Imagine a world without the fear of death. What would it look like? How would you live differently? How would certainty that who you are endures forever change the way you live your day to day life? What technologies could we create if our imaginations stretched into eternity? This is something that I am currently re-exploring because it has come to my attention that I have taken this aspect of spirituality for granted. At their core it seems that all religions and spiritual modalities try to solve the “death problem”. Understanding this, I don’t typically give much thought about eternal life. My mindset has been, if I live my daily life honorably whatever comes after will take care of itself. But now, witnessing the pervasive hopelessness that is manifesting itself in so many ways, I have decided to re-explore the importance of eternal hope and how a faith in it might actually serve us in creating more hopeful societies.
This decision to re-explore this idea of eternal life was sparked when I recently had the opportunity to read scripture in honor of a parishioner of our church who passed away. When I chose the passage, it seemed like the logical choice for a memorial service. It is a hopeful passage that challenges our perception of death and immortality and invites us into a greater possibility of relating to time and our place in it. The passage does not back away from the fact that it flies in the face of conventional thinking for that time. It declares itself a mystery. It is a passage I’ve read and heard many times, but it wasn’t until that day, when I heard myself reading it to others, that the profundity of its message hit me.
The scripture is from 1 Corinthians 15:50-55 which reads:
What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
As I read the scripture out loud, I could feel my body responding to it in a way it never had when I was on the receiving end of its message. I guess it really is more blessed to give than receive. The emphatic words, cannot, must, will not, and will moved through me with an indescribable energy and frankly the authority of one with firsthand knowledge of this passage’s validity. Was I feeling the power of Paul’s conviction some 2,000 years ago or had I tapped into my own inner knowing. It is a mystery. But I can tell you that in my mind’s eye I envisioned the possibility that for some in the gathering, this was the first time they heard the Good News. And after all of these years of talking and writing about my experiences of faith, I felt like it was the first time I had ever actually shared the Good News–death has no ultimate power over who we are and who we are becoming.
Rather than go through everything that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, I just encourage you to read it out loud for yourself with as much conviction as you can muster and then contemplate the implications of it. Like Paul says, if death has the final say for us then all of this stuff about Jesus is pointless. Let’s just pig out and get drunk because the clock is ticking. But if Jesus did what they say he did and proved that we are of a like kind then let’s live like we can’t die. What does that look like? The answer to that comes from the verses that follow what I read for my brother in Christ.
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.58 Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
Following the trajectory of the preceding scripture that ends with, “Where, O death, is your sting?”, you can get a sense of where this is going. But if not, here’s an equation I made up to illustrate what a deathless life looks like.
Where Death’s Sting = X and the Sting of Death = Sin, Sin = X
Where Sin’s Power = the Law, then where the Law is, there is the Sting of Death
Sin – Law = Death’s Sting x 0
“Where (denoting absence), O death, is the effect of sin?” and equally, “Where, O sin, is death?”
No Death = Victorious Life
Basically what is above is a complicated way of saying that when death goes away sin leaves with it resulting in a clear path to living a victorious life. Now some people may think I am making a stretch with that statement. But look no further than the Epistle to the Hebrews (Chapter 2), where readers are offered some perspective on the immortal taking on the mortal in order to reveal the immortal to those of us trapped in the illusion of death. But more than that, it declares that Jesus’ efforts were to “… free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
In this teaching the writer basically says that Jesus had to live a flesh and blood life in order to reveal the reality of our greater selves to those of us who are attached to our bodies and fear of its loss. It is kind of like the show Prison Break where one brother who is free gets himself arrested on purpose in order to break his innocent brother out. The major difference however, is, on the show, the imprisoned brother wants to get out of prison. In our case, many of us love the prison so much that we would kill our brother in order to stay in. And that’s essentially what the the Bible teaches happened to Jesus. Fortunately for him and for those who can accept his message, his death was always part of his plan. In this way, he takes away our excuses for living lives as slaves to the fear of death.
As I see it now, everything that the Bible invites us to live into is only possible–or at least only sustainable–if we can somehow live as if we cannot die. When I say that, I don’t mean live like daredevils or as if we are someone from the Highlander movies or TV shows. But I am suggesting that living a victorious life that imitates the Way of Christ is only possible to the degree that we can overcome our fear of the deaths or threats of them. I said deaths intentionally, but an explanation for what I mean would take another post. So for the rest of this post let’s just assume that when I say death I mean “the Big D” and the fear of it that influences most of what we do or don’t do.
In my post prior to this one, Consider the Li’l Lies, I asked people to imagine a life without worry. I made the claim that, contrary to popular belief, we live in a realm of abundance and that there is enough supply for everyone on the planet to eat, drink, and have a couple diamonds if that is what they truly desire. However, because we have convinced ourselves that the illusion of lack (born of the fear of death) is a necessary manipulative tool in order to create value in our markets, we have effectively blinded ourselves to that reality. As a result, we perform a lot soul-robbing actions in order to maintain this lie. I further asserted that this is the awareness that Jesus operated from. Hence his invitation for people to cease from worry and contemplate the lilies instead.
What I alluded to but didn’t directly get into was the idea that Jesus’ claims emerge from the position that he was eternal and therefore infinitely creative and not bound by the illusory limits that too many of us surrender to. That might not sound like news to those of us who try to follow his teachings. But what we don’t own is the idea that he sees us the same way. What I am suggesting is that for Jesus, our so called faith in him is worth very little if it does not take into consideration his faith in us.
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. – John 14:12
In other words, Jesus is saying believe in me when I say that I believe in you. Now whether you believe it or not, few will deny that the major theme of the Bible is that we are more than merely mortal, that God has a vested interest in our spiritual development, and that what we do here matters. Although it does not deny our mortal experience and the seeming struggles that come with it, it strives to encourage us to live a life worthy of an immortal.
I know we live in a time when all of this sounds a little woo-woo. And I am sure there are some who will be challenged by the whole no death, no sin thing. But we also live in a time when we are killing ourselves, each other, assassinating each other’s character (if we have character), being divisive, using mass quantities of drugs, becoming addicted to anything that will distract us from this world, and a whole host of other issues. And for what? I think it is because subconsciously many of us know something about the way we are in this world is off but we feel trapped by these incomplete stories assigned to our bodies. Maybe we are finally tired of being slaves to the fear of death and are ready to live a real life.
To be continued…