"O death, where is thy sting? O grave! where is thy victory?" sing the tenor and alto in Handel's Messiah.
"Once you accept your own death, all of a sudden you're free to live." -- Saul Alinsky
Christians seem to me to be a rather anxious lot. Although, as a group, they claim to have overcome death through Jesus Christ, I find most Christians to be preoccupied with death and apprehensive about it. I've never really understood this. They aren't just interested in keeping themselves from dying, either. The extreme ones spend a lot of time fretting over other people's unborn children.
Some of them see God as a Santa Claus who will give them what they ask for if they are just good enough, pure enough, faithful enough and pray hard enough. Some see God as an accountant, keeping track of every sin in preparation of making them pay. No surprise that group is anxious to avoid death. Some see God as a teacher and life as a never-ending final exam with lots of trick questions. Others see God as a spiritually perfect condition that each of us strive to reach so that we can be one with him and experience joy. I tend to the latter belief, but the problem is, I doubt I can reach that condition in one go.
But, what bothers me most is the assumption by the majority of Christians (but not all!) that we only get one shot at life incarnate on earth. This, I believe, is the source of the anxiety and fear that Christians try to hide behind beatific smiles and lofty songs praising Jesus for defeating death. The promise held out to true believers is EVENTUAL RESURRECTION at some undetermined time, perhaps nearby, more likely, very distant. The reward or consequences of a life lived well or poorly arrives instantly at the moment of death and remains in place more or less permanently. Two choices: Heaven or Hell. No one seems sure where the cut-off line is between the two. Hence, the need to proselytize and baptize as many souls as possible before they die unshriven and find themselves sinking down into the abyss.
Does this make sense to you? It has never made sense to me and I'm a Christian. It offers nothing for those who die young, or live encumbered by disability, disease or mental illness. It doesn't give a fair chance to those who die in war or in a school collapsed on top of them by an earthquake. Where is the justice for the innocents? Where is their chance? It just isn't fair. God, unfair? That can't be right.
We are told that we are made in God's image, that he is our father (I use the masculine gender as a familiar convenience) as we are parents to our own children, and loves us even more than we love our children. So, let me ask you, what do we tell our children when they fall off their skateboard-roller skates-bicycle-horse? Do we say, You fell off? Too bad, you only get one chance? No, we tell them, Dust yourself off, get back on, and try again.
But most Christians believe in a God who does just that. The pared down, simplified version is God loves you just the way you are, but you only get one shot at this. Don't mess it up, or you go to hell. The truth we all know in our heart of hearts, is that none of us is perfect. We are all sinners. We all have dark places in our souls, and we are not going to get it right the first time, any more than we are going to be able to ride a skateboard on our first attempt or shoot the hoop from the center line of the basketball court with only one shot. The pressure to succeed is enormous. The consequences of failure dire. The angst is buried deep under hymns and smiles and fellowship. But, it bubbles to the top as a fretful fear of facing death and finding out whether one's one life was good enough to face God's judgment.
But, is that the way of it? I don't think so. I'm not saying we aren't judged, but I'm betting that the judgment is loving and that we do most of it ourselves, that we will come face to face with our successes and shortcomings in a place where nothing is hidden and draw our own conclusions. Heaven and Hell and whatever lies between are most likely self-generated by our own conscience and self-awareness. There is ample evidence in history, experience and scripture that you and I have lived many lives and will live many more, that our spiritual journey involves many chances to get on the horse and ride it and not fall off. My God loves me as I am and wants me to succeed, or so I believe. I hope to make progress in this life toward spiritual perfection, but can see that it is still a long way off. Death, I believe is something we are all better off accepting, not fearing. Knowing that I have come this far and will be given the opportunity to pick myself up, dust myself off and try again is a comforting thing.
If you would like to learn more about the other alternative to the one-shot at life: reincarnation, try out some of these links.