not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In
my Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would not have
told you that I go to prepare a place for you. And when I go and prepare a place
for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may
be also. And you know the way where I am going." Thomas said to him, "Lord,
we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?" Jesus said
to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father,
but by me.
my Father’s house there are many mansions,” said Jesus. “If it were not so, I
would not have told you that I go to prepare a place for you.”Unfortunately today, with our distrust of all leaders, and particularly
religious leaders, it occurs to many that Jesus was flat out wrong about the possibility
of eternal life. In fact, psychologist Robert Jay Lifton once said that this
is the central question of our age. The whole of modern history can be interpreted,
he suggested, as a frantic attempt to rediscover the lost secret of immortality.
Loss of Immortality
is a parable told by an ancient rabbi that speaks to our situation. Imagine a
rare bird, the bird of paradise, a glorious and colorful creature, perched on
the very top branches of a tree. To reach it, a group of people form a human pyramid,
one standing on the shoulders of another, so that one of them may eventually climb
toward the very top of the tree, seize the bird, and bring it down to earth. But
as the pyramid reaches higher and higher, the people at the bottom begin losing
interest. They cannot even see the bird of paradise, so eventually they lose patience,
become bored, or even angry at having to carry so much weight. Eventually they
stomp off and go home. The pyramid falls apart, and the bird of paradise flies
away. Lost for one, the hope of immortality is lost for all.
our day and time, we have seen several routes toward immortality closed off, undermining
our assurance. People once believed that we could be assured of immortality biologically.
One could triumph over death by living on in the memories of children, grandchildren
and great grandchildren. Even without children, it was thought, one could survive
the ravages of death by making a contribution to the clan, race or nation. There
was a sense of immortality stemming from association with any group that endures.
in our highly mobile society, where family ties are so easily torn apart, where
marriages are made and broken, where people move so frequently from place to place
and from city to city, one cannot be certain that there will be continuity from
one generation to the next. We can no longer count on living on through the memory
of family, race, or tribe. So this most basic, biological link with the immortal
has been severed. And our hope wears thin. And we no longer see the bird of paradise
waiting for as at the top of the tree of life.
second method by which people have attempted to secure immortality is to create
things that endure. Whether one thinks of the great artists who have expressed
themselves in works of stone or clay, or the philanthropists who have labored
to amass great wealth to build universities, schools, or hospitals, people have
attempted to build immortality in brick and mortar. Motivated by the desire to
survive beyond the day of our dying, we are driven to create monuments that endure.
we have all seen far too many old buildings and monuments destroyed by developers
and we know from our own experience that no monument built by human hands can
guarantee our immortality.
Has Slipped From View
and perhaps most importantly, there are the specifically religious paths toward
the eternal. Christians believe that an assurance of immortality can be found
in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Unfortunately, the wisdom of this
faith has often been obscured by some rather fanciful theories about heaven and
hell. The idea of a heaven with streets paved with gold, angels with halos and
heavenly choirs, and a god seated on a throne, these images are vivid but imaginary.
This, too, we have come to understand.
Wisdom of Jesus
fact, the scriptures are cautious in spelling out precisely what lies beyond the
gates of death. For in all honesty, no one really knows. Even Jesus did not describe
the afterlife. His emphasis was upon the quality of life we live here on earth.
He insisted that our conduct and our decisions count. He said that in this cosmos
we are not alone. And he put his hopes into the form of an image: "In my
father's house there are many mansions."
in this day and age we are in the position of the people in the rabbi's parable,
having seen the bird of paradise at the very pinnacle of the tree of life, we
make a human pyramid, each one of us climbing upon the shoulders of the other,
and depending upon the support of the others. But as so many have lost faith and
abandoned hope, then the pyramid is in danger of falling. Lost for one, the hope
of immortality is lost for all.
brings us to the most important insight about immortality contained in our passage
from St. John’s gospel: the way toward eternal life lies directly through the
gates of death.
is a lesson which the disciples had great difficulty understanding. They did not
understand how or why the Son of God would die. They expected that Jesus would
triumph over any foe. They thought it impossible that the Messiah would suffer
and die. They could not reconcile themselves to the simple fact of his death,
for they saw death as the enemy of life. For the disciples, the difficult part
of what Jesus had to tell them was not his affirmation of immortality, but his
acknowledgment of death. “I go to prepare a place for you.”It was not his divinity that they found difficult, but the simple fact
of his approaching death.
too have this basic misconception. We have this sense of building success after
success; we have this expectation that the fulfillment of life comes in piling
happiness upon happiness. In this view, death is the greatest single threat to
our fulfillment. We can achieve our goals only if we have our health!
see life and death as enemies. And our purpose is to hold back the advancing armies
of age and death for as long as humanly possible. Hold fast to what we have, resist
the changes, deny the loss.
the whole story of Christ's life, death and resurrection tells us something different.
Some of the deepest lessons of life may be learned through suffering. Some of
the greatest opportunities come in the face of failure. And in the end, the only
real avenue leading to eternal life, is the one that takes us straight through
the valley of the shadow of death.
see, until they encountered the spirit of the living Christ after his death, the
disciples didn’t really understand him at all. They thought of Jesus as one of
the immortals. But their superficial faith in immortality was utterly destroyed
by the crucifixion. After his death, they recognized his true identity. The recognized
him for the first time in and through the shattering of their illusions about
immortality. In the end they saw his love expressed as much in his suffering as
in his early success.
the most important scenes of the entire New Testament are those quiet encounters
between Jesus and his disciples following his death and resurrection, in places
like the road to Emmaus, or the upper room, or the shore of Galilee where they
shared breakfast together by the sea: not the spectacle of a great miracle, but
the simple act of eating a meal together. In my view it’s the simple acts of love
and kindness that make all the difference.
as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ I am here to tell you that death is
not the final enemy of life. Death is simply one of the steps we take in learning
how to walk. And the truth is that nothing can separate us from the love of God:
none of our failures, nor our fears, nor our illnesses, nor the departure of the
dearest friends, nor the death of the most beloved, need separate us from the
love of God. In fact, it may be precisely through the changes and trials of life
that we enter into God's eternal habitation. It is precisely through our loss
that we learn to let go and move forward.
Am the Way
one of the things Jesus meant when he said: “I am the way, the truth and the life,
and no one comes to the Father, except through me.” No one comes into the presence
of God fully and completely except through the gates of death, just as Jesus did.
perhaps the real secret to a renewed faith in immortality may be the acceptance
of mortality itself. In the love which was poured out so powerfully in Jesus we
clearly see, that eternal life is not secured by building success upon success.
Salvation is not secured by placing stone upon stone.We do not achieve the eternal by frantically trying to make youth last
forever, or denying loss when we feel it deeply. We do not achieve immortality
by resisting changes that threaten us. The secret to immortality lies in the love
of one who made peace with death itself.
Jesus Christ the bird of paradise has descended from its remote height at the
very top of the tree of life to take its place here among us in the love that
we share and in the simple acts of love and kindness that bind us to each other
and ultimately to God.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.