The academic presenting Medieval Lives on the TV recently had me shouting at the screen when she said “People used to believe in life after death”, implying that nowadays they don’t. Statistics show a very different picture; because although many more people nowadays say they are not sure God exists, and are not religious, vast numbers of such people believe in some kind of life after death, and quite a few such people also pray! Now don’t ask me how they can do either of those things without believing in God, because to us, there can be no eternal life unless God gives it, and so if God doesn’t exist there is nothing at all once we have died. My guess is that many who say they do not believe in God, when asked what kind of God they do not believe in, come up with some childish idea of God, that we Christians do not believe in either.
Actually belief in life after death is quite modern. The People of Israel that we read of in the Old Testament didn’t believe that such a thing was possible. For them, the only eternal life you were given was through your children and grandchildren which is why it was such a tragedy, in those days, for those who did not have them.
The first glimmerings of belief in life beyond death appears in the Prophets of the 6th C BC. Some of you may remember from Readings at Easter, the great passage in Ezekiel where he has a vision of dry bones being given new life. (Ezek 37). It was the sadness and desperation of their exile in Babylon at that time that began to teach the people of Israel to think about God in a new way, and to believe that God can be at work in the most desperate situations, even death itself. A fuller belief is then not found until about 200 years before Christ when one of seven brothers being tortured to death for being a Jew says to his torturers: “For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of everflowing life under God’s covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance.” (2 Maccabees 7:36)
Even in the time of Jesus and the early Church, some Jews believed there was new life beyond the grave, as Jesus taught, whilst others still thought there was nothing, even though they believed in God. So the full Christian teaching that we express in our Creed, when we say we believe in “the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting” is a startlingly new idea for many at that time ; but it is still misunderstood. This is because many good Christians cannot get their head round the idea that nothing we say about life beyond death can be absolutely true. I remember one very devout old man asking me a number of times how there would be room for him in heaven if there were millions there already. I had to try and explain that we are using words formed in space and time to describe something outside space and time, and this means that in a way nothing we say can really literally be true.
Dante, whose famous book on life after death from the 13th C gives us all the medieval pictures of people enduring torture and fire and being eaten by dragons, actually explains in one place that the pictures are there to explain something that cannot actually be pictured! So it’s sad in a way that the medieval painters took him literally, and led many simple people astray. All we can do, is believe that once we die we will be with God, nay that we will be drawn into union with God, or as our St Peter says:- we will “participate in his divine nature.”
Now that’s another problem for us, because if we are to be drawn into union with God, it sounds like the Buddhist idea of Nirvana, where our individual personalities disappear, or as the word implies are blown out like a candle is blown out. But we believe that our God is so wonderful that, in a way beyond our understanding, we are both one with him and yet still have our individual personalities, so that we can pray for our loved ones by name, and also can believe that they, and all the great saints down the ages, can and do pray for us, and that their prayers are a great surge of love for us especially when we are desperate.
Speaking of being desperate, did you notice how everyone was mentioning St Jude last Monday as a real person after whom that storm could be named? So not only is the idea that people no longer believe in life after death nonsense, but they clearly also believe in the saints, especially one that deals in lost causes like St Jude. May all the saints and angels pray for us!.