“How Can Anybody Know What Happens After We Die?”
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Philippians 3: 8-16
What can we really know about death and what happens after we die? How can anybody claim to know anything about death and life after death?
We can know something about dying. Dr. Raymond Moody, the physician who wrote the book Life After Life, has devoted much of his career to studying near-death experiences. He reports that many times people who have had near-death experiences give accounts of the experience that are remarkably similar, even across different religions and cultures. They report an experience of floating outside their bodies, passing through a tunnel, being greeted by loved ones or perhaps a divinity, radiant white light, and transcendent peace. Dr. Moody himself has become convinced that at death something of us leaves our bodies and goes somewhere else.
But when you ask Dr. Moody if it is possible that all of this is actually just a hallucination caused by what happens in the brain when we die, he says there is no way to be sure. There is “no final answer” he says, “because ultimately…there aren't any experts that can give us the answer.”[i]
We can know something about dying but there aren’t any experts to tell us about death.
What does Christianity know about death? Not very much really. Christianity’s claims are modest. Here’s what I think Christianity can say with a high degree of certainty about death:
There was a teacher and healer named Jesus who taught that our Creator wants us to love each other, even our enemies. He was executed one Friday by crucifixion. Some of the women who followed him said they found his tomb empty on Sunday morning and that they encountered him outside his tomb alive. His disciples said he appeared to them several times after his death and that once he appeared and cooked breakfast for them. They said that, after his death, Jesus invited one of the disciples who was a skeptic to put his fingers in the wounds in his side where he was whipped during his execution.
Small communities of people who heard these stories began to gather for supper on Sundays, and they said that they experienced Jesus’ presence in the breaking of bread and in the sharing of wine.
They came to believe that serving Jesus was more important that being successful in the terms that the world around them defined success. Jesus became more important to them than anything else.
They believed Jesus wanted them to share and to care for those whom no one else cared about, so even though most of them were poor, they sacrificially shared what little they had with others who were poor. They took care of sick people no one else would take care of. They visited people in prison that no one else would go near. They came to believe that the most important thing in life was sharing with each other and those around them who were in need.
When they were expected to take a loyalty oath that said “Caesar is Lord,” some of them would say instead “Jesus is Lord,” even if it meant losing their jobs or their freedom or, in some cases, their lives. When they died, they believed they would be with Jesus.
I have a friend who asks me from time to time: Isn’t religion really just a set of teachings designed to give people comfort because of our human anxiety about death? If so, it was a strange comfort for the Christian martyrs who died saying “Jesus is Lord.” It was a strange comfort for those who lived in voluntary poverty because they chose to share what they had with others who had nothing at all. It was a strange comfort for those who risked their lives visiting prisons where their safety was as tentative as that of the prisoners.
Eventually this little movement grew to become a global movement with 2 billion followers and popes and councils and rule books and denominations and lots and lots of buildings. Most of the adherents of Christianity came to live lives that were pretty much indecipherable from the others who lived around them in any meaningful way.
But there have always been and still are those who believe that sharing with the poor and caring for the sick and the prisoners and the marginalized is more important than anything else. Interestingly, it seems that Christians who are poor themselves are more likely to be willing to share sacrificially than those Christians who are more affluent. They have done this even when it means sacrificing their own security and success in the world around them. They have felt that life with Jesus is a richer, more abundant life than the life the world has to offer. They have believed that Jesus is more alive than anybody.
I think this is about all that Christianity can say objectively about death. There are Christians, like people of other religions, who have had mystical subjective experiences that cause them to be convinced of the existence of heaven and other worlds, but I think the story I have just summarized is about all we can say objectively.
I don’t think that Christianity has ever expected the stories of Jesus’ resurrection to convince anybody of anything. Not really. There is a parable in the Gospel of Luke about a rich man who dressed in purple and fine linens and who ate three humongous meals every day. At the gate outside his home there lay a beggar named Lazarus whose body was full of sores from malnutrition and who longed to satisfy his hunger on the crumbs the servants swept away under the rich man’s table. The beggar died and was carried to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man died and went to hell.
In the story, the rich man called out to Father Abraham to send Lazarus over to dip his finger in some water and wet his lips because it was very hot in hell and the rich man was used to poor people waiting on him. Father Abraham said it couldn’t be done. He said to the rich man in hell, “Remember the chasm that existed between you and Lazarus on earth? The idea of letting Lazarus inside your gate on earth was unimaginable to you. Well, you can’t get rid of that chasm now. It still exists and Lazarus can’t get to you.”
I think that is how the parable that Jesus told ended. But I think the early Christians added an addendum to Jesus’ parable, and this is what their addendum adds: The rich man says to Father Abraham, “Well, if Lazarus can’t help me, at least sent him back to earth to warn my brothers so that they do not end up in hell with me.” Abraham says to him: “What good would that do? They have the teachings of Moses and the prophets already. Lazarus can’t tell them anything they don’t already know.”
