But we would not have you ignorant brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
1 Thessalonians 3:13
I look for the resurrection of the dead: and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Secularism and Worldiness
It is common to hear people speak of us only having one life and that therefore we ought to live it “to the fullest”. Of course, to “live to the fullest” is often taken to mean some maximising of experience here upon Earth and squeezing every last bit of happiness and pleasure out of this world.
In times past the Christiandom would have condemned this as simply point-blank worldliness, being obessed with the here and now. As I’ve noted before, the word “secular” did not originally mean “non-religious”, but is in fact derived from the Latin saeculāris or “worldly”, “temporal”, as opposed to transcendent and eternal. Thus, “secular” referred to “this worldly” business, while “sacred” referred to the “world to come” business.
Whilst it is perfectly natural for the secular world, who knows nothing of the happiness, joy and the hope of the life of the world to come, to invest this world with total significance and as the arena of redemption. For the secular world, governments are gods, this worldly communities or nations are heaven, and human beings are angels. Thus, their expectations and obessions with economics and politics or “social justice”, they dream of utopias of perfect happiness on earth, demand of their gods to provide it, and is angered, frustrated and disappointed when their governments fail to realise heaven on earth, as if they have been cheated out of their birth right.
With such worldly thinking, their dignity and evaluation of a person’s life is determined solely by the quality of this life, his worldly possessions, his this worldly life experiences, etc. With the same evaluative frame do everyone else live, trying to hoard wealth, “experience life to the fullest”, and “do something meaningful”, or ultimately, “to be happy”, because they know only this world as the source of their worth and happiness, and they live in dreadful fear that they shall end up as “sad losers” with “no life” or be “average” and “medicore”, according to worldly perception or standards of course. Thus comes the strange paradoxical attitude of the modern world towards the poor. To them, the poor are at the same time “favoured” as the focus of their concern, as well as “unredeemed”, without dignity or worth, and needing of their worldly economic redistribution or poverty alleviation. The truth of course is that they find the existence of poor people intolerable, their attitude is one of condescending pity, a blight upon their visions of utopia and an object of contempt, but whom they shall graciously condescend to speak upon their behalf and act as their advocates. No wonder today being offended on other’s behalf has been horned into a fine art! Poor people, who are bereaved of every worldly dignity and possessions, are worthless in their eyes, because they know of no other source of worth of an individual, but from their priviledged positions, they shall condescend to speak out for them, to elevate them into the same “worth” as themselves. These people know nothing of hope and redemption of Lazarus, they seek only to turn Lazarus into the rich man, even if in so doing he shall be damned in the life of the world to come!
Confusing the Inn with Home
But a Christian cannot think that way, we cannot live as if we know nothing of the life of the world to come. Our hopes, joy and true happiness is not located here on earth but in the next life at the final consummation. But when was the last time you heard a Christian who was going through bad times say, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us”? (Romans 8:18) How often is it heard from a Christian who speaks of deliverance from this worldly troubles by the glory and happiness of the life of the world to come?
Let’s admit it, we’re as secular and as worldly as the non-Christian world. We no longer “look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”, our sights are set firmly upon this world and we are as obessed with this world as the secularists are. The resurrection victory for most of us has a purely this worldly significance, as a victory to be experienced and embodied in this world. But the afterlife is topic which has receded rapidly into the background, the afterlife is merely a “problem” for us, death is like a disease or illness which needs solving, and heaven is merely an insurance policy which we buy, so that we can solve this “problem” and forget all about it and return back to our realconcerns and hopes, this world and this worldly happiness.
But for the Christian the hope of the resurrection or heaven is not merely a solution to the problem of death, it is a central tenent and one might even say, the source of all hope and joy for the Christian! It contextualises and fundamentally limits the significance and meaning of this world. Because redemption, justice, true happiness and joy, is firmly to be located and found in the next world, can we live properly in this world, and not burden it down with infinite expectations, meanings and hopes. It is patient with this worldly sufferings, it does not despair if one is a “loser” in this world or if it is deprived of the comforts, joys, pleasures, dignity or status, because we know of our rewards and comforts of the life of the world to come, we know where our true worth, dignity and righteousness is located, in the justification of Christ by faith.
We fear such talk because fundamentally we fear the Marxist critique that we’re just using the afterlife as an “opium” to soothe the pains of this world. But why should we listen to the criticisms of those who know nothing of the life of the world to come, knows nothing of the redemption which is located solely upon action of God in Jesus Christ, and who is jealous of the hope which we have in the next world and wants to steal it and locate it in this world? Only a lack of faith and doubt in the life of the world to come, only when we cease to hope and wait for “the coming of the day of God… which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire… for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:12-13), only when our hearts cease to be grasped by this hope, will we try to seek after worldly righteousness, “social justice”, to fantasise of utopias on earth, to desperately search for that perfect system to attempt to resolve the fundamental flaws of this fallen world under the bondage of sin, or as T.S. Eliot puts it,
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But we know that the redemption of this world can only be found in Christ, not in man-made philosophical systems or human political action, and that redemption does not consists in some strange chilistic hope that we can “gradually” improve this world or redeem and perfect it by human or social or political action, but in the dissolution of this world, the burning up of all flesh with the triumphant return of Christ with his legion of angels, and the ushering of the new heavens and new earth, and it is there, not in some earthly social or political system, where righteousness shall dwell in all it’s glory.
