Is This Life All There Is?


Radically Free

There is something exciting about the notion that this life is all there is. You can experience it to the full. You can reinvent yourself as many times as you like. You can have all the sex you want. You can choose your own path and create your own destiny, unfettered, guaranteeing the maximal potential for pleasure, facing its pain and challenges with powerful realism and dignity. A life that is lived here and now, fully embracing the moment, taking it in for what it is and no more, can be an exciting life.

Many people live with what we might call the materialist assumption. Materialism is just as I have described it. There is nothing beyond this life, here and now. When you die, it’s like a blissful sleep. We don’t look for some distant meaning or fairy-tale heaven. Such notions are a coping mechanism for those who can’t embrace the responsibility of their lives as radically free. They are the ones pushing their provencal morality on the rest of us.

The Materialist Assumption

The materialist assumption is not morally empty. We live in human community, so we craft a kind of public morality. We all agree that things like murder, rape, incest, racism, slavery, greed, gluttony and intolerance are evil. They deprive another of her basic rights, they choke freedom, and thus they are evil. We don’t need religion or a god to follow the implications of the materialist assumption because we are not alone on this planet.

You may feel this description fairly portrays your convictions about this life. If not, perhaps I have been inaccurate, but I hope I haven’t been uncharitable. As a human living here and now, the materialist assumption is sometimes appealing to me. I do embrace responsibility for my life, my choices, and my living among others who deserve the same freedoms I have. Many times, eyes wide open, I look around and see good, altruistic materialists, living full, satisfying lives. I wonder, though, if they have followed the trajectory of their materialist assumption all the way down the road.

To me, there are things deeply troubling in the materialist assumption, things that persuade me to reject it as a faulty foundation, a melting wing of existential hubris.

For example, having all the sex you want sounds great, but inevitably, it leads to devastation. I’m not being dramatic. Think about it. Like any other human appetite, over-consumption leads to gluttony, addiction, and thereby a loss of freedom. Gluttons and addicts aren’t free. If sex is a fix for you, you are proving the limitation of a materialist assumption. Relationships are messy enough without the give-and-take of sexual involvement. Casual sex falls apart, as I have observed, but sex in a relationship without a deeper commitment (marriage) has nothing around it, no guardrails. When the sex gets boring, what happens to the relationship? When the relationship ends, so does the sex, and a relationship so entwined is excruciatingly painful to undo.

Over and over, I can think of examples of living on the materialist assumption which prove its rottenness at the core. For example, let’s remove the Cinderella lens from my description in the first two paragraphs. Often a life of radical freedom doesn’t turn out so good. Real human stories demonstrate that the path forward is never smooth. A diagnosis. A death. A government that exploits or enslaves. A dictator that divides his population into two races, master and slave, and exterminates the lesser. A promise from another is broken. Victimization results. You are the victim. You are the predator. Why me? Unanswered questions. Coping isn’t just for religious people.

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Facing the reality of the human condition demands, I would assert, an afterlife. Otherwise, the highest human notions of justice, freedom, and human potential are fictions.

A Counter-Assumption

I realize this assertion requires support, and you may choose to accept or reject it based on the support I can give. I feel the weight of that, and I am sure, whatever arguments I could offer would be insufficient for some, exhausting and irrelevant to others. Let me offer one solid counter-assumption, an assumption that is not unique or novel, and see where it goes.

My counter-assumption borrows from the Apostle Paul in his first of two biblical letters to the Christians at Corinth. In this section of chapter 15, towards the end of the letter, he takes on the materialist assumption:

12 But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? 13 For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. 15 And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. 16 And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. 18 In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! 19 And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world (1 Corinthians 15:12-19, NLT).

Notice the kind of argument Paul makes, Paul, a Jewish-Christian writing to Greeks: if there is no resurrection from the dead, then Christ has not been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless. This is a contrary-to-fact conditional argument. Paul has just laid out the facts in verses 3-9: Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. The tomb is empty. The guards were not paid off. Nobody stole the body and lied about it, or the ruse would have been uncovered. Instead, hundreds of people who were still alive at the time of Paul’s writing would give eyewitness testimony of encountering the resurrected Christ. (The New Testament records a few of those encounters in Luke 24 and John 21.) Eyewitness testimony of credible witnesses was received in the ancient world much like scientific evidence in our modern, materialist (skeptical) age. It is the fact of the resurrection of Christ that proves an afterlife, not the other way round.

Implications

If Paul is stating a credible fact, Paul who numbers himself with those who encountered the risen Christ, then we can understand his negative reasoning. What are the implications of the opposite condition: assuming there is no resurrection, no afterlife, but only (I would add) a materialist obliteration or perhaps conservation of the “energy” of human life? Paul enumerates the fallout: first, then Christ has not been raised. That implication necessitates the conclusion that hundreds of credible (unconnected) eyewitnesses were hallucinating; we must settle for a less intellectually satisfying explanation for the empty tomb; the apostles are all deceived or lying, which doesn’t fit the profile.

A second implication is that the preaching of the apostles is useless. And it wasn’t. It was creating new communities, demolishing prejudice, centering marriages on love not contract, raising the status 0f women, the poor and other marginalized groups. With the “useless” preaching comes vain faith. But faith wasn’t vain either. Faith was transforming murderers to martyrs, superstitious pagans to responsible citizens, greedy gluttons to generous philanthropists, and more.

Paul goes on a bit and then comes to this sad conclusion: If our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. Yep. Generic, garden-variety faith with no basis in historical fact and present, existential transformation is–just like the materialist assumption–worthless.

Conclusions

Where is this negative argument going? Paul is using it to support a greater, glorious conclusion:

Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. 43 Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. 44 They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies (1 Cor. 15:42-44).

