Hope in the face of death, part 1

It’s been, shall we say, a challenging week.  There was a death in my wife’s extended family; we went to condole with relatives on Sunday.  Thousands of miles away, there was a death in my mother’s family; I spent some time sleuthing online to figure out where to send flowers on Mom’s behalf.  Both people had lived many years.  Though sorrowful, neither death was a surprise.

But yesterday, I officiated a memorial for a friend–a woman beautiful of soul and smile–whose earthly life had been claimed by cancer.  Later this morning, I will officiate another memorial, for a friend who struggled with depression for many years.  And this Wednesday will be the second anniversary of my father’s death.

Is this just an anomaly, a strangely sad season?  Or is it, as I was discussing with friends yesterday, that those of our age group are entering an ongoing stage of life in which such things will become almost commonplace?

Needless to say, I’ve been reflecting a bit about death these days, and with it, our hope as Christians.

For both memorial services this weekend, the respective families requested the Scripture passage below (though in various translations), in which Jesus reassures his anxious disciples in the Upper Room:

Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me.  My Father’s house has room to spare.  If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you?  When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too.  (John 14:1-3, CEB)

This is the “many mansions” text of the King James that has inspired so much speculation about our heavenly abode.  The word doesn’t actually suggest luxury accommodations.  Its simple meaning is more like “places to stay,” hence the translation above.  The implication of what Jesus says is probably less “Each of you will have his own room/house” than “There’s plenty of room for all of you.”

Does it matter?

It’s not just an academic question.  This past week has sensitized me in a peculiar way to the relationship between our understandings of heaven and hope.  How do we think of the present in light of the future, especially during times of suffering?  Does our heavenly hope change anything about how we live today?

Our traditional images of heaven may borrow freely from Scripture: crowns, pearly gates, golden streets, mansions.  The metaphors show up in political cartoons and jokes (“So these two guys go to heaven, and are standing in front of the pearly gates.  St. Peter says to the first guy…”).

It’s impossible to know, of course, how literally such biblical imagery is meant to be taken.  The book of Revelation tries to convey something glorious but ineffable; what human language could possibly allow our limited imaginations to grasp that reality?

But my concern is more with the escapist way in which we sometimes think of heaven: it’s a beautiful place we go to get away from here, something to look forward to after we’ve slogged our way through this so-called vale of tears.

Let me be clear.  Scripture does point to an unimaginably glorious future for those who are in Christ.  Scripture does suggest that between now and then, suffering–sometimes great suffering–may be our lot in life, such that we will need divine help to endure.

But here’s the question.  We believe in life after death, and rightly look forward to it.  But is our life today, our attitude and action, influenced at all by the truth that in the resurrected Jesus, death has already been conquered by life?

More on that in the next post.