Award-winning Christian author Madeleine L’Engle died earlier this year. I came across this quotation as I was preparing for All Saints’ Day.
The Churches have tended to be too literal about heaven and hell, defining what no mortal can possibly know, because only God knows. A young woman came to me, deeply disturbed, because her minister had told her that immortality is not a Christian concept. It is left over from Greek thinking, he said, and Christians are not supposed to believe in it.
This was not what she needed to hear. She had lost a beloved sister, and she needed affirmation, not a lecture. “If there is no immortality, then what about my sister?” she asked the minister.
“We believe in the resurrection of the body,” he said. “What body?” Her sister had died, very slowly, of cancer, looking like a victim from Belsen. Her sister would not want to be resurrected in that emaciated, dying body. Her minister did not have an answer, at least not one that she could remember and tell me.
“I think,” I said slowly, “that the word immortality involves time, involves our going on and on in time, human time. But resurrection is in eternity, and that’s a tough concept for us to understand.”
“Do you understand it?”
“No, but I believe it. I don’t understand it because I am in time right now. I get glimpses of eternity, of kairos, God’s time, which is far more wonderful than ordinary chronos, clock time.”
“What about my sister? She was so alive, so vibrant, until those last months.”
All I could do was repeat my affirmation that God does not create us and then drop us into nothingness. I don’t think her sister is in either the old-fashioned heaven or hell; but I think she is, somehow, somewhere, more truly alive than she was on earth. I don’t know what the resurrection body will be like.
Tommy, my evangelist friend, quoted something to the effect that many Christians are more interested in resuscitation than resurrection.
My grandfather would not have wished to be resuscitated at 101.
But when a child is suddenly killed, don’t we intuitively wish for resuscitation? We want that child back, exactly as before—the same deep gray eyes, the fair hair, the dimples that came and went.
But Jesus was never recognized by sight after the resurrection. So what on earth do we mean by resurrection?
When the people asked St Paul what the resurrection body was going to be like, he snapped out, “Don’t be silly,” one of my favorites of all the sayings of Paul. Don’t be silly. We can’t have back what we have lost. I can’t have my tall, lean husband with his amazing blue eyes, larger and bluer than any other eyes I have seen.
I want him back, and there’s no evading that I want him.
So what do I mean, what do we all mean when we say that “we believe in the resurrection of the dead”?
A friend said to me, “When I die and see Jack again I will recognize him.”
If we didn’t recognize Jesus, can we count on that? Not unless we, too, have been resurrected, not resuscitated.
Once again we are in mystery, outside the realm of provable fact. We are, I believe, given glimpses, and I have had a few. Walking down a dirt road on a shining summer day I moved into a realm of beauty and depth that became indescribable once I had left it, but it gives me a hint that after I die I may say, “Oh, glory! What a thin way of living I have just left!”
Madeleine L’Engle, Penguins and Golden Calves (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1996) 184-186