by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury and Vicar of St Mary’s Battersea
In last Friday’s Church Times, Canon Angela Tilby wrote a typically provocative and thought-provoking piece entitled Do we believe in life after death? In it she noted that, amid the many helpful and wise pieces of advice given by the Church of England about protecting life in the face of COVID-19, what appeared to be missing was any reference to life after death. She wondered whether we had abandoned belief in life after death, preferring the language of ‘building the Kingdom’ to ‘life after death.’ She concluded, “If the Church of England has no good news to spread about death, I wonder whether it has any good news at all.”
A modest opinion piece can only of course raise the issue. But it has caused me to wonder, at the beginning of Holy Week, whether Angela is right. Do we still, in the Church of England, believe in life after death?
The article rightly articulates our society’s dread of death and it seems very clear to me that, whether in its hedonistic rush to consumption, or in its pathological need to extend life in a perpetual sacrifice of quality over quantity, we face a challenge. It’s not that I believe that we have ever stopped believing in life after death (in fact, every indication is that the church of today is more theologically orthodox on this matter than it was a generation or two ago). Rather, it is because the Church had become used to operating in a world where death is squirrelled away to private rooms on hospital wards, and to the loving ministrations of the hospice movement and to professional chaplains. Clergy are fortunate indeed if they get to accompany people on their journey towards and into death, something which came home to me last year when faced with a series of untimely deaths in my congregation and community, one after another. Death hasn’t impinged on the Western public consciousness in quite the way it is doing now.
History teaches us that such matters often come to the fore when faced with a global catastrophe; so, for example, prayers for the departed became a much hotter topic of doctrinal dispute and pastoral practice in the years following the First World War (itself overlapped by the Spanish Flu Pandemic). It may well be the case that, in the light of who knows how many deaths, we need to re-emphasise this central element of the Christian hope, to respond to the natural feelings which the poet Jane Mead describes as “our own wish for something to hold forever, some way to be, in the end, anything but alone and incomplete.” Perhaps our recent history has been coloured by the relative absence of mass suffering, leaving us able to focus on working for a better world, ‘building the Kingdom’ and developing schemes, strategies and visions, all of which may be the luxuries of first-world privilege. Perhaps, when all this is over, we may rediscover a renewed need to focus on the preaching of eternal life in the face of death. Perhaps Angela is on to something. Time will tell.
But, and this is where I think Angela might be allowing journalism to over-state her case, it is this doctrine of eternal life that motivates much action in the present crisis. Where perhaps our theology of salvation was lacking in previous generations (and a cursory examination of the theology of most traditional hymns and many modern worship songs will reveal this) is in the focus on eternal life as a matter about life-after-death and ‘going to heaven’ rather than a fully biblical one. So, N.T. Wright helpfully corrects this popular perception when he says that eternal life is not about life going on in a world beyond time itself. Instead, he says, that eternal life is about the coming of the new age, brought forward into the present by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The message of eternal life is not so much about life after death, but about the new creation coming into being in the present age. The Jewish idea of “tikkun olam”, literally “repairing the world” is much closer to the biblical view of a world transformed, ushered in by Jesus, about whose work – “building the Kingdom” – the church is called to be doing.
For me, the most important thing I can do in this crisis is to focus on that, as much as possible, we in our local church are serving those in need, prioritising the relief of hardship, hunger and isolation, and serving those in illness and bereavement. I haven’t given much time since these strange days of separation began to wondering about the eternal destinies of my parishioners; it seems a luxury when there is good that can be done. Maybe I’m missing something. But what drives that is this sense that God, in Christ, has come into the world and, through his death and resurrection, ushered in the age that is to come, eternal life.
What does that mean about life after death? I am content to my own future to God to decide. But I hope that, as I go about my service of others in these times, the opportunity will come to explain what it is that leads me to expend my energies in this way. It’s not a bland desire to do good, nor a lack of confidence in the Gospel of salvation. It’s an expression of the life that is to come, eternal life, that by faith in Christ and baptism we are incorporated into.