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).

KOH2RVA: Day 285

River Baptism

I got a call on Wednesday from a producer in New York who is working on a documentary film about faith—“the positive aspects of faith,” she said, suggesting by her tone of voice that there are some aspects of faith that are not so positive. She has in mind a very ambitious seven-part series, but the first part would be a two-hour documentary on “the birth of faith,” and that’s why she was talking to me.

She had found some pictures of First Baptist Richmond’s annual river baptism online and thought that it would be a wonderful way to talk about and think about the birth of faith. She was calling to find out more about it and, especially, to ask if I thought the church would be open to participating in the project.

She asked how the annual river baptism got started, and I surprised myself by saying, “Well, this town has a river running through it, a beautiful river” (in fact, Richmond was recently named the Number One River City in America by Outside magazine). “It seemed only natural to take advantage of that, and to do at least one baptism a year outdoors.”

She wanted to know about baptism itself. She had grown up Presbyterian, in Ohio. She knew about infant baptism followed by confirmation at a later age but she didn’t know about immersion. I told her I had grown up Presbyterian as well, but because my family moved around so much I had missed confirmation. And so, at the age of 14, I asked to be baptized, and a few weeks later my father—a Presbyterian minister—and a friend of his who was a Baptist minister dipped me down under the muddy waters of the Big Coal River in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I told her how the Apostle Paul seemed to think of baptism as a kind of death, burial, and resurrection; how the old “you” goes down into the water and “dies,” and a new you comes up (Romans 6:4-11). I told her that for some people it is the perfect symbol for leaving behind a life they’ve made a mess of and starting fresh.  I told her how the first breath they take when they come up out of the water is the first breath of their new life in Christ.

I must have done a good job because when I got finished she said, “That makes me want to get baptized!”

So, there may be a film crew at our annual river baptism on July 21. And there may be a producer who throws down her clipboard, rips off her headset, and wades out into the water. As you might have read on this blog a few days ago, baptism is one of those places where heaven comes closest to earth, and maybe that’s why we’re having a river baptism: because we’re trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia,

And this is one of the best ways we know to do it.

KOH2RVA: Day 208

big fishI’m back! Back from Graves Mountain Lodge near Shenandoah National Park where I helped to lead a national retreat for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship called “Practicing Resurrection.”

The title is from a poem by Wendell Berry called, “Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” The closing lines are these:

As soon as the general and the politicos
Can predict the motions of your mind,
Lose it. Leave it as a sign
To mark the false trail, the way
You didn’t go. Be like the fox
Who makes more tracks than necessary,
Some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

I started with the premise that the resurrection life is life at its fullest, and suggested that when we are living life at its fullest our senses are fully engaged. I asked the retreat participants to test that hypothesis during the time we were in the mountains, and to keep records of their sensory experience.

So, we had reports on what it is like to taste apple juice in the morning as if it were a fine wine—inhaling the aroma, swirling it around in the mouth, tasting it on the tongue. A report on what it’s like to hold the rainbow trout you just pulled from a mountain stream, looking at its beautiful colors and feeling the weight of its wet muscle in your hands. A report on what it’s like to struggle to the top of Old Rag Mountain the hard way—on the boulder-strewn Ridge Trail—and be rewarded with the 360-degree view from the top: Virginia spreading out in every direction like a quilt your great-great-great-great-grandmother made.

It was a wonderful retreat. We lived life at its fullest. Our senses were fully engaged. But can I tell you how glad I was to get home to Richmond on Thursday afternoon, and how eager I am to embrace again this city that I love, this place where I live?

I’m not sure how heaven will come to earth today, or how I might help, but I think I will recognize it when it happens. Heaven has come near to me in the last few days. I’ve seen it in the distance, heard its whispers, touched its edges, tasted its flavors and smelled its fragrances.

May it come near to you today, and may you have a part in bringing it near for others.

Rewind the Tape

I just shared my Easter sermon from 2002 with the Wednesday night crowd at church and some of them asked that I post it online.  It was the first Easter after September 11, 2001, and for that reason it seemed all the more important to talk about resurrection.  Enjoy.


Rewind the Tape
First Baptist Church,Washington, DC
March 31, 2002, Easter Sunday
Matthew 28:1-10 

Today is Easter Sunday, a day when we pull out all the organ stops, bring in the trumpets and timpani, and celebrate with everything that is in us.  Although it may appear to those outside the church that our celebration is arbitrary—falling on one day this year and another day next year—it is not arbitrary at all.  We celebrate a specific event in history: we celebrate that day on which Jesus broke the bony back of death and opened up for us the way that leads to life.  Because of what he did death no longer has dominion over us.  Our last and worst enemy has been decisively defeated.  Even if you didn’t feel the need to throw a party it would be a good reason to throw one. 

