“We look for the resurrection of the dead”, says the Nicene Creed.
“I believe in the resurrection of the body”, we declare every time we recite the “Apostles’ Creed”.
These ancient affirmations are well-grounded in Scripture, most obviously in 1 Corinthians 15, but also in Romans 8 and other passages. They are also consistent with the teaching of 2 Peter 3 and Revelation 21 and 22 that confirms that the future hope of God’s people is not for their bodies to remain buried for ever in the ground of this earth and for their “souls” to fly off to “heaven”, but for bodily resurrection and for future life in God’s new heaven and new earth.
Confusion in our hymns
According to Tom Wright (Surprised by Hope, SPCK, 2007), a number of our hymns (and, we might add, a number of our worship songs) are not nearly as clear as they might be about this.
Amongst the confusion cited by Wright is the following couplet by John Keble:-
Till in the ocean of thy love
We lose ourselves in heaven above.
But ‘it was he who was for a moment lost here, not in Christianity, but in a drop-in-the-ocean Buddhist eschatology.’
Then there is the the following expression in that old favourite, ‘Abide With Me’:-
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee.
This, suggests Wright, is a specimen of ‘blatant Platonism’.
The Christmas carol ‘Away in a manger’, aside from the dubious claim that
Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,
asks that Jesus would
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care
and fit us for heaven, to live with thee there.
That stirring hymn, ‘How great thou art’, expresses the following idea:-
When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
Moving on from these examples, mentioned by Wright, we think of our modern worship songs. Stuart Townend is one of the more theologically robust of recent Christian song-writers. But this is what he writes in his best-known composition, ‘In Christ Alone’:-
Till he returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.
Well, maybe there is (to use for once that awful bit of preacher’s jargon) a sense in which death for the Christian is being ‘called home’ (Phil 1:23). But a more biblical balance would be achieved if we were equipped to sing, not only of that ‘intermediate state’, but of that fullness of life that accompanies ‘the redemption of our bodies’ (Romans 8:23).
As Wright says, there are some hymns that stand out against the trend. The most notable example (he suggests) is the hymn,’For all the saints’:-
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon, to faithful warriors comest rest:
Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest.
‘Paradise’, here the intermediate place of rest and refreshment. Only after that does the resurrection occur:
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The Saints triumphant rise in bright array:
The King of glory passes on his way.
Confusion in the wider world
Wright notes the confusion that exists in the wider world on the subject of hope. It is certainly not the case that all religions are basically the same.
There is a world of difference between the Muslim who believes that a Palestinian boy killed by Israeli soldiers goes straight to heaven, and the Hindu for whom the rigorous outworking of karma means that one must return in a different body to pursue the next stage of one’s destiny. There is a world of difference between the Orthodox Jew who believes that all the righteous will be raised to new individual bodily life in the resurrection, and the Buddhist who hopes after death to disappear like a drop in th ocean, losing one’s own identity in the great nameless and formless Beyond.
And there are widely different beliefs about the state of the dead right now. Many Africans suppose that their departed ancestors continue to play an active role (for good or for ill) in their lives, and even educated Japanese regard ancestor worship as quite normal. Here in Britain popular thought has been characterised more by questions and half-beliefs than by Christian orthodoxy. The horrors of the Great War may have prompted many to give up belief in hell, but this was not replaced by a universalist version of Christian belief (salvation for all), but belief for many in the kind absorbtion into nature that had been expressed by Shelley:-
Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep –
He hath awakened from the dream of life –
‘Tis we, who, lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife…
He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,
Spreading itself where’er that Power may move
Which has withdrawn his being to its own…
The atheist Shelley knew perfectly well that this Neoplatonic vision of the transformation of the soul into part of the beauty of the universe was a long way from traditional Christian teaching. Today’s irony is that many express similar sentiments and imagine them to be Christian, and expect the church to allow them to be read out during Christian funerals.
Another part of the British reaction to the horrors of war has been denial: the subject of death was for much of the 20th century swept under the carpet, repressed, but with occasional outpourings of national grief such as took place in November 1920 at the time of the funeral of the Unknown Warrier, and again in September 1997 following the death of Princess Diana. Things are a little different now, with a new fascination with death being expressed in films life Four Weddings and a Funeral and in any number of ‘snuff’ movies. The play Wit, by Margaret Edson, is set in a cancer ward and has the dying heroine reflect on Donne’s sonnet ‘Death be not proud’. The newspaper columnist John Diamond became famous for writing about his terminal throat cancer and for his robust atheism ‘which refused all comfort, all offers of some kind of salvation beyond the grave.’
There is a quotation from a sermon by Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918) that is read at thousands of funerals and memorial services:-
Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow…Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
What few people seem to know, however, is that Holland did not present this as his own view at all. It represents, he said, one of two ways of regarding death. It is the view that comes to mind
as we look down upon the quiet face, so cold and white, of one who has been very near and dear to us.
