“To feel that you have meaning is to feel immortal,” psychology professor and author Clay Routledge wrote in 2014. Is this the only kind of immortality we will ever have?
In this recurring question, the contradiction between naturalism and religion is revealed. Is there anything beyond death? Or is death the absolute end of the road? Is our constant search for meaning a consequence and evidence of creation? Do we long for the eternity for which we were created? Or do we search for the meaning of life simply because we are animals intelligent enough to know that one day we will die, and the only way to transcend death is to leave behind the legacy of a meaningful life ?
We are beings longing for the transcendence of death. And the feeling that we can transcend it, even if only through the legacy we leave behind, helps us get over problems more easily, reduces our risk of mental illness, and increases our chances of aging gracefully. Scientists, Routledge notes, are beginning to understand how important meaning is for the adaptive functioning of human beings.
But the essence of the problem remains. No matter how well we do, is simply feeling immortal enough for us? Do we not long for something more than the hope that our heritage will survive? Do we not want immortality for ourselves, and for our memory?
Too smart to believe?
The working hypothesis of a world that seeks to objectify knowledge is that we are animals intelligent enough to not believe in a grand truth beyond that which can be scientifically probed. Starting from this premise, we can only come to the conclusion that everything that exists only exists within a limited, material sphere, a sphere we can and should get better at explaining to ourselves. And this is the conclusion we have to live with for the rest of our lives. This is the cross that naturalists bear. But is it possible to live with this cross?
Norman Gulley argues that modernity and postmodernity have already confronted us with a multitude of theories that make our lives difficult to live.
Friedrich Nietzsche could not live with the nihilism he proclaimed, and found meaning in a social movement of his time. For Jean Paul Sartre, the world was meaningless and without moral values (beyond good and evil), but he could not live with the conclusions of his philosophy, and signed the Algerian Manifesto, which took a moral stand against the French occupation of Algiers. David Hume’s scepticism plunged him into a burdensome uncertainty—a source of “epistemological depression”—which he tried to treat with the company of friends and meals shared with them. Jacques Derrida, who suggested that all our interpretations are necessarily wrong, felt the need to defend himself against an interpretation of his work by John Searle, claiming that—contrary to his own philosophical conclusions—Searle should have understood it correctly.
In the field of theology, Gulley recalls Stanley Fish, who suggested the understanding that the community holds to is more important than the actual text of the Bible, hence his conclusion that readers are co-authors with biblical writers, and that the text has no meaning per se. But how can one live with such a conclusion, Gulley wonders, while at the same time feeling the need for the text of the constitution, or other legal and historical documents, to have a meaning in themselves, independent of the community of readers? And, in the case of A.J. Ayer, who argued that only mathematically-logical and empirical truths make sense, and all other statements are nonsense, Gulley wonders how anyone can live with such a conclusion that limits our lives to mathematics and leaves out music, poetry, art, and religion.
We cannot and live with such theories, as we cannot live without order, despite the postmodern tendency to oppose systems. Nor can we live without absolute truth, in spite of relativism, or without a centre of life, despite the contemporary tendency to reject the idea of such a centre.
In reality, our lives have to revolve around something—they have a centre. “Creation programmed human beings to seek a centre of life that would give them meaning and security” and therefore “people are incurable worshipers,” Gulley says. We cannot live with theories that contradict human nature. Clay Routledge said in an interview with Psychology Today: “…even when people live where they feel physically safe and can easily meet basic needs, existential questions about meaning remain. Many atheists may be one serious existential threat away from finding religion, or looking for a substitute for it.”
The idea that religion is irrelevant or even harmful, an idea that many strive to adopt in order to maintain their intellectual respectability, may ultimately be just one of the theories which, in fact, we cannot live with. In this article we will focus on the most relevant parts of theology that have to do with our search for meaning and for eternity.
