What happens when we die?
A little over a week ago, I learned that my friend, Chris, is entering into palliative care. The news was a shock. When Chris first got sick earlier this year, it sounded as though there was cause for optimism: the tumor was not malignant and the medical professionals felt that a combination of radiation and chemotherapy held promise. But after five weeks of treatment and the awful side effects which flow out of the calculated poisoning of the body, the tumor was quite unchanged. And so Chris stopped treatment. And he moved into hospice.
Chris makes excellent use of social media and of Facebook in particular. And thus, not long after he shared the news that he probably isn’t going to get better, Chris used Facebook to ask his friends a question:
What is your experience of resurrection? What does that word mean to you?
The responses to Chris’ question have been many and varied and inspiring and loving and beautiful. Throughout them runs the theme of life abundant. “Resurrection,” one friend says, is the promise “that death will never diminish life.” “Resurrection,” another friend offers, is “as expansion in our ability to love… the dissolution of barriers of fear and hostility, [the] ability to live rather than just survive.” “Resurrection,” a third says, is the assurance “that even the loss of your physical presence cannot take away the ways that you were a gift to me.”
Chris did something extraordinary by posing his question on Facebook. Through it, he invited those of us who love him to engage in an exercise in crowd-sourced wisdom, to wonder out loud about love and loss and mystery.
“Resurrection” is the Christian answer to your question, “what happens when we die?” And “what is resurrection?” Well, that is one of the great questions of the Gospel.
Jesus doesn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about the afterlife. But what he does say is tantalizing. When a bunch of hecklers, for instance, want to know to whom a woman who has been widowed multiple times will be married in heaven, Jesus tells them that they are asking the wrong question — that resurrection isn’t bound by our rules. Rather, after we die, he says, we “are like angels in heaven.” (Matt 22:29-32) Jesus offers a similarly brief and similarly glorious promise to the repentant criminal who hangs beside him on the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Resurrection, Jesus’ final words suggest, is about right now(“today”); it’s about nearness to the big love which scripture tells us was made manifest in Christ (“you will be with me”); and it’s about being in a place that is soaked in beauty, that is safe, that is home (“in paradise”).
What does resurrection look in specific terms, Wondering? We don’t know. And more than that, we can’t know. J.B.S. Haldane famously said, “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” I’m going to venture that we could say something similar about resurrection. Resurrection is life outside of time, life beyond suffering, life defined by love. And, as such, it is bigger and more wondrous than we can understand.
We catch a glimpse of resurrection through experiences of deep beauty, through encounters with hope and generosity and curiosity and love and wonder and possibility and wild compassion. We catch a glimpse of resurrection when a man facing his own mortality posts a question on Facebook and friends far and near write him back to testify to the glorious abundance of life.