On the assumption that there is an afterlife, specifically the kind of afterlife described in the New Testament, you get a more satisfying list of implications. Your brokenness will be buried, and you will be raised in glory. Your weakness (i.e. human limitations) will become strength. (Just imagine the full use of unfettered body and brain together at 100% efficiency.) And that elusive spirituality you’ve been groping for to try to fix the emptiness of the materialist assumption? Well, everything natural (material) about you will become truly, “naturally” spiritual! Further, Paul argues that such transformed individuals will be part of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom where justice, righteousness, mercy, peace and such things reign, addressing the failure of limited, imperfect justice, etc. in this life.

Finally, Paul concludes in verse 58 that rejecting the materialist assumption in favor of the biblical assertion of Christ’s resurrection adds supreme meaning and value to every moment of human life, giving purpose to us even in the daily grind (a condition you will never escape, no matter how objectivist, nihilist, existentialist, hedonist or spiritualist you become). For those who accept Christ’s death and resurrection not only as historical fact but also personally, existentially, as a faith assumption they build their lives on, Paul can say:

Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.

Please consider these contrasting trajectories. When I find myself drawn to the attractiveness of the radical freedom promised by the materialist assumption, a freedom which does not deliver its promises, I remember this. Everything I could want or hope for on my own, autonomous and free, I receive in Christ, enveloped by his life, death, and resurrection.

 

 

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The Bible (Almost), Series Premiere


If you know someone over forty, ask them if they remember books like The Illustrated Bible  sitting on end tables in the dentist’s waiting room. Everyone used to display these, and I remember looking through their colorful renderings of

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important Bible persons and events. By the way, does the picture of two elderly pale European men in a tiny boat with (obviously) cropbearded Jesus strike you as an accurate rendering of the episode in Luke 5:1-11? If you think the cover is a stretch, click the link and take a look at Leonardo’s Annunciation on page three of the preview! Is that your idea of the angel Gabriel? Was Mary really that “mature,” and where did she get the marble table? (Thank you, Verrocchio!)

We taught our kids from the classic Egermeier’s Bible Story Book, because we heard of its legendary accuracy from the (very serious!) homeschool crowd. Published in the 1920s, it has survived the test of time and proven itself a classic. Yet it has been criticized on grounds of inaccuracy. One reviewer wrote “there are facts presented that are flat-out false,” while another notes that it, “softens or skips the less age-appropriate elements like incest and promiscuity” (see Amazon reviews). Our kids, and thousands of others, have quite profitably been taught Bible stories from this factually deficient book!

The point is that we can, and we do look past a lot of factual errors and “reading between the lines” in art and stories based on the Bible, appreciating their value and utility despite their fallibility and inevitably-culture-bound aesthetic. Viewers of The Bible miniseries on History will have to grant the same latitude if they want to enjoy its unique paraphrasing of the Biblical story.

I watched the series premier as something of a skeptic, expecting revisionist history, political correctness and more stale Jesus Seminar rhetoric about how we really can’t take the biblical canon as a historically reliable sacred text. To my delight, I noticed in the opening scene where Noah rehearses the prologue of (what would later be) Genesis to his family, there was no attempt to qualify, distance, or deconstruct. The Noah character took the creation story as authoritative revelation, passed on orally from generation to generation. As the docudrama unfolded, it stayed true to the aim of rendering a familiar body of stories and themes to an audience for whom they might be unfamiliar.

That last assertion is my reason for giving the series premier a tentative three stars out of five. Let me enumerate some the star-earning points:

  1. It didn’t assume revisionist history, but took the stories as they are given in the Bible and tried to render them for a contemporary audience.
  2. Like Walter Wangerin’s widely-read The Book of God, this dramatization of the biblical story invites us into the Scriptures themselves, bringing narratives to life and whetting our appetite to go deeper and learn more.
  3. The screenplay made mostly intelligent, limited choices of episodes and characters in an attempt to get the flow of biblical history and important themes, including covenant and faith. For me, these themes are clear, if deficient. I’ll explain why below.
  4. Like Medieval morality plays, The Bible miniseries can and will increase awareness of biblical content to the biblical-illiterate! This one is huge, because:
  5. Established Christians must accept the fact that bible illiteracy is the norm for American popular culture today.

For these reasons, and probably a few more, I feel fairly positive about watching the rest of the series as it unfolds over the next several weeks. However, I have to acknowledge some limitations and concerns:

  1. Some of your and my favorite stuff is going to be missing. Just like the books I mentioned above, screenwriters have to select from a mountain of material and put together a coherent story for a target audience. I was most disappointed that Joseph (a key figure in Genesis and a type of Christ) was entirely omitted.
  2. Theological presuppositions are going to color the story; for example, the themes of covenant and faith were presented in a very man-centered way. As a Facebook friend pointed out (Thanks, Al!), the Moses character talked about the Abrahamic covenant in a way that distorted its conditions, as if it were entirely conditional! (It isn’t. Here’s a concise discussion of that.)
  3. There is some buzz that the Christology is going to be messed up. If it is, my stars will drop off and my skepticism will have been confirmed. Let’s wait and see, please?

I do think we need to be discerning and informed whenever we teach, tell, act, sing, or allude to the inspired, infallible, inerrant text of Scripture. Especially those who teach. The Bible is not designed as a teaching series–though there are lots of revenue-generating support materials for teachers on the website–but, like Wangerin’s The Book of God, it admits (in the prologue) it is not a substitute for the Bible itself.

As for how adequate this docudrama proves to be at entertaining and informing audiences to help them become more interested in the greatest story ever written, that story remains to be told.