A few years ago on BBC Radio, Malcolm Muggeridge interviewed the great humourist P.G. Wodehouse, creator of Bertie Wooster and other memorable characters. Wodehouse spoke at length about his life, but the interview was as exciting as a cigarette butt. Towards the end of it, Muggeridge asked about religion. He asked, ‘Would it worry you if you knew when you died that it was the complete and total end of you?’ Wodehouse, with the vitality of a valium addict said, ‘Oh no, not in the least.’
For Wodehouse, as for many in the 20th Century, this life alone is of significance.
The Christian doctrine of Eternal Life is at once the most misunderstood and rejected of all Christian teachings. It led Karl Marx to describe religion as the opiate of the people, for in the 19th Century he saw the suffering created by the industrial revolution. And he likewise saw what had been the church’s greatest sin since the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century, namely the sin of providing Christian support for whatever the status quo of society was at the time. In the 19th Century this was child labour and inhuman working conditions.
Eternal Life, as a result, has acquired a negative stereotype over the years. It is often seen as a passive state where everyone sits around playing harps and singing hymns. If so, I hope for the sake of some people that the Old Methodist Hymn Book is being used.
To add to the uncertainty, the Bible never really says what Eternal Life is. It speaks about its existence, about admission by faith and about the hope it offers, but it never says what it is, apart from one verse in John. In John 17 Jesus says, ‘And this is Eternal Life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.’
John is very concerned about it, and so should we. For thinking about Eternal Life is not a philosophical or theological game, it is a vital question about the very meaning and purpose of existence.
Whenever we attend a funeral we are confronted by death and we think about what our faith has to do with it. And of course each of us must think of our own eventual death. Every day we are reminded of our mortality and that can be a cause of depression, or of hope, depending on how we view Eternal Life.
A second stereotype Eternal Life is seen as is as a form of heavenly auditing, that is the debit column of life is filled with too many pains and hardships, then the credit column of heaven will balance out the debits.
A third stereotype is seen when little Willie asked his mother one day, ‘Mum, don’t men ever go to heaven?’ His mother answered, ‘Of course they do, what makes you ask?’ Willie answered, ‘Because I never saw any pictures of angels with whiskers.’ The quick-witted mother answered, ‘Oh, that’s because most men who go to heaven get there by a close shave.’
Aspects of Eternal Life
Eternal Life is related to this life very closely. Whatever have been our priorities in this life, they will affect the next life. If we have lived for ourselves in this life, we shall do the same in the next life. If that’s what we want, God will let us go that way when He raises up all mankind. The shorthand word for that future existence is hell.
On the other hand, if we have lived for God here, if we have had faith and done our best to apply our faith in every sphere of life, we shall live with him there. Faith is our way of saying to God, yes, I want to live for you, and to be with you forever. Heaven is concerned with a positive quality of eternal existence. Hell is about negative quality, tedium, uncreativity and repetition.
Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, the famed World War 1 British Chaplain said, ‘I believe there will be just one question asked on that day when I appear before my maker. God will say to me, “What did you make of it?” And that is a good question to ask at the close of each day leading to that judgment day.’
This gift of life which your heavenly Father has given to you – what did you make of it?
Eternal Life is also related to death.
Have you ever tried to put a small child to bed? Tea is over, bath-time finished, pajamas are on and the child has been busy all day. Her eyes are drooping with exhaustion, and she is so very tired; but there’s just a couple more things that have to be done. And the attitude, spoken or unspoken by the child is: If I have to go to bed, then that will be the end of everything. But at last, the great event happens. She drops into bed and all the king’s horses couldn’t wake her.
That is until sometime around sunrise the next morning. And the a fresh new child tumbles out of bed, full of withering vitality to begin a fresh new day. The coming of the night seemed the end. But the night was really healing. It washed away the tiredness, flushed out fatigue and gave new life.
And yet, the following night it will be just as hard to get them to bed.
The parallel is obvious. How often are we tempted to think of Eternal Life with great uncertainty and trepidation, when we know that God is love.
Malcolm Muggeridge says that ‘The only way to be sure about history is to keep its end in view. The only way to be sure about living is to keep death in view.’
Eternal Life is the guarantee that there is a future for human life, and that future is in the hands of God, therefore we have hope.
By George Robert Iles