God’s love guarantees life beyond death
Death is an event most of us naturally fear. Not only are we programmed to want to survive, we dread the pain and loss death entails. We feel the decay of our body. We regret the parting with all that is dear to us. As Woody Allen once remarked: “I don’t mind dying. I’d just rather not be there when it happens!”
The unsettling circumstances of our future death unnerve us. Underlying it all, however, is an existential anxiety, our fear of being reduced to nothing, of being obliterated in a darkness in which we cease to be. This anxiety has been heightened in our secular age. After all, if one adheres to a mechanistic view of the universe, death is literally for us the end of everything. All we have been, our hopes, our struggles, our achievements, only leave scratches of love or hideous scars on the world we lived in. But we are then gone for ever.
In the words of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), “people, burdened with fear, want and sorrow, just dance into the arms of death, wondering what the tragic comedy of life is supposed to mean – and finding out it ends in nothing!”
If death is understood as the annihilation of oneself, it becomes enemy number one. Thinking or speaking of it has to be repressed by a social taboo. It has to be fought with every possible means. Medical science is seen as a chief ally, even though medicine can only offer delay of execution, not a permanent victory over death. The unspoken strategy is to escape from death’s awesome and terrifying reality as long as possible.
The discovery that God is Love can free us from the lies and fears surrounding death. It can help us accept death as a natural completion of our life. It can make us aware of the dimension of love in death. And it opens the perspective of continuation beyond death. As research has shown, Christian faith does make a noticeable difference to people’s coping with death (see: P.A.MABE and M.DAWES, `When a child dies – the impact of being a Christian’, Journal of Psychology and Theology, 19 (1991) pp. 334-373).
Dying is natural
The will to survive is strong in us, but we also have, if only we learn to be open to it, a readiness to die. I myself have known quite a number of people who, by their own admission, were prepared to die. “I am grateful for every day of life”, one seventy-year old told me, “but now it is time for me to go. I have lived a full life, as far as I could. I feel I have accomplished my task. Don’t grieve for me. I’m dying a happy person.”
Such a gracious bowing out is made much easier by the recognition that life itself has been granted to us as a gift in the first place. If we consider the universe as a hostile place in which we owe our existence to a chance quirk of evolution, we are tempted to adopt a stand of defiance. We adopt a position of unlimited autonomy. We act as if we own the whole universe. But, of course, we don’t. While having legitimate autonomy as free human beings, we are at the same time completely contingent and dependent.
Our greatness as human beings does not only lie in becoming independent, acquiring control, understanding managing, organising, harnessing nature and shaping the future; it also lies in accepting the truth of dependence, relinquishing control, trusting without understanding, adopting oneself to the managing and organising of others, being open to an uncreated and unpredictable future.
Our most fundamental religious act is to acknowledge the debt we owe to God for life and to accept all the limitations inherent in the gift. This also means accepting our death. Rounding off our business and having said farewell to our relations, we can then, like the patriarch Jacob, “draw our feet up onto our bed” and breathe our last breath peacefully (see: Genesis 49,33). But that is not all.
Dying can be an act of love
If we grasp what ‘God is Love’ means, our eyes may be opened to a very curious connection between loving and dying.
We can measure the degree of our love for someone else by what we are ready to give up for that person. If we really love another person, we give of our time, our energy, our possessions and our own self. The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel has rightly pointed out that every real act of love, implies a degree of dying to ourself (see: G.MARCEL, Presence et Immortalité, Paris 1959).
It is true that our acts of human love are always an imperfect mix: we give of ourself, but we also take; we may even use the other person for own selfish ends. We benefit from our giving to the extent that it fulfils our own wholeness. And yet, the paradox stands. We grow in love to the extent we learn to die to ourself. And since loving is the fullness and peak of life, we live to the extent we learn to die.
“If you want to come after me, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”
“If you seek to save your life, you will lose it. If you lose your life, you will save it.”
Matthew 16,24; Luke 17,33
When we love, we acknowledge that the centre and meaning of life is not ourselves, but someone else. By giving up what is most precious to us from a limited human point of view: our time, our strength and personal health, our privacy and intimacy, and ultimately our life, we give a new centre to our existence, which is another human person and ultimately God. This is the kind of ‘dying to find real life’ Jesus is speaking about. To learn to move off the centre of the stage, to make room for others, to expend oneself for others, to serve a cause that benefits mainly others are all forms of creative dying.
