Part three of this series of reflections on dead metaphors reflects on the metaphors we use to discuss death and the afterlife. This post challenges the mind-body split of Modernity while also raising up issues of biblical interpretation that won't be addressed until the next post. The emotional realities around death necessitate a more removed, academic tone because I'm not challenging people's experiences around death, just how we talk about it. I'm not going to touch near-death experiences. Those are way to complicated for this blog post.
Leave Your Body at the Door
Oingo Boingo had a hit song called Dead Man's Party that includes the line, "Leave your body at the door." This line expresses how I've heard many people talk about what happens to you when you die—your soul leaves your body. The problem with this Platonic understanding of the human is that, for Christians, it denies one of the central claims of our faith—the resurrection of the body.
But what happens to us when we die? Paul talks about death as falling asleep in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, a metaphor used also in Matthew 27:52, and again in Luke 11:11-12. There is something about death that looks like sleep but isn't. Or this phrase could have just been a euphemism.
This is the problem we have with language about death and dying, its all metaphor because those who experience death haven't come back to tell us what its like or what comes next, if anything. All the ways we talk about what happens at and after deaths are guesses, so we have no idea what the "is" and the "is not" of the metaphors are.
We don't want to think of our dead loved ones in a box underground or as a pile of ashes, and the Platonic soul-body separation seems to bring more comfort than Paul's notion of falling asleep—even if they are asleep in the Lord, whatever that looks like.
A cotemporal heaven that shares and experiences time the way we do also comes into play here, both for the souls of the departed and for other heavenly beings. But again, we are speaking out of ignorance and desire rather than any informed experience. We want those we love who have died to be in heaven, to be accessible to us as we live out the rest of our lives, to be watching over us. They are still with us in some way in our memories, yet as Jenson points out, they can no longer surprise us.
So many of our fears and griefs we can only speak about in metaphor because we lack any other way to express them. As Paul's metaphor reminds us, "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known" (1 Corinthians 13:12, NRSV).
It might seem odd to say that God's response to our not understanding death or the afterlife is Jesus, but I'm mostly convinced of this. In Jesus, God experienced death as a human, bringing out not understanding death and the afterlife into God's experience.
We are bound, as part of the brokenness of creation, to live in the darkness into which Jesus shines as the light of the world. And while Jesus helps us to see more than we otherwise would, there is still the sense that even though "The light shines in the darkness, the darkness cannot understand it" (John 1:5, NRSV alternate Greek reading).
Because our experience and our language is limited, God promises enlightenment and advocacy, especially when we cannot understand.