December 5, 2020

On Resurrection and Eternal Life (3)

As a hospice chaplain, my work revolves around supporting the dying and their families. I officiate many funerals. I deal with questions about death and what happens after people die. I am asked regularly about mysteries beyond our human experience in this life.

On Mondays we are delving into this subject, starting with Gerhard Lohfink and his excellent new book, Is This All There Is?: On Resurrection and Eternal Life.

Chapter 3 discusses another option people consider when thinking about what happens to humans after death.

This concept is represented in an excerpt from an obituary which Lohfink cites: “Dear Mama, you had my back in everything I did in life. Dear Papa, you modeled what it means to work with passion and dedication. You are in me, and you live in me” (p. 20).

“You are in me, and you live in me.” About this idea the author comments:

Behind that statement lies the idea that those who have died live on in their descendants. [emphasis mine] Death is the end for them personally, but the good they have brought into the world is not lost; it continues through their children and grandchildren to distant generations. So it endures, and so the dead themselves remain in the world. (p. 20)

We see something of this idea in the Hebrew Bible: “May his posterity be cut off; in the very next generation may their name be blotted out” (Ps. 109:13). To die without heirs who carry on the family name was to lose a share in God’s ongoing blessing upon Israel. They held on to the concept of a “life” that carries on from generation to generation. As Lohfink says, “…the idea of being embedded in the sequence of generations was firmly tied to the belief that in coming generations God’s promises would continue to be fulfilled again and again” (p. 22).

Though they may not conceive of it in the same covenantal terms as the ancient Israelites, I know people who find great comfort in the idea that there is a continuing life that we receive from our ancestors and pass on to our descendants. If this is true genetically, it is also true in terms of the common narratives we share. Each individual plays a part in the ongoing family story. I think there is a great deal of solace in this, and often use Genesis 25:6 as a funeral text: “After the death of Abraham God blessed his son Isaac.”

I also believe that each life adds something to the world. Something organic, as it were. As though the life we live and the work we do plants “seeds” which sprout and grow up and live after we’re gone. I also encourage families and loved ones to “keep the spirit of their loved one alive” by taking up the ongoing task of sharing memories, telling stories, and paying honor to them by finding ways to commemorate their life and contributions.

However, some people think that the only “afterlife” involves living on in the hearts and memories of their families and friends and in the “harvest” of the seeds planted by how they lived their lives. For example, Lohfink quotes Gerard Mortier:

Every life continues somewhere,
my father and mother in me,
and I in everything I have brought to be.
That is what resurrection means to me.
Paradises do not interest me.

In the end, Gerhard Lohfink (and I) find this concept meaningful but lacking. It may be true that each human life adds something to this world that is good and beneficial, but it is also true that every accomplishment and achievement we might celebrate can be countered, corrupted, and ultimately destroyed by future generations. Or, in a more banal sense, simply forgotten, dissipating into the ether of time.

There is another problem with “keeping our loved ones alive in our hearts” — i.e. through remembering them. Our memories are ours, they do not necessarily represent the essence of the person himself or herself. Lohfink gives us this somber reminder: “Even our memories of our own life stories are fragile, have many gaps, and are full of self-deceptions. Our grandchildren will still know something about us. But beyond that we inevitably begin to be forgotten” (p. 24).

The chapter ends with an honest word from one of my favorite philosophers.

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.

• Woody Allen (quoted, p. 26)


  1. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.

    Well, actually, I would want to live on in a much nicer apartment than the one I’m in now. Is the purpose of the resurrection to realize my desires? Life has taught me that they are often transient, and quite imperfect….

    • It is certainly not the only, or primary, reason for the resurrection, but Jesus does seem to indicate that our happiness is an integral part of the post-resurrection pattern.

      • I can go along with that. But not everybody wants to live on in their apartment, or a nicer version thereof, forever. Plenty of people will tell you that they don’t want to live forever, not in an ethereal heaven or risen body; many of them find the idea of an everlasting or eternal life an unhappy prospect, and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of their preference. Woody Allen or I may prefer to live on in an apartment or body, but what makes our preference or desires so special, or predictive of the way things will or should be?

        • My feeling is that our minds can’t comprehend what it will be like. I’m pretty sure whatever it is, I’ll like it. That’s what I tell people who aren’t so enamored with the thought of heaven and/or eternal life. To me, it’ll be a ramped-up version of whatever place you’ve gone where you’ve said, “Wow! This is amazing!” For some, that’s the view of the Grand Canyon; for others, it might be when they entered Disneyland for the first time.

