“And they lived happily ever after.” That is the fairytale ending we read to our children before switching off the light at bedtime. We reassure them that dragons and witches and bullies do not finally triumph, that virtue is rewarded and that love endures. We reinforce their belief in a moral universe in which happiness is the offspring of goodness and not its chance acquaintance or certain competitor.
But life soon confronts our children with other narratives, stories in which every wrong is not righted nor every injustice overturned. They discover danger, witness prejudice, and experience failure. They learn that things do not always work out as they hope and that they cannot always get what they want. Eventually, they encounter death and with it loss that is not reversed by a wizard’s spell or a heroine’s kiss.
Life thus schools us in doubt. We cannot believe everything we hear. It is right to doubt that we can “lose twenty pounds while eating whatever we want,” or “look ten years younger overnight,” or “get rich working only a day a week from home.” It is right for us to question such extravagant claims, lest we be swindled, lest we be injured, lest we be disappointed. Prudence demands that we become wary of strangers and suspicious of even our own motives. On one level, this is no more than an awareness of sin, in others and in ourselves. More deeply, it is a recognition of the mystery of evil, whose embassy is to thwart and cheapen and diminish human life.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” For many people today, that advice applies preeminently to religion, whose hopes are dismissed outright as wishful thinking. The real world consists only of what is accessible to scientific verification. Therefore, meaning itself is an illusion. The universe has no creator, no purpose, and, ultimately, no future. According to today’s most popular cosmology, in the end there will be only a burned-out and dissipated universe: not noise and fury, but silence and futility, signifying nothing. In this scenario, there can be no “happily ever after.” According to microbiologist Jacques Monod,
[T]he choice of scientific practice, an unconscious choice in the beginning, has launched the evolution of culture on a one-way path: onto a track which nineteenth-century scientism saw leading infallibly upward to an empyrean noon hour for mankind, whereas what we see opening before us today is an abyss of darkness.2
To me, the wishful-thinking argument is a nonstarter. Retrospectively, I might regard as wishful thinking a material universe whose physical characteristics, such as electromagnetism and gravity, are so finely balanced as to make possible the emergence of life and, even more extraordinary, sentience. Who could have predicted a cosmos whose rock would birth Pythagorus’s theorem, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Chartres’s cathedral, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Nevertheless, such a universe exists. Not every desirable object is an illusion.
Our desire for purpose, order, and meaning is fundamental to our existence. Many of the earliest cultural artifacts are religious in nature, and belief in life after death is nearly universal. This does not prove the validity of religion, but it certainly weighs in its favor. As C. S. Lewis put it, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”3 Or, to use Huston Smith’s analogy, wings do not prove the existence of air, but they surely count as evidence. We know instinctively that we are something more than the sum of our parts and part of something more than ourselves. Consider the final chorus of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock,
We are stardust, million-year old carbon
We are golden, caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden
On the one hand, we are, quite literally, stardust, assemblies of primordial carbon. On the other hand, we are something more, something “golden.” Yet, we are not now fully ourselves; we are “caught in the devil’s bargain.” To get “back to the garden” is to go to the place of wholeness and innocence for which we long.
Christianity is grounded in the hope that we shall indeed arrive at such a place–not the garden but that for which the garden is the prefiguring image, the Reign of God. The core affirmation of Christian faith is that God–not evil, futility, and death–is the final reality in the cosmos. This belief encompasses not only the hope of eternal life but also the expectation that creation itself will be redeemed (Rom. 8:18-25). Why believe in the happy ending? For the first Christians the answer was obvious: because of Jesus’ resurrection.
Many years ago, my wife, Robin, became increasingly ill over a period of weeks. She was tested for numerous ailments, nearly all of which would have proved fatal. After two months, she could scarcely get out of bed, and I began to take seriously the possibility that she would die. My faith was hard pressed. Did I truly believe with Paul that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us,” that “neither death…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:37-39)? It was not easy.
As I meditated on Scripture, I came to value particularly 1 Corinthians 9:1, in which Paul declares, “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” This is one of only a handful of places where Paul refers back to his experience of seeing the resurrected Jesus. Moreover, Paul’s letters provide the only undisputed primary-source testimony composed by an eyewitness of the resurrection. His writings would be invaluable for this reason if for no other.
In the course of my wife’s illness, I learned to borrow from the faith of Paul and other early Christians who paid with their lives for their unyielding conviction that God in Christ had triumphed over death, in whose victory they believed they would one day share. Fortunately, Robin eventually recovered, but I have never forgotten what it was like to pass so near to death.
Concerning death the Bible is remarkably unsentimental. Paul and other New Testament authors do not tell us that deceased believers will become angels or stars, nor do they say that we shall be melded with some divine force. There is no greeting-card sentiment about God needing more company in heaven. Instead, death is seen as that great enemy which, apart from God’s ultimate and undeserved act of re-creation, would unmake us all. In short, death is real.
According to Paul, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). The hope is for the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul. Eternal life is not a given; it is a gift bestowed only by God. The One who created conscious beings is able to recreate such beings by resurrection. Hence 1 Cor. 15:50: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” Christians are not required to believe in an immortal soul that exists independent of the body. Instead, Paul writes, “we will be changed” (v. 52), given bodies like that of the resurrected Jesus himself. On this point the New Testament is clear and yet sensibly reserved. Compare 1 John 3:2:
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
Most theologians today reject the notion that heavenly existence will be static, represented at its silliest by the sitting-on-clouds-playing-harps stereotype. They see heaven not only as a place of endless praise, joy and fellowship, but also as a realm of ceaseless fascination and development. I am in no position to evaluate these claims, nor, beyond a certain point, do I find such speculations helpful. More concrete and much more useful is Paul’s advice about the present-day implications of our future hope:
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:57-58)
The Gospel places demands upon us that conflict at many points with our worldly self interest. To love our enemies is not necessarily going to make us happy. To serve the poor is unlikely to advance us socially or economically. It is no accident that the radical ethic of Jesus is situated within an equally radical proclamation of the coming Reign of God. That is the only context within which it makes sense. To attempt to follow Jesus’ teaching while denying its core affirmation is an exercise in futility. “Eschatological demands require eschatological commitments and eschatological resources.”4
Paul urged the Corinthians to be steadfast and immovable, “always excelling in the work of the Lord.” But being “steadfast and immovable” implies meeting opposition, and “the work of the Lord” is endlessly sacrificial. Is it worth it? Yes, “because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Good deeds may be undone, faithful choices may be frustrated, and loving acts may be rejected; nevertheless, they are not wasted. The Christian philosopher Jerry Walls put it this way:
To recover heaven as a positive moral source is to recover our very humanity….It allows us to hope that the worst things that happen can yet come to a good end rather than to dread the prospect that the best things will come to a bad end. And if it is indeed the Holy Spirit who inspires this hope, it is a hope that will not be disappointed.5
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Is death the end, the final page in the story of our lives? Or can we believe in a happy ending? “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Cor. 15:55, 57).
*This is an edited version of a longer sermon that appeared in the book Exploring and Proclaiming the Apostles’ Creed, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 292-97.
2 Cited in Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), p. 41.
3 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960), p. 119.
4 Craig C. Hill, In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 198.
5 Jerry Walls, Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 200.