I was on the phone yesterday with an old friend who is battling cancer. Most of you also know the prolonged anxiety we feel with Narcie’s brain tumor, and a year ago last week my brother died on his birthday. Two years ago next week, Cindy’s Mom died suddenly. In the throes of thinking about mortality and eternal life I once again have been struck with the vestiges of my recent trip to Nicaragua.
In the midst of abject poverty and high mortality rates, they were some of the most hopeful people I’ve ever met. I know some people think about the afterlife too much, so much so that they are described as being so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good. Our faith is for the here and now, and eternal life starts with our first breath. It gives us hope and the wherewithal to make a difference in the present while giving us an anchor in God’s future.
Karl Marx thought that religion was the “opium for the masses,” a panacea to help the common human being escape reality. He thought that real help should come from an energized proletariat, not religious dreamers. Well, communism is dead and religion thrives. Marx’s assessment of faith didn’t do it justice. Faith provides more than a temporary fix. It is eternal!
However, many people, obsessed with the here and now, attempt to find fulfillment solely in earthly ways. Things of the Spirit and visions of eternity are foreign to them. To them it is this world that matters most so why be concerned with something for which we have no evidence? They say that eternal life is “pie-in-the-sky,” a human creation only accepted because it’s been endorsed by so many people.
On the other hand, there are those who do indeed believe that there’s a heaven, a better place, and that it’s better than we dare imagine. I’ve seen these people die and have watched their faces exhibit a special grace that makes it appear that they’re already seeing things that we can’t see on this side of eternity. To die at peace is a great solace. I sincerely think that the hope of heaven contributes to this sense of ease. This is the difference that Christ inaugurates; our faith is a foretaste of final victory.
It is as Kenneth L. Woodward wrote in a 1999 Newsweek article entitled, “2000 Years of Jesus,” “To a world ruled by fate and the whims of capricious gods, Christianity brought the promise of everlasting life. At the core of the Christian faith was the assertion that the crucified Jesus was resurrected by God and present in the church as ‘the body of Christ.’ The message was clear: By submitting to death, Jesus had destroyed its power, thereby making eternal life available to everyone. This Christian affirmation radically changed the relationship between the living and the dead as Greeks and Romans understood it. For them, only the gods were immortal – that’s what made them gods. Philosophers might achieve immortality of the soul, as Plato taught, but the view from the street was that human consciousness survived in the dim and affectless underworld of Hades. ‘The Resurrection is an enormous answer to the problem of death,’ says Notre Dame theologian John Dunne. ‘The idea is that the Christian goes with Christ through death to everlasting life. Death becomes an event, like birth, that is lived through.’”
This eternal perspective certainly changes our here-and-now outlook, too. C.S. Lewis had it right when he said: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men and women of the church who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one. Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you will get neither.”