But sometimes you do feel the need.

My friend Stan Hastey, who read the Gospel lesson for us this morning, remembers a sermon he heard just a few days after Easter, 1968.  He was a student at Southern Seminary inLouisville,Kentucky.  Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated two weeks before.  Race riots had broken out inMemphis, and in this city, and in others.  A dark shadow had fallen across the American landscape.  The students who gathered for chapel on that April day needed to hear an encouraging word.  They looked up hopefully as the Reverend Charles Boddie, an African-American preacher fromNashville,Tennessee, made his way to the pulpit.  They shifted in their pews and then waited, expectantly, for Boddie to speak.  When he did, his voice was little more than a whisper.   Pointing back to the Sunday before he said, “Easter, this year, came just in the nick of time.”

Although it has been more than six months since September 11th I have that same feeling about this year, that Easter has come just in the nick of time.  On that day I was watching the news as that second airplane slammed into theWorldTradeCenter.  I couldn’t believe what I had just seen.  Neither could the anchorman.  He said to the engineer, “Rewind the tape,” and because the engineer was as shocked as we were he forgot to turn off the monitor first, so right there on the screen we saw the image freeze and then begin to do a jerky little dance as it went backward.  We saw that huge orange ball of flame being sucked back into the building.  We saw shattered pieces of concrete, steel, and glass defy gravity, and leap back up to their proper places.  We saw that airplane backing out of the building tail first and the hole it had punched in the side repairing itself until building and plane and passengers were all intact again.  And then the image froze again, and the engineer pushed the “play’ button, and the whole tragic scene unfolded before us once more: the plane smashing into the building; the ball of flame erupting from the other side; the shattered pieces of concrete, steel, and glass falling toward the ground and all those people . . . gone.

What if there were some way to rewind not only the tape, but also time?  Imagine God himself giving the command, and some heavenly engineer pushing the button, and time beginning to flow backward instead of forward.  So that the suicide bombing in the port city of Haifa, Israel, this morning would miraculously undo itself as shrapnel came flying back into the bomb, as chairs and tables, plates and glasses, returned to their usual places, as friends greeted one another in that crowded restaurant, sat down, chatted and smiled.  Last Monday night the destruction caused by an earthquake in Afghanistanwould be reversed.  Ruined houses and buildings would put themselves back together again.  Children who had been crushed by falling debris minutes earlier would resume their peaceful sleep.  Mothers would stroke their hair, kiss their cheeks, and wish them sweet dreams.  And as time continued to flow backward, as September 13th lapsed into September 12th, people from all over the country would begin making their way to New York City, hoping to be as close to Ground Zero as possible on the 11th, when the twin towers of the World Trade Center would heave themselves up out of the rubble to stand tall and proud again.  The crowds would cheer when firefighters and policemen came running out of the buildings unharmed.  They would cheer again when they saw those two airplanes fly backward out of the buildings and back toward the airports.  But their loudest cheers would be reserved for those thousands of people who came out, alive and well and more than a little surprised by all the attention they were getting.

But suppose we didn’t stop there?  Suppose we just kept going?  Suppose we watched Martin Luther King get up off the balcony of thatMemphishotel and adjust his tie?  Suppose John F. Kennedy stepped out of that convertible inDallas, waved to the crowds, and got back on Air Force One?  Imagine Japanese airplanes flying away fromPearl Harborwith their bombs undelivered.  Or the Titanic floating up off the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean and bobbing like a cork on the surface before steaming back toEngland.  Imagine Civil War soldiers—both Union and Confederate—getting up from the battlefield, brushing themselves off, and embracing before heading home.  And then suppose we kept going, back through the centuries, watching one tragedy after another undo itself until we stood with Jesus’ disciples and watched as life came back into that crucified body, as the Roman soldiers lowered the cross and un-hammered the nails, as he staggered back before Pontius Pilate, back before the Sanhedrin, back to the Garden of Gethsemane, back to the table where he and his disciples had shared their last supper.  Wouldn’t they cheer?  Wouldn’t it be good to have Jesus back with them again, safe and sound?   Or would even those dense disciples understand that there is a difference between restoration and resurrection.  Would they recognize that if time kept moving in that direction there would come a time when they hadn’t met Jesus, hadn’t been called, hadn’t begun to follow, and would they recognize that it would have been better to have known him and lost him than never to have known him at all?

