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From death into life

By Michael Viljoen - posted Monday, 22 December 2008


In his article entitled “On blind hope and the awful truth” posted on November 26, Brett Walker challenged us to face up to the realities of life and death without reverting to the infantile hope of life after death proposed by religion. He then challenged Christians to argue their case as to why their faith in the afterlife should not be described as blind.

So are the pious guilty of giving life a fairy tale ending, like the footy team who are so tired of continually losing that they sing their club theme song anyway? Or are atheists the ones sidestepping the hard truths?

Death is an awful horror, an unwelcome guest lurking somewhere behind our thoughts, if not making its presence far more immediate. Any philosophy must take into account life’s ultimate reality.

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At times Christians do seem intent on holding the minority position. Presently we are found among the crazy few who say: sex before marriage is not a good thing; supporting small political parties with a religious base is not a sign of madness; the law should err on the side of caution when deciding whether the growing life in the womb ought to be awarded legal protection; and the whole of humanity (eight people) stepped off a boat less than five thousand years ago onto a mountain near Turkey after a great flood.

However, in claiming a life after death we are hardly in the minority. In all of recorded history until the Enlightenment, societies and religions big and small have generally accepted that the spirit goes somewhere after death. So this time the atheists can at least share with us the burden of proof.

Much of Jesus’ teachings were not novel or original thoughts. So when he speaks of eternal life, he is as much foretelling its quality as its duration. It was already assumed that the life of the soul would continue somewhere in some way. Peoples of all cultures and times have sensed the spiritual, the numinous, or other world destiny beyond the visible realm. As one poet said, he has “planted eternity into the human heart”.

Yet we are taught not to depend on feelings alone. The Christian faith is grounded in history. Jesus’ body spent several days entombed before victoriously reappearing; the empty tomb becoming the catalyst for the new church age. The reports of those who first glimpsed life on the other side; those who spoke to, ate with, and touched Jesus (the new version upgrade) can be blamed for sparking the forest fire. We who follow have enthralled ourselves with their written accounts. Proof it is not, faith it is, yet faith set objectively in historical times, places and events.

Christians are accused of wishing in the dark, of creating a mental prop. Yet how can atheists claim authority in knowledge of the afterlife? If I were to play amateur psychologist, it would be just as simple for me to claim that non-believers are internally blocking their fear of final judgment as saying believers have fear of death.

Nor can they accuse Christians of refusing to face realities in not seeing death for what it is. The biblical writers meticulously detailed, using much ink and parchment, the days, hours and painful circumstances leading up to Jesus’ last breath.

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Other accounts of life’s final moments can be revealing. A friend of mine died on September 26, this year. Steve Rehn was only 33-years-old, roughly the same age as Jesus, when he died. Steve was attempting to cycle 4,000km from Burkina Faso to Cameroon. This was partly for fun and adventure as a mad, keen cyclist, and partly to fulfil his role as a skilled literacy specialist. His trip included visiting the home villages of students with whom he’d taught literacy courses. A car in Northern Nigeria rounded a corner too quickly and Steve was given an instant promotion. Because of the vagaries of communication in rural Nigeria, Steve’s wife never heard what had happened to him before the end of September.

On September 21 Steve had written at the top of his website blog, “A journey into the unknown. I don’t really know where or when I will end up, and it doesn’t really matter. It will be an adventure, an epic journey, a time of soul-searching and of praying, of exploring and learning and sharing - a time of drinking Life to the fullest.”

In Christian philosophy, death is something everyone is fated to experience and an instrument that God uses for his purposes. It is also the intruder, an alien one day to be expelled. No one but Jesus ever faced death with more certainty and resolve, and then returned with unrivalled success. It was a mission accomplished! The benefits of which were passed on to believers.

Steve lived knowing that the grave implications of death are now behind us, that we are no longer under its shadowy threat. Every life lived like Steve’s gives further credence to Jesus’ words that those who listen to his message and believe in God who sent him have already passed from death into life.

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About the Author

Michael Viljoen studied mathematics and philosophy before working as a high school music teacher, and then a translator in Africa. He currently works for Wycliffe Bible Translators Australia, an organisation committed to minority peoples and languages around the world in the fields of linguistics, literacy, and literature production.

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