I’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:
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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).