Commentary: Everlasting life

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Commentary: Everlasting life

An e-Review commentary by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker | March 18, 2010 {1151}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at
Many people today believe, like the poet Charles Wright, that when we die, we are “returned to what we once were before we became what we are” (“Buffalo Yoga,” Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004, p. 22).

Funeral practices are changing in some places because more people are requesting a nonreligious service or no service at all since they do not believe in God or a life beyond death.

Why is the belief in what the ecumenical Christian creeds call “the life of the world to come” (Nicene) and “the life everlasting” (Apostles’) languishing?

Photo by Petr Kratochvil. Source: Public Domain Pictures.

Some historians of culture believe a decline in the belief in life beyond death is caused by historical events that produce massive anxiety. Some say the apocalyptic devastation of the bombing of Hiroshima so damaged the psyche of many people it erased their capacity to hope for life beyond death. One wonders about the psychological effect of the tsunami several years ago and the earthquake in Haiti this year.
Whether or not the decline in confidence in the belief in life beyond death is related to any specific historical event, it does seem that the cultural milieu in which we live is not conducive to hope for life beyond death.

Scientific discovery of the evolution of life (interpreted as philosophy, not science per se) has caused people to think we are merely the product of random events in an accidental universe. Improvement in longevity and quality of life through technology fosters a hope for future progress for the living, rather than hope for the dead. As in the pagan past, many today believe the words of Menander, quoted by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:32: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

There is a loss of spiritual imagination, the ability to perceive spiritual realities, in a culture that is immersed contentedly in the material well-being offered by a prosperous society. The dictum of the novelist and literary critic John Gardner holds true for a belief in life beyond death in a materialistic culture: “Values thought to be of prime importance prove trivial when one encounters an admirable culture in which those values are not held,” (“On Moral Fiction,” Basic Books, 1977, p. 49).

Even those of us who are Christians in this culture are bound to be influenced by the ideas and values around us. My parents’ bodies lie decomposing under the loess soil of Vicksburg. Their lives being complete, their spiritual essence resides in me every day, and in some ways they are closer to me than ever. Are they, then, enveloped in “a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), or will their presence vanish in the air when I and the others who knew them perish with our memories?


“Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus
our Lord

Romans 8:38-39

Gently, we may allow ourselves to be open to the existence of realities that cannot be seen if we are to avoid letting our minds be severely limited by the worldview of a culture characterized by a poverty of spiritual imagination.

In the language of the Nicene Creed, we live in a universe in which there are things both “seen and unseen.” The unseen reality that cannot be filtered out of the mental screen of even the most materialistic culture is love. In the words of the Song of Solomon (8:6 NRSV), “love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.”

In the Christian insight, love is not an emotion, but an expression of being. It is an ontological reality. It is the nature of the boundless mystery we name God, “for God is love” (1 John 4:8). Because of this love, we trust God, as the creed of The United Church of Canada says: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.”

Moreover, Christian confidence in this love is fortified by the eruption in creation and human history of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Like John Updike in his poem about the resurrection of Jesus, “Seven Stanzas of Easter,” Christians say, “Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping, transcendence, making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages: let us walk through the door,” (Collected Poems,” Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, p. 21).

Yes, let us walk through the door of belief opened by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. To unprejudiced eyes, the resurrection of Jesus disrupts the presuppositions of a culture that thinks we live in a closed universe with absolute limits to what is possible.

Perhaps there are some who wonder, as did the poet John Berryman, in his poem, “Address to the Lord,” when he says: “And I believe as fixedly in the Resurrection-appearances to Peter and  to Paul as I believe I sit in this blue chair. Only that may have been a special case to establish their initiatory faith,” (Garrison Keilor, Ed., “Good Poems,” Penguin, 2002, p. 11).

Photo by Barb Ver Sluis. Source: Public Domain Pictures.

We need not doubt that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is “a special case,” which does not give hope to us because it is the act of the God whose nature is love. It is the sign of the love of the eternal God for us for whom God has established an eternity suitable for creatures. Our hope is not that we shall be eternal as God is eternal, since even in the life beyond death we are still creatures. Yet, because the eternal God loves us, we are offered a share in God’s eternal life, which the Apostle’s Creed calls “the life everlasting.”

So, too, said the apostle Paul in Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”    

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.

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