Jesus did not suffer in our place so that we might not have to suffer, nor did he die in our place to dispense us from dying. Inspired by love and faith, he suffered and died so that our sufferings and death might become like his: an entrusting of ourselves into the hands of the Father, a complete opening of ourselves to a Life that is unending.
There is only one victory over death, and it is won by loving as Jesus loved. This love makes a man able to give his life for those he loves, because such love brings so intense a life that he who experiences it knows that even death has no power against it.
All of us possess two lives. One life is lived at the biological level; it is temporary and weak, difficult to maintain, protect, and prolong, and it obliges us to take countless measures that must nonetheless some day prove ineffective. The other life is exhaustibly dynamic, and impels us to love, to believe, to hope. It carries us constantly beyond ourselves and possesses two characteristics that prove it to be eternal: we have the power to live it without ceasing, and for the sake of it we would be willing to die straightway.
This eternal life is the proper object of the revelation brought by Christ. Physical life can neither bestow this life nor take it away. It is independent of matter, of its seductions no less than its betrayals. If a man lives this eternal life, it is “impossible for him to be held in [death’s] power” (Acts 2, 24). “Everyone who loves is begotten by God” (1 Jn 4, 7). “Everyone whose life is righteous has been begotten by him [God]” (1 Jn 2, 29). To be thus begotten is to have begun a divine and eternal life which death is powerless to cut short.
The New Testament makes use of two terms to express Jesus’ victory over death: ‘resurrection’ and ‘eternal life’. Both describe the same reality, but with different images.
For primitive peoples and to the Hebrew mentality as well, ‘resurrection’ was the only image that expressed a genuine survival. What these peoples sought was the reconstitution of the human organism as they had experience of it.
For our contemporaries, however, this conception has an insurmountable objection against it: We know that the resurrection of Jesus was utterly different from that of Lazarus or the daughter of Jairus or the son of the widow of Naim. These individuals inevitably died once again; their resurrection was temporary and did not transform them. The resurrection of Jesus, on the other hand, was not simply a reanimation of his corpse, a simple return to earthly life as we know it. It was a real event indeed, but an event that transcends every effort to imagine it, every expression in earthly terms, every experimental verification. It was an event of the same order as Christ’s glorification, his exaltation to the heavens, or his sitting at the Father’s right hand. If we take these various symbols literally, we are lost. A glorified body is not a reanimated corpse. It exists in a state that cannot be imagined or represented or expressed; St. Paul says as much in the paradoxes he uses, as when he calls the glorified body a “spiritual body!”
“Someone may ask, ‘How are dead people raised, and what sort of body do they have when they come back?!’ They are stupid questions. Whatever you sow in the ground has to die before it is given new life and the thing you sow is not what is going to come; you sow a bare grain, say of wheat or something like that, and then God gives it the sort of body that he has chosen: each sort of seed gets its own sort of body.
“….It is the same with the resurrection of the dead: the thing that is sown is perishable but what is raised is imperishable; the that is sown is contemptible but what is raised is glorious; the thing that is sown is weak but what is raised is powerful; when it is sown it embodies the soul [or: is a natural body], when it is raised it embodies the spirit [or: is a spiritual body]” (1 Cor 15, 35-44).
It is useless, then, or even “stupid,” according to <St.> Paul, to try to represent to ourselves a body that has been freed from all the laws governing matter! But the term ‘resurrection’ has become especially unsafe and ineffective in our time, for various reasons.
First of all, it suggests that the resurrection concerns only the body, whereas in fact Jesus promises the renewal of the whole man, body and soul, man who is an incarnated spirit. It is not our body that will rise, but our whole selves that will be transformed, although we shall not lose our identity in the process. Our soul is as much in need of transformation as our body is!
For a long time, the phrase ‘resurrection of the body’ has prompted Christians to develop the picture of an emergence from the grave. Bossuet describes such an emergence in his grandiose but puerile manner:
“At the sound of this almighty voice that will make itself heard instantaneously from east to west and north to south, the bodies lying there, the dry bones, the ashes, the cold, insensible dust will be stirred within the tomb. All of nature will be agitated. Sea and land and abyss will make ready to deliver up the dead whom, as men saw it, they had swallowed as their prey, but whom in fact they had simply received as a trust, to be faithfully handed over at the first command… For this matter that makes up our bodies does not belong any the less to him [God] because it has changed its name and form. He will be able without trouble to gather the scattered remains of our bodies, which are always precious to him because he once united them to souls made in his image and filled with his grace. These bodies of ours are always protected by his all-powerful hand, whatever be the corner of the universe in which the law of change has strewn these precious remains.”
Many contemporary theologians, however, tell us that their faith in the resurrection of Jesus would not change even if his bones were to be discovered. For his resurrection is not a return to a former life; it is an unimaginable transformation that brings Jesus into a life which is human and yet utterly new. In practice, the resurrection tells us that Jesus is LIVING and present to each of us throughout the ages.
A second point about this outdated phrase, ‘resurrection of the body’, is that it brings with it a strange idea of God. It suggests that God would let us die in anguish and amid the distress of our friends, in order then to recreate us by an invisible miracle.
Thirdly and above all, the imagined picture of the resurrection has led Christians to a disastrous state of confusion: they have come to believe that the divine life is primarily a future life! Yet Jesus did not speak of a future life; he spoke of an eternal life. We need reflect only for a moment to realize that this eternal life is the opposite of a future life, since it is already at work in us. We exist now in an eternal life; we have begun our eternity, for good.
