Archives For Preaching about Heaven and Hell

Rev19CLambIf the biblical teaching of eternal life is physical resurrection of the body into God’s new creation, then what do you say about cremation and organ donation?

I get this question often.

First, it’s important for Christians to keep in mind that this is a question the first Christians- or Jews for that matter- would’ve also asked.

Second, it’s important for Christians to realize the first Christians- and Jews- were well aware (perhaps much more so than contemporary people who can push death off into hospital wards and nursing homes) of what happens to material bodies when they die.

Third, it’s important for Christians- and Jews- to remember that Resurrection flew in the face of what every worldview and religion in the ancient world presumed.

And yet, Resurrection was the fundamental Christian proclamation.

Now, to the question.

There’s a story, which may be just a story, of a pagan asking an early Church Father (Origen, I think): ‘What if a Christian is eaten by a cannibal? In the resurrection, whose body would be raised? The eaten or the eator?’ It’s best not to think too hard or impose our categories of what’s possible on resurrection was the reply.

And that’s usually how I respond. It’s certainly not good news that if someone’s body is lost or ruined then they can’t participate in the resurrection. Just as its best not to think too woodenly about the continuity of my earthly body and my resurrected body. The stress is on the material nature of eternal life; scripture isn’t implying that if you’re bald now you will be eternally.

And I’m an organ donor myself.

But here’s my BUT.

I don’t like cremation. Not because I think the God who made heaven and earth and raised Jesus from the dead can’t somehow restore a cremated person to full resurrected life in the new creation.

I don’t like cremation for aesthetic reasons. In the same way, I don’t like it when communion is served with eenie weenie pieces of bread and little plastic individual cups. It’s supposed to be a feast. The liturgy uses feast language because that’s what God’s Kingdom is like. Eenie weenie pieces of bread point to something else.

I don’t like cremation because the language of our faith (and the funeral liturgy) points to bodily resurrection, and the popularity of cremation goes hand in hand I suspect with modern Western Christians no longer making resurrection the central claim of their faith.

We in the West forget that cremation is still very much forbidden and/or looked down upon among Orthodox Christians, Jews and African American Christians- groups that haven’t lost the importance of incarnation and the body in scripture.

 

This week for our sermon series, Razing Hell, we’ve been deconstructing the popular misconception of our souls going off to heaven when we die and reclaiming the biblical hope of eternal life being marked by resurrection and new creation.

In response, someone asked me:

Rev19CLambWhat difference does it really make in this world and life whether I believe in one or the other? Does it make any difference what I believe will happen after I die? Isn’t really just about what brings someone comfort?

Here are my thoughts in response:

I spent the week before Christmas in a small mountain village in Guatemala with twenty other adults and students from my church. It was our fourth time in that region. We were building a ‘center,’ a building that can be used to teach health clinics and other workshops and also to lodge future service teams like ours.

It’s easy sometimes spending the week before Christmas in an impoverished place to be struck by a sense of hopelessness. It can be difficult to see how a voiceless people, a people whose own government has a long history of trying to ‘pacify’ and assimilate, have any real hope of freeing themselves from victimhood. Seen in such a light, it also can seem a weak and ultimately meaningless gesture to be doing a building project for such people. Why bother if it doesn’t remedy their pressing and urgent situation?

That’s just an isolated example of a despair that could creep over any Christian for any act of mercy we do in the world.

Understood only in terms of cold realism, all the soup kitchens, malarial nets, wood stoves and rice banks in the world won’t undo poverty. 

Individual congregations praying for peace on Sunday mornings won’t eliminate violence and war. Christians witnessing to racial reconciliation won’t erase the stain of racism in our country, and to think otherwise is to fall victim to naive utopianism

But neither cold realism nor naive utopianism is Christian hope in Resurrection and New Creation.

What I realized once again in Guatemala this December: we weren’t there working with block and mortar because we thought we were going to permanently solve a social ill. We were not building for poor, persecuted Mayans because we had foolish illusions about what the immediate future might hold for the indigenous villages. The stakes are high for those people and, seen only from a finite point of view, our acts of service might prove meaningless gestures.

But we weren’t there to be realistic.

And we weren’t there to be idealistic.

We were there doing what we were doing because what we were doing was in harmony with what God will do in the End. 

Christian service isn’t an idealistic stab at trying to make the world come out right.

Rather, Christian service is anchored in the faith that God alone makes the world come out right. No matter how things look on the ground in the ‘real’ world, one day God will get the world God wants and that world is one where the hungry are filled, the mourning stop their crying and the poor are lifted up.

Far too many Christians, by adopting a spiritualized notion of our souls going off to heaven when we die, take a laissez faire attitude to this world. Overly spiritualized notions of eternal life too often underwrite a politics that couldn’t have less to do with the God of scripture. 

But if the End isn’t our souls going off one day to a disembodied heaven and casting this world into the rubbish bin, if the End, as it’s seen in Revelation 21-22, is this creation renewed then everything we do today in this world as Christians we do, as Paul says, in anticipation of that End. We work, as Paul says, as ambassadors of the Christ who will come again when Heaven comes down. This is truly what it means for us to have our citizenship in heaven: to live in this world in such a way that things on earth are as they are in heaven and will one day be finally in the New Earth.

Christian service isn’t a solution to the present problems of the world. Christian service is a sign, a gesture, of what we believe God will do.

If the future is one where God comforts and lifts up indigenous Mayans then we anticipate that future with our actions in the present- no matter how ineffective or meaningless other might judge them.

Christian service isn’t our attempt to fashion a world we think God wants from us nor does it idealistically put band-aids over top systemic issues. And it certainly isn’t deeds we do in the vain hope they’ll earn us gold stars from God so one day we’ll be able to walk the streets of gold in heaven.

 No, Christian service, by being rooted in our hope of the End, is done with the confidence that it’s action done with the grain of the universe.