Well, it’s Lent, which means some of us are thinking about death. So this week’s Moltmann Monday quote is from The Coming of God, where Moltmann is talking about eternal life and personal eschatology. Since this is where I think much of American Christianity has a tendency to go off the rails, I thought it might do us some good to hear what my dear beloved German friend has to say about it.
The thought of death and a life after death is ambivalent. It can deflect us from this life, with its pleasures and pains. It can make life here a transition, a step on the way to another life beyond–and by doing so it can make this life empty and void. It can draw love away from this life and direct it towards a life hereafter, spreading resignation in ‘this veil of tears.’ The thought of death and a life after death can lead to fatalism and apathy, so that we only live life here half-heartedly, or just endure it and ‘get through.’…(It) can cheat us of the happiness and the pain of this life, so that we squander its treasures, selling them off cheap to heaven…The notion that this life is no more than a preparation for a life beyond, is the theory of a refusal to live, and a religious fraud. It is inconsistent with the living God, who is a ‘lover of life.’ In that sense it is religious atheism.
But if we have ever been close to death and have escaped some deadly peril, we know the feeling that life has been given back to us…We then suddenly realize with a blinding awareness what living really means. So the thought of death and a life after death doesn’t have to deflect us from this life; it can also give this life a new depth…It doesn’t have to make us indifferent; it can make us fully and wholly capable of love.
Life after death can be used as a really dangerous form of escapism. I’ve seen it time and again, when someone is having a hard time in life and the response is to deny or downplay the current situation because, after all, we’re just waiting for heaven. This does a number of things that, to me, are categorically unChristian. First, Christians ought to be extremely brave. We are the people who willingly mark ourselves with ashes. We are the ones who follow a Savior who died a gruesome death. We have a history filled with martyrs and prophets and people taking advantage of our commitment to the gospel. The last thing we should be doing when faced with a hard time is to try to escape it. We ought to have the mettle to face it, and to know it’s going to be ok. And, if “it’s” not going to be ok, then we have faith that God will eventually be all in all, which is more than ok. Theoretically, Christians should be able to sit with their own struggles and pains, and should be able to sit with others, too, because this is at the heart of what it means to be Christ’s followers. Escapism just has no place here. Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, guys. Let’s not use him as an excuse to run away.
The second thing is that it sets up an unbiblical sense of the afterlife, which includes some out-there or up-there heaven rather than the thing we have confessed as Christians since the beginning: Jesus is coming HERE to redeem things. He’s not coming back and then zooming his favorites back up into the ether. Whatever it means for Christ to come again to judge the living and the dead, it doesn’t mean any earth escapism. So: no individual escapism, no earth escapism. Here is here, and here matters. What happens, what we experience, what pain we feel- it counts. To deny this in any way is to practice what Moltmann boldly labels “religious fraud” and “religious atheism.” We follow the Living God. Not the biding-time-until-something-happens-later God.
What happens when we orient ourselves fully to this world, and to the lives and bodies in which we live in this world, is that life is given back to us. And then, our resulting hope for life after death is a hope which only increases our passion for life, our love for it, our defense of it, our desire for it to be good and full and beautiful and meaningful and just. That’s when we reach toward not “heaven” in the way we’ve contrived it, but eternal life. And that’s a really, really important distinction.
This is what we are heading toward in Lent. And yes, to get to eternal life at Easter, we’ve got to go through ashes first. We’ve got to enter into the fullness of our humanity, which includes our own death. We get marked by it because we aren’t people who run away. We are people who set our face toward God’s future with hope. It’s what allows us to be marked with ashes. It’s what allows us to consider what we ought to give up, or let go, as we practice walking this road to Easter. Lent shouldn’t be used as a form of escapism, either. It’s a way to grab more tightly onto this life we’re living. Where can I invest more? Where should I loosen my hold? What needs building, and what needs removing? If you tend toward some kind of escapism, maybe Lent is the time to ask yourself why, and consider how you might instead invest more deeply.
Lent is the least morbid thing we can do. It’s the thing we do to help us be deep lovers of life, so intent on living it rightly and fully that we will focus our energies on it intently for 40 days, so that we can look more like the Lover of Life who we claim to follow. Let’s not use God as an excuse to hit the escape button or the deny button or the ignore button. Let’s look at our lives, and pay good attention.