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).

The Kingdom

raysThe choir of Richmond’s First Baptist Church knocked me out of my pew last night.  Their spring concert—“The Kingdom”—was an answer to the Lord’s Prayer, because last night God’s kingdom came, God’s will was done, on earth as it is in heaven (or maybe it just seemed that way to me, having been knocked out of my pew by the beauty and power of music).

I was asked to interpret the theme of the concert at two different points in the concert, and so I wrote something called “The Kingdom in Two Short Acts,” with Jesus as Act I and the Church as Act II.  Let me share Act I with you today and if there is any interest in Act II I’ll publish it at a later date. 

All my best to you,

Jim

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The Kingdom: Act I

The first words out of Jesus’ mouth in the first Gospel ever written are these: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:15).  The good news was that God’s Kingdom had come near, and immediately people wanted to know more.  What is God’s Kingdom?  When is it coming?  Where is it now?  And for much of the remainder of Mark’s Gospel, and most of Matthew’s and Luke’s, Jesus tries to explain.

The Kingdom is like a sower who went out to sow some seed.  It’s like the shepherd who went out to look for his lost sheep.  It’s like the treasure you stumble upon in the field, or the precious pearl you find at the flea market.  It’s like the king who throws a party for outcasts, or the dad who kills the fatted calf for his no-good son.  It’s that place where Samaritans pay your hospital bills and sinners go home from the temple justified.  It’s where those who worked an hour get the same as those who worked all day and where the beggar at the rich man’s gate ends up in the bosom of Abraham.  It is, finally, that place where the last are first, the least are great, and the lost are found forever. 

So, everyone wanted to know: where is this kingdom?  And the answer was almost too simple: the kingdom is wherever God is king.  It could be a country, or a city, or a church like this one, or the house where you live.  The kingdom could be in your own heart if God could be king there.  And this seemed to be Jesus’ plan—that the kingdom would come one heart at a time, as one person after another stepped down from the throne and let God sit there instead.  When his disciples asked him to teach them to pray he said, “Pray for this: pray that God’s kingdom would come, that God’s will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Because wherever God’s will is done God’s kingdom has come on earth.

Frederick Buechner says that “Insofar as here and there, and now and then, God’s kingly will is being done in various odd ways among us even at this moment, the Kingdom has come already.  Insofar as all the odd ways we do God’s will at this moment are at best half-baked and halfhearted, the Kingdom is still a long way off—a hell of a long way off, to be more precise and theological. 

“As a poet, Jesus is maybe at his best in describing the feeling you get when you glimpse the thing itself—the kingship of the King official at last and all the world his coronation.  It’s like finding a million dollars in a field, he says, or a jewel worth a king’s ransom.  It’s like finding something you hated to lose and thought you would never find again—an old keepsake, a stray sheep, a missing child.  When the Kingdom really comes, it’s as if the thing you lost and thought you’d never find again is yourself” (from Wishful Thinking).