John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D., has held many positions including Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology, Avery Professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Fullbright Professor at the University of Mainz, Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Chicago Divinity Schools. His writings include: Christ in a Pluralistic Age; God and the World; and co-author with Herman Daly of For the Common Good which was co-winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. This post originally appeared at Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism, an international magazine encouraging East-West dialog and a creative exchange of ideas.
Always New Possibilities
In the geographical area in which Easter was first celebrated it was the spring festival for Christians. Wherever there are winters, the coming of spring is the return of life from a period where much of nature seemed lifeless. This is the broad theme of Easter.
This experience of new life emerging from dormancy or apparent death has existential meaning. We all have times of discouragement, distress, or depression. In the midst of such experiences, it often seems that there is no hope, nothing to which one can look forward. Yet often that despair turns out to be mistaken. There is a breakthrough. There is new life. One meaning of “faith” is a deep confidence that there are always new possibilities, that the darkness need not be the final word. That faith is celebrated at Easter.
Today personal darkness is interconnected with a deep darkness about the fate of the Earth. The worship of wealth triumphs almost everywhere over the worship of God and love of the Earth. We, as the human race, seem determined to deny the reality of our situation and to continue to destroy our shared home. We must begin to seek new life for the Earth not just from seasonal “death” but from a far more profound “death” brought about our own actions. But it seems that only our recovery from a profound spiritual death can make possible a new life for our planet.
Christians celebrate all this as it was made dramatically visible in our history by what happened after the death of Jesus. Just because they put such great hope in him, his crucifixion by the Roman authorities was a particularly crushing blow to his followers. Since Jesus had such remarkable powers, they felt that he could have led his people into a new historical age. Instead he walked into the trap set by his enemies and allowed them to win without a struggle. Apparently they had put their hopes in the wrong person.
What is historically indubitable is that shortly after Jesus death some of Jesus followers were re-energized and ready to carry on Jesus’ work even if led to their deaths. These disciples said that Jesus had come to them and shown them that he was alive. They said that he was “resurrected.” They were joined by one we know as Paul, who had been their enemy, but who had a vision of Jesus alive in heavenly glory and calling him to his service. Paul taught that the resurrected Jesus had a “spiritual” body. Other believers insisted that the Jesus who came to them after his crucifixion was a fully physical being, although he appeared and disappeared in quite extraordinary ways.
If Jesus had not appeared to his followers and to Paul, his impact in human history would have been minor. We who live out of our memories of Jesus today, would know nothing about him. So, for us who follow him, Easter is the most important of our celebrations. Jesus lives on in our imaginations, our memories, and our hopes because his new life after his death gave new life to his followers. The image of “death and resurrection” is at the heart of Christian faith.
God’s Everlasting Life
Some Christians focus their thought on the death that is the end of earthly life and a resurrection into a heavenly life. I count myself among those who believe that we do better to focus on the new life of the disciple here and now. But that does not exclude the question of what happens after bodily death.
Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne generalize the idea of death and resurrection. Every event, every “actual occasion,” human or not, flourishes for its brief moment and then dies. Yet, they assure us that, in another way, it lives forever. It does so by contributing what it has become to the everlasting life of God. What perishes in the world, lives forever in God.
This immortality in God’s memory is God’s glory and also the ultimate interconnectedness of all things. What is remembered becomes part of God in the very act of remembering. Process thinkers speak of this as our objective immortality in God.
Life After Death
We may find this deeply meaningful and yet ask whether our personal existence may also continue in some new way after physical death. The stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances seem to affirm this, at least in his case. Paul teaches that if we participate in Jesus’ faithfulness, we will participate also in his life in glory. And there are in fact thousands of stories in many cultures of contacts of living people with those of who have died. For Whitehead the continuation of personal existence is possible.
Many Christians seem to have thought that such existence occurs for all human beings and no animals. John Wesley, who founded the branch of Christianity in which I have been formed, thought that line was arbitrary. He hoped other animals, too, would enjoy the blessings of heaven.
Some Christians have imagined life after death in terms of punishments for those who fail to follow Jesus as much as rewards for those who do. Others of us cannot imagine the God of love whom Jesus revealed to us engages in such punitive actions. We believe that in life here and now and in any life that may occur in the future God will pour out grace on all. But we also recognize how resistant we all are to that grace and how such resistance may give rise to misery.
Perhaps if there is a continuation of personal life beyond physical death, it is for those who are open to new gifts of true life. Even this openness is a gift. It comes after a letting go, a dropping away, of relinquishment of impulses to control life.
The crucifixion of Jesus is an invitation to relinquish our impulses to fame, fortune, and power, and to allow a deeper grace to inform our lives. This grace is the blooming of God. It is resurrecting in its own right, enabling us to live in a spirit of beauty, with respect and care for the community of life. Inspired by this grace, we can let questions of life after death take care of themselves. It is life in this life that is our joy. Whatever happens to happen after death, it is our salvation.