Afterword: Room of Marvels
Of all the tests that fray the confidence and nerves of Christians, the most difficult to bear is undoubtedly the death of loved ones. A legitimate part of the pain is simply parting. The fact that I now can no longer pick up the phone and talk to my sister or my father, or visit with them, is a lasting sorrow. But the fear and uncertainty in the face of death which is, unfortunately, the rule and not the exception, is mainly based in failure of continued life beyond physical death to make any intuitive sense.
As Christians, we know—or at least have heard—the glorious words of Christ and his people about their future life in the presence of God. But, frankly, few really believe them. To really believe them would be to act straightforwardly and spontaneously as if they were true. It would be to be confident with every pore of our being that any friend of Jesus is far better off dead. It would be to rejoice, in the midst of our parting sorrows, over the indescribably greater well-being of our loved one who has moved on “further up and further into” the greatness of God and his world. Jesus quite reasonably said to his closest friends: “If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28)
Jesus’s attitude toward death is frankly quite cavalier. Here he is himself, dying, and a wretched man dying along with him recognizes him for who he is. He asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his place of power, his kingdom. Jesus replies, “You can be sure that this very day you will be with me in Paradise.” Now “Paradise” was understood to be a very good place to be, a place of life and fullness.
This statement goes along with the declaration in John 8 that those who receive his word will never see, never taste, death. (vss. 51 & 53) That is to say, they will never experience what human beings normally expect is going to happen to them. And again he says at the tomb of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (11:25-26) It was the shared understanding of the Christians of the first generation that Jesus in his person had destroyed death. (Hebrews 2:14-15 and II Timothy 1:10)
The central point of reference in all of this is Jesus, who lives on both sides or physical death: his as well as ours. “Because he lives…,” the song realistically sings. So Paul, rich in experience of Jesus beyond death, says confidently, “…while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord…and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” (II Corinthians 5:6-8) He had glimpsed through his own experiences the world where the dying thief had gone to meet Jesus, without benefit of resurrection.
When Paul tells the Philippians that he was “hard pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; and yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake….For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (1:21-24), he is expressing an unstrained, easy confidence about the continuity of his life and person that was founded on his experiences of the world of God and of the place of Jesus in it. His experiences made it real for him, and made it easy and natural for him the act as if Jesus and his Kingdom were the enduring reality for the enduring life of those in Jesus’s care.
It is assurance of the continuity of our lives under God and in this universe with him that liberates us from “the sorrow of those who have no hope.” (I Thessalonians 4:13) And it is on precisely this point that James Bryan Smith’s wonderful story helps us. The biblical and theological content is quite solid--though it will be surprising to many who do not put concrete content and image and action into their reading of the Bible and their theological reflection. It must be surprising if it is to address the need. And the need is great—appalling, when you observe how devout Christian’s suffer in the face of physical death. The reason Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35) was certainly because of the misery of imposed upon humanity by failure to vividly see the reality of undying life in God—a misery overwhelmingly exemplified in the scene surrounding him at the moment.
It is also important that the treatment be with a light touch—gentle, and slyly humorous. Yet, at the same time, deeply touching, intelligent and realistic. We are all familiar with this in the writings of C. S. Lewis and others. The author here has achieved this fine combination of qualities. As a result, you can enter the writing as you would any outstanding literary work. Enjoy it. Its effects for making real through imagination the truth and reality now of life beyond physical death will take care of themselves. The “assurance of the continuity of our lives under God and in this universe with him” will creep into your soul. The Word and the Spirit will enter with the story. We will be able to see the truths of scripture in a way that grips us, strengthens us, directs us in life, and lifts the burden of pain and meaninglessness imposed upon those unable to think concretely about the course of our lives as unceasing spiritual beings in God’s rich universe. Paradise is now in session.