact, alienated from God -- alienated by our own choice and desire, for we hate God and God’s ways. The former is Heaven; the latter, Hell. Who is in Hell we do not know -- maybe nobody. But no man or woman can be so easy-going about his own life, his own moral responsibility, his own opportunity to serve God and the brethren, that he can forget the awful possibility that he may, by willful choice, elect alienation from God rather than fulfillment in God. That is why we must always pray, "God be merciful to me, a sinner," and, to our last day in this vale of soul-making, as Keats called it (I should rather say "personality-making"), live responsibly, seriously, faithfully; although we must also -- because we are Christians and possess the Christian hope -- live joyfully and gratefully.