In his recent debate with Alister McGrath, Christopher Hitchens lumped Christianity in with other religions as seeing death as the way out of this life and into the next. That Hitchens is able to make this claim and be taken even slightly seriously indicates a severe problem with modern Christianity. From it’s inception Christianity has asserted that death is the enemy of God and his good creation. God is the Living One whose creation was made to exist eternally free from decay. Humanity bears the image of the Living God, and for one of God’s image bearing creatures to die is a departure from his intention and an attack on his sovereignty. Thus, in the death and resurrection of Christ, the Living God has accomplished redemption, not unto death, but freedom from it. The New Testament has little to say about what happens to a person when they die. It certainly never envisages the death of the physical body to be the final state of being for one who is in Christ. The biblical writers had a consistent vision of the final resurrection of the body and ultimate new creation, a world free from bondage to death and decay. For those who would like to follow this up in the text see Romans 8:18-25, 1 Corinthians 15, and Revelation 19-22.
The problem is that modern Christianity has largely lost sight of the doctrine of the resurrection. This is evident in the way we train people to share the gospel. The old Evangelism Explosion tactic of asking potential converts, “how do you know you’ll go to heaven when you die,” sends a message that the moment after death is the final state of being for a person. This is misleading. It is half a gospel at best and a perversion of the gospel at worst. I’ve heard Christians say things like, “When I die, I’ll be more alive than ever.” My response is, “No, you’ll be dead.” Only when Christ appears bodily, and the bodies of the dead raised and the living transformed to a state of imperishability and incorruptibility, will we be able to say we are alive in the fullest sense of word.
So, Hitchens‘ conclusion that Christianity is one of many religions that sees death as the pathway to the next life, should send up some red flags for Christians. This indicates that we are not doing a good job of preaching the doctrine of the resurrection, neither of Christ nor of believers. This is a problem because, according to 1 Corinthians 15, if you don’t have the doctrine of the resurrection, then you don’t have Christianity. Modern Christianity is in danger of losing one of it’s essential tenants. The above evangelism example indicates that, in practice, the doctrine is all but lost already. I recommend N.T. Wright’s For All the Saints? (to whom I owe the title of this post) as a brief but helpful introduction to Christian beliefs about death and resurrection. In our preaching and in our living we must rediscover and emphasize the doctrine of the resurrection! Everything depends on it!
Grace and peace,