IN RECENT talks and interviews, the poet, critic, and
broadcaster Clive James has spoken candidly about his own mortality
and death. In failing health, he is still glad to be alive,
believing that "it is here we live, or nowhere."
After death, he does not expect to see, think, or touch again.
There will be nothing to do or share, and he has found nothing that
points to a personal existence beyond his demise.
Such sentiments are not uncommon, and can be found in surprising
places. In a 2012 Ipsos/MORI poll on attitudes to religion, of the
54 per cent who identified themselves as Christian, only three per
cent cited "hope in an afterlife" as the statement that best
described what Christianity meant to them.
In his 2013 Lent book Abiding, the Revd Professor Ben
Quash also recalls a conversation with a churchgoing friend who did
not expect that she would still be "her" after she had died. She
imagined, instead, something less personal - an end of individual
consciousness, and a release into the cosmos, where her atoms would
simply become part of all living things.
On the one hand, Mr James represents a considered post-Christian
estimation of death, which rejects the wish-fulfilment of personal
survival as illusory; on the other hand, he exemplifies a popular
but fuzzier notion that the tradit-ional picture of heaven no
longer holds any real or necessary comfort.
Increasing numbers of people feel that it will be enough to be
absorbed into the ebb and flow of the material world. In either
case, there appears to be a challenge to see our lives with a clear
eye, and discard as insubstantial or untrue a future world of
make-believe that is fit only, perhaps, for those who are ill at
ease with mortal questions.
MR JAMES's rejection is important, because it alerts us to what
Freud described as infantile thinking - "The projection of our own
wishes on to the sky" - that, unchecked, can trade on our capacity
for nostalgia or denial.
Despite the insistence of the New Testament that hope and heaven
transcend the limits of our experience, and are therefore beyond
imagining, we can all perhaps recall conversations where the
hereafter has been described in terms of the known and familiar,
without the shackles of sadness or sorrow.
In religious terms, this is some distance from the language of a
future hope predicated on the possibility of an ineffable love
beyond ourselves that holds everything dear. It represents
something less attractive and true - in effect, the human but
mistaken desire that a future life will mirror the sum of our
personal wishes as the persons we currently are.
But heaven, like death, is an "undiscovered country", and to
presume to know the contours and purpose of its terrain is to
reduce the vision of the New Jerusalem to something selfish and
THE implication of the second challenge - that Christianity can
jettison the expectation of a personal hereafter without impugning
its truth and integrity - is open to two objections. First, it
represents a modern and highly individualistic response to the
question of life after death, which takes no account of the
corporate nature of Christian believing.
Viewed primarily through the prism of self-regard, it evaluates
a matter of ultimate concern from a purely personal perspective
that fails to see how the moral adequacy of such a belief is bound
up with lives and destinies other than our own. Second, in this
respect, it represents a serious failure to understand a
fundamental belief concerning the goodness of God.
A perennial task of theology is to contend with the calamities
and cruelties that degrade and destroy individual lives, and cast
doubt on the religious claim that the universe is a morally ordered
place. It is possible to deal with such obstacles, and to offer
religious explanations and interpretations of evil that remove some
of its sting.
WHEN all the arguments have been advanced, however, only the
hope of heaven, with its vindication of the promise that,
ultimately, "All shall be well", can safeguard the central
Christian affirmation that, if there is a God, he is a God of
To be clear: our best moral intuitions demand that, if God is to
be true to his nature, revealed to us in scripture as a shepherd
who watches over his sheep, he is morally obliged to raise the
dead. Only if innocent sufferers are offered this final vision of
human redemption, where they know themselves to be free from pain
and misery, can we really believe in the mercy of God, and the
sacred value of each human life, in a world shot through with
Without such a belief in a hereafter, the moral case against God
is overwhelming. As the French author Stendhal caustically
remarked: "The only excuse for God would be for him not to
To believe in the life of the world to come, where identity is
preserved rather than absorbed into the flux of things, is to say
that we believe in a God whose mercy is everlasting, and whose ways
can be trusted. Heaven matters because it enables us to believe in
God, despite the horrors of a world that speak of his absence.
Far from being a matter of wish-fulfilment, or an evasion of
death, it represents the logic of the human heart, and its
insistence that, under God, things ultimately go well.
With commendable reticence, that most acute of Christian
thinkers, St Augustine, said: "We shall rest and we shall see; we
shall see, and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise.
Behold what shall be, in the end, and shall not end."
The Christian hope is inextricably bound up with such a
Canon Rod Garner is Vicar of Holy Trinity, Southport, and
Theologian for the diocese of Liverpool.