More about hard issues

The Final Frontier

The biggest problem in life is finding a meaning for it. A lot of us spend our lives distracted from pondering our eternal insignificance: as children, we have a constant stream of immediate goals—proving ourselves mature enough to be left home without a baby sitter, responsible enough to get a driver’s license, old enough to wear make-up or to shave—we struggle to acquire a driver’s license, a car, permission to date; to graduate from high school and attend college, to get a job, to get married, to have children. Then when the children come, they consume every waking moment—until they grow old enough to leave home. At that point many of us suddenly find ourselves near the end of our lives with very little to show for it. Looking back, our lives were filled with happenstance and short-range goals; suddenly even our spouses are strangers! It isn’t that our lives have suddenly become empty, it is that we have only now realized that our lives were empty all along, filled with distractions and happenstance, but devoid of any meaning or significance.

So we suffer a mid-life crisis, which consists of realizing only after half your life is gone that you never really began to live, that you squandered half your life on short-range goals and bad snap decisions that you cannot now undo.

What is the reason for this distress? Death. You see, no matter how much money you save up, someday you will die. No matter how poor you are, someday you will die. No matter how famous you become, someday you will die. No matter how obscure you are, someday you will die. No matter how chaste and pure you are, someday you will die. No matter how well you live it up, someday you will die. No matter how much power you have, someday you will die. No matter how powerless and downtrodden you are, someday you will die. It all comes down to that, doesn’t it? Someday you will die. All the people who know you will die. Someday after that all the records of your existence will be lost and there will be no evidence that a person such as you ever existed. Entire cultures, nations, and languages have been forgotten and lost in the sands of time: who can say that ours will not be one of them? It’s pretty distressing to think about it, so most of us bury ourselves in the concerns of our daily life to distract ourselves from the fact that we will someday die. We whistle nervously down the path of life, we frantically immerse ourselves in activities. However, it doesn’t work: because finally, at some point in our lives, we may find ourselves in the same situation as my grandmother: very old, unable to see very well, unable to hear very well, unable to do very much with unsteady hands and fragile legs, but completely able to contemplate our mortality and the finality of our death.

The good news that the apostles brought to the world was that death is not the end. Sure, we will all die, but after that, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, has told us that there will come a resurrection when God will judge us. While in the past it may have seemed not to matter how we conducted our lives, it matters now, because even though we shall all die, it isn’t the end for us. Jesus promises to take all those who would serve Him in this life with Him into His glory! He even demonstrated His ability to keep this promise by raising Himself from the grave!

Today we are wont to say that the resurrection is a matter for blind faith, that it cannot be proved or corroborated, that it defies investigation, or that it is some sort of mystical spiritual reality. But that is not what the apostles taught. When Paul was challenged about the resurrection, he did not say, “It cannot be proved, you have to take it on faith,” he did not say, “the majority of scholarly opinion agrees,” or “the church teaches it and you must believe it,” or even “this is something we thought up or saw in a vision.” Instead he appealed to eyewitnesses and to evidence:

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
—1 Corinthians 15:1-8, NIV

Paul reasoned with rigid logic, that if there is nothing beyond death, there is no meaning to life and everything is in vain:

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
—1 Corinthians 15:12-20, NIV

Today many people find the primary value of the gospel in Jesus’ ethical teachings, without realizing that without the resurrection, ethics gets us nowhere. What is the point of going to all the trouble of living an ethical life if you die just as dead as a person who whooped it up instead? Why not just indulge ourselves in all our fleshly lusts, if we are going to suffer the same fate no matter what? We have it all screwed up: ethics is not the purpose of the gospel, nor is it an elective course that we can add, if we like, to our salvation by faith. The resurrection is not an outmoded, optional doctrine. The resurrection is the whole point and purpose of Christianity: it is for the resurrection that we trust Jesus, it is by that trust that we are saved, it is in gratitude for that salvation that we strive to show ourselves worthy through the way we conduct our lives in the here-and-now.

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
—1 Corinthians 15:51-58

If you contemplate life too much, you may end in despair, delusion, or suicide: unless you are in Christ. For many people have had near-death experiences, but only Jesus Christ raised Himself from the dead and never died again. Therefore, I put before you this proposition: that there is no meaning in life outside a personal relationship of service and trust in Jesus Christ.