The second reaction to death is
the familiar and instinctive recoil from it as embodying the supreme and irrevocable disaster…
According to this second view, death is
so inexplicable, so ruthless, so blundering…the cruel ambush into which we are snared…it makes its horrible breach in our gladness with careless and inhuman disregard of us…beyond the darkness hides its impenetrable secret…Dumb as the night, that terrifying silence!
Holland stated that these two views of death ‘appear to be in hopeless contradiction with each other.’ He went on attempt some kind of reconciliation between the two, in terms of the Christian hope.
It is important to realise that, in Bishop Tom Wright’s words,
to take the paragraph so frequently quoted out of the context of the sermon in which it was originally spoken does serious violence to the author’s intention. We can only wonder at the extraordinary denial which is going on when this is done. It amounts to a resolute refusal to tell the truth about the real and savage break, the horrible denial of the goodness of human life, which every death involves.
Taken out of context, the piece of Scott Holland has no place in Christian funerals. Without comment or explanation,
it simply tells lies. It is not even a parody of Christian hope. Instead, it simply denies that there is any problem, any need for hope in the first place.
Consequences for how we do funerals
Wright gives an account of the prevailing confusions about the subject of death and what lies beyond. These confusions become apparent in the way we do funerals, and in the implicit theology held by those who prefer cremation to burial.
Of course there were reasons of hygiene and overcrowding which led reformers towards the end of the last century to propose this step – which, as not all western Christians know, is still firmly opposed by the Eastern Orthodox (despite the shortage of land in Greece itself) as well as orthodox Jews and Muslims. But cremation has tended, classically, to belong more with a Hindu or Buddhist theology; and that, at a low-grade and popular level, is …where we as a culture are rapidly moving. When people ask for their ashes to be scattered on a favourite hillside, or in a well-loved river or shoreline, we can sympathize with the feeling (though not, perhaps, with denying the bereaved a specific spot to visit in their grief). But the underlying implication, of a desire simply to be merged back into the created world, without any affirmation of a future life of new embodiment, flies in the face of classic Christian theology.
The same confusion is found in the words prepared for modern funeral services themselves. In the recent funeral liturgies of the Church of England, resurrection is mentioned in muted terms, if at all. The general tenor is to support the prevailing notion of ‘a single-stage post-mortem destination’, as in the prayer for God to
turn the darkness of death into the dawn of new life, and the sorrow of parting into the joy of heaven.
‘Prayers of entrusting and commending’ offer little more:-
…we commend N into your arms of mercy, believing that, with sins forgiven, he/she will share a place of happiness, light and piece in the kingdom of your glory for ever.
…God now welcomes him/her to his table in heaven, to share in eternal life with all the saints.
We commend N to your mercy and pray that as you gather him/her to yourself, you will give to us your blessing of peace…
The ‘burial of ashes’ expresses
a firm hope in your eternal love and purposes for us
but not, as the older services would, ‘in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection’.
Frankly, what we have at the moment isn’t as the old liturgies used to say, ‘the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead’, but the vague and fuzzy optimism that somehow things may work out in the end.
Too often, ‘resurrection’ language is collapsed into ‘going to heaven’ language. We are not offered the prospect of bodily resurrection, rooted in the resurrection of Jesus himself and ‘located within the promise of new heavens and new earth’. We are offered, rather,
the generalised and pious hope for a blessed immortality starting more or less at once and continuing in an undifferentiated future.
Consequences for life in the present world
Wright argues strongly that a robust belief in bodily resurrection has important consequences for life in the present world.
It is a Platonic, not a biblical, understanding that tends to downplay the body and the created order in general, longing for the release from all things physical that supposedly comes with death. ‘Why oil the wheels of a machine that will soon plunge over a cliff?’
But the Christian doctrine of the resurrection, as part of God’s new creation, increases our regard for this world, and for our present bodies.
Paul speaks of the future resurrection as a major motive for treating our bodies properly in the present time, 1 Cor 6:14, and as the reason, not for sitting back and waiting for it all to happen, but for working hard in the present, knowing that nothing done in the Lord, in the power of the Spirit, in the present time will be wasted in God’s future, 1 Cor 15:58.
A piety which sees death as the moment of ‘going home at last’, the time when we are ‘called to God’s eternal peace’, has no quarrel with those who want to carve up the world to suit their own ends. Resurrection, by contrast, has always gone with a strong view of God’s justice, and of God as the good creator. Those twin beliefs give rise, not to a meek acquiescence in injustice in the world, but to a robust determination to oppose it. It is telling that English evangelicals gave up believing in the urgent imperative to improve society (such as we find with Wilberforce in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) about the same time that they gave up believing robustly in resurrection and settled for a disembodied heaven instead.