What happens when we die? Not one of us knows for sure; some speak as though they did. They say that we are evolutionarily spectacular meat is all. They say that when the grey stuff of our mind goes, well, that’s it, forever and ever, amen. They say that there’s no remainder on preserve, no part leftover that yet prefers chocolate to vanilla or remembers loving or fearing or yearning. If I’m honest, that feels right and wrong to me, in about equal measure. Others say – and they can be every bit as bloated with certainty – that there is a never-never-land of sorts wherein we shall live again amongst the spirit beings of our loved ones, only without the squabbling and bickering this time around. And, Christ have mercy, without the cancers and the arthritis and without tears. That, also, to me, feels right and wrong in equal measure. Partly because my family without the squabbling and bickering would not be my family. But also because, at least in the popular depictions – all-you-can-eat buffets and bright lights! – heaven sounds rather like Reno. Which puts me in something of a predicament: you see, preachers are supposed to project an air of confidence, not waffle on matters of such consequence.
If the ambivalence were mine alone, that would be one thing; the church’s need for consolation trumps clergy’s need for integrity. But the ambivalence is not mine alone. On any given Sunday, there’s a game of tug-of-war going inside most of you; most of you do and you don’t believe any number of things that might make a minister blush. I know I am not the only one who has had my intelligence insulted in church. I know I am not the only one who has sat through a funeral, only to finally get up out of the pew, pained by the platitudes, more hurt than helped by being promised the moon. And anyway, the ambivalence is neither mine, nor yours only. In point of fact, the ambivalence is the Bible’s.
What happens when we die? What does the Bible say? It depends. On the whole, both testaments come down roundabout a kind of final rest. We do not make a clean getaway to a better world, but find ourselves welcomed into the warm folds of this one. And it would seem an extravagance enough: in the end, all earth’s children lying down in beautiful darkness together.1 That is the bedrock of the biblical vision – saints and scoundrels alike, at the last, sharing of one and the same repose, sharing of it in a place known only as Sheol, realm of the dead. It was to Sheol that Sarah and Abraham and their sons, to Sheol that Miriam and Moses believed they would sink to sleep out the ages; it was up from Sheol that Saul conjured the ghost of Samuel – and cranky was he, having been awoken from so sound a slumber. But Sheol is no gremlins’ playground; no devil has the run of it; Sheol is not Hades, but a hollows of sorts, a shelter for all the departed, and, indeed, under God’s guard, so that the psalmist could pray: Even if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there! This is a gritty, unflinching view of things, though not without its own stark grace.
But, of course, Sheol is not the end of the story. Later, Hebrew poets, living as refugees of war, poets like Isaiah and Ezekiel wrestled with the idea of Sheol and wondered – as cruel as the fates had been to their people – whether the peace of a dreamless sleep was peace enough. And so they spun out grand fantasies: of glorious banquets spread before their starving countrymen, of the great cities rebuilt, of their own religion and culture restored. And these fantasies proved themselves a feast for the heart, and the people hung their hopes on them, and, over time, found that their longing had modulated: they now wished not only to be borne through a vale of woes and delivered gently unto death – but instead wanted to see woe done away with, and want, and war. Precisely when God would call a halt to all tribulation and birth the poets’, the prophets’ world was anyone’s guess, but God would do it, would bring an end to the bad and the bite of this life, in this life. But, they did worry: what of those who had already died, struck down by Babylonian sword, or felled by Assyrian fighters? Out of luck? No. Lest God’s justice be too little, too late, there would need be a reckoning, be recompense for the slain, there would need be a bringing-back of all the untimely buried. And, voila: resurrection.
What happens when we die? What does the Bible say? By Jesus’ day, debate was raging: in one corner, traditionalists who believed that we give up the ghost and go to the grave – the end!, and in the other corner, those who thought that sooner or later, the sun would set on time and space, and that the quick and the dead would share the delights of the prophets’ dreams. Jesus fell in with latter camp, and found himself the butt of some ridicule; we read of their joke in the gospels of Matthew and Mark and Luke: Really, God is going to bring this bone and rot back to life? Well, what of a widow, pretend she has married and buried seven husbands, the poor soul – come the resurrection, who’s wife will she be? Now, Jesus had the last laugh, having gone and gotten himself resurrected – which should have put a stop to speculation, but, instead spurred a rapid proliferation, for about his resurrection ... The way that Mark, the earliest gospel writer tells it, it wasn’t so much a resurrection, as a curious case of a missing corpse – a body snatching. In Luke, the resurrected Jesus takes trips, eats at every opportunity. In John, he can waft through walls.
But that’s what happens when Jesus dies, what the Bible says about him. What about us? How does that affect us? Paul says more about this than anyone: Paul signs off on the old idea of Sheol, but with a twist. Paul says that, sure, when we die, we go into the ground and sleep, but that, soon and very soon, there will be a shakedown in Sheol. Everybody will be sprung loose, and we will have these things called ‘spiritual bodies’. We can suppose them to be like Jesus’, and so we can suppose them to include fully functioning digestive tracts and special, semi-translucent properties. The only problem is that, by Paul’s counting, we’re about two thousand years overdue for them. Paul thought the resurrection would happen, once for all, like, yesterday. He wasn’t bothered by the thought of his loved ones’ bodies lying in state in Sheol, for they wouldn’t be lying there for long. But thirty or fours years later, by the time Luke takes to writing, he is antsy. Let’s get on with it, God. And so Luke almost alone in the whole of scripture pictures something of a heaven, paralleling earth, populated right now by the righteous dead.
What happens when we die? No yawning yet; we’re just getting started! Three centuries later, St. Augustine would deliberate on a most serious dilemma: say that our bodies are resurrected – but, well, how much of our bodies? Will we have every bit of hair we ever had? Will all our fingernail clippings beam back to us? Forbid it, Lord, that we should enjoy eternal bliss looking like Yetis or Cousin Its, or with claws or talons. And in the high Middle Ages, Bonaventure and Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas lost no little sleep worrying: what if, while walking to work, dear John Edgerton is eaten by a wild boar. And then, not knowing this, a very hungry Harry Huff has that boar for supper. At the resurrection, how will God ever… sort things out?
All of which is to say: the brightest lights in Judaism and Christianity have spent themselves in their struggle with the question, What happens when we die? Not one of them knows for sure, however much some speak as though they did. They hazard hunches, not all of which can be harmonized. So if there is consolation in the scriptural witness or in church tradition, it comes not in the form of one sure thing to take to the bank, but in the way that, generation by generation by generation, God’s people have passed down this great mystery like it were bone china. It is our inheritance – a wisdom as old as time which guides us in saying neither too much, nor too little about the things to come, which guides us away from the twin overconfidences of the dead’s total ceasing to be on the one hand, and their skipping through streets of gold on the other. It is our inheritance, this wisdom, which protects and cherishes what is unknown so that there might be wonder and astonishment at the last day. It is our inheritance, this wisdom which understands the question What happens when we die to have been posed by God: Mortal, can these bones live? God poses the question of what will become of us; God poses questions – not issues pronouncements, as if to keep the beyond ever in play. As if hope, if it is godly, if it is hope and not wishful thinking, as if hope has to be held lightly. As if certainty can squash truth. As if only a delicate living-together in us of fear and trust, of gladness and grief can blossom into the right, reverent reply to Mortal, can these bones live? … O Lord God, you know. You know. Amen.
1 This is a (less elegant!) turn on a line of Marilynne Robinson's from her essay 'Wondrous Love' in When I Was a Child I Read Books.