A friend recently confided in me that he was afraid of dying. A lifelong Christian, he has recently been plagued by doubts, and particularly by the nightmare of merely ceasing to exist at death. “Pfff!” he says ruefully, “and I’m done.”
This is a nightmare indeed. It is a better vision of the end, to be sure, than the fear of judgment that haunted so many ancients and haunts many people today. If one honestly takes stock of oneself, even for a few moments, and then imagines being judged by a Deity of perfect holiness who knows every detail of your life, the prospect is terrifying.
In our modern age, however, many of us instead fear instead that life simply ends, like a computer with the battery pulled out. What used to hum with energy and productivity is now inert junk, inexorably on the path to disintegration and dust.
And if that’s how life ends, then one might well wonder whether all attempts at self-control or abstinence or moderation or deferred gratification or holiness are just foolishness: for there is no heavenly reward, no positive karma, no happy hunting ground. Better to grab all the happiness I can and cut away anything or anyone that slows me down.
But think of Jesus. What an odd character he is. He’s not exactly like other major religious figures or, really, like any other figure in history. He isn’t only a prophet, like Moses or Muhammad or Joseph Smith, although he is that. He isn’t only a seer or spiritual adept, like Buddha or Zoroaster or Mahavira, although he is that. He isn’t only a wise man, like Confucius or Lao-Tzu or Socrates, although he is that. And he isn’t only a personification of the divine, like Krishna or Rama, although he is that, too.
Jesus is the One Great God who became a human being, who lived in a particular place and time in actual history (you can visit today where he walked and his lifetime is pretty precisely datable), whose career is well sketched in a variety of reliable documents, and who then died on a Roman cross, only to be reported as resurrected a few days later—an event that launched the largest religion in the world.
This is a truly strange story. It does fit the Jewish heritage of Jesus, so it has an interpretative context, but you have to do some homework to understand it. Even then, however, Jesus routinely surprises even scholars with his odd decisions, sayings, and doings as recorded in the New Testament.
Strangest of all, however, is his crucifixion. What in the world is going on there? Either it is a stupid mistake of Roman justice and an innocent, if annoying and probably deranged, little man is unjustly killed or there is something wonderful happening in that horrifying event. God is bleeding for the world, moaning for the world, dying for the world.
When we have any doubt about anything in the Christian faith, or if we are not yet believers and we want to consider the heart of the Christian religion, we must look indeed at Christ. Not at “God in general” and certainly not at “God as we imagine—or fear—God to be,” including “God as not existing.”
No, the wise thing to do is to look at Christ, to be comforted, as Luther said, by “this blood of love.” In the bizarre, arresting scene of Calvary, we see what we desperately need to see: the Clue to the Meaning of Everything. God does exist; God did make the world; God does love the world; God is saving the world; God will give us life beyond this world in the world to come.
Find a Bible, look up the end of any one of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), read the account of Jesus on the Cross and ponder: What really is going on here?
A pathetic absurdity or the Answer to my fears?