The conclusion of “He Is Risen” contained an assertion that I’ve often read and heard. However, it still never fails to offend me. The author facetiously mocks the Christian faith by asking, “Who in their right mind would worship a man who was put to death in such a humiliating way, and then who would insist that such a man was later brought back to life? On its surface, this faith makes no sense!” I agree! But then he or she wrote:
But on the other hand, who could believe otherwise? Living a life without God or with some new-age, distant, removed philosophy that neither challenges nor comforts is far crazier. Life simply cannot be some hollow, temporary existence. Without God and a commitment to faith, life has no true purpose other than achieving temporary pleasure. If we all operated from such drives, the world would all end in death, as there would be no greater drive than personal pleasure and self-preservation, which necessarily infringes on the lives of others.
The clergyperson’s assertion that “Life simply cannot be some hollow, temporary existence” also raised my eyebrows. But I’ll address that matter in another column.
Those are two paragraphs from my article “Of Hellfire and Empathy,” which was published in the April/May 2019 issue of Free Inquiry. The piece dealt with a United Methodist Sunday School lesson that focused on the existence of hell and the sadness felt by the lesson’s author, an unnamed United Methodist minister, when conducting funerals for those who haven’t been saved.
The paragraph that begins “The clergyperson’s assertion” concluded “Of Hellfire and Empathy.” I wrote that I’d address that assertion in another column. Well, here it is.
This minister’s claim that life can’t possibly be temporary, which we’ll define here as devoid of the possibility of personal immortality, is refuted by some passages in the Bible. In Ecclesiastes 3:19–20, the author states, “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts … as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast, for all is vanity. All go unto one place, all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.”
After noting that “a living dog is better than a dead lion,” the author observed in Ecclesiastes 9:5, “For the living know they shall die; but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.”
Poor Job, who endured a hell on earth just so God could win a wager with Satan, soldiered on with no assurance of personal immortality. Indeed, he remarks in Job 14:1–2 “Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.”
Job receives his divine compensation on earth, not in heaven. “So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning” (Job 42:12), and the old boy acquired thousands of sheep, camels, oxen, and “she asses.” Job fathered seven sons and three daughters to replace the progeny God allowed to be killed (42:13–15) and lived to the ripe old age of 140 (42:16–17). The book of Job contains no mention of his fate after death.
Personal immortality figures prominently in the New Testament, however. In three passages from John (3:16, 8:51, and 11:25–26), Jesus specifically promises that those who believe in him and keep his word will never die. Paul, the first Christian theologian, also promised personal immortality to those who believe in Jesus in passages such as “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23).
Here’s the problem, though. As recorded in Matthew 24, Jesus was asked by his followers: “What shall be the signs of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” Jesus replied that one should expect “famines and pestilences and earthquakes” as well as wars, “false Christs and false prophets.” Earthlings would witness the sun being “darkened” and “the stars falling from heaven.” Jesus is recorded as saying, “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (Matthew 24:34). Mark 9:1 records Jesus as saying, “That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.” In other words, Jesus assured those listening to his message that the world would end in their lifetimes.
The first generation of Christians lived in expectation of Jesus’s triumphant return. When Paul in I Corinthians, chapter 7, advised his readers not to marry, he wasn’t extolling the joy of lifelong celibacy. He believed there was no point in marrying because Jesus’s return was imminent. James tells his readers that “the coming of the Lord draweth nigh” (James 5:8), while I Peter 4:7 warns “But the end of all things is at hand.”
Jesus, Paul, James, and Peter predicted the world would soon end. They were wrong, folks. To make matters worse, these predictions are included in a book that also asserts, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (II Timothy 3:16). Such botched prophecy should compel us to regard all New Testament promises of personal immortality with a grain of salt.
I’m sixty-five as I write these words, which means I have many more yesterdays than tomorrows. Death holds no appeal for me, and I intend to keep the Grim Reaper at arm’s length for as long as possible. I’ve even taken out membership in a gym, where I lift weights and sweat rivers during my cardio workout. And when my time comes, I fully intend to take Dylan Thomas’s counsel and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Still, I accept the fact that no amount of wishful thinking and sheer obstinacy will validate the promises of immortality contained in the New Testament. I recognize and resign myself to the fact that, in all likelihood, Job got it right when he observed, “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts. … All go unto one place, all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.”
Yes, unnamed Methodist minister, life appears to be a temporary existence. But does that mean it must be a “hollow” existence with “no greater drive than personal pleasure and self-preservation”? Not just “No.” Nothing less than a resounding “Hell no!” will suffice.
There’s nothing hollow about the lives of those who appreciate the beauty of nature. The first crocus of spring, eight-foot-tall sunflowers in bloom in summer, autumn’s painted leaves, and the falling snowflakes of winter fill my heart with joy. Whether I’m listening to a symphony or my old Jimi Hendrix LPs, music transports me to another realm. Viewing art does for me what revivals do for evangelicals. And visiting bookstores and libraries never fails to delight me.
There’s nothing hollow about the lives of those who possess empathy and compassion. This planet abounds with humans who are trapped in poverty and exploitation. We can trust that God will help them or assume the responsibility ourselves. Rational persons choose the latter option. Theists pray for the hungry to be fed, but the more pragmatic among them also donate needed items to their local food pantries and volunteer to work in soup kitchens. I cofounded a Habitat for Humanity affiliate in the 1990s and worked with many Christians to provide the underprivileged with decent housing.
Perhaps, unnamed Methodist minister, our lives indeed are “a temporary existence,” but that doesn’t mean they’re hollow. I lost someone I dearly loved to cancer in the late summer of 2019. She was a wild and unpredictable free spirit who brought joy to just about everyone fortunate enough to know her. Simply being in her presence was so magical that I took to calling her “the goddess.” How she delighted in that nickname!
Although I hadn’t seen her in some years, we kept in touch through Facebook. She had married and was the mother of a little girl she so adored. And now this incredible woman is gone.
My friend believed in God and personal immortality. Heaven would certainly be a livelier place with her presence. But even if there’s nothing beyond the grave, her brief life—she barely made it to middle age—was anything but hollow. Indeed, it possessed a fullness and depth that this minister probably can’t even begin to comprehend.
Rest in peace, my dear Beth.