A Twitter discussion last week directed me to an article on Karl Barth and the afterlife. Barth apparently rejected all notions of afterlife, identifying them as a pursuing of “pagan dreams of good times after death.” No Elysium. No Valhalla. No Vaikuntha.
It has now become glibly commonplace for preachers to declare that Christianity does not teach that we go to heaven when we die—the gospel knows only the resurrection. Or as N. T. Wright has memorably phrased it, the Bible proclaims not “life after death” but rather “life after life after death” (Surprised by Hope, pp. 151-152). I affirm the point but question its homiletical and existential import. However life beyond the grave is to be understood, the crucial claim is life beyond the grave, in personal wholeness.
Barth, however, appears to be less concerned about the corporeality of resurrection life than with the nature of the Eschaton itself and the relation between time and eternity: “There is no question of the continuation into an indefinite future of a somewhat altered life. The New Testament hope for the other side of death is very different from that. What it looks forward to is the ‘eternalising’ of this ending life.”
I cannot pretend to have grasped Barth’s essential point and invite you to visit the blog article and take a look yourself. Tell me what you think Barth is saying. The discussion is also interesting. I had three initial reactions:
First, I do not know how we can begin to speak about these matters apart from the eucharistic life of the Church catholic. In the Church we invoke the living saints and venerate their icons. In the Church we pray for the departed. Lex orandi, lex credendi. What this means is that all of our speculations about life after death must be informed by the Church’s liturgical experience of the Kingdom in her midst. Protestant Christians are at a real disadvantage at this point. Perhaps this disadvantage explains the apparent “hopelessness” of Barth’s eschatological vision.
Second, I believe that the vigorous critique of “heaven,” which one sees all the time now on Twitter and elsewhere on the net, is misguided. Will the lives of believers be dramatically transformed if the word “heaven” were to be excised from the ecclesial vocabulary. I doubt it. Of course, catechists and preachers should correct misunderstandings and direct attention to the resurrection hope, but that need not entail a belittling of the popular hope for heaven. Heaven is simply a traditional, and pastorally handy, name for the eschatological destination of the redeemed. Of course there will always be questions about the intermediate stage, that “time” between death and the general resurrection. These questions are not merely speculative but very personal: “Where is my dead husband?” “What kind of life does my wife now enjoy?” “Is my son in heaven?” “What will happen to me when I die?”
Third, whatever heaven may be, it will not be less raucous, less boisterous, less jubilant than Valhalla. The dreams of paganism will be fulfilled in the Kingdom. But instead of being gathered around Odin, we will be gathered in the Holy Spirit around the risen Jesus Christ. Our feasting will be glorious, our joy infinite, our ecstasy rapturous. It will be the wedding supper of the Lamb.