Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

9/22 2020

What Happens After We Die?

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Exploring life after death

Is there life after death? The question has haunted humans for ages. It is the stuff of existential crises, and some answer to the question is provided in nearly every form of religion the world has known. Even for the irreligious, the unanswerable question of the Great Beyond looms. Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century philosopher, theologian, and mathematician, suggested that all our consumption of entertainment is one big distraction from the fact that we will die.

 

Life After Death?

Thankfully, this is an easy question to answer.

Just kidding! Even within the Christian tradition, there is a somewhat wide array of beliefs and nuances regarding heaven, hell, intermediate states, and who is going to end up where. We can’t possibly hope to settle the matter here in this short reflection, but I’d like to share some insights from a course I took at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

The course was an elective called “Rethinking Church,” taught by Dr. Edwin Chr. van Driel. You might think that the afterlife is a bit off-topic for a course about re-imagining church. But, as we learned in the class, our thoughts about salvation (soteriology) and ultimate destiny (eschatology) will shape how we live in the church. After all, the church is a salvific community and, in many ways, an eschatological community.

Because of the class’s focus on the end-times, one of our assigned texts was N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. The book, which I highly recommend, begins with a provocative premise: Christians often hold beliefs about the afterlife that don’t have anything to do with the biblical witness! Instead, we have allowed Platonic ideas and Enlightenment thinking to dictate what we believe about the future.

According to Wright, this has happened across the entire spectrum of Christian traditions. The Enlightenment (re)introduced a duality that was never present in the biblical authors’ thinking—the separation of the physical and spiritual realms. Once accepted, this duality began to warp Christian thinking about future destiny.

 

Two Opposing Errors

For one group of Christians, this has meant focusing only on the spiritual. Since our souls will float up to heaven after we die, the thinking goes, it doesn’t matter what happens in the here and now. This view tends to devalue justice work and, especially, environmentalism. For another subset of Christianity, the same duality has led to a different error: to focus only on concrete issues while downplaying or outright ignoring the spiritual reality of God’s presence and love.

The first group sees total discontinuity between the world we know and the world to come; an apocalyptic event will hit the “reset button” on everything. The second group sees only continuity with the future, since the works we do now will seamlessly bring about whatever comes next. Jesus, however, taught and modeled both continuity and discontinuity between present and ultimate future. He taught, preached, prayed, cried, ate, and healed. He declared that the kingdom is here but told us to await its coming. Wright suggests that Jesus’ resurrection and the biblical image of a new heaven and new earth—merged or fused together into one concrete, eternal existence—blows up the Platonic duality altogether.

The whole world will be resurrected, body and spirit.

So what happens after we die? According to Wright, this isn’t the important question. The important question is what happens ultimately (i.e. after whatever happens after we die). And the answer is a resurrected world—the new heaven and new earth. As for “life after death” in terms of what happens between a person’s physical death and the world’s ultimate resurrection, Wright says there is no way to know for sure. Perhaps we enter a time of waiting in God’s presence. But again, this isn’t the Bible’s picture of hope.

Our hope is in life after life after death.

 

Jon Mathieu is a master of divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a 2019-2020 Newbigin Fellow. While his background is in mathematics, he has been engaged in ministry in Pittsburgh for more than a decade. After years serving as a campus minister, ministry director, and writer in evangelical contexts, he is now following God into more expansive and inclusive visions for ministry. His writing appears at RELEVANT and Red Letter Christians.

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7/29 2020

A Psalm for Every Occasion

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Psalm 118

Christians have turned to the Psalms over and over again throughout the history of the church. These ancient prayers have provided millions of people with just the right words to express their powerful emotions of agonizing grief, frightening confusion, or exultant joy. These are more than just beautiful words—they seem to tap into some of the most important aspects of what it means to live by faith.

This year, I was taught a framework that helps to describe how the Psalms relate to the universal spiritual journey. I learned it in a class taught by Dr. Peter Choi at the Newbigin House of Studies. If you haven’t heard of this program, it’s a nine-month online fellowship that provides theological formation by exploring the spiritual, public, and missional dimensions of the Christian life. Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is a partner seminary for this fellows program, so the fellowship provides credit for PTS’s master of divinity and other degree programs.

 

Orientation, Disorientation, and New Orientation

In the program’s Spiritual Theology course, we discussed some content from Walter Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. In this wonderful commentary, Brueggemann supplies a framework for better understanding both the Psalter (the entire collection of the Psalms) and the spiritual life: orientation, disorientation, and new orientation.

