Life after death?
A recent survey suggested that only 67% of regular churchgoers in England believe in life after death. A surprisingly low figure, you may think. After all, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is at the very centre of Christian belief. Presumably, those churchgoers who do not expect life beyond death have been influenced by attitudes to this issue in our society at large. Many who do not go to church or practise other religions do still believe in some form of life after death, but such belief has declined drastically in recent decades.
But most people in most societies throughout history have believed in life after death. So the decline of this belief in modern western society requires explanation.
One important reason for the decline is that the experience of death has changed very considerably. Before modern times most people died young. In the modern west most people live to old age. This means that most people can for most of their lives consider their own death only as a distant project. They need not seriously consider it at all.
Though death - both fictional and real - is constantly on our television screens, these televised deaths are mostly in circumstances we are not very likely to encounter ourselves (murder, famine in Africa, war in Bosnia, and so on). So televised death does not confront us with the thought of our own death. And the deaths of relatives, friends and neighbours, which really could bring our own mortality home to us, are nowadays much less visible than they used to be. People die in hospital, not at home. The dead body itself is seen by only the closest relatives. There are few public signs of mourning. A modern death is a private affair, permitted to impinge on people's consciousness as little and as briefly as possible.
Affluence and medical science have given us high expectations of both the length and the quality of our lives. We suppose we can find sufficient fulfilment within our earthly lifespan. We need not look beyond death. But in this, as in so many other ways, our affluence permits a callous indifference to most of humanity. Most human beings have died before they have scarcely begun to live. Vast numbers still do. Very many have lived lives of grinding poverty, pain and desperation. Vast numbers still do. For these, the majority of the human race, we must surely hope that death is not the end. If human beings are valuable, if God values them as we believe he does, it cannot be.
But it is curious that we of all people - with our reasonable hopes of long and fulfilled lives - evidently need to keep the thought of our own death out of mind. Societies which death ravages face up to it. But we who have drawn its sting, so we think, hide it away.
The fact is that death is still the last enemy. It casts its shadow over all of life, even over long lifespans, even over rich and fulfilling lives. It threatens all our hopes and joys with meaninglessness. It extinguishes people we love. Wonderful, valuable people come to an end, and we only acquiesce in their death because the processes of mortality have already begun to destroy them before they die.
So the Christian message that God has conquered death for us by raising Jesus Christ from death has lost none of its relevance. The Christian message does not deny that we are mortal, that the life we live now naturally ends in death. It tells us that in Christ God unites us to his own undying life which death cannot reach. Though we die to this life, we shall live in him.