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Religious teaching tells us that God destined us for eternal life, but that sin caused death to enter the world. A great mythopoetic idea—but how are we to understand it?
One of the most striking statements about Easter I have ever read comes from Oscar Wilde. Wilde was commenting on the contrast between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. To paraphrase, Wilde said he preferred the Middle Ages to the classicizing Renaissance, since the Middle Ages was inspired by the true renaissance—Christ’s.
This event was an explosion whose far-flying sparks gave life to a whole civilization. The joy of the resurrection is life-giving in that it has given impetus to an entire culture, to manifold human activities in the spheres of charity, intellect, and art. But apart from all this, there remains the resurrection itself and its intrinsic significance as the pledge of a future life.
The question of what will happen to us, our final destiny, is the most burning question of all, more than any question of ethics or aesthetics. For all of history mankind has had intimations that his soul was immortal—see Plato’s meditations on this subject. Simply on the rational level, how can something immaterial like the human soul be annihilated? The ancient Jews had speculations of an eternal life but no definitive teaching. Only in Christianity has there been given a historical guarantee in the form of an empty tomb and other testimonies to the risen Jesus. No other philosophy or belief system even took it upon itself to invent such occurrences. From the Christian standpoint immortality is not a hypothesis, not philosophical speculation—it is a reality with historical attestation.
Eternal life in the Christian sense is of course different from the pagan philosophical concept of immortality. Christian belief does not hold that we are naturally immortal; and the body is involved, as it was not for the Greeks. For the Christian, it is Christ alone who brings immortality. No more can anyone say, in the force of this tremendous event, that death is senseless—or indeed that anything that happens here on earth is mere chance or caprice instead of part of a grand plan.
People in our day are living longer and longer earthly lives, which to me is a sign of the human being’s natural tendency to go on living, our natural desire for immortality. How very wrong is Einstein’s statement that belief in a life after death indicates “fear” and “ridiculous egotism.” We are individual, integrated persons and the idea of annihilation cuts us to the heart. We all of us in our heart of hearts crave eternal, personal existence and claims to the contrary strike me as a delusion. It is selling oneself short on a monumental scale.
Religious teaching tells us that God destined us for eternal life, but that sin caused death to enter the world. A great mythopoetic idea—but how are we to understand it? In religious ed as a child, I formed the idea that Adam and Eve were created immortal and, had they not sinned, would have gone on living forever on earth; likewise, their children, and all their descendants.
But you only have to think about this for a minute to realize how rationally outlandish it is. If all human beings were meant to be immortal in an earthly sense, the earth would have become overcrowded in a very short time, with no end in sight. Try to imagine a world in which newborn infants coexisted with million-year-old men and you realize at once the naivete of such a view.
To the contrary, eminent theologians have asserted that man as originally created by God was naturally mortal, never intended to live forever on this earth. The natural, biological life was always subject to decay and death. Rather, the death incurred by Adam and Eve in disobeying God was spiritual death—separation or alienation from God, and being cut off from the possibility of immortality. William Lane Craig in his recent book In Quest of the Historical Adam argues along these lines, saying that what Adam and Eve lost was the opportunity to enjoy the gift of a higher, supernatural, eternal existence, symbolized by the Tree of Life.
To be sure, God does not create anything defective. Nevertheless, all material and earthly things seem to bear the seeds of their decease, and there’s no reason to believe this was any different at the beginning of time. Man is himself part of the finite creation, as we were reminded on Ash Wednesday (“ashes to ashes and dust to dust”). Yet he bears the seeds of something greater. This dichotomy is summed up by the double image of man presented in Genesis: Man is made in God’s image—yet he is formed of the dust of the earth. Man is a little less than the angels—yet he can be seduced by the devil.
Why, then, did God not create a spiritually perfect and incorruptible universe to begin with? A great mystery, but we can get at least a glimmer of an answer.
The tradition teaches us of two great principles, nature and grace. Grace aids, ennobles, raises up nature. This is all part of the design God intended for his creation. All the signs indicate that God wanted to bring his creation to a progressive fulfillment and perfection, not to give us automatic perfection. He desired a complex, multitiered, hierarchical order of reality. He first created matter and the splendors of the physical universe, and saw that “it was very good.” The crowning achievement was man, endowed with reason and will and freedom. Man abused his freedom, disobeying the natural law written on his heart, and as a consequence he forfeited the right to be brought to immortality with God in heaven. There were a host of physical and moral results of this tragic fall. Yet with the very banishment from paradise came the promise of redemption, so great was God’s mercy and foresight.
We hold that everything that happens, happens for a reason, and is woven into God’s larger scheme and plan for the universe. So too with the Fall. It turned out to be the “happy fall,” which brought greater and deeper joy than we ever would have known otherwise in our purely natural existence. This joy, of course, must be sought in the midst of sorrow and affliction, the results of the fall.
In this context death appears to us as a blessed limit, putting an end to the sufferings and afflictions of this life. C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain reminds us that the pain experienced by one living being is the maximum of pain that exists in a real sense. And it comes to a blessed end with death. No one who has given it any thought would really want natural life on earth to go on forever. There must, at long last, be a change; we intuit that we were made for something greater.
That something greater is immortality, eternal life—but not merely restored biological life; rather, life in a different form, a new, supernatural life. This life is combined with bodily existence, and hence we profess the resurrection of the body, the rehabilitation of the physical nature given to us by God. Recall that Jesus after his resurrection could do things that no mortal body could do: he could pass through doors, appear and reappear at will—yet at the same time, he ate broiled fish in the midst of his disciples. He had passed into a new nature. Peter Kreeft states, “Only in Christianity do we become more than we were before death. It is the startling, surprising idea of a new, greater resurrected body.”
Physical nature is raised into the new reality too because we were created as wholes composed of body and soul and this is never abrogated; the body is not something to be overcome or discarded. Spirit precedes matter and thus has the power to transform it. And God builds upon his creation, bringing us to higher levels of being, wonder, endurance, love, and life.
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