The Death of Death, Part 3: Vocation and Resurrection

This is part 3 of a series. You might find it helpful to first read part 1 and part 2.

There is, if we are attentive to it, a fascinating symmetry between a certain sort of great book and a certain sort of awful one. Many of the best books, as we put them down, leave us wishing for more. Why does this story have to end? Why must we leave this world and these characters behind? We all intuitively recognize that the best story could continue forever, always unfolding and developing and growing without a necessary exit.

Interestingly, some of the worst books provoke a similar reaction. Wait, that’s it? You’re ending it there? A too-sudden ending can provoke outrage and spoil the rest of the story; what was the point of all that plot and dialogue, if it was only to be spoiled in the denouement?

In the first two parts of this series I argued 1) that death is an inevitable problem we need to pay more attention to, 2) that an adequate answer to it must provide us with a solution to our loss, an enduring sense of meaning and a moral framework that can survive the grave, and 3) that secular fatalism, the generic sort of afterlife popular in our culture, and even the typical way Christians discuss heaven all fail to provide such a sufficient answer.

In what follows I want to lay out the biblical teaching about death. The reason I want to do this, however, is because all three of those other solutions end up leaving death as some form of a disappointing story. We are left, in some hidden part of our hearts, wondering “Is that really all there was to this thing?” Appreciating the biblical teaching instead moves us to recognize that both our lives and our eternities are rather a part of the best sort of story ever told.

Let’s start by laying some groundwork. Before anything else, we need to be clear about how we picture the Biblical hereafter. As I’ve discussed here before, the Bible’s story of life after death is one of resurrection. While our souls do exist in an “intermediate state” after we die, conscious and at rest with the Lord, that is only a temporary stopover. The hope of Scripture is that confessed be the creed, the “resurrection of the body” when Jesus returns and the “life everlasting” on a new heaven and new earth. In many ways, everything that follows is an explanation of why that vision, more than any of those we discussed last week, solves the problem of death.

How? The answer rests in another idea, that of "vocation." That word, while we could define it simply as "work," originates from the Latin for "calling." It is uniquely suited to explaining how Scripture views our purpose on this earth. From the beginning, God puts humanity in the world with a purpose - "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." (Genesis 2:15) More fully, our purpose in creation is to "image God," to rule and work His world in a way that shows forth His good care for what He has made.

This sense of purpose enfolds our present lives. When Scripture speaks of doing all things "to the glory of God," what it means is doing all things out of this holy vocation. We are still called to image God in our families and communities, in our work and creativity and ingenuity. This vocation includes those callings we think of as distinctly "spiritual" - the purposes of evangelism and discipleship, for example, are to help others recognize their calling as image-bearers of God and find in the gracious work of Jesus a means for this calling to be restored. I share the gospel and help the poor and seek excellence in my job and joyfully cultivate my talents all for the same reason - because God made me to show Him forth, and those are ways I can do it.

Once we recognize that this calling applies to the present, we are prepared to acknowledge the even deeper Christian mystery: it extends beyond death as well. The problem with most of our discussions of the afterlife is that we view the core question as one of destination. Where do we end up? While Scripture views that as important, it is secondary - destination only matters because of what we will be doing there. Our vocation to glorify God by showing forth His glory in our lives continues on for all eternity. On the new heavens and new earth, our worship and work will continue - indeed, we will come to realize they are inseparably the same. While we will be transformed in the resurrection, it will be a transformation not into some idle afterlife of purposeless pleasure but to more fully realize what we were always meant to be. We will awaken each morning for eternity with a job to do and the strength in our limbs and joy in our hearts to do it well.

It is within this context that we find our deepest questions about death answered. Much like the other stories, this biblical hope still promises a solution to our loss. All that is good in the world will continue and be renewed. In Christ, we need not part finally. It also solves the issue of meaning. Indeed, it means the promise largely disappears. If the afterlife is purposeful, and if its purpose is one with ours in the present, then death provides nothing more than a temporary respite.

At the same time, neither of these realities removes the moral necessity of the present. While our vocation continues after the resurrection, there is something unique about the way we realize our calling in this age. The present moment has eternal consequence; the choice to accept or refuse our sacred purpose will echo down corridors of infinite time. The destination matters precisely because it will determine whether we continue in the life we were created for or whether we are removed from the world so that God's glory might be more fully shown. Repentance and faith, our relationship with Christ and our pursuit of Him, are in the spectrum of eternity but the first page or two in our stories, but like all good first pages, they determine the course of everything to come.

It is within this story that we find our relationship with death transformed. It still comes to us with enormous pain; none of the above means we won't truly grieve. Partings in this age should wound us. However, within the Christian story, such pain is not the end of any part of the story. We recognize that what is lost will be found again. Our purpose, though in this season full of groaning, goes on unabated. Our choices still matter, and the Holy Spirit can still work in us through our grief to conform us to Christ.

Another wonder of the best stories is the way that even the darkest turns can, in the end, be woven into something beautiful and true. What is the White Witch's defeat without the lion's death on that stone table? What is the ring's destruction without the shadows of Mordor and the struggle against the darkness that came before?

Such is the Christian hope. Not that death is inconsequential - we can freely admit its dreadful power. Yet it has no power over who we are or what we are called to do; in Jesus Christ, while it is a great enemy, it is also a defeated one. All of its rage and our anguish can only, when the page turns, make its undoing sweeter and God's victory more glorious. Or, as Donne, so rightly notes it in that great sonnet mocking the grave, "One short sleep past, we wake eternally/And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die."