Transcending Death

A lot of discussion about Easter, the resurrection, and afterlife focuses on surviving death. Did Jesus return to life? What sort of life? Will other human being do the same? Where do we go when we die? Can a person really hope to live forever? Does the evidence support it?

All of that focuses on individuals and their survival, the number of days, hours, moments in the span of a life.

We can debate that subject ad nauseam, even if not literally ad infinitum, and never make any genuine progress. There is no way that a historian can conclude that Jesus rose from the grave – or demonstrate decisively that he did not. There doesn’t seem to be any way that scientists could ever decisively show that there is a spiritual afterlife – or decisively demonstrate that there couldn’t possibly be. If one is willing to posit the existence of a certain kind of God, then all bets are off, and anything and everything is possible. But the existence of that sort of God is just one more topic that people debate inconclusively.

Perhaps rather than simply take sides in such debates, progressive religious believers ought instead to shift our attention to transcending death. Did Jesus survive death? How could one settle that debate to everyone’s satisfaction? But did Jesus transcend death? There I think that we can provide a definite answer, and that answer is “yes.” Can anyone deny the impact he had on at least some of those who knew him? Can anyone deny that his life and teaching have continued to impact and transform others, and continue to do so? Would anyone say that there is no sense in which Jesus lives on, even if only in the hearts and minds of those who find in him something transformative – whether an example, a Messiah, a savior or a deity?

Some might say that it is not enough – but that too is debatable. But even if it is not enough in the eyes of some, it is something – something profoundly meaningful, and important.

Even if those who say it is not enough turn out to be right, surely it is essential. If Jesus did not transcend death, then whether or not he survived death would be a mere fact, and nothing more. And the same goes for each of us.

It may be that one does not have to choose between surviving death and transcending death. But one of the two is clearly beyond our power to accomplish – except inasmuch as it depends on how we live our lives, and perhaps on whether we live in such a way that our earthly lives transcend death. While technology may one day prolong life even beyond what it has already accomplished, it will not eliminate it. But again, whether living forever is something that even should be our aim is merely another topic for debate. One work on the afterlife I read recently suggested that an afterlife consisting of endless rather than timeless existence might be hell rather than heaven.

But whatever one thinks about that subject, surely there is is something we can all hope for, and strive for, and acknowledge as something genuinely real and possible and worth pursuing: that we should seek to transcend death, to make an impact that will outlive us, to find a way of living that makes our time spent on the Earth worthwhile.


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  • Just Sayin’

    I see the afterlife as timeful rather than timeless: a state of being in which we have all times — every moment of our childhood for example — at our simultaneous disposal.

  • SoWhat78

    James, as you know, I’m no longer a Christian in any kind of sense, but found this blog post to be very inspiring. Thanks!

  • Michael Stephenson

    Dr. McGrath, do you really believe all these excuses will absolve you of your responsibitiy to God?

    • James F. McGrath

      Rocky Morrison, what excuses are you referring to?

    • itsRodT

      That’s the What The Frakk comment of the day!

      Good grief!

  • Trey

    Well Jesus may have transcended, but what does this mean for the average Joe Blow who may be a good bloke who loves his family and community? The reality is that for the majority of people who have ever lived, unless they have made some significant contribution in an area like science, music or literature  – they will likely be forgotten in two or three generations. Even if we are actively working now to keep the memories of our loved ones alive,  the memories of who they are, what they did and believed will fade into the sands of time with each passing generation. And this is a fact of life that holds true for 99.99% of the people who have ever lived religious or not. 

  • spinkham

    I’ll plug Flight From Death here again.  It’s as “spiritual” a film as can be made about a psychological theory, and one of my favorite flicks of all time.

  • Bill Ferrell

    Thanks James.  That is well written and interesting.  You make me think.

  • Mike Gantt

    You write as if God has not spoken to some of these issues and it’s up to you to identify common ground where all the reasonable may gather.

    • James F. McGrath

      You write as if it were straightforward to determine whether God has spoken to these issues, and if so what God has said about them, and that it is not advisable whatever the circumstances to identify where the reasonable share common ground. Paul in Acts 17 is depicted as identifying points at which the reasonable shared common ground. What precisely is your objection to doing so?

      • Mike Gantt

        The contrast between you and the Paul of Acts 17 is marked.  He boldly proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus while you equivocated.  He sought common ground between God’s word and what the intelligensia said they believed while you forsook what God has said and sought to create your own common ground.  Paul was willing to live with the polarization of the intellectual elite while you use your blog to routinely ridicule sincere believers in Christ who may or may not be wrong about scientific theories of human origins.  

        • James F. McGrath

          I think the only folks I’ve poked fun at are people who claim to be defending both science and Scripture when they twist both to their own ends, ignoring what those with genuine expertise have to say in both areas.

          You are free to treat boldness as vouchsafing accuracy but I do not share that view. In my experience, one reason Christians end up falling for deceptive teachings – whether the prosperity Gospel, young-earth creationism or any others – is that they think that those who speak with confidence must be reliable.

          But what strikes me as most ironic about your comment is that Paul’s view of resurrection would have seemed like a newfangled teaching of dubious basis in Scripture to the authors of the texts he accepted as Scripture, with the exception of the Book of Daniel. We cannot ignore what the Bible is when considering how to interact with it in relation to our own context.

          • Mike Gantt

            If you treat kindly those who hold to the scriptural portrayal of creation without enough knowledge of science to be able to reconcile the two, then I am glad to have my perception corrected.  I had taken you to be one of those who regarded anyone who held to the historicity of Adam and Eve as ipso facto worthy of ridicule.

            I don’t for a moment equate boldness with the vouchsafing of accuracy.  Paul, however, was demonstrating both when it came to the resurrection of Christ.  

