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Angela Tilby: Do we believe in life after death?    

03 April 2020

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IN THE national conversation about the coronavirus, Church of England leaders have had little to say about death, except how important it is to avoid it. This is a shame. The Pope has managed to express both the reality of the darkness facing the world and his hope in the risen Christ: “With God, life never dies.”

I suspect that if the C of E was to say anything about faith in the resurrection to eternal life at the moment, it would be angrily dismissed. The Church is treading a narrow line of super-compliance at the moment, hence the insistence on closed churches even when this is not required by the Government (News, Leader comment, 27 March).

But, while I understand this, I can’t help but be aware that in other times of mortal illness priests have ministered the sacraments to the sick and the dying and buried the dead, without regard for their own safety, even expecting to die as a result. The Pope commended those risking their lives in the service of others today, seeing their sacrifice as “the force of the Spirit poured out . . . in self-denial”.

The Church’s caution reflects the dread of death which is very real in our society. There are secular writers, like Atul Gawande and Kathryn Mannix, who have written hugely helpful guides to understanding what happens when we die and to help us to prepare.

But for many today the dread of death goes beyond the dying process: it is an existential terror of personal annihilation. Here, the Christian voice is often simply absent, as though a vivid belief in the reality of the life to come has become an embarrassment. I personally know many priests who do not believe in life after death, preferring to dwell on hope for a better world.

The secularisation of resurrection faith began, I think, with the brilliant, if all-too-revealing, Christian Aid slogan “We believe in life before death.” And that is where we mostly are now. The afterlife has been translated into “building the Kingdom”, as if it were ours to build. And, instead of looking for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, we look for the reduction of unnecessary deaths and the life of a fairer world order.

Yet, I don’t see why we should have to choose between heaven-on-earth and heaven. Christianity came into the world with a vivid belief in the resurrection and the preciousness of each individual soul. This was what made it revolutionary. It is because God cares for each of us personally and eternally that we should both treat each other as immortal souls and care for each other’s welfare.

If the Church of England has no good news to spread about death, I wonder whether it has any good news at all.

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