One toxic idea that has seeped into Christianity is the belief that individuals survive death. This cane-toad of an idea has been introduced into the Christian faith either in its Greek form of the immortality of the soul, or in its post-Enlightenment guise of individual personalities somehow living on after death.
These ideas poison by setting our hopes too low. They arise from a careless reading of scripture and impoverished imagining of God’s cosmos. I am certain that the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead has a great deal more life than pallid ideas of “me going to heaven”.
To reduce life after death to individual survival fails to do justice to the concept. Atheists like Richard Dawkins mock Christians for believing that I should survive death in some way and their objections have traction. Given our present time-bound experience of life, we have to ask:
• What would we do after death?
• How would we endure the boredom?
• What would it mean, if anything, to meet our loved ones after death?
There must be more to it than simple survival.
Paul tells us that we are “in Christ”. According to St John being in Christ is having “life more abundant.” (John 10:10) Life in Christ is attaining “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13)
As individuals, we are cherished in Christ, and because Christ is eternal, then we too are eternal. But these New Testament ideas of more abundant life measuring up to the life of Christ show that we are the best that we can be not as atomised individuals but when we reach out to others and transcend our ego, our selfish nature.
Maturity in Christ means being more than just oneself. The next step in the development of human beings towards maturity is to stop being an inward-looking “I” and start becoming a functioning “we”. After death we lose our precious “self” and are caught up in the greater reality of humanity.
In Christ and Time, 20th-century Lutheran scholar Oscar Cullmann traces St Paul’s thinking on what impact Christ’s death and resurrection has on our own. He sees Paul begin with “primitive” ideas in I Thessalonians of being “caught up in the air… to meet the Lord” (v. 22) and developing into the more sophisticated “resurrection body” in I Corinthians 15.
Note what Paul actually writes: “we will be caught up”. The plural is used. “All will be made alive in Christ” (I Cor.15:22). We usually read these passages with post-Enlightenment eyes and so fail to see the significance of the plural.
To me, it indicates that our real life in Christ now is corporate: as his Body, We have glimpses of the love and unity that Jesus experiences with the Father (John 16, especially v.20). This oneness with each other and with God is the principal promise of the New Testament.
We can imagine different scenarios in which this promise will be fulfilled, all of them with far greater potential than individuals living for ever one way or another. Whatever we imagine resurrection to mean, however, it will be better than our imagination. Paul, paraphrasing Isaiah 64:4, assures us that “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived … God has prepared for those who love him.” (I Corinthians 2:9)