Throughout history most humans have been well acquainted with death. War, famine, disease, oppression, and the harsh realities of daily living forced our ancestors to stare death in the face more often than we 21st century North Americans can imagine. We sometimes are puzzled as to why those generations before us seemed so obsessed with death and life after death. The reason for this constant awareness of the specter of death was its ubiquitous presence. Death was an “up close” reality no one could ignore.
I would suggest that the current pandemic has caused many of us moderns to appreciate our ancestors’ more realistic understanding and experience of death. Whether we verbalize our fears or keep them tucked in the private places of our minds and hearts, death has become a reality in ways that Western moderns have not had to face in many decades. Like countless generations before us, we have come face to face with our mortality and the mortality of those we love.
So, how can we as followers of Christ deal with this universal predicament with integrity of mind and heart and with mature faith and authentic hope? Elsewhere on this blog I have dealt with the Christian hope of resurrection. (Unfortunately, that hope has been trivialized and privatized by much of Western Christianity.) In this article, however, I want to look at a perspective that, while Christian, reflects perhaps a more personal, practical, and productive way of looking at and dealing with the reality of death.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, in his marvelous book entitled Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, writes the following:
We are saved by simply remaining in the one circle of life and love, and not by standing separate or superior. THIS IS THE ONE LOVE THAT WILL LEAD AND CARRY YOU ACROSS WHEN YOU DIE. If you are already at home with Love here, you will quite readily move into the eternal home of Love, which most of us call heaven. Death is not a changing of worlds as most imagine, as much as THE WALLS OF THIS WORLD INFINITELY EXPANDING. If you get love here, you have found the eternal home base, and you will easily and naturally live forever. (pp.206-207)
Behind and within this quote is some of the best theology the church has offered over the past two millennia. It affirms at a deep level the hope of resurrection. It reflects that reality of God who is Love. It unpacks the meaning of “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN.” Instead of the self-centered and unbiblical escape from this world many Christians have embraced in their twisted and immature theologies, Rohr’s wisdom is based on the hope of the New Testament and the early church for the healing and liberation of all creation through the gracious and redeeming power of love seen in Jesus.
Rohr states that salvation/healing cannot come through standing separate or superior. If there is something such as “original sin,” I believe it consists of our tendency and need to exclude—to separate ourselves from the rest of humanity and from the universe as a whole. Such a tragic inclination is at the root of all forms of prejudice and bigotry. It also explains the incoherent refusal of so many to realize how connected we humans are to the rest of nature. Without that awareness, we will continue the devastating spiral into an ecological abyss which will doom us and much of life as we now know it on this earth. This desire to be separate and superior is an insidious form of arrogance. And it is a denial of God’s grace and love for the world—all of the world and all people.
The New Testament is unanimous in affirming love not only as the essential character of God; love also constitutes the only way that ultimate healing and salvation can come to this world. Paul says that even if we have the faith to move mountains—even if we have all wisdom and knowledge—even if we offer our very lives for some cause, none of that matters if we do not have love (I Corinthians 13 where Paul defines the type of love that reflects the love of God in Christ).
Several places in Jesus’ teachings we find a reference to a “reward in heaven.” Critics of Christianity have accused Jesus of having a mercenary motive behind his teachings: “Do these things so you will have a reward in heaven.” But I would suggest that this is a complete misunderstanding of our Lord. Even in this life we know that rewards can be mercenary or authentic. Rewards can be “tacked on” to one’s life with no grounding in actions or motives, or rewards can naturally evolve from one’s being and doing on this earth. For example, imagine a man who marries a woman because of her wealth. He doesn’t really love her. He has no intention of being faithful to her. All of his expressions of affection and intimacy are fake. All he cares about is her money. So, the “reward” in his marriage is mercenary and has nothing to do with the vows of love he made when he married his wife. But what about a man who marries a woman because he deeply loves her. Her happiness and fulfillment matter most to him in their relationship. He will make any sacrifice for her. As the years pass, his love for her deepens and their joy overflows. His “reward” is a natural continuation, development, and extension of the love that motivated his desire to be with this woman for the rest of his life. No one would call this type of love and the happy results from this love mercenary. They are the inevitable outcome of an unselfish investment of time, energy, and will.
I would suggest that this is the type of reward Jesus is referring to in his teachings. If we have chosen to live our lives out of authentic love, joy, gratitude, compassion, and peace, we will love “heaven,” because heaven is the eternal expansion of all that is good and loving in this world. We will have more of what we have experienced and chosen in this life. (That last sentence has some relevance for any concept of “hell” if there is such a reality.) If heaven is an expanding experience of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control), then there are those who would enjoy heaven—and there are those who would be miserable in heaven. Try to imagine how a person who has been greedy, narcissistic, cruel, arrogant, and uncaring would relate to a place where love reigns supreme! As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his book The Great Divorce, such people would be absolutely miserable. They wouldn’t have a clue as to what was motivating all the goodness surrounding them.
If God is love and if we can only come into our own authentic humanity through love, then we can understand why Rohr says that love “will lead and carry you across when you die.” As Paul says in Romans 8, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” –not even death itself. Love will take us home because love is “the way” home. We do not earn heaven—we simply allow God to love us into an expanding reality that has eternal dimensions. And authentic faith recognizes that since we are all connected in the heart of this God called Abba, ultimate healing and salvation can never be limited to any exclusive definition of “us” we may harbor. As Paul says, God’s love believes all, hopes all, endures all, and never ends—never!