Thursday, 4 September 2008

Who wants to live forever?

I personally think Freddie was right – who does want to live forever? I mean, it sounds pretty dull to go on and on and on. I’ve always liked that quote, “People dream of immortality who can’t decide what to do on a rainy day”. And all this disembodied stuff doesn’t appeal much either – I love the feel of the sun on my back and other physical pleasures (!!) And, to be honest, perfection is pretty unattractive too. How dull to have some pre-determined, ideal place, where human creativity and ingenuity are no longer required. To be honest, I quite like all the depth of human experience and emotion that comes from our falleness and uncertainty about the future.

But, I can accept it. I mean, it doesn’t appeal much, but I’m willing to allow for the fact that we somehow continue after death. But, what really bothers me, is the fact that it has somehow become the centrepiece of Christianity. We need to ensure (more than anything else) that we go to heaven and get others there too. And this preoccupation with heaven means that social action in the present is only relatively important. I know people say that they can have both – social action and evangelism – but my experience of the church is that one negates the other. With a very utilitarian logic – eternity is just simply longer and so more important.

With this in mind, we’ve been reading 1 John in church over the last few months, and I’m afraid I didn’t fall over with excitement when I read its apparent message: “And this is what he promised us – even eternal life.” (2:25)

…except that something hit me between the eyes as I was reading it that I know is pretty commonplace for many, but had hardly registered in my consciousness before: the Greek word for “eternal” doesn’t mean “eternal” at all. It is the Greek word, “aon”, from which we get the English word ‘eon’. It means age or era. Of course, we can imagine this age going on and on, but to translate it “eternal” is somewhat misleading. It isn’t a promise of continued existence after death, it is a promise of a new kind of life that has started in the present. This is what he has promised us – the life of the eon (the new age of God’s presence in the world). Or, as it is put elsewhere in 1 John, “the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.” (2:8)

So, maybe Freddie was right after all:

Forever is our today
Who waits forever anyway?

Incidentally, it also just so happens that 1 John is not that impressed by the whole disembodied thing either. One of its main objections is against those in the community who valued a disembodied, ‘other-worldly’ Christianity and so believed in a disembodied Jesus and couldn’t accept a sensual, physical one. Maybe, we are more out of step with I John than we think when we reduce the Christian message to a reward in the after life.

Of course, I know its not enough to simply get excited about a re-reading of the Bible, we need to start living the life right now (the embodied, joyful, liberating, holistic life) that God has promised us. There is, after all, nothing to wait for. But, I do also think salvaging the Bible from the hands of those who have made it irrelevant is pretty important too – especially if we care about the Bible and the Christian tradition we find ourselves in.


DS said...

'Spooky' as Dame Edna would say -just thinking about that on the train today - the nicene creed ends with 'and the life of the world to come' which could perhaps be the life of the world 'coming'. Sounds so much more present, dynamic, tangible and meaningful.

Thanks for the post Mark

rache said...

'ooh baby, do you know what what that's worth,
ooh, heaven is a place on earth,
they say in heaven love comes first,
ooh heaven is a place on earth,
we'll make heaven a place on earth . . .'
As you can see, Belinda Carlisle is also into realised eschatology.

More seriously, I agree that emphasis on after-this-life can become an exercise in missing the point now.
(I also find it difficult to conceive of an existence that has the good without the bad - it's so integral to my experience now to have both - maybe failure of imagination.)

mark said...

Blogging is brilliant - it brings together Freddie Mercury, Belinda Carlisle and the Nicene Creed in seemless harmony!!

On another note - I certainly think eternal hell is much more untenable than eternal life. I can hardly imagine how I once believed it!

I'm pretty sure hell exists - Darfur, Nazi concentration camps, Bosnia - but hell also "is a place on earth". I think this is what Jesus was talking about in the Gospels - he was warning the inhabitants of Jerusalem of their fate in AD70 when the place would be ransaked, people murdered and raped, and, for those who survived, there would be "wailing" for the dead and (because it was winter and their homes were destroyed) "gnashing of teeth." Surely this is what we need to spend our time rescuing people from!