Posted on April 11th, 2009
It wasn’t until my late twenties, as a newly-minted pastor, that I had my first real encounters with common beliefs about death and afterlife among Christians. My vicarage was at a fairly large congregation, but no one died that year, and I had few family experiences of death at that point. The most significant death in my family to that point had been my grandfather’s, who died a faithful Lutheran in a family of committed Lutherans.
What I discovered as a pastor in all the circumstances surrounding death, from the hospital to the “funeral home” to the church (maybe) for the funeral service to the graveside, was people deriving their comfort from a contemporary form of Gnosticism: the body is merely a shell, and at death the soul is liberated to live in a “better place.”
My own belief was orthodox on paper, but it wasn’t until these experiences with how my parishioners were confronting death that I discovered the importance of the concluding words of the Nicene Creed: “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Those words became my first real pastoral obsession. It became difficult to preach a sermon without those words somewhere near the conclusion.
Alexander Schmemann expresses similar concern in his radio lectures on the Creed, available in Celebration of Faith, vol. 1: I Believe:
The resurrection of Christ constitutes the very heart of the Christian faith, of the Christian “glad tidings.” And yet, in the real life of contemporary Christianity and Christians, faith in the resurrection has very little place, however strange this may sound. This faith has become clouded, so that today’s Christian, unaware that this is happening and without denying the resurrection, manages somehow to avoid it; he has ceased to live by the resurrection as the early Christians did. Yes, if he goes to church he of course hears the triumphantly joyful affirmations ringing out in Christian worship: “trampling down death by death,” “death is swallowed up in victory,” “life reigns,” and “not one dead remains in the grave.” But ask him what he really thinks about death, and often–alas, all too often–you will hear some vague, still pre-Christian idea about the immortality of the soul and its life in some sort of world beyond the grave. And that is at best…At worst there is simply confusion and ignorance: “You know, I somehow never really thought about it.” Yet to think about “it” is absolutely essential, since all of Christianity hinges upon belief or unbelief not merely in the “immortality of the soul,” but precisely in resurrection, the resurrection of Christ and our own “universal resurrection at the end of time. If Christ is not risen, then the Gospel is a deception, the most terrible of all deceptions; but if indeed Christ is risen, then all of our pre-Christian explanations and beliefs about “the immortality of the soul” must be radically revised, or rather, they must simply be dropped.