Therefore we should not confuse the inn with our home. For centuries the Christian faith has taught that this world is merely an “inn”, and life is a journey towards our final home. An inn is merely a place of temporary residence, a mere stop towards our true home. But today we seem to have forgotten that this world is but an inn but am trying to turn it into a home instead. We complain that this inn is not a mansion, and we desperately try to turn it into a permanent home. But in so doing, we create false hopes and create massive disillusionment and anger, when they failed to be realised, and in the process of attempt to “renovate” the inn into a palace we wreck the inn which was not made to bear the infinite weight and expectations which we are today burdening it with.
Living this Life in the Light of the Next
History teaches us that most utopian projects eventually fail and wreck and destroy lives and entire communities. Think of the French Revolution, the Russian revolution, etc. All utopian dreams are premised upon the perfection of man and they seek to re-create a paradise on earth with their deluded hopes in a prelapsarian man, untainted with original sin, who will be able to run and live in this paradise. But of course such hopes know nothing of the reality of sin, the bondage of man under the flesh and the devil, and the necessity of redemption in Christ. It is often said in church circles that if you find a perfect church, don’t join it because you’ll render it imperfect, the same logic can be applied to any utopian community or society, if it exists anywhere on earth, don’t join it, because you’ll bring hell to paradise! Ultimately utopian dreams are the most tyrannical of all, for they are seized by delusions of divinity and seek to bring redemption upon earth, and in their zeal for their anointed mission, they run roughshod over enemies and crush mercilessly all who would oppose their divine mandate. But sin and the fall of man cannot be resolved by perfect systems or any human effort, but only by the divine miracle wrought in Christ.
It is only when we understand this world in the light of the next will we be able to live properly in this world. When we no longer find our dignity and worth in worldly wealth, status or experiences, can we learn to be content with what we are given and what we have, whether it be much or little, whether we be great or humble, whether we be parochial or world wise.
When we do not attempt to extract every last pleasure and happiness from this life, to seek after exotic experiences or lust after romanticised lives, will we be able to do our duty to God and to man, to live out “mundane” lives to raising families, caring for our children and making the lives of the next generation better. When people pass on to their children, not only their material wealth by working and saving for them, but their very lives and their youth in caring and loving their children, instead narcissitically trying to “maximise” their youth in individualistic experience and then giving their children the “left over” bits of their old age, only then will the lot of the next generation be improved because of the sacrifices of the previous one, and this process of sacrifice is a continous one, because we live in a fallen world which is constantly decaying, and only the will of God as revealed in the commandments prevents the total annihiliation of humanity. But yet in the light of the hope to come, can we joyfully live as such, and not be disappointed or frustrated that we do not have as much pleasure and happiness as the rest of the world do who live dissolutely and live at the expanse of the next generation, for we know, that we shall receive our reward and find true joy and happiness in heaven.
This is also particularly pertinent to marriages and romantic love which has been infinitely burdened by the world. We dream of the “perfect one” and true love and marriages where we shall be happy forever. But this is nothing more than to turn marriages into heaven and our partners into gods. No human being or worldly institution can possibly bear this utterly unrealistic expectation which we have loaded upon it. Thus the whole melodrama of heart breaks and frustrated love when they don’t meet our expectations, the whole reactionary cynicism about marriage and romantic love, which is merely swinginly to the direct opposite end of the trend to invest romance and marriage with infinite worth to condemning it with no worth or value.
Only when we recognise the limits of the significant of worldly activities, especially marriage, can we live in it properly, and not burden these worldly and human activities with infinite and unrealistic expectations, as sources of total meaning, worth or happiness or joy, seeking them where they can truly be found, in the life of the world to come. And only in this light, can we live content in all our worldly and human situations.
St Augustine in his “City of God” argued that this world is not the place of perfect happiness, but neither is it the place of utter despair for what matters to God is ultimately eternal life. Thus, God gives enough to materially sustain the Christian in this life and continue to hope in the next, but not too much lest we replace the next world with this world. And therefore he has left the fortunes of this world uncertain, the fallness of this world reminds us that redemption is not yet come and is to be found only in the next life, to keep us watching and waiting for it to come, and to not presume upon God’s grace and goodness, but the good things of this world teaches us not to despair of God’s grace and mercy and to always hope in God’s mercy which is always available and possible in every situation in this world, not matter how bleak or hopeless it may seem to human eyes.
And it is only an ungodly unbelief in the hope of the life of the world to come, which would seek to render this life certain and secure from all unhappiness and troubles, and to seize the fortunes of our lives and of this world from God’s hands into our own hands, whether it is via worldly politics or wealth. But be not deceived, God is not mocked, and his vengeance does come upon those who would presume to find redemption in mere human creatures or societies rather than in God alone, to whom all glory, honour and dominion belongs, now and forever.