Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by
There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky.
So asks a grieving son, in that blue grass classic, as he watches his mother’s hearse pass by.
Death is a mystery. As my field education supervisor George Tolman once noted, now almost 40 years ago, “life is risky business; no one ever gets out alive.” The mortality rate remains 100% despite our technological advances. And as a Greek philosopher Epicurus opined over two thousand years ago, “Where I am, death is not; where death is, I am not.”
The reality of death touches us all. Martin Luther asserted, “In the midst of life, we are surrounded by death.” There is no escape from mortality, but is it possible that Luther was speaking the truth when he also affirmed, “In the midst death, we are surrounded by life”?
Our faith is cross-centered. Regardless of how we understand it theologically, the death of Jesus is central to the Christian message. God’s beloved child, the healer and teacher, the revealer of God, is nailed to the cross and dies in agony. Our faith is also resurrection-centered: the one who is crucified rises on the third day, an amazing and unexpected act of God, revealing God’s power over death and fear in all its forms.
Forty years ago, when I began graduate school at Claremont, virtually none of my professors discussed the afterlife. It was more or less taboo in liberal circles. “The pie in the sky – the sweet by and by – when you die” was seen as an impediment in our quest for justice in this world. If you put all your hopes on heaven, you have no incentive to challenge ecological devastation, racism, sexism, and economic exploitation, my professors and many liberal pastors believed. Heaven, the liberal tradition asserted, turns our eyes from the world in hopes of a better world a coming when we die.
To some extent, this critique is correct: much of the opposition to addressing environmental destruction and social justice comes from Christians who believe that this world is a front porch to eternity and that we should focus on heaven and submit to whatever future God has planned for us – God, not us, will destroy the earth.
Yet, interest in the afterlife abounds today. Books and movies describe near death experiences and interest in reincarnation has become mainstream. People have mystical experiences that change their lives, and open their minds to life beyond the grave.
Twenty-five years ago, my mother died from a pulmonary embolism following surgery. Our son, just ten at the time, who had no idea she had died, dreamed that night that he and my mom were walking on the beach in Santa Cruz, California. My mom said to him, “Tell Everett (my father) everything’s alright.”
A friend of mine had an accident, lost consciousness, and died for a few moments in the operating room. When she returned to consciousness, her life was changed. While doctors and nurses worked to revive her, she went to another place. She met Jesus, looked at her life in its entirety, and encountered her deceased grandparents and a beloved pet. She didn’t want to return. As she reports, “It was so beautiful and peaceful. I felt such love. But, Jesus told me I still have a mission on Earth. I’m no longer afraid of death. Death is the open door to everlasting life with Jesus.”
While such experiences are not scientific evidence for survival after death, they point to the possibility that the circle will be unbroken, and that “in the midst of death, we are truly surrounded by life.”
Now we can look at survival after death in two important ways. First, we can understand immortality in terms of memory. The One to Whom all Hearts are Open and All Desires Known embraces the whole world – in its entirety. As philosopher Alfred North Whitehead asserts, God is the fellow sufferer who understands and the joyful companion who celebrates our achievements. Nothing is ever lost in God’s memory. Our lives perish and live ever more in God’s experience.
It is a joy to know that what we do matters to God. Surely this has profound ethical implications. Our lives are our gifts to God. Our calling, as Mother Teresa counsels, is to “do something beautiful for God” – to give God a beautiful and not ugly world. This world matters because it makes a difference to God.
But, is this enough? So many lives end prematurely. Others die in poverty and hopelessness. Millions of children will die of malnutrition in the years ahead. And, we die incomplete, imperfect, and alienated from loved ones.
The bible doesn’t say much about the afterlife. But, what is says is important. First of all, scripture does not pit this life and the next against one another. God loves this world and challenges us to bring beauty and justice to this good earth. A soul beloved by God, created in God’s image and destined for everlasting life, needs to be treated with dignity in this lifetime.
Second, scripture proclaims God’s faithfulness in every season of life: whether we live or die, we belong to God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Third, the afterlife is imagined to be a community, a realm, a place of personal transformation. It is not less but more than we can imagine. Resurrection living affirms God’s transformation of the whole person in community. It is not a matter of coming back to earth in a new body, but growing in grace and wholeness in companionship with God and those near and dear to us, including perhaps our companion animals.
Fourth, heaven is not uniform or boring. Jesus promises that in God’s realm there are many mansions. We may have multiple adventures and multiple pathways in the afterlife. We may start in different places, depending on our life histories, religious backgrounds, and need for healing.
A friend of mine reports a dream in which her mother came to her with surprising news. Her mother had belonged to a conservative Christian church, one of those congregations that preached that there is only one path to salvation and that apart from a personal relationship with Jesus, you and countless millions will be eternally lost. In the dream, her mom confessed, “Heaven’s so much different than I imagined. I was wrong. Jesus is here but so are followers of Buddha and Mohammed.”
When we talk about everlasting life, we must be humble and count on God’s grace and love as the source of trust. Grace abounds. Grace heals and transforms. God’s love endures forever. While the afterlife will remain a mystery, we can trust that our future is in God’s hands, that God is more forgiving than we can imagine, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
The circle will be unbroken!