According to this view, psalms of orientation correspond to seasons in life or faith marked by well-being. These are psalms of creation that look upon and celebrate God’s reliably ordered universe. Psalms of disorientation correspond instead to seasons of anguish, suffering, and death; these are poems marked by painful disarray. Finally, psalms of new orientation have almost a surprised tone as they rejoice in new gifts of life from God.

But Brueggemann draws our attention even more closely to the transitions between these seasons (and their associated Psalms). He calls these the two decisive moves of faith: from orientation to disorientation, and from disorientation to new orientation. The first move in the ancient Jewish context would have been evident in the people’s initial enslavement in Egypt, their unforeseen difficulties in the wilderness, the arrival of new enemies outside their borders, and the cataclysmic move to exile. In the early Christian tradition, the clearest move from orientation to disorientation was the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This type of move is captured in the Psalter with psalms of lament.

The other decisive move of faith is from disorientation to new orientation. Ancient Jews were no strangers to hope. In Egyptian bondage they had prayed for deliverance, and eventually they would enter a promised land. As exiles in Babylon, they had dreamed of a return to that land of promise; while the new orientation might not have been what they expected, they were allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild and live in the city. For early Christians, of course, the disorientation of Christ’s death gave way to the new orientation of his resurrection. This movement of faith rings clearly in psalms of thanksgiving.

 

Psalms and Christian Spirituality

This is perhaps why the Psalms have been so useful in the spirituality of both individual Christians and communities of faith. They provide prayers calibrated to the decisive seasons and movements of faith and life: from a comfortable but naïve orientation to a bewildering and wretched disorientation; then, blessedly, from that pain and confusion to a new place of acceptance and gratitude. And, of course, over the span of a person or community’s life, these seasons and movements will occur many times.

Which season of life and faith are you currently experiencing? Does your heart need to cry out in anger or grief? Are you overcome by unexpected grace and love?

In any of these seasons, may the Psalms help you discover, name, and express to God what is in your mind and heart.

 

Jon Mathieu is a Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. While his background is in mathematics, he has been engaged in ministry in Pittsburgh for more than a decade. Most recently he has served as a writer and program director at an evangelical church. Sensing God was leading him into new ways of thinking, believing, and loving, he became a fellow at the Newbigin House of Studies and a student at PTS. His writing has appeared on RelevantMagazine.com.

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4/22 2020

What are you grieving amid COVID-19?

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This is not how I imagined we would observe Easter. You either—I suspect. But in a recent conversation, a friend and I realized that this Easter was a lot like the first one—Jesus’ friends, holed up in a room for fear of death, grieving deep loss and not knowing the way ahead.

I’ve been drawn these days to John’s resurrection narrative, particularly Mary’s story. The others have run away, with nothing to report but the fact that their friend is gone; they registered the fact of the missing body and then hustled home in their confusion.

The Gardener

Mary stayed. Grieving. So lost in the loss that she didn’t even recognize the “gardener.”

Two things strike me in this passage. First, that Jesus should appear to her as a gardener. This hits home. What has kept me anchored these days of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order? Starting my seedlings—a long-view, low-key act of resistance. My lanky green buddies keep me aligned with the rhythms and timing demanded by nature, the need to let things unfold as they must. If we are patient and honor these rhythms, deep roots can grow and body and spirit can be nourished.

I have in my hands the capacity to support a narrative of life over one of suffering and death—if I am patient and “above all, trust in the slow work of God,” as Teilhard de Chardin reminds us.

 

The Grief

This is important for me to remember as I abide by the (often challenging!) need to shelter in place and attend to the oscillation of emotions and thoughts my family and I cycle through on a daily basis. It is important for all of us to remember as we reconsider future planning with the uncertainty and opportunity of what may be ahead.

Second, Mary is fully present to her grief. She doesn’t run away from the gaping darkness of the open cave. She stays, and she weeps, and she’s honest about it; “They have taken him away, and I don’t know where he is” (John 20:13b). She names her grief. And it is then—and only then—that the Risen One reveals himself to her.

The one who gardens is the one whose victory is over death itself! And knowing him requires Mary—and us—to be fully present to the empty tomb and the emotions that come with that. Loss, yes—and it is only through the loss that the kept promise can be really, truly, joyously known.

What are you grieving? Call it by name. That’s where the Risen Christ will meet you.

 

Since 2013, Dr. Helen Blier has served as the Seminary’s director of Continuing Education. She is the former director of student information and organizational evaluation at the Association for Theological Schools (ATS). There she oversaw the administration and use of data-gathering instruments used by the member seminaries as well as consulted with schools to construct assessment protocols for institutional, student learning, and degree program outcomes. Her publications and presentations have generally focused on theological education and youth ministry.

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