In an extraordinary little book called Einstein’s Dreams Alan Lightman imagines all the impossible permutations of time.  In one chapter he describes a world like the one I have been describing to you, in which time flows backward.  A woman who was near death begins to get younger and stronger.  The deep lines disappear from her face.  Her hearing comes back.  Her eyesight comes back.  And then one day her husband is carried back into her house.  “In hours, his cheeks become pink, he stands stooped over, straightens out, speaks to her.  Her house becomes their house.  They eat meals together, tell jokes, laugh.  They travel through the country, visit friends.  Her white hair darkens with brown streaks, her voice resonates with new tones.  She goes to a retirement party at the local high school, begins teaching history.  She loves her students, argues with them after class.  She reads during her lunch hour and at night.  She meets friends and discusses history and current events.  She helps her husband with the accounts at his drugstore, walks with him to the foot of the mountains, makes love to him.  Her skin becomes soft and smooth, her hair long and brown.”[1]

It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it, this reversal of time?  Don’t we wish we could make it so?  Don’t we wish we could reverse the aging process at least, so that our own skin would become younger and smoother, our bodies stronger, our eyesight clearer?  Imagine celebrating your 80th birthday knowing that next year you would be 79.  Imagine making plans to run a marathon 40 years from now, when your body would be in better shape.  It all sounds good up to a point, but only up to a point.  Listen to how Lightman continues his story:  “The woman sees her husband for the first time in the library of the university, returns his glances.  She attends classes.  She graduates from high school with her parents and sister crying tears of happiness.  She lives at home with her parents, spends hours with her mother walking through the woods by their house, helps with the dishes.  She tells stories to her younger sister, is read to at night before bed, grows smaller.  She crawls.  She nurses.”[2]  Lightman stops the story right there but if he had continued you know that this woman who had become a girl who had become a baby would next become a fetus, then an embryo, then an egg, and then nothing at all.  She would disappear completely if time flowed backward. 

Some would say that’s what happens to all of us anyway.  In a world where time flows forward we grow old, we die, we are buried, our bodies decay, and in the end there is nothing but the memory of us left in the world and soon not even that.  And this is where the testimony of the disciples is most helpful.  They saw Jesus die.  They saw him buried.  But they also saw something else.  Three days after his death they saw him alive again.  And this was no studio special effect:  this was real.  In Matthew’s version of the story it is the women, running back from the tomb to tell his disciples the good news, who encounter the risen Jesus on the way.  “Greetings,” he says, and they fall at his feet to worship him, trembling with fear and joy. 

At first they must have thought that he had been brought back to life like Lazarus, that God had caused time to flow backward and Jesus had been restored.  But eventually they came to see that this was not restoration, but resurrection.  Jesus had not retreated from death, but marched forward to meet it, smashed through it, and emerged on the other side alive.  It wasn’t as if someone had rewound the tape of his life, but fast-forwarded to that time when God will raise up all who believe.  If you can forgive the expression it was a “preview of coming attractions,” and it changed everything.  It gave those early Christians a confidence in the resurrection that made it possible for them to live their everyday lives with extraordinary courage.  Death no longer had dominion over them.  They no longer had to be afraid.  Paul who had been knocked off his high horse by the risen Jesus, who had seen the future and lost his fear, could thrust his chin forward and say, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” 

But what about you? 

Push the “pause” button on your life for a moment.  Stop everything right here where you are, on Easter Sunday, 2002, in a pew at FirstBaptistChurch.  If you had the power to reach out and push “rewind” would you do it?  For some of you it would be wonderful to feel life and strength flowing back into tired bodies.  For others there are tragedies that have marked your life that you would love to see undone.  For others there are missed opportunities that you would like to go back and seize.  For others harsh words spoken that you have always wished you could take back.  If you had the power, you might be tempted to push the “rewind” button.  But I believe that God raised Jesus.  And I believe that he will raise me too.  And it is my confidence in the resurrection that gives me the courage to reach out and push “play,” even today, even after September 11th, and weeks of Anthrax threats, and months of war inAfghanistan, on a day when the situation in theMiddle East seems ready to explode.

This year and every year, Easter comes just in the nick of time.


—Jim Somerville, 2002

[1] Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams (New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1993), pp. 103-104.

[2] Ibid., p. 104.