Eschatology and our need for meaning
In the biblical metanarrative, the past and present centre on the Cross, which overlaps in part with its present and future centre, which is the Return—the second coming of Jesus. The most impressive moment in history was the moment Christ died to pay the price for the sins of mankind and to save us (John 3:16). He will return to us to complete this work, and remove suffering and death from the Universe (John 14:18; Revelation 21:14).
Thus, in an overview of the Bible, the Return is the event that best addresses our fear of the end of life. It is the promise that the meaning for which we were created will be restored in each of us. The New Testament (NT) reveals the great interest of the early Christians and the authors of the NT books in the return of Jesus. If we perceive the Return through the same lenses, we are not in danger of making a mistake.
But, as we shall see, man’s search for the ultimate meaning of life influences Christian interpretations of the end of the present world, and interpretations of our eternal destiny. Each eschatological interpretation receives its place within the theological tradition that proposes it, depending on how well or not man’s need for answers to existential questions has already been fulfilled.
If a theological tradition states that the human soul survives, the eschatology of that theology will necessarily be less pronounced—if there is already a life that we enter immediately after death, there is no impatient wait for the return of Jesus. If, on the other hand, death is viewed as a sleep, as described in the Scripture (see Daniel 12:2, John 11:11-14), eschatology becomes extremely important because it involves the resurrection (see John 6:40, 1 Corinthians 15:20-21). In this interpretation, the consolation of those who lose a loved one is based on the day of resurrection, not the immortality of the soul. And because the resurrection is related to the return of Christ, the latter becomes extremely important. To understand it better, let us look at an image used by the Bible to explain the second coming of Christ.
The certainty of the long-awaited wedding
Near the end of His mission, Jesus said to His disciples, “I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:3). Jesus describes His return as a final and definitive union of those who were promised to each other/engaged. The image reflects the tradition of the ancient Jewish wedding, in which, after the engagement, when the groom paid the bride-price to the father, the two were considered married, although each of them remained in their parents’ house. Meanwhile, the groom prepared a house where he and his wife would live, and then he would return and take his bride back with him. This was the wedding ceremony (see Matthew 25:1-10).
In the Bible, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is part of the same picture of the wedding as the Return. If the engagement was made on the cross, and God’s people are already considered to be the bride of Christ, all that remains is for the Bridegroom to return and take his bride with Him, after a place has been prepared for her. No matter how special the engagement day is, which confirmed the status of husband and wife, without the day when the groom takes his bride, the wedding is not complete, the marriage cannot be considered truly consummated.
While enjoying the assurance provided by the cross, the church dreams and looks forward to the complete fulfilment of the meaning of her marriage to Christ. Return is therefore not a marginal teaching in the Bible and not even just one of the major ones – return is the divine promise that is at the heart of Christian theology. Any theological interpretation in which the importance of the return of Jesus Christ decreases is not an interpretation consistent with the message and overall picture of Scripture.
A meaning that changes life, and transcends death
With their hearts secured by the marriage certificate signed on the cross and their eyes fixed on the horizon, waiting for the Bridegroom to return to take his bride, Christians have no easy task of living the specific tension between “already and not yet.”
Unfortunately, throughout history, Christians have focused on how difficult it is to wait, and as a result, some have come to imagine Christ coming ahead of time. Others have come to give up waiting, or they have spiritualised the return to the point where they have historically abolished it.
But the return would be worth looking at more from the perspective of its meaning, and our meaning. We await the moment when death will be no more, and in the meantime we navigate the doubts and threats of life, sustained by the grace of God (Titus 2:11) and motivated by looking forward to “our blessed hope”—”showing to our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
Thus, the return of Jesus means the completion of God’s answer to our uncertainties. It is the completion of the process of eliminating sin from the universe and the most feared enemy of mankind—death. From this perspective, a return is the perfection of the meaning we seek to clarify throughout our lives: not just to feel immortal, but to live immortality with God, because we are part of His family.
Norel Iacob is Editor in Chief of ST Network and Semnele timpului.