What happens after we die?

at-his-resurrectionI’ve been doing “Sermon Talkback” in the adult Sunday school classes at Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the past few months.  In the older adult classes, in particular, people often want to know what comes next.  “What happens after we die?” they ask.  There are lots of answers to that question out there, depending on which books and magazines you read, which movies you watch, and which radio stations you listen to, but not all of those answers are strictly biblical.  The best biblical answer I’ve found comes from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner in his discussion of the word immortality.  Take a look:

“Immortal means death-proof.  To believe in the immortality of the soul is to believe that though John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, his soul goes marching on simply because marching on is the nature of souls just the way producing butterflies is the nature of caterpillars.  Bodies die, but souls don’t.  True or false, this is not the biblical view.  The biblical view differs in several significant ways:

  1. “As someone has put it, the biblical understanding of human beings is not that they have bodies, but that they are bodies. When God made Adam he did it by slapping some mud together to make a body and then breathing some breath into it to make a living soul.  Thus the body and soul which make up human beings are as inextricably part of parcel of each other as the leaves and flames that make up a bonfire.  When you kick the bucket, you kick it one hundred percent.  All of you.  There is nothing left to go marching on with.
  2. “The idea that the body dies and the soul doesn’t is an idea which implies that the body is something rather disgusting and embarrassing, something you’d rather be done with. The Greeks spoke of it as the prison house of the soul.  The suggestion was that to escape it altogether was something less than a disaster.  The Bible, on the other hand, sees the body in particular and the material world in general as a good and glorious invention.  How could it be otherwise when it was invented by a good and glorious God?  The Old Testament rings loud with the praises of trees and birds and rain and mountains, of wine that gladdens the heart of man and oil that makes his face shine and bread that strengthens him.
  3. “Those who believe in the immortality of the soul believe that life after death is as natural a human function as waking after sleep. The Bible instead speaks of resurrection.  It is entirely unnatural.  We do not go on living beyond the grave because that’s how we are made.  Rather, we go to our graves as dead as a doornail and are given our lives back again by God (i.e. resurrected) just as we were given them by God in the first place, because that is the way God is made.
  4. “All the major Christian creeds affirm belief in resurrection of the body. In other words, they affirm the belief that what God in spite of everything prizes enough to bring back to life is not just some disembodied echo of human beings but a new and revised version of all the things which made them the particular human beings they were and which they need something like a body to express: their personality, the way they looked, the sound of their voices, their particular capacity for creating and loving, in some sense their faces.
  5. “The idea of the immortality of the soul is based on the experience of humanity’s indomitable spirit. The idea of the resurrection of the body is based on the experience of God’s unspeakable love” (Wishful Thinking, pp. 49-52).

“I Hate My Body!”

You never know what you might find in a book called Women Who Run with the Wolves, or in a chapter called “Joyous Body: the Wild Flesh,” but I was delighted to find this important corrective to much of what our culture has taught us about our bodies.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes:  “My friend Opalanga, an African-American storyteller, is very tall, like a yew tree, and as slender.  I am built close to the ground and of extravagant body.  In addition to being mocked for being tall, as a child Opalanga was told that the split between her front teeth was the sign of being a liar.  I was told that my body shape were signs of being inferior and of having no self-control.

“How amazed I was to hear Opalanga say that as an adult she had journeyed to the Gambia in West Africa and found some of her ancestral people, who lo! had among their tribe, many people who were very tall like the yew trees and as slender, and who had splits between their front teeth.  This split, they explained to her, was called the Sakaya Yallah, meaning ‘opening of God,’ and it was understood as a sign of wisdom.

“How surprised she was when I told her I had also as an adult journeyed to the isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico and found fome of my ancestral people, who lo! were a tribe with giant women who were strong, flirtatious, and commanding in their size.  They had patted me and plucked at me, boldly remarking that I was not quite fat enough.  Did I eat enough?  Had I been ill?  I must try harder, they explained, for women are La Tierra, made round like the earth herself, for the earth holds so much” (pp. 201-202).

