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What Happens When We Die?
Only a week or so ago Patrick one early evening came up to me and thrust a piece of paper into my hand “This is for you,“ he said. Well I looked at it carefully, expecting a note from the school maybe - but it was blank - on both sides. “And?” I asked. “Oh,” he said, “you have to write on it what you think happens to us when we die; its for my homework I am doing a survey.” Really, and how long do I have to do your homework” I shouted after him as he made a dash upstairs for the X-box. “It’s got to be in tomorrow morning!”
The first thing I want to say is that this question “What happens when we die?” has been around a long time. Since Jesus’ time even with two thousand more years of thinking and two millennia of science, including splitting the atom and mapping the human genome this question hasn’t gone away. The Sadducees of our Gospel reading asked it in a particular way and with the particular intent of trying to trap Jesus into agreeing with their viewpoint - of course they used their logic which is not a good place to start when arguing with God! Patrick at least asked the question of me in a more open way : he gave me a blank sheet of paper. Not much time maybe but a lot of freedom so here if you like is Patrick’s homework:
What happens when I die, begs another question which is what am I ? That is to say what am I when I am alive - am I simply a body? Or is there something else that defines me? If I am just a body then Patrick’s question is easy, we know what happens to dead bodies, the chemistry and biology of that is well documented but are we simply bodies? We know we have a consciousness that is quite apart from our bodies - our bodies after all are always changing. When I look at my hand for example it is not the same hand that I saw when I was five years old, it is different, yet inside it feels the same it is still me , somehow there is something that perfectly links the hand of this ancient vicar to the little boy I once was. There is a real me somewhere that is independent of the state of my hand. Without going into details there are other parts of me that have changed even more - my head is a case in point. So there is something that is Steve, and Frances and Patrick and each one of us that is difficult to put a finger on, difficult to define. We Christians often name this the soul and John Polkinhorne who wrote an essay about the hand problem likens it to an enormously complex pattern that makes up the real us.
One of my most favourite Psalms is number 139. It begins:
“O Lord you have searched me and known me
And later goes on to say:
“For it was you that formed my inward parts
That indefinable complex pattern of consciousness that is me and you is, you see known to God, it is recognized, God has no need of a body to know who we are for he knit us and we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
We know too that God loves us, we matter to God and if we matter to him now then we surely will matter to God always. Why would God stop loving us because our bodies wore out? We, that is to say our consciousness, our souls, are known to God and the pattern can be remembered and recreated by God - this is incredibly difficult to imagine or define, we can name it, we call it resurrection or life-after-death but we cannot explain or express what that might really mean.
Our Christian hope is founded not on the laws of chemistry, physics or biology that are but temporary things, but on our knowledge and love of a God who loves us and in the certainty that “Our Father’s house has many rooms” and that there is one specially tailored for each one of our real selves.
As Jesus says in his conclusion “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living for to him all of them are alive.”