There is a tendency these days to sentimentalise death, to act and speak as if it were no big thing, just a ‘passing on’ or a ‘passing away’, a move into ‘the next room’ or a translation to ‘a better place’. There is often much laughter, especially at Irish funerals, teasing one another about what the dead person might be doing or thinking, having a pint of Guinness or watching the Cheltenham Gold Cup, for example.
All this is a way of comforting one another in difficult times. But it might also be a way of denying the full reality of what has happened. Popular films (an example is American Beauty of some years back) sometimes do this by having the ‘spirit’ of a person hovering over the places where they lived and telling us the story of the days and weeks that preceded their ‘passing’. As if they had not really died.
Some might think it a Christian thing to think about death in these terms, as no big deal. Is it not one of the main beliefs of Christianity, our belief in an afterlife? Is it not the high point of the comfort religion is supposed to offer, this confidence about what happens after death?
In one sense death is a natural end to the life of the human animal and can be, very often, a happy release. But in another sense death is an unnatural experience because we are spiritual creatures who already sense something of eternity in ourselves. Our experiences of knowledge and love have something of the eternal about them, as philosophers and poets have often seen, and recounted. Death is an insult to something we sense about ourselves, an affront and a scandal.
And many people cannot enter into the levity, the false comfort, because they find unbearably sad the absence of someone they have loved. There is an awful poignancy in being reminded of them, realising they are not in their accustomed place. Widowed men and women, orphaned children, bereaved parents, often have to bear privately the intense pain of feeling that a part of their own bodies has been taken away, a gap has been opened that can never again be filled, a wound has been inflicted for which there is no healing. They don’t want to go on and on about it ... and people wonder why they are not getting over it.
Faith in the resurrection of the body is a statement about God more than about ourselves or about stages of human life. This is because faith, as Christians understand it, always has God as its direct concern. This is one reason for calling it a theological virtue. It means that whatever falls within the reach of faith does so only because it has something to do with God, it teaches us something about God.
Faith in the resurrection of the body is an aspect of faith in God the Holy Spirit, whom in the Creed we call 'the Lord, the giver of life’. (The Latin term is beautiful, vivificantem, the vivifier.) The God in whom we believe is Creator and Lord of all things, God of the living and not of the dead. The God in whom we believe wants life not death, God who causes the wilderness to blossom and the barren womb to bear fruit.
The God in whom we believe is a Father who has raised his Son Jesus from the dead and exalted Him in the Spirit to his own right hand. The Father allowed his only Son to enter the kingdom of the dead, to dwell amongst the dead and to rise from there. ‘I was dead’, Christ says, ‘but now I am to live for ever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and of hell’.
Our faith and hope are about God, what God is like, where God is in human experience, what it is God has promised He will be for His people. For those who believe in this God, the awful journey into loss, decline, and death is one Jesus has travelled before us, one through which we travel with Jesus, one from which all who belong to Jesus will be raised, as he was, by the power of God.
Rather than turning death into ‘no big thing’, Christian faith in the resurrection of the body enables us to face death in all its horror and sadness. Rather than pretending that death is not horrible and sad, Christian hope in the resurrection of the body looks that horror and sadness squarely in the face. Our faith and our hope is that God, who is with us in dying, rescues us from the kingdom of the dead.
To believe in the resurrection of the body, then, is to believe something about God. It is to affirm that God is the God of life. It is also to say something about the reach of our hope. Founded on God's power, and what God has already done in raising Jesus from the death, our hope stretches ‘from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven’.