Autumn 2002

The leaves are falling rapidly now after a slow start to Autumn. It always seems as if everything is going into complete disintegration at this time of year, with the days often dark and murky in traditional November fashion. But of course the process is actually one of conserving energy and building up reserves for the coming new growth of next year's Spring. November is also the time when in the UK the nation remembers those who died in the terrible wars of the twentieth century. So what is the hope for humankind? Is there 'another' life after this one? Many people share the widespread 'myth' of life in 'heaven' when you die and of meeting loved ones there.
But the Christian hope is at once more substantial and also more complicated than those hopes. The key message of the Christian communities of the time just after the crucifixion of Jesus was that God had raised him, and of this many of them were witnesses that he was alive. But Jesus was 'alive' after a different fashion from what we know as being alive. He was transformed and available to all. So Paul has a famous chapter in his letter to the Corinthians in which he, as a former Pharisee turned Christian, claims that the dead will also be raised. For he wrote, 'If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised' - a somewhat circular argument to make the point that death is not the end.
In the Christian understanding of a 'future' life then, using Paul's imagery in 1 Corinthians 15, we shall also be changed, for having been born 'out of the dust' we shall bear, in the future, the image of the glorious Son of man, Jesus, the Lord of glory. But as far as the New Testament writings are concerned this will be in God's time and not immediately after death. That leaves us with the same problem, 'What happens when we die?' And to that no one has the answer. But Christian faith has the certainty of hope in Christ and there lies the continuity with this life. We are spirit as well as 'flesh', and that makes a difference between us and the world around us.
There are problems of course with those who seem to have sold themselves over to evil, as we have witnessed recently in the tragedies of the past year. The medieaval view, based on a biblical three-tiered view of the universe, was that they will go, in the next life, into hell, and there are sayings in the gospel which seem to encourage that view, but only on a wrong reading of the word gehenna which was the burning refuse pit outside Jerusalem. There is the sense in which none of us is ready for 'heaven', for the sight of the holiness of God, whatever that may mean. The continuity with this life and any 'future' life must logically include some sort of growth - from mediocrity to perfection, from evil to purity of heart. We may pass judgement here and now on what humans have done to incur proper punishment, but the 'future' lies with the just judgement of God in mercy and love for every person.

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