What wonderful pictures of womanhood!  And how wonderfully different from that bosomy, airbrushed and unattainable image on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine month after month, that image so many women keep trying to force their perfectly tall, gap-toothed, or beautifully short, earth-shaped, bodies into.

I wonder…was Adam a balding, bow-legged Semite, with crooked teeth and twinkling eyes?  Was Eve a squat, heavy-thighed helpmate, with lovely gray locks and a voice like running water?  Did God look on his creation in that moment, made in his own image, and say with a smile, “Behold!  It is very good!”?

I don’t know.  I may never know.  And I wouldn’t want to suggest that whatever shape we’re in is the shape we’re supposed to be in.  There is still much to be said for a reasonable diet and regular exercise.  But let me say this: there is a difference, a theological difference, between getting yourself into shape and getting yourself into someone else’s shape.  To do the latter is to deny the goodness of God’s creation.  It is to say that somehow, when God made you, he made a mistake.

That is a lie.

As the psalmist says, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes might say, as you yourself can say without fear of divine contradiction:

“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made!” (Psalm 139:14).

Total Fitness

10a-running-coachIt was sometime during my run on Thursday that I wondered if it was worth it.

I’ve signed up for the Monument Avenue 10K, along with about 30,000 other crazies.  We’re planning to run 6.2 miles on Saturday, March 28, and First Baptist Church is fielding a team called “Team First.”  I’ve encouraged the staff to run or walk in this race as a way of setting an example before the whole church, and if I’m asking the staff to set an example for the church I feel obliged to set an example for the staff.

So, there I was on Thursday, my day off, bundled up against the sub-freezing temperatures and trudging west on Monument Avenue.  My lungs were cold, my eyes were watering, and I had a stitch in my right side that produced an awkward, limping gait.  I was hoping to run four miles, but with three miles to go I wanted very much to stop, turn around, and walk back home.

Slowly.

This is new for me.  I was a distance runner in college and used to knock out five miles before breakfast and then practice with the team in the afternoon.  If you had asked me to run four miles in the cold back then I would have done it in swim trunks and flip-flops.  I don’t want to think that I’m getting older—none of us do—but apparently I am.  All the more reason to give some thought to staying fit.

I used to talk to college students about “Total Fitness.”  I would tell them that human beings have four essential aspects—body, mind, soul, and spirit—and that it’s important to keep all of them in shape.

Body:  That one seems obvious enough, doesn’t it?  Even if you don’t run ten miles a day you can eat right and exercise.  There are plenty of books and articles that give good, sensible advice on those subjects.  On my refrigerator at home I used to have a note that said “Eat less; move more.”  It really can be that simple.

Mind:  For those college students it wasn’t a problem: their minds were getting a regular workout.  For those of us who are no longer in school it can be too easy to let our minds get soft, to watch something lighthearted on television instead of sitting down with a good book, joining a discussion group, or taking a class. 

Soul:  Have you exercised your soul lately?  Have you spent time in prayer, done some devotional reading, journaled, or immersed yourself in Scripture?  Have you been to worship, sung the great hymns of the faith, opened your soul to a sermon, listened to a glorious anthem?  All of these are ways of keeping your soul fit but of course these are not the only ways. 

Spirit:  I like to distinguish this one from the soul, although the two are closely related.  I like to think that you exercise your spirit by doing the things you love, by spending time with friends, by going to an art museum, by canoeing down a quiet river, by turning the music up loud and dancing.  Ask yourself, “What do I love to do?” and then do that.  It will probably take some effort.  The best things in life usually do.

I would be glad for you to add to this list or tell me some of the things you like to do to keep your body, mind, soul, and spirit in shape.  Just click on the word “comments” below to share your suggestions.

And just so you’ll know, I did finish that four mile run on Thursday, and when I practice with “Team First” at 1:30 this Sunday afternoon…

…it’s going to show.