If we have learnt such a self-denying love in our life, our physical death itself will become the culmination of that love. Instead of just undergoing death as a necessary evil, we can make dying a conscious act of final surrender, of making room for others in love, of completing one’s task of selfless service.
“Dying is our first completely personal act. It is, therefore, by reason of its very being, the place above all others for the awakening of consciousness, for freedom, for the encounter with God, for the final decision about our eternal destiny.”
L.BOROS, The Moment of Truth, London 1973, p.84.
This is the reason why the death and resurrection of Jesus is the central mystery through which God revealed to us the ultimate meaning of life. Jesus’ death on the cross is representative of all the worst features death can have for us: pain, abandonment, scandal, despair and shock. And yet, Jesus made it the supreme gift of himself in love. Jesus’ death has thus become a measure by which our deaths can be judged.
“The death of Jesus has become for Christians the mode of discernment of the degree of maturity of the human person. To die humanly is to complete the project of one’s life and being as a self-gift. To die tragically or subhumanly is to succumb to biological death, still trying vainly to make oneself the end and purpose of one’s own existence.”
M.K.HELLWIG, What are they saying about death and Christian hope?, New York 1978, p.47.).
The dung beetle of Egypt, the sacred scarab, was venerated as a symbol of eternal life because the ancient Egyptians saw the adult beetles creep into holes before the dry season, and rise again when the rains returned. The Egyptians did not realise that what they saw was a ‘dying for love’. The mother beetle creeps into a deep hole where it lays an egg near a heap of dung it has prepared beforehand. It then dies to allow its offspring to live. As Jesus said: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (see: John 12,24).
But what about resurrection, and after-life?
Death can be the transition to life in God
The Gospel assures us that, once we are risen with Christ, through baptism, we possess eternal life. We have passed from death to life.< (see: John 5,24.). If we share in the Eucharist, we will live for ever. Christ will raise us on the last day. For Christ is our resurrection and our life. Even though we seem to die, we shall keep on living.< (see: John 5,24;6,47-58;11,25-26.).
It does not mean that heaven is an imitation earth, somewhere up in the sky, where earthly life carries on, on a happier note: business as usual, but now with angels in attendance, and food, drink and other pleasures served on the house. The Scriptural texts about heaven present images not accurate descriptions. If our life with God were to be just a replica of what we live on earth, death would be a farce and heaven a degrading parody of responsible living.
The life after death which Scripture promises is something of an entirely higher nature. Somehow or other we will be taken up into God (see: Kohelet 12,7; Wisdom 3,1). There will be granted a much more direct experience of God’s Reality.
“Beloved, we already are God’s children now, but it is not apparent yet what we shall become. When Christ appears (on the Last Day) we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is.”
1 John 3,2
In some unspeakable manner we will be transformed so that we can share in God’s life. The precise form this will take escapes human imagination.
“What no eye has seen, no ear heard, nor human heart has conceived, is what God has prepared for those who love him”.
1 Corinthians 2,9
Some theologians express our new life in God as our living on in God’s memory. This has not to be understood, in Buddhist fashion, as one being a drop of water that is returned to the ocean of spirit and dissolves in it. It is rather a final seal of approval which God puts on our identity and our life so that from now on we are part of God’s own experience.
Since God is love, in God’s tender care nothing precious can be lost. And our having become ‘a pulse in the eternal Mind and Heart’ does not preclude further consciousness on our part in some form or other. For God’s way of remembering is active, dynamic and life giving (see: N.PITTENGER, After Death. Life in God, London 1980, esp. pp.58-70). After all, God is not a God of the dead, but of the living (see: Matthew 22,32).
I would like to conclude with a scriptural passage that presents heaven as a city of joy and light. The image is poetic and stresses the absence of earthly suffering and God as the source of our fulfilment and happiness.
“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of the sky from God, prepared and ready, like a bride decked out to meet her husband. I heard a loud voice proclaim from the throne: `Now God is making his home with humankind. God will live with them, and they shall be God’s family. God himself will live in their midst and will be their God.
He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain. For the old order had disappeared . . . .
People will see God’s face, and God’s name will be written on their foreheads.
There shall be no more night, and no one will need lamps or sunlight, because God himself will be their light. And people will live as kings and queens for ever and ever.”
Revelation 21,2-4; 22,4-5
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
View the following film on the meaning of God as Love