Jesus certainly speaks of resurrection (the cultural context forced him to do so), but he also expresses the same reality in language much better adapted to our age. He promises his disciples that they will never see death: “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (Jn 11, 26). He introduces them to a life that will have no end: “Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever” (Jn 6, 51).
How do you interpret these texts?
Jesus is clearly not claiming that his followers will be spared biological death. What he is asserting is that the life begun under his influence will not be interrupted by physical death.
Many Christians, however, interpret the words of Jesus as a promise of a reward, the proclamation of a divine intervention on behalf of those who merit it. But eternal life is not a reward in the future! If it is eternal, it exists right now. That is precisely what Jesus means: we attain to this life by conversion here and now, and we choose this life as result of comparing it with other kinds of life. We also choose it through experience.
– Experience of life: “I an the resurrection [and the life]. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (Jn 11, 25-26).
– Experience of action: “If anyone is prepared to do his [God’s] will, he will know whether my teaching is from God or whether my doctrine is my own” (Jn 7, 17).
– Experience of freedom: “If you make my word your home you will indeed be my disciples, you will learn the truth and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8, 31-32).
– Experience of happiness: “Now that you know this, happiness will be yours if you behave accordingly” (Jn 13, 17).
– Experience of brotherhood: “Who is my neighbor?” Anyone who needs you!
– Experience of fruitfulness: Anyone who gives, receives a hundredfold in this life (cf. Mk 10, 30). “Anyone who drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again: the water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside him welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4, 14).
These realistic assertions of Christ are far more attractive than a promise of life beyond the grave. The idea of a future life is in fact an opiate for believers: it makes them lose interest in the only life they will in fact live forever: the life they now have, their present life.
Jesus teaches us the infinite value of each moment by revealing to us that it is he who really accepts whatever we do to the least of his brothers and sisters, and that every action inspired by love will have effects which last forever. We must not wait to find the Lord in another life, for he is with us always, and our present life is given to us so that we may accustom ourselves to his presence and action. “Eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17, 3). Those who have never found joy in this presence, knowledge and intimacy during the present life will be indifferent to it in the world to come.
The question Christians should really be asked before their death is not: “Do you believe in an eternal life?” but rather: “Do you want to live forever? Do you find your life so absorbing that you want it not to end? Is there anything in your life that you want to last forever? Whom do you love enough that you want to live with him forever?”
If you have nothing that you desire should be everlasting, then there will be no eternity for you. The only thing that will last forever is our relationships that are based on love: “Faith and hope will pass away, but love remains.” You will bestow unending existence upon everything that you have sufficiently loved.
If you die this evening, what will you render eternal? Your capacity for redemption is proportioned to your power of loving.
Those in hell wait for a future life; they wait for ‘things to change’: for a wife to change or a husband to change (Unless, of course, they simply exchange husbands or wives!). The celibate waits to get married; the spouse waits to be a widow or widower. The student looks forward to his profession, the worker to his retirement. Hell is paved with good intentions, and everything is put off until tomorrow.
In heaven they want everything to last! They love those around them and marvel at what is given to them.
Where do you stand? In hell? Are you waiting for ‘things to change’? Is it your desire to throw off the burden of life and other people? Or are you in heaven, because your desire is to live and love without end?
When you explain this situation to married people, you can see fright fill their eyes. They were hoping that heaven would be an unending summer vacation from marriage! They were thinking they would have suffered enough on earth from their spouse, and would merit liberation from him or her in heaven!
Even in religious communities, you need only look at the faces of some when you tell then that heaven will be the continuation of the best they have known on earth, and they will therefore enter heaven with their brothers or sisters and superiors. All the longing for heaven vanishes!
It is in these reactions that we see the dangerous confusion caused by the idea of ‘future life’. This idea allows people to wait without doing anything! It denies the continuity between this life and the ‘next’, and therefore induces people simply to put up with the present life, instead of transforming it.
Eternal life is here and now. Therefore, begin immediately to establish relationships among yourselves that can last forever! Begin your eternal life today! Begin right now to be what you want to be forever!
“To die is to open oneself to that for which one has lived on earth.” What do you live for? Money? You will have money; in fact, you will spend your eternity in the vaults of a Swiss bank. The flesh? You will have the flesh: numberless contacts without love, endless groping in the darkness, mad lust but never an authentic encounter that would free you from your solitude. Yourself? You will have yourself!
But if you live for love, for creativity and discoveries, for solidarity and struggles, for liberation and justice, you will live for these eternally.
Are you in a hurry to be happy here below so that you can be happy forever? Remember: you will never live a life different from the one you live now.
Is that not what Christ was telling us when he said: “Whoever keeps my word will never see death” (Jn 8, 51). And John too, when he said: “We have passed out of death and into life, and of this we can be sure because we love our brothers” (1 Jn 3, 14). We died a long time ago, on the day of our baptism, and the life that began then is so strong and so loving that it can last forever!
Conclusion: We need not wonder about the existence of a world beyond after death, for we know that even in this life the world beyond already exists within us. Our present life contains a reality beyond appearances, a mysterious dimension that can never be exhaustively explored, a dynamism grounded in faith, hope, and love, which convinces us that reality for us is not reducible to a simple biological existence.
Our experience of life gives us the means and the power to confront death. We share this life with all those, living or dead, who live the life of Christ. In an obscure but infallible way we are united to all of them in a ‘communion of saints’. And we have a means of drawing ever closer to those we love, and that is to intensify within ourselves the life of love that unites us to one another.