By David Rhodes
Hannah was about nine and the small green caterpillar was a lot younger. They shared a bedroom for several months before they finally parted company. It was a brief but important relationship that has not entirely ended.
Like many children, Hannah was fascinated by what happens to caterpillars in the winter. One day she decided to try an experiment. The caterpillar was moved into a jam jar and spent many happy weeks eating the carefully selected leaves Hannah provided. Than one day it curled up in a chrysalis and went to sleep. Or had it died?
The answer came in the Spring when the chrysalis wriggled and broke open, and a butterfly emerged. Suddenly the jam jar was too small and the butterfly was released into the outside world. Hannah never saw it again, but she still remembers it. The caterpillar she nurtured so lovingly – and the butterfly she released into the world.
Meanwhile, her elderly neighbour, Myra had died. She was a great age and it was a gentle death. But then what? Were Myra’s 94 years of life simply deleted like an unwanted computer file? Here one moment and gone the next? Gone into oblivion: or gone somewhere else?
Death fascinates us, at a distance. Television programmes are full of films about ghosts, vampires, autopsies and murders. But, in real life, people are reluctant to talk about death. Especially their own and what might happen afterwards. Here are a few leads to consider if you dare to think about death.
Did Jesus believe there was life after death? Some gospel accounts suggest he did. For example, there was a conversation in which Jesus was asked about marriage in heaven (Matt 22. 23-33). The controversy was about marriage: heaven was taken for granted.
Or the story of Dives and Lazarus (Lk 16. 19-31). The rich man died and found himself parched with thirst in a place of pain. But the beggar, who died at the same moment, was in a place of joy and blessing. Their earthly roles were reversed.
Jesus lived in a world sharply divided between rich and poor. Most people lived in extreme poverty like Lazarus. Meanwhile a tiny elite lived in inordinate luxury and wielded total power. It was a world of oppression and exploitation.
Into that world came Jesus proclaiming good news for the poor, release from destitution and the healing of the vulnerable whose lives were destroyed by the rich.
The Dives and Lazarus story is a proclamation of hope for the poor and marginalised. Would Jesus have told it if he believed there was no after-life?
But if there is an ‘after-life’ what is it like?
The medieval Church painted a picture of life after death as a harsh judgement. The virtuous are elevated to heavenly bliss and the sinful cast down into the fires of Hell. That was brilliant propaganda in a world where the powerful needed to control the population and keep them in their proper places. But what about God? Was he a ruthless feudal king dispensing harsh justice?
How does that fit with the Lord’s Prayer and its first word, Abba? Loving father, not tyrannical ruler. How does that fit with forgiveness in the parable of the Prodigal Son? Welcomed home unconditionally by a father who runs and flings his arms round the boy, regardless of his filth and defilement.
How does that fit with the story of the Good Shepherd? God going out of his way to find the lost sheep. How does it fit with forgiving someone who offends against you, not seven times but seventy times seven? Do we worship a God who will hurl us into the fire of Hell for a single mistake – but then demand that we repeatedly forgive other people?
No wonder so many reject that image of a monstrous, vengeful God. An image written in words in Dante’s Inferno and painted on the walls of medieval churches.
But what about fairness? What about punishment for wrong-doing? Surely reason demands that the wrong-doer gets his due deserts? We instinctively want retribution for wrong-doing. Even revenge.
An eye for an eye may sound grim, but it was very rational. It was a way of limiting violence. If someone blinds you in one eye you are allowed to blind them in one eye. Only in one eye. It was a way of preventing violence escalating into war.
But, surprisingly, Jesus tells us to forgive. Not to strike back. Not to demand retribution or revenge. That may be workable in a minor disagreement, but what about murder? What about mass murder? The book Finding Mr Goldman explores exactly that question. How does God deal with a wicked man who has caused the deaths of thousands of innocent people? Reason and our sense of punitive justice suggest that he should burn in Hell. And, indeed, the wealthy Mr Goldman experiences something quite close to that.
But what about the love of God? Is it conditional on good behaviour? Or is it unconditional? Unconditional for Mr Goldman? Unconditional for Adolf Hitler?
The Prodigal Son behaved badly but the father’s love was unconditional. So maybe that’s how it will be for us when we die. We, too, will be greeted with open arms and our sins washed away.
When we go down into the grave we may not be forgotten, just as a small child still remembers with fondness and delight a caterpillar in a jam jar, a child whose love helped it to find new life. And if a small child can remember with love, does not God do the same? Perhaps that is the meaning of resurrection.
By David Rhodes