Noel Schoonmaker: God of the Living

L. D. Johnson was a twentieth century pastor and longtime Chaplain of Furman University. In 1962, he lost his 23-year-old daughter, Carole, in a car wreck. Years later, he traveled to England to write a book reflecting on her vibrant life and her tragic death. An Englishwoman he met at a dinner party asked, “What are you doing here all the way from the States?” “It’s a bit hard to explain,” he replied, “but the general idea is to write something about the meaning of death.” “Oh?” said the woman. “I wouldn’t have supposed there is any.”

The question of death’s meaning is well worth our contemplation because death awaits us all. We can search for the fountain of youth and invest in cryogenic freezing and take anti-aging supplements and eat right and exercise, but there’s no avoiding death. The day we are born, we board a train headed for the cemetery, and sometime, some way, somehow, we all arrive.

Is there any meaning in death? Will our existence be altogether extinguished? Or, is there a possibility of life after death? Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, famously regarded the idea of everlasting life as a juvenile attempt at wish fulfillment. But he was hardly the first to reject the notion of life after death. Long before Freud, there was an elite class of Jewish aristocrats called the Sadducees, who focused on the law of Moses. Although religious, the Sadducees did not believe in angels or spirits, nor did they believe in the resurrection of the dead.

A group of Sadducees confronted Jesus the week before he died and challenged him with a reference to Deuteronomy 25. The passage stipulates that if a married man dies without any children, his brother is to marry his widow and have a child with her. Then, the baby is to be named after the deceased man so that his name will live on in Israel. The Sadducees came up with a hypothetical based on this law in order to discredit the doctrine of resurrection. “Jesus,” they said, “say there was a woman whose husband died childless, so she married his brother and he died childless, then she married his other brother and he died childless, too. This happened seven times with seven brothers, she never had any kids, and then she died. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” I can see the Sadducees grinning and fist bumping each other as if they had presented an air-tight case against resurrection.

But their contention rested on the premise that resurrection life will be fundamentally similar to life as we know it, that people will marry and have children and so on. To the contrary, Jesus replied that “in the resurrection from the dead [people] neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed, they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels.” According to Jesus, there is resurrection life on the other side of death, and it will be qualitatively different from life as we know it. There will be no marriage, because we will be transformed into everlasting beings and, therefore, we will need no institution of marriage to propagate further life and perpetuate the family name. Jesus further explains that we will be “children of God and children of the resurrection.” To be the child of an earthly parent is to be mortal; it is to inherit the inevitability of death. To be a child of God is to be immortal; it is to inherit the promise of resurrection life.

To make his case, Jesus cites a passage from the law of Moses, the story about the bush in Exodus 3. In this passage, God reveals Godself to Moses through a burning bush and says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” When God said this, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had all been dead for about 500 years. Yet God did not say, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;” God said, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The implication is that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still alive.

At my former congregation in Tennessee, there was a man named Tom Brown. Tom was an exemplary Christian, a consummate churchman, and a wonderful Sunday School teacher. When he was in his nineties, he began to slow down, and by the spring of 2016, he would often say with a twinkle in his eye, “I’m not long for this world.” Sensing that his death was imminent, Tom told me that Christ’s encounter with the Sadducees gave him great hope. When Tom died, his family loaned me his Bible to use as I prepared his eulogy. I turned to the passage about the Sadducees and noticed that Tom had written in the margin of his Bible, “I am, not was, God of the living.” He further wrote, “It seems for believers that when our body ceases to function, our spirit continues on in heaven.”

Tom’s interpretation is illuminating. Although death is real, it does not separate us from God or suspend our existence. The Apostle Paul wrote that “to be away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord.” Jesus told the penitent thief on the cross, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” The New Testament teaches us to believe in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, and also to believe that we will find life after death in the meantime.

Christians defy death, not by denying its reality, but by denying its ultimacy. Jesus did not smirk at death or pretend it’s painless. He did not gloss death, but neither did he absolutize it. He did not deny death’s pain, but neither did he concede death’s permanence. Remember in John’s Gospel when Lazarus died? Jesus saw Mary weeping, and he wept with her. They grieved together because their beloved had died. But then, Jesus went to the graveyard and said, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus did.

Jesus reveals a God who overpowers all the muscle of the grave. Jesus reveals a God whose commitment to life overrules the would-be finality of death. To concede that death is ultimate would be to ascribe greater power to death than to God. Death is neither the beginning nor the end. Death is neither indestructible nor eternal. God is. And God is the God of the living. To believe in the God Jesus reveals is to embrace resurrection hope.

Now, someone might ask, “But doesn’t this amount to a pie-in-the-sky attitude that diminishes ethical engagement in this world? Doesn’t it play right into the hands of philosopher Karl Marx’s critique that ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’ which makes suffering sufferable without doing anything about it?” No, no, no. To the contrary, belief in the resurrection emboldens us to practice faithful social ethics that alleviate human suffering here and now.

Consider Oscar Romero, who was archbishop of San Salvador in the 1980s. His ministry was characterized by attentive care for marginalized persons until he was martyred. Amid increasing conflict between left-wing and right-wing forces, Romero advocated for the poor, spoke out against assassinations, and stood for righteousness and truth, despite the constant threat of death squads. What gave him such unflinching courage? He once wrote, “Let us not be afraid! Let us keep walking on this road that will one day lead us to death… so that we will also be saints in Heaven participating in the glory of the risen Christ!” Romero’s intrepid ethics were connected to his belief in resurrection, showing that resurrection faith can empower ethical conduct in this present world.

Resurrection, after all, is the conviction on which Christianity is built. Jesus not only proclaimed resurrection; he also personified it. He not only declared resurrection; he also demonstrated it. He not only asserted resurrection; he also authenticated it. For after he died on the cross, he arose from the grave on the third day, promising all who follow him that we shall likewise find life on the other side of death.

Which brings me back to L. D. Johnson. He eventually completed that book he set out to write, and he entitled it The Morning After Death. Within its pages, Johnson recounted the grief he experienced after losing a beloved family member. Yet, he ultimately expressed faith in the resurrected Christ and unwavering trust in the God of the living. “We shall always miss her here,” he wrote. “Separation was and is indescribably painful to those of us who love her. But I believe that she is as much alive now as at that tragic instant of impact on the icy highway.”

Such is the conviction of those who trust Christ. Such is the conviction of those who worship the God of the living.

Let us pray:

We acknowledge our frailty before the power of death, O God, yet we believe your power is greater still. Help us by your Holy Spirit to follow Christ with integrity, courage, and hope until the day we are raised with him to the everlasting life in glory. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.