            As for your notion of irony, it is vividly clear from the earlier part of that very same chapter in Acts (as well as elsewhere) that Paul expected no one to believe his personal testimony of having seen the risen Christ apart from the testimony of the Scriptures that for the Messiah it had to be this way.  We can speculate without limitation about what was in the heads of those who wrote the scriptures but far less so about what was actually written down.  Did David fully understand the answer to the perplexing riddle he wrote in Psalm 110:1?  I don’t know, but, in any case, it’s clear that the resurrection of Messiah is the only reasonable answer to that riddle.  

  • James F. McGrath

    In Acts 17, it is clear that Paul (or better, the author of Acts) is aware that one cannot begin with Scripture when addressing people who do not share familiarity with it, to say nothing of certain assumptions about its character and authority. And even in the first century, unlike among many Christian fundamentalists today, one could not simply assume even that a fellow Jew accepted the same Scriptures as oneself or interpreted them in the same way. And so this Scriptural foundationalism some regard as definitive of Christianity is in fact a significantly later development, not part of the outlook of the authors of the Scriptures themselves.

  • Mike Gantt

    That you could be reading the book of Acts and say that its author did not ascribe a scriptural foundation to the movement of faith in Jesus he was describing leaves me speechless. 

    • James F. McGrath

      Great, it sounds like we are making progress! :-) But seriously, how could “Scripture” be foundational in a context in which “Scripture” was not clearly defined? How could it be foundational in a context in which there was no agreement on how it was to be interpreted?

      This is not to say that no texts were considered “Scripture” by early Christians, but to challenge the assumption many modern conservative Christians wrongly make that their religion was book-focused. Whether being focused on a book is a good thing or not is another, separate matter. But it is refreshing when someone who assumed a particular pattern of religiosity is the only possible kind gets a glimpse of other possibilities!

      • Mike Gantt

        I am still scratching my head wondering how you can read the accounts of Paul in the synagogues of Thessalonica and Berea and suggest that Scripture was not foundational to beliefs of that place and time.

        No devout Jew in that day would accept a claim of Jesus’ messiahship without scriptural corroboration.  Other messianic candidates might say, “Look at me!” or “Look at my mighty works!” or “Look at my army!” – but Jesus was invisible by this time.  If His spokesmen didn’t have a scriptural argument to supplemental their personal claims of having seen Him resurrected, they had a weak case at best.  And you’ll notice that throughout the book of Acts, not just in chapter 17, the author is portraying their proclamation as scripturally based – and, in the case of 17:3, as scripturally REQUIRED.  (That is, “the messiah HAD to suffer and rise again from the dead…and this Jesus fits that bill.”)  Thus the Mars Hill appeal to a local inscription and custom, appropriate though it was for the reason you earlier gave, was anomalous.

        I fully agree with your earlier point that we who want to make Jesus known are wasting our time when appealing to sources that our hearers don’t consider authoritative.  However, the earliest Christians were all Jews and to suggest that Scripture was not foundational to their belief in Jesus is just absurd.

        It seems your ongoing arguments with “many modern conservative Christians” is clouding your judgment in this case.

        • James F. McGrath

          Perhaps we do not disagree as much as it seems to me. When you say “foundational” are you simply saying – as I would agree – that there were sacred texts which most if not all Jews agreed were important, divinely inspired and in some sense authoritative? I took you to mean foundational in the strict sense of that term, i.e. that the way to settle all matters was ultimately Scripture. But we see in Paul’s argument about the inclusion of Gentiles without circumcision, as in Jesus’ teaching on divorce, that the approach of the early Christians, and of Jesus himself, was not to argue things back to a relevant text and then do what that text said. In some cases, texts were set aside in light of religious experience or simply because Scriptural principles were allowed to take priority over what this or that specific Scriptural text said.

  • Mike Gantt

    I don’t know that I’d phrase it exactly that way, but neither would I argue with it.

  • EdwardTBabinski

    Hi James McGrath, I think it’s O.K. for you to be an agnostic Christian when it comes to a strictly historical examination of the resurrection. On the other hand, I also think it’s right that conservative Christians chide you for not speaking with the same victorious certainty and single-minded focus on “the Lord” as early Christians and theologians who were constantly blowing on the coals of belief to try and make them flare up, and who warned against having a “lukewarm” faith. The early church  seems to have expanded on the basis of fanatical single-minded preachers, like Paul. Your exposition of the Gospels is less preachy, less convincing, and is liable to continue the current attrition in church membership among mainline churches. 

    Of course the movement from conservative to moderate and liberal mainline churchianity is part of the regular order of things in the modern world. And you’re simply part of that ongoing cycle, just as entire institutions of Christian higher learning are also. Conservatives react to the increasingly more moderate liberal movement away from the single-minded fanatical focus of “believers in the Bible,” and they found new seminaries and institutions of higher learning in reaction to such creeping moderation. But if the youthful conservative seminary or college lasts long enough and has open access to leading scholarship they grow increasingly more moderate and they become the new “enemy,” like Fuller Theological Seminary did after being founded by neo-evangelicals, or like Harvard became and which prompted the founding of Yale in reaction, or like Princeton became and which prompted the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary. Conservatives with plenty of energy and single-minded focus found new institutions to try and stem the tide toward moderation and liberalism in older institutions of Christian higher learning, so they found new fresh institutions like BJU or Oral Roberts, or Patrick Henry, less than a century old at present, usually based on fanatical ignorance, creationism (usually of a young-earth variety), rapture-ism (he’s coming soon), and promoting miracles as well. And thus the cycle continues. 

    I’m happy you’re part of the cycle, but you do seem to miss the fact that you are indeed lukewarm, and would appear so to a host of Christians throughout history, especially the early ones who founded the church to which you belong.