Well, I took yet another break last week to write about something else but we’re back with the next chapter in Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God. If you want to catch up on all the other posts in this book study, click HERE.
- Suicide rates are up, antiheroes are the new heroes, and bleak is in. In the Western world, hope seems to be in short supply. (153-153)
- Why does hope matter? “What we believe about our future completely controls how we are experiencing our present. We are irreducibly hope-based creatures.” (153)
- Why does the secular framework and “general hopefulness” fail to give us a hope that is durable? A few reasons…
- “Human progress” has become the end people strive for, replacing any supernatural or religious hope. But if we no longer believe in moral absolutes nor do we agree on right and wrong, how do we even define what “progress” is? (155)
- The Western definition of “human progress” also often economically driven, “assuming endless economic expansion,” but we are beginning to see that unlimited economic growth is impossible, unsustainable, and leaves us still unsatisfied. (155-156)
- Secular optimism also “weakens our ability to face difficulties and suffering, and it cannot move people to sacrifice immediate pleasures for a larger purpose…because the immediate pleasures [living only for the here and now] are the whole point…” (157)
- Then there is that menacing reality and enemy of hope, the problem of death.
- Secular thought tries to convince us that death is just part of “the circle of life,” nothing to be feared or worried about. But most people don’t truly believe that when it comes down to it. Death does not feel “natural.” It’s traumatic, disturbing, and one of the few realities that can make everything seem hopeless and pointless. Most people are indeed very afraid of death.
- Death is fearful “because of what it does to our relationships.” (162) It “strips us of everything that makes life meaningful – so how can it be nothing to fear?” (163) Death can also be fearful for those who have no hope or framework for what comes after. It becomes a scary, mysterious question mark.
- So what is the Christian view of hope and death?
- In Christianity, the sense that death is “unnatural” is indeed true because it was not part of God’s original design. “Death is an intrusion, a result of sin and our human race’s turning away from God…We are trapped in a world of death, a world for which we were not designed.” (165)
- So in Christianity, how is the power of death broken? “Just as a creditor’s power over us is broken when someone pays our debt fully, so death’s claim and power over us was broken when Jesus died in our place, paying our penalty…Put another way, the darkness of death swallowed Jesus, he entered it, but then he blew a hole out the back of it. It had no right to him, because he was innocent. Now, it also has no ultimate right to those who by faith rest in him.” (165-166)
- Christianity is not the only religion to speak of an afterlife, but it is the only religion that says heaven is paradise because it is unhindered relationship with God. Unfortunately, the Christian view of heaven is often sold and packaged as a “bribe” for good living, or as a “consumer paradise, where all the pleasures and comforts you sought to buy on earth are now free for the asking.” (167) But true Christianity teaches that heaven is where we will have complete access to the love of our triune and relational God, unfettered by pride, sin, evil, or the limitations of our worldly perspective. Heaven is perfect relationship with a perfect Creator and King.
- Furthermore, Christian hope is not “that we will live on forever in an immaterial, spiritual paradise removed from this world…but God’s heavenly glory and purifying beauty and power descend to renew to material world, so that evil, suffering, aging, disease, poverty, injustice, and pain are removed forever.” (171) Heaven is the renewal and redemption of everything broken in this world, not a destruction of or exit from it.
- Keller cites the example of African slaves in the U.S. to illustrate the resilience of the Christian hope. Imagine telling a 19th Century slave, “‘There will never be a judgment day in which wrongdoing will be put right. There is no future world and life in which your desires will ever be satisfied. This life is all there is. When you die, you simply cease to exist. Our only real hope for a better world lies in improved social policy. Now, with these things in mind, go out there, keep your head high, and live a life of courage and love. Don’t give in to despair.'” (158) No one would last! Keller cites several historians who argue that it was not a vague hope in social progress but a firm Christian hope that helped these men and women endure, a hope that said one day wrongs will be made right, justice will be given to the oppressed, loved ones could be seen again, and suffering would be no more. That kind of hope could stand even in the face of unimaginable suffering and cruelty because it wasn’t connected to any earthly circumstance. It was untouchable.
- But isn’t Christian belief just a made up tale that yes, may be greatly comforting to people, but a made-up tale nonetheless? Stay tuned, Keller will examine some of the evidence for Christianity in a future chapter.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Keller spends a significant portion of this chapter talking specifically about a hope that can stand against the fear of death.
Not exactly a fun topic, but here we are.
I think most of us in the West give very little thought to death, especially in the first four to five decades of our lives. We live very comfortable and sheltered from the dangers and neediness many other people in the world face, and with all the medical advances available there’s a good “probability” that we can live into old age and enjoy a long life.
But of course, death is a certainty. It can intrude on our lives unexpectedly and remind us that life is short, and even if we push it to the back of our minds we all know it’s coming someday. How do we cope?
As a Christian, I agree with Keller that the Christian worldview offers the most robust answers for why death exists and what remedy there is to live hopefully and purposefully in spite of it, but as Keller said, death is not “normal.” It’s a painful monstrosity that rends relationships and reveals our frailty. So even as a Christian who believes in a hope that defeated death, it’s a difficult reality to wrestle with.
But wrestle must, if we are to live with both eyes wide open, making as much as we can of however many days we’ve been given. Finding a hope that can stand in the face of death is, I think, what we all are searching for, and it’s an important if uncomfortable journey we should make.
One woman’s thoughts and ruminations on death brought us a little book series about a boy named Harry Potter. You probably haven’t heard of it…
(For the two of you who haven’t read the books or watched the movies, fair warning – spoiler ahead. Also, go read the books.)
I thought about the HP series as I read this chapter for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that in the grand climax of the series, there is the very clear parallel to the Christian resurrection. Just as Jesus lays down his innocent life to end the curse of death and rise again, Harry willingly yields his life to Voldemort and thus defeats death itself to live again. Author J. K. Rowling has explained that these echoes of Christianity in the story were the intention all along. In fact, she says that the verse quoted on the tombstone of Harry’s parents, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” in many ways sum up the whole series. (It also ties in with this chapter very well.) And Rowling goes on to say that Harry’s journey of coming to terms with his own death mirrors her own wrestling with ideas about death and the afterlife.
The amount of hope we have to face the ups and downs of life today depends heavily on what we believe about death and about what comes after. So while it may not be comfortable, and it probably won’t result in a multi-billion dollar franchise like it did for Rowling, it’s worth spending some time considering what you believe on the subject and why.
- If you’ve read the chapter, were there any quotes or sections that were particularly thought-provoking to you?
- What are some examples of how something that lies in the future orients how you live in the present?
- It’s not easy, but consider your own mortality for a moment. What narrative do you have to cope with such a dark reality? Does that narrative give you a firm peace or leave you with uncertainty and fear?