December 17, 2018

On Resurrection and Eternal Life (4)

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, considering what Gerhard Lohfink has to say in his excellent new book, Is This All There Is?: On Resurrection and Eternal Life.

The final two chapters of part one, which gives an overview of various perspectives on what happens to human beings after death, explore how some have concluded that people die and become a part of Nature, taking their part in Nature’s eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

I am only a wavelet in the ocean.
The wave comes and goes.
The ocean remains; it is forever.

or

we’re the people who walk the fields
soon we’ll be people under the fields
and will all become field and oak
yes, we’ll be proper country folk.

From proponents of certain Eastern religions, to pagan pantheists, to those who track the natural biological processes by which the atoms from which we are made separate from us and move on to new associations, to sentimentalists who “see” their deceased loved ones in the flowers, wind, and rain, there has always been a stream of thinking that has longed for dissolution of the individual into the oneness of the cosmos.

Every day I look deeply at everything around me; the trees, the hills, my friends. I see myself in them all and I know I shall not die. I will continue in many other forms. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

One of the poems I see regularly on funeral folders and hear recited at memorial services is this piece by Mary Elizabeth Frye:

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Whatever truth or comfort may be found in us taking our place in nature’s cycle, Lohfink will have none of this in the end. Not only Christianity, but even the processes of evolution teach us that the movement of life is not from the individual to dissolution, but from simpler to more complex, definitive individualism:

When I look at this whole mysticism of dissolution, which (supposedly) is happy that we can flow into trees, mountains, and meteors, I ask myself: Didn’t human biological and cultural evolution develop in precisely the opposite direction? — namely, to a more and more powerful awareness of the self, freedom from mere instincts and compulsions, emancipation from the dominance of the collective, becoming persons, a more and more intense understanding of the irreplaceable nature of every individual? (p. 45f)

And, as Gerhard Lohfink concludes this first section of the book, he argues that the desire for immortality rather than mere extinction or dissolution into the natural elements has always been a dominant human desire.

Easter Vigil 2014

The question of what comes after death was proposed with the fullest intensity millennia before Christianity; we need only think of Egypt. …And it has not been silenced even now. It emerges in the most varied forms over and over again, often hidden and in dubious guises. It belongs to the nature of humans, who reach for infinity in everything they do.

Therefore we may and must ask: What happens to us in death? What happens to our life, our “I,” our consciousness, the history of our life? Is it all over for us? Is death followed by profound night, eternal sleep, and absolute nothingness? Is our self extinguished forever? Or is it followed by the life Christians describe in that worn-out but irreplaceable phrase as “eternal bliss”?

But not only that: we may and must ask about the history of the world. What will become of the countless people who have been degraded, tortured, raped, murdered? Will the injustice, lies, manipulation, suffering of billions of innocent people never be uncovered, revealed? And in turn: Will the endless efforts to discover truth, to ease the sufferings of the downtrodden, to improve the conditions of society ultimately lead to nothing, because not only do individuals die but whole nations and cultures vanish, and inevitable destruction awaits everything in the end? Or will there be a revelation by God of everything that has ever happened throughout history, and with it the resurrection of all history into God — into the love of God that creates justice? (p. 55f)

Comments

  1. Susan Dumbrell says:

    How can I be in the company of such beautiful souls?
    God bless us all
    I have had a difficult day but have felt the strength of you IMonkers.
    Love you all,
    As I say, God Bless us all.
    Susan

  2. Not only Christianity, but even the processes of evolution teach us that the movement of life is not from the individual to dissolution, but from simpler to more complex, definitive individualism…

    This assertion is not based on scientific observation, and is not part of evolutionary theory. It is a philosophical and/or religious belief that the author has brought to the subject; i.e., it is the result of circular thinking. The processes of evolution do not in fact teach us this; only the processes of evolution, plus a certain kind of philosophical/ religious interpretation of them, can teach us this.

    • As far as I know, there is no scientific evidence that evolution prefers the complex over the simple, or individualism over its absence; it does, however, seem to naturally lead to diversity, the biodiversity of many species.

    • In a closed system, entropy will lead to disorder and dissolution. That is science. The anti-evolutionists use the 2nd Law to argue that evolution can’t happen. But the earth is not a closed system, it has the sun to provide the energy to drive the evolutionary process. The question is– is the universe a closed system and will it eventually tend to disorder, or will the Son provide the energy to move it, and us, to the next stage. That is religion. All scientific facts are interpreted through philosophy/religion, Robert.

      • Mike, I’m a Christian theist, not an atheist. But the idea that biological evolution favors complexity, or tends toward complexity in living organisms, is just plain wrong. There may be a minimum level of complexity required for something to be alive, but many extremely simple life forms thrive as much as, or more than, more complex human beings, and have been around longer. Nature selects whatever attributes fit the environment best; sometimes, perhaps often, the simpler set of attributes are better suited to the environment than a more complex set.

