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How I overcame my doubts

30 March 2010

Questioning the resurrection can lead to a renewal of faith, says Susan Sarapuk



I HAVE never had any trouble reciting the Creeds. The statement “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” never presented a problem — until the day my mother died.

She had cancer, and died at home in the early hours of a Sunday morning — the day of resurrection. As I gazed at her body, I knew without a doubt that she was no longer there, that what remained was a shell, and I felt completely at peace.

So I was unprepared for the turmoil that hit me a couple of weeks later, after the funeral was over, at the burial of the ashes. As the wooden casket was placed in the ground, I had the overwhelming feeling that that was it: we come to dust and ashes, and there is nothing after­wards. It even gave me a strange sort of comfort to believe in annihilation at death. It seemed right.

But how could I say and think this when I was a Christian and had always believed in resurrection? Even worse than that: I was a cleric; I wasn’t supposed to have doubts. I didn’t speak of them to anyone, and I battled alone with the difficult questions for months afterwards. Sometimes the words I preached on a Sunday seemed empty, and I felt like a fraud. All my certainties had deserted me.

I HAVE always believed in God, and attended Sunday school as a child (my parents sent me to church, but never went themselves). Yet it was only when I was a student in London that I had a conversion experience, and became a passionate and com­mitted believer. Then, eight years after finishing my degree, I began training for the ordained ministry, convinced that this was what God wanted for me.

I loved preaching. I wanted to communicate the truths of the gospel to others, to see renewal in the Church. I held strong convictions. So to have these doubts and feelings shook me to the core. My faith was telling me: “There is resurrection after death,” while my heart and my head said otherwise.

It even got to the point where the idea of resurrection seemed distaste­ful. That is what I couldn’t under­stand: usually when you are faced with the reality of death, the pos­sibil­ity of resurrection is a comfort, even to people who would profess little faith. I couldn’t work out what was wrong with me.

I CAME through this traumatic time gradually. Partly, of course, it was a matter of acknowledging that be­reave­ment is an unsettling experi­ence, when emotions are all over the place, and old certainties are ques­tioned. Time also played a part.

The most important thing that kept me anchored, however much I might have wanted to slip away, was this: if you look at all the possible explanations for what happened on that first Easter Day, the only reason­able conclusion is that Jesus rose from death.

I have always said that my faith is based on evidence, not wishful thinking or an unsubstantiated myth. I might have wanted it not to be true in the weeks and months after my mother’s death, but I could not escape it. There was no denying the evidence.

The other great help was my experience of God: my conversion, the way I had changed, the new things I had learned as I grew as a Christian, the answered prayers, and the times of worship when the words of certain hymns could thrill me to tears of joy and adoration.

There was also the witness of others around me and down the cen­turies. They could not all be deluded.

So I had a choice: to listen to my own doubts, or to think of people such as the apostle Paul or Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others martyred for their faith, or the great intellects who found that Christianity made perfect sense, or the missionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries who had travelled to far countries and endured all sorts of deprivations for the sake of the gospel because they were convinced of its truth.

Evidence and experience — these are the things I come back to time and time again when confronted by doubts or questions. You can argue yourself out of experience, but it is not so easy to run away from the evid­ence.

December this year will be the 15th anniversary of my mother’s death. I came through that period of turmoil and continued in parish ministry. I think it gave me a greater pastoral understanding of how people can feel vulnerable and adrift, whereas before I had always held such a solid, unshakeable conviction.

There are still times when I find it hard to conceive of life as going on for ever, and it seems preferable to be laid in the earth, for death to be extinction. But I know that that is not the truth, and once again I can say with conviction that I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

The Revd Susan Sarapuk has spent 18 years in parish ministry in the diocese of Swansea & Brecon.

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