“To be or not to be—that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep--
To sleep—perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely
The pang of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.”
In this soliloquy, Shakespeare's Hamlet is thinking of taking action against his uncle the new king. But that could prove fatal and Hamlet concludes that people do not take risks because of the fear of death. But it is not the fear of nonexistence but of an afterlife that bothers him. If death is merely sleep, that's OK. But what if that sleep has the equivalent of nightmares?
Though this is often cited as a very deep meditation on life and death, Hamlet's worry is not that of most people. Few people fret about an unpleasant afterlife. They are more troubled by the idea that there may be no afterlife. Hamlet sees death at best as sleep but for most people the snuffing out of the flame of life is not a good thing. We struggle to live and stay alive. We want to survive death. And indeed the earliest indication of the belief in an afterlife is in the burial of Neanderthals, 50,000 years ago, complete with flowers, tools and food left with the bodies. Is this merely a vain hope or an ancient spiritual insight?
The oldest recorded religion, that of the Egyptians, posited an elaborate afterlife for those who had sin-free hearts, were properly mummified and knew all the passwords in the Book of the Dead. In contrast, in the early parts of the Old Testament, there is little said about the fate of the dead. When the afterlife is referred to at all it is called Sheol, which literally means “pit” or “grave.” In the few pictures we get of it, it's depicted as a gray half-life where people are weak and do not praise God. Often leaders and kings are said to be “gathered to their people” or to “sleep with their fathers” but there is reason to believe these are just traditional euphemisms for the death of the great.
The exceptions to these gloomy glimpses of the afterlife are the unique fates of Enoch who walked with God and then is taken by him and Elijah who is taken to heaven by a fiery chariot and a whirlwind. We also have references in Psalms 16, 45 and 73 to some kind of continued communion with God. In addition there are a few references to resurrection. Most, like our passage from Ezekiel 37, use resurrection as a metaphor for the revival of the nation of Judah after their exile. But a few do seem to refer to individuals being resurrected. Isaiah 26:19 says, “Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth shall give birth to those long dead.” Daniel 12:2 reads, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” However these resurrection references are not developed further.
As God's revelation unfolds in the New Testament, we get a clearer and more detailed picture of the afterlife. For instance, without an afterlife, there is no justice in this world. People do not treat others as they wish to be treated. Good people do not get rewarded as they should; evil people too often get away with the damage they inflict on others. But in God's universe such things will not stand forever. The justice denied in this life is redressed in the next. The unrepentent wicked receive punishment. Jesus calls that “Gehenna,” literally the valley of Hinnom on the southern edge of Jerusalem. During the last dark days of the kingdom of Judah before the exile, this was the site of pagan worship, where parents and Jewish kings sacrificed their children to Molech by fire. In Jesus' day it was the city garbage dump where trash was burned day and night. That was Jesus' metaphor for hell.
For those who realize how far from God's glory they have fallen and who turn to Him, their fate is to be in the presence of God, immediately after death. It is difficult to say whether the individuals are conscious or not. 9 times Paul speaks of believers who died as having “fallen asleep.” Yet, as we see in our gospel, this may be a convention of speech like our “passed away” because when facing execution Paul says being in Christ's presence is better than this earthly life.
If this sounds rather vague for a description of our final state, you're right. If this were our final state. But it's not. Jesus' resurrection was not only a validation of who he was; it is also the pattern for the afterlife proper. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul speaks of the discomfort of being “unclothed” in the intermediate state right after death and desiring to be better clothed. He speaks of our present bodies being like a tent, a temporary habitat, as opposed to the permanent house made for us by God. Being incorporeal is unnatural and temporary. The reason this intermediate time is not better described is the same reason why travel brochures don't say much about waiting lounges. That's not the destination.
Contrary to popular belief, our final state is not to be disembodied spirits in heaven. We are created as body-spirit unities; our destiny is to be whole beings once again. God will not abandon his creation, nor give up on creatures created in his image. He intends to restore us to what we were intended to be. Unlike the angels who are spirits or animals who are physical, we were created to be amphibians, as C. S. Lewis put it, creatures who are at home both in the spiritual and the physical realms. So our restoration means we must be embodied.
Notice that in our gospel passage (John 11) Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He is the origin of the process, the source of resurrection, and the channel of new life. In John 1:3 it says, “All things were created through him...” His signature, so to speak, is on everything. And God plans that all things will be re-created through Jesus.