          So whatever fears/anxieties/uncertainties anyone has about the afterlife, I’m pretty sure we won’t have them once we’re there.

        • Iain Lovejoy says

          I wonder if the often made point about living forever being hellish through boredom etc is absolutely right, in the sense that living eternally as we are in a current state of dissatisfied sin would be indeed be hell. Indeed I understand that some of the church fathers proposed that the reason why God barred us from the Tree of Life in the Eden story was precisely that, and a mercy, not a punishment.

      • And why should living consciously forever be the desire that the resurrection will realize? Why could the resurrection not be an eternal quality of life, including body and spirit, without everlasting extension in time?

        • Because that’s not what God promised us in Jesus.

          And personally, I find oblivion a hell of a lot scarier than Hell.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Ceasing to exist or existing forever in Hell —

          • Yep. Don’t see too many bumper stickers, “I can’t wait for oblivion.”

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              If that’s the deal, there are only three possible reactions:
              1) Put off death by ANY means necessary, no matter who else gets hurt.
              2) Go stoically into eternal oblivion.
              3) Jump into eternal oblivion with a curled upper lip and Appropriate Ironic Quip.

        • That’s a good question. I know for me, it’s often scary thinking about the idea of eternity. However, that’s largely due to my currently-flawed (and ignorant) mind. Who’s to say that upon dwelling with God and others in the new heaven/earth that our desires won’t change? Also, I’m pretty certain even our understanding of something as basic as time itself will not be what it is currently. Ultimately though, it’s admittedly a matter of faith, I know God is good and has my best interest in mind, and knows what’s good for me (better than even I myself do).

          I know it’s not nearly on the same scale, but as an analogy, when I was young I did NOT want to go on any of the big roller coasters. However, once I eventually did, I realized how fun it was and immediately wanted more.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Who’s to say that upon dwelling with God and others in the new heaven/earth that our desires won’t change?

            Don’t take that too far; otherwise you have mindless brainless worship-bots Singing Joyfully With Great Enthusiasm before a Cosmic Comrade Dear Leader — FOREVER.

      • Some would prefer the latter model of resurrection, you know. Sometimes I think that’s what I would prefer. Why should Woody Allen’s preference be the one that the resurrection will realize?

        • It’s not becuase its Woody Allen’s preference per se – he simply has just enough wisdom to grasp that existing is better than not existing. 😉

          • Given his extremely foolish and disturbing behavior in relation to his former lover Mia Farrow and her adopted daughter Soon-Yi, I’ve found it impossible for a long time to believe that he is wise. And that’s quite apart from any questions of resurrection and eternal life.

    • My desire is by this time next year to not live in a place that hits -2.

      Lord I believe, help my unbelief.

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says

    “Memory is not what the heart desires. That is only a mirror, be it clear as Kheled-zaram. Or so says the heart of Gimli the Dwarf.”

    I think of that quote whenever I hear the pablum of “they live on in your heart”. No, they do not.

    Generational memory is very real. I do believe I benefited from knowing, in part, the l-o-n-g of which I am the terminus; it was a real advantage, especially in youth. But that cannot be confused with “life”. Life can change, life grows, life learns, life can go for a walk; memory can do none of those things.

    • And if that model is true, the vast majority of humanity has already been consigned to oblivion.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        If the lineage goes extinct, the immortality of generational memory disappears with it. FOREVER.

        2000 years ago in the Hellenistic and Roman cultures, only those with connection to a House/Gens/Lineage were important; those without such a connection (losers and especially slaves) were denied afterlife or even proper funeral, just thrown on the garbage dump. One of the appeals of Christianity to such losers was that Christ adopted believers into a DIVINE Lineage that would never go extinct, providing a Forever Connection.

  3. Ronald Avra says

    Coffee in peace every morning at the dawn. I think I could do that for, and in eternity. Maybe I could use, and will probably need, the time to figure out how to use my computer and web browser.

  4. Bob Hope had it right, thanks for the memories. Memories help make us what we are and how we act. History is our recorded memories so we keep the events of time in the proper perspective. I know of Bob Hope and what he did, someone under 30 would not unless they have a reason to find out about his life. Except in history Bob Hope life is over in this world no matter how much I recall his life or even watch a film.
    Memories which is a part of our collective thoughts is what makes us , us. To me God is a spirit and we will join him as such, our thoughts , state of being will be with God. All glory on earth is passing so if on one on the earth knows my name, it is ok as long as I know the name of Jesus and he knows mine.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Bob Hope had it right, thanks for the memories.