The rich man says, “But surely if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”
Abraham says, “No, if they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16: 19-31)
I don’t think the early Christians ever expected the story of Jesus’ resurrection to convince anybody. I think they expected that the way Jesus’ life embodied the deepest truth about what is truly rich and abundant life to open people’s hearts to the possibility of Jesus’ resurrection, not the other way around.
I think that Christianity expects that we – you and I – living the rich and abundant life of love and service Jesus taught might open our hearts to the possibility of our resurrections as well.
Because, frankly, lots of Christians are agnostic when it comes to life after death. I am grateful to one of my old professors Lee Rouner for saying what I have long expected.
Professor Rouner, who organized the lectures, says this: “If one were to poll theology professors from mainline seminaries on th[e] question of life after death, I suspect that Kaufmann’s view would predominate.” He adds: “The once widespread Christian belief in life after death has itself died a slow death in our time, among church people and seminary professors.”[iii]
I think life after death is a very difficult thing for human beings to imagine or believe in, maybe an impossible one. I think it is incredible in the literal sense of the word – without credulity. Hardly anybody believed in the resurrection of Jesus when they first heard about it. Mary Magdalene did not believe it was the resurrected Christ when she met him in the cemetery. (John 20: 14) The disciples thought the women were telling an idle tale, Luke says, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24: 11) Thomas would not believe. (John 20: 25)
It was the experience of the risen Christ in the midst of them in the upper room and on the road to Emmaus and at the breakfast table while they were making decisions about how to live the rest of their lives that opened their hearts to the possibility of the resurrection.
The reason so many of us have so much difficulty with the idea of life after death, myself included, is not because we are bad Christians intellectually or doctrinally or theologically. It is because we do such a poor job of trusting Jesus with our lives that we can’t manage to trust him with our deaths either.
The early Christians trusted Jesus with their lives. They were poor but they shared what they had. They nursed the sick and diseased even when it put them at risk of catching the same disease. They visited in prisons when prisons were, life-threatening places to go.
Some Christian still do these kinds of things today at great personal sacrifice, but interestingly enough it is often those who themselves are poor and at risk and marginalized.
traveled with Bishop Felton May quite a bit for quite a few years. There was
a story he told again and again. It was about after he had visited the
refugee camps in
May told them about what he had just seen in
thinking about that story again the other day when I was reading a newspaper
But I won’t do that because I don’t trust Jesus very much with my life.
The Apostle Paul is very interesting on this. He said that resurrection is something we attain. This sounds contrary to his teachings on grace at first, but it really isn’t. Paul says we attain resurrection by letting go of the things we use for a sense of security but that really prevent us from trusting Jesus.
Listen to Paul:
“I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil. 3: 8-12)
Dying is just another thing. Dying is really just another thing. If we’ve trusted Jesus with our life, we can trust Jesus with our death. For many of us, the question is: Will I trust Jesus with my life?
Will I trust Jesus with my vocational life? Will I trust Jesus with my bank account? Will I trust Jesus with my love life? Will I trust Jesus with my sexual identity? Will I trust Jesus with my time? Will I trust Jesus with my children? Will I trust Jesus with my anger? Will I trust Jesus with my grief?
Dying is really just one more thing. If we trust Jesus with our lives, we can trust him with our deaths. I think that is really all we can know.
Please bow your head with me and close your eyes this morning. The question is where in your life and mine are you and I not trusting Jesus? What is the step you know you ought to take but you are having a hard time trusting Jesus with it. It may have to do with work. It may have to do with money. It may have to do with your health. There may be someone you need to forgive but you can’t trust letting go of the anger. Maybe it is time to come out to your parents, but you are having a hard time trusting Jesus with it. There may be an addiction you need to face. You know you need to go to AA or NA but you wonder if you can trust Jesus with your sobriety. You may know you need to see a psychiatrist but you don’t know if you can trust Jesus enough to let go of your self-sufficiency. There may be a stand you need to take but you are nervous about trusting Jesus with the consequences. I’ve got some sense of what it is in my life. I don’t know what it is in your life. You do.
Today can be a day of resurrection for you. Not just another Easter but a day of resurrection. You can begin to trust Jesus in your life in a new way. Just take a moment now and tell Jesus you want to trust him. Make a decision to trust him. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.
[i]Daniel Redwood, “Interview With Raymond Moody,” http://www.healthy.net/scr/interview.asp?Id=209.
[ii] I recommend Jurgen Moltmann’s lecture, “Is There Life After Death?” in If I Should Die, LeRoy Rouner, editor (University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 53-70.
[iii] LeRoy Rouner, “Introduction,” If I Should Die, 3.