“When you have kids, D-E-A-D is a four letter word,” a friend who is a mother of four once told me. I did not fully grasp what she meant until we had the first death in the family that my boys were old enough to experience. After my Uncle Paul’s funeral, when I was lying in bed with my older son going through our usual nighttime routine, he started asking me all the questions parents know they will have to answer some day but hope they can put off until their children are at least thirty-five. “Mom,” he queried, “Where do people go when they die? What does it mean to die? Will we ever see Uncle Paul again? Is he okay?”
Before I could even reflect on what I might say in response, I heard myself answering in the way that my parents probably had answered me when my great grandma Glynn died when I was five, and the way that their parents probably had answered them before that. “Uncle Paul is with God now,” I started. “He isn’t living on earth with us anymore now, but he is living with God. And since God is love, I bet Uncle Paul is getting to do all the things he loves the most, like walking dogs and eating French Silk pie, and I bet he gets to be with people that he loves, too, like his mom and dad. Uncle Paul is watching down on us, and we will get to see him again when we are in heaven.”
As I was reeling off that answer, I started to wonder if I was being honest with my son. Was telling him that his great uncle was with God akin to stories of Santa Claus, an untruth of which he would eventually be disabused, leading to a possible resentment of me for perpetuating such a fairy tale? Would it be better to offer him a more stoic philosophy along the lines of “Life is hard, and then we die, so make the most of life now”? Is propagating a belief in the afterlife anything more than selling false comfort in a time of need?
Like many modern Christians raised in this scientific age, I am comfortable with the aspects of the Jesus story that hold him up as an exemplar of ethical and justice-focused living. I appreciate using Jesus’ call to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves as a guideline for my own behavior in life and find myself challenged by his constant stance of reaching out to those on the margins to shower them with God’s acceptance and love. And also like many modern Christians raised in this scientific age, I am not always quite sure what to do with the more supernatural aspects of the Jesus narrative. Virgin birth? Changing water into wine? Casting out demons? These sorts of things do not fit neatly into our twenty-first century way of thinking about the world, and the idea of Jesus being resurrected by God and then ascending bodily into heaven might be the most preposterous part of the whole unbelievable story.
After more careful reflection over the course of a few days, I began to see how my answer to my son’s questions about death was a truthful reflection of my beliefs, put into words that a five year old might be able to understand. While I certainly do not know exactly what happens to us when we die, I do have hope in the fact that death (and its companions like violence, hate, and sin) does not have the last word. I do believe that there is something that is more powerful in the world than death, violence, hate, and sin, and this is life and love. And as a Christian, one way that I talk about the power of life and love is to talk about God. I do believe, like those in many cultures before ours have acknowledged, that our connections with loved ones are not severed by death. And I do believe that there is a spiritual realm that transcends our everyday reality (while also being immanently and intimately a part of this everyday realm).
So when I tell my son that his great uncle is with the God of love after his death, what I am really trying to offer him is a sense of hope; a sense that love is powerful, even more powerful than death; a sense that we are part of a communion of saints, which stretches back in time to those who have gone before us and reaches into a future that we cannot yet imagine; and a sense that there is more to the world than just what we experience with our senses and what science can explain. In this way, resurrection makes perfect sense to me, even in this modern, scientific age.
What does resurrection mean to you?