        Yes, all scientific facts are interpreted through philosophy/religion. But that doesn’t justify making up evidence for something in nature that isn’t there to be observed, or that contradicts what can actually be observed. Christians, unlike crazy cultists, have a responsibility to the facts and the evidence, even when it doesn’t support their presuppositions. We have a hope based on our faith in the God and Father of Jesus Christ; but that hope cannot rightly be supported by invoking a tendency to or preference for complexity in biological evolution that scientific investigation does not bear out.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Yeah, I have the same strong quibble. The assertion is straight-out *false*. That Evolution produced consciousness and complexity **in an extremely tiny set of its outcomes** does not an arrow draw. One could ask: when will Evolution emancipate the ecoli bacterium or the tape worm “from the dominance of the collective”? Never, as it has a warm moist home nestled deep within the collective [much like the human living with grid provided electricity, municipal sewer and water, and 911 service?]. If there is an arrow within Evolution, it certainly does not point towards autonomy.

      I can see the argument being made; but this is an entirely broken premise to move forward from.

      • Robert, I think you’re right. “Human biological and cultural evolution” is the phrase he uses, and I think the point is a general one, rather than a strict argument from science. At least in our human experience, we have moved toward a stronger sense of the individual self as history has gone on.

        • It is unwise to mix talk of biological and cultural evolution; apples and oranges. There is no support in scientific observation of nature for the idea that there is general biological tendency toward greater rather than less complexity, or toward individualism. Lohfink is being misled by appearances that are mostly the result of his theological thought process rather than observation of what nature actually does.

  3. Susan Dumbrell says:

    Life sucks today. As far as I want to be involved in this dance. It could stop today and I would say OK.
    My family called me Pollyanna. I don’t like the name but will say OK to Polly.
    I have no vision as Pollyanna did as to the better place if one wished hard enough.
    A tough day today. My friend’s husband died under anesthetic having minor surgery.
    We have had to rally around her to support her in the very unexpected loss of her husband.
    Funeral Friday.

    And the beat goes on.
    Susan. (Polly).

    • Patriciamc says:

      Hi Susan. I am so, so sorry to hear about your friend’s husband. She’s very lucky to have you and the others around her at this time.

    • My sister, profoundly affected with CP, echoed your sentiment this morning, Susan, via her computer. She said, “this day stinks,” and there’s no arguing with her. It is true. I’m so sorry with you both.

    • Christiane says:

      Susan, so sorry to hear about your friend. Thank God she has you near.

    • Susan, It sounds like life really sucks lemons for you today. My sympathy and prayers for you and your friend.

  4. Christiane says:

    I remember being upset when my husband wanted to be buried at sea as is his right as retired from the US Navy. And then I read those words in the Book of Revelation: ‘and the sea will give up its dead’. Then, I was peaceful.

    We are told that all Creation awaits its salvation. But for me, the most profound and triumphant of verses comes from of all places, the Book of Job, Chapter 19, with these words:

    25 “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth. 26″Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God; 27Whom I myself shall behold, And whom my eyes will see and not another.”

    That image stays with me. And the thought that Our Lord is ‘making all things new’.
    However this will happen, I am trusting the God Who promises to wipe away our tears some day. All is grace. I am not afraid of the God Whose signature characteristic is loving-kindness. In Christ, peace.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    It emerges in the most varied forms over and over again, often hidden and in dubious guises. It belongs to the nature of humans, who reach for infinity in everything they do.

    Like Silicon Valley Cyberati looking forward to Uploading themselves into the Cloud at the Singularity, leaving the Meat behind? And until the Singularity, Mortifying their Meat (to make the Meat last until the Singularity) with Vitamins-and-Almond-Milk diets as restrictive (but much more expensive) than an EO’s during Great Lent?

    Will the endless efforts to discover truth, to ease the sufferings of the downtrodden, to improve the conditions of society ultimately lead to nothing, because not only do individuals die but whole nations and cultures vanish, and inevitable destruction awaits everything in the end?

    At which point, the only alternatives end up either (1) Stoicism, (2) Nihilism, or (3) Hedonism.

    Or will there be a revelation by God of everything that has ever happened throughout history, and with it the resurrection of all history into God — into the love of God that creates justice?

    However, that hope has already been tainted from within by Fluffy Cloud Heaven, Hellfire & Damnation, and It’s All Gonna Burn.

  6. Paul writes beautifully about “all things” in some very deep passages – which he tosses out almost as though everyone should know this stuff…

    …For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 1Cor 8.6

    For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen. Rom 11.36

    For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. Eph 1.9-10

    He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. Eph 4.10

    He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Col 1.17

    For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Col 1.19-20

    …in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. Heb 1.2

    Since everything exists by Christ and through Christ, and by virtue of that all things are interconnected (though not in the way described by far eastern religions), it is fitting that we should have that sort of sensibility and longing. In Classical Christianity we have an explanation for why this is so. Exactly “how” such a thing “works” has not been revealed to us, except that it is by communion with Christ. This communion transcends stoicism, nihilism and hedonism. It is found in Christ, by Whom all things were made, and in His Incarnation.

    Dana

  7. Lord Jesus
    you sure do
    take your time