Saturday, February 21, 2004

Eternal Life

One of the traditional Christian doctrines that I have trouble with is the idea of life after death, or "eternal life."

One problem is that a life after death couldn't really be eternal, because "eternal" means "without beginning or end; existing outside of time." But as far as I can remember, my life did have a beginning, at my birth. If I had no life before my birth, then my life can't be "eternal" even if it should continue after my death.

And I have difficulty finding the doctrine of life after death in teachings of Jesus. Jesus spent most of his ministry preaching the importance of this life and this moment, and not concerns about the next day, much less the next life. "Give us this day our daily bread" and "observe the lilies of the field," not "give us the ability to live forever." References to "eternal life" or a "life everlasting" are few and far between, and often seem incomplete or out of place, as though added to the gospels by Paul or other apostles after the death of Jesus. (Unfortunately, most of what is now called Christianity is really based on the writings of Paul--who never met Jesus--and not the teachings of Jesus himself.)

To me, it diminishes the life and teachings of Jesus to say that what he believed and what he taught has nothing to do with our lives on earth, but is only a means to an end, the ultimate end being life after death. I believe that the life and teachings of Jesus are an end unto itself, and that we love God and love our neighbor not in expectation of a future reward, but in the expectation of an immediate, present "reward," which is the Kingdom of God.

This view is also expressed in "The Gospel According to Jesus" by Stephen Mitchell. In the introduction, Mitchell writes that, "When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, he was not prophesying about some easy, danger-free perfection that will someday appear. He was talking about a state of being, a way of living at ease among the joys and sorrows of our world. It is possible, he said, to be as simple and beautiful as the birds of the sky or the lilies of the field, who are always within the eternal Now." Later in the book, in his commentary on the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus is asked about "eternal life," Mitchell refers to "eternal life" as "A synonym for 'the kingdom of God': a life lived in such a way that the personality becomes transparent and the light of God shines brilliantly through; a life lived fully in the present moment, beyond time."

In "The Practice of the Presence of God," which is a collection of writings by and about Brother Lawrence (ca. 1611-1691), Abbe de Beaufort writes, "[H]e worried neither about Heaven nor Hell. All his life was utter freedom and a continual rejoicing. He had put his sins between God and himself, as if to tell Him that he was not worthy of His grace, but that did not prevent God from flooding him with it."

The Abbe also wrote, "He did the most perfect thing: he left everything for God, and did everything for love of Him. He had entirely forgotten himself. He no longer thought about Heaven or Hell, about his past sins or about those he was presently committing, after he had asked God's forgiveness for them."

A somewhat similar thought (but expressed in a more secular way) appears "The Lives of a Cell," by Lewis Thomas. In a chapter/essay entitled "On Probability and Possibility," Dr. Thomas writes, "Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise."

So I have come to believe that whether there is a "Heaven" in the traditional Christian sense, or a "life after death," is really unimportant. If I believe in the love and grace of God, and see the world as an expression of his love and grace, then I am content with this world and this moment. What happens in the next moment is in God’s hands.

I hope that, in the last seconds of my life, I will still be immersed in thoughts of the wonder of life and the love of God, and not worrying about what happens next.