On Hope and Death: Continued Reflection on Christian Hope

06.19.19 | by Jonathan Totty

    In 2016, the Roman Catholic Church released instructions about burial, cremation, and laying our loved ones to rest. The gist of the document was to dissuade Christians from spreading the ashes of the deceased in the ocean, on mountains, or anywhere really. Most of us may be confused as to why such a document would be published the largest Christian denomination in the world in modern times. Why should it matter what we do with the remains of our loved ones, and why does the church care?

    The church cares what you do with your dead (to put it bluntly), not because there is a practical issue with spreading ashes, but, perhaps, a pedagogical issue. Christian faith and teaching hinges on the belief that humanity will be raised from the dead. In fact, traditionally Christians associate salvation more so with resurrection than with heaven.

    Perhaps, this is the sticking point of confusion for many of us. It is normal for us to associate salvation with “going to heaven” after we die. And, from this point of view, who really cares about the physical remains of a dead person. After all, the person is in heaven and in the presence of God. Whatever is left over in this world cannot possibly be of any consequence.

    Now, there is no need to disagree with the idea that we “go to heaven when we die,” more specifically it is good for us to have faith that not even death can separate us from God’s presence. And, when we die, we will be in the presence of God. However, it would be better for us to stop associating salvation with heaven, or at least we should not only associate salvation with heaven. N. T. Wright, who is a retired bishop in the Church of England, encourages to see salvation not as life after death, but as “life afterlife after death.”[1]In other words, Christian salvation is not about our souls escaping our decaying bodies to fly off to somewhere where God is. Christian salvation is about God giving us new life, as full and more fulfilling than the lives we have now. Christian salvation is about resurrection. Christian salvation is about the new and glorious future God has planned for all things.

    So, the church cares about what we do with our dead, because Christian practice concerning the dead is associated with the teaching about the doctrine of resurrection. We inter the remains of our dead rather than spread them about, because we teach that God will raise those dead remains giving them new life in the future resurrection of the dead. Now, of course, God does not need the remains to be in one place, nor are the atoms present in our final remains really who we are. But all the same, the image of committing someone’s remains to the ground or interring them in a church while a priest says, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our sister or brother,” is a powerful symbol of Christian hope in the future resurrection of the dead.[2]

    Thus, the church cares about what we do with our dead, because we a are a people of hope. Through faithfulness to Jesus, we live in the hope of God’s promises that all things are being made new. God does not save us from finitude, our salvation is not the abolition of our embodiment. Salvation binds together who we are now, and who God is making us to be.

                [1]N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: Harper One, 2008), 198.

                [2]Book of Common Prayer, 485.