      Or filtered through one Elvira, “Fangs for the Mammaries”…

      • Head U Guy, A good memory. I believe in real life she was a red head but she was campy and I liked her. She was well known for having a great set of fangs and many commented on it.

    • john,

      the Jews of Jesus’ day (except for the Saducees) all held to a resurrection that was bodily. For them, there was no such thing as a strictly spiritual resurrection. They argued about who would partake of it, hence all the questions to Jesus about “eternal life”. What they were asking him was, “Who do you say is qualified to participate in the Age to Come (and therefore to be bodily resurrected)?”

      Classical Christianity has always held that the body and the material world are good things – often, to our shame, very ill-used. Sometimes there has been too much emphasis on the the truth that our primary focus should be the things of the Spirit, leading some people to despise the body and/or think the material world is worthless, but Paul insists on bodily resurrection. Where he writes that our resurrection body will be “spiritual”, the sense of the Greek is that the body will be animated by the very Spirit of God, rather than the biotic principle that currently animates us. But it will be a physical resurrection. Jesus was not a disembodied spirit after his resurrection, and we won’t be, either.


      • Agreed.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        That was the source of a LOT of the Gnostic ideologies, particularly the Platonic influence that only the Archteype/Idea (mapped over to the Spiritual) was important, NOT physical reality.

        Medieval “Mortification of the Flesh” up to the level of St Rose of Lima?

        And today’s dogma of The Rapture? Ascending into Heaven (Spiritual Perfection) to watch and laugh while the (Physical) Cosmos burns?

  5. To Stuart b…this is why we live in the OC. It gets below 60 deg and we’re ‘freezIng’. Lol. Our kids both moved to the east. Oat for school and stayed there …and they’re cold…they can have it.

    Memories? Really, they aren’t that great. My ancestors live on on me…let’s hope not. I’ve worked so hard, with Christ in me, to break generational sin…big time. It’s not easy.

    I have no allusions about when I’m gone. I’m gone, life goes on for everyone…I’ve lived long enough to know that, see that, experience that.

    I’m not being a Debbie downer – just a realist.

  6. senecagriggs says

    I’ve always found it pleasantly ironic that Solomon who noted we all will soon be forgotten by future generations, continues to be extremely well remembered approximately 3000 years later.

  7. The thing about death is I suspect any time will be too soon. The problem with living forever won’t be the first million years, it’ll be the second million. What’ll we do? Harp music will get pretty old after a while. But perhaps the chief delight of eternity is never being bored.

    I like Ray Bradbury’s idea of coming back for a year every 100 years. That way you can keep up without overstaying your welcome.

    I am intensely curious about the fate of this old world. What will life be like a thousand years from now? Ten thousand?

  8. senecagriggs says

    Speaking of death –

    If you’re interested: article by Albert Mohler of the SBC regarding the theological dilemma of the Cooperative Baptist group which split from the SBC in 1991.

    Quite interesting.

    • Forty years ago Southern was one of the finest seminaries in the world. Now it’s merely one of the largest, thanks to Mohler and his loathsome crew. HIs triumphalism will be short lived. He needs to look to his own house of cards. The SBC has been steadily losing members for a decade. How to explain that one Albert? Yes, another kind of death. Soon!

  9. Yes, the resurrection of the body, by all means. But what and where is my body? Is my body the one I had at two years of age, or thirty, or now, or, if I live that long, the one I will have when I’m 75 on my deathbed? There is so much mystery around what and where and when the body is that affirming its resurrection is the affirmation of one mystery on top of another.

  10. Every time I hear someone muse that they would prefer not to live forever, I want to point out that if you think about it, no one actually desires non-existence per say, but rather what they perceive non-existence will bring them; relief, peace, closure, etc. That’s partially because we as humans can only vaguely grasp the concept of non-existence, and only really via analogy to something like sleep, or the (finite) period of time before our birth. Desire requires an object, and as non-existence is not an object (it is noTHING), we latch on to some real analogous thing or perceived benefit, thinking we desire non-existence. But non-existence is in fact none of what we desire, because it is mere nothing, and there is no longer a self to experience it as anything at all.