Everything in creation ends or dies. It either stops working or something or someone else stops it from working. The troops that crucified Jesus stopped his body from working in the most painful, gruesome way possible. But then he rose from the dead. The source of life and resurrection re-entered the world, better than ever. He set the pattern for our resurrection.
Not only is Jesus' resurrection a pattern for our own but it is a pattern for the whole of creation. Some people, including some Christians, think that God just wants to end the world. But that's not what the Bible says. God created this world and pronounced its component parts good and the entirety very good. But in Genesis 6:11, it says, “The earth was ruined in the sight of God; the earth was filled with violence.” In 6 short chapters we turn God's earthly paradise into hell on earth. What is God's response? Start over, which means clearing away what's gone bad, what's been corrupted and infected and keeping what's good. That's the essence of the Noah story. God is giving creation a clean start. He reboots it and returns it to the manufacturer's original settings, as it were.
And that's what we see at the climax of the Book of Revelation. The earth is cleansed from all evil including death and pain and grief. And Revelation 21:1 says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away...” In other words God resurrects creation from the ashes of the old one, the way he raised the pierced, scourged and ravaged body of Jesus from the dead and transformed his body so that it no longer had the limitations our bodies do. In the same way he will raise us, giving us new bodies, while retaining the essence of who we are. Or to paraphrase physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne, God will install our same software, debugged, into new hardware.
We see the opposite all the time. We see the loving bright child turn into the distant burnout thinking only of the next fix. We seen the hopeful young person turn into the bitter angry adult through the insults of a hard life. We see soldiers return from the hell of war and their families and friends slowly realize they are not the same person, but an angry, depressed and self-destructive version of what they were. We see how negative transformation works, how the stuff that people have seen and have done and what was done to them can make them shells of who they were. God wants to transform us too, but positively; and not into what we once were, but into what he always intended us to be.
Resurrection is, in essence, transformation, taking what no longer works and making it over, improving and perfecting it. When they starting remaking the longest running science fiction series Doctor Who, they retained what worked—the eccentric time traveler and his human companions fighting evil, human or alien, anywhere in time and space—and changed what didn't—25 minute episodes with storylines that ran for 4 to 6 weeks, main characters with no emotional depth or personal history, rubber monsters with visible zippers and special effects not much improved over that of the original Star Trek. And the show grew from a cult classic known chiefly to Brits and a few thousand fans outside the UK into an international hit. But it had to have worth originally, even in its less than ideal state.
God takes us, in our less than ideal state and transforms us into what he had in mind for us all along. But that doesn't mean frozen in some kind static perfection. Eastern Orthodox theology does not see humanity, even in its unfallen state, as everything God fully intended us to be. Even in paradise we were not to remain exactly as we were when first created but we were to grow spiritually and become more than what we started as. When we sinned, we arrested our upward progress and not only regressed but devolved into less than we were at the point of our creation. When we surrender to Jesus, we start to progress once more. In this life we are mostly just making up what we lost. But in our new life, we will be restored to what should have been our starting point—complete harmony and unity with God—and then go on from there. Never forget: we are intended to mirror an infinitely wise and loving God. As finite creatures that adventure will never end. We will always be going further up and further into the endless love that is our Triune God.
Resurrection is also a validation of us as God's creations. Our moral flaws we may regret but not the individual characteristics he gave us. Again since we are to mirror an incomprehensibly large and multi-faceted God, it will take each of us with our particular talents and quirks and insights and gifts and skills and perspectives and creativity and ability to make connections to do that. We are like pieces of a vast living mosaic portrait of the Mind that made all. Each of us must be of the proper shape and size and hue, perfectly polished, and in the right relationship to each other, to reflect the rainbow of his radiance. Our task is to let him use us how and where he wants us to be.
As for the shape of the new creation and the description in Revelation of the new Jerusalem, with its crystal clear walls and its streets of gold and its bejeweled foundation and its gates of pearl—if it seems too hard to imagine, well, that's the point. It is a vision of the indescribable, overwhelming the power of words to capture anything so wonderful. Whatever the reality, it is more rather than less than how it was pictured.
The same can be said for our new post-resurrection state. As it says in 1 John 3:2, “Dear friends, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when he appears, we will be like him because we will see him as he is.” Like children our mature appearance is as yet unknown, except that we will be like our Father, and we will at the last see him as he is, a beatific vision beyond our current state of knowledge. As 2 Corinthians 2:9 says, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him.” Through his word and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we have been given glimpses of what is to come. And if all of those reveal only a fraction of how wonderful it will be, we have a lot of growing to do before we will be able to take it all in.