Easter will find churches filled to overflowing. "The cynic thinks he has the explanation," said Robert McCracken, a former minister of Riverside Church in New York City.,
"The Easter Festival is notorious in that it brings people to church who will not be seen again in 12 months. It is like a national holiday, celebrated in conformity with long-established custom, stirring up agreeable associations in the mind, but otherwise making hardly any impression of a profound or lasting sort."
There is truth in what the cynic says, but it is far from the whole truth. Greater truth lies in the deep inarticulate longing in each of us to discover answers to puzzling questions relating to death and life after death. On Easter we face this longing.
Does the human spirit, so precariously and briefly housed in the physical body, survive death when the body ceases to be? What will be the nature of life beyond the one we know now? If we live beyond the grave, will we maintain knowledge of ourselves and others?
No glib and dogmatic answers will suffice. We who know so little of life cannot hope to have all the answers relating to death. Reverent agnosticism is not unworthy in a person of faith. It is wise to admit ignorance and to wait for more light. James Martineau, the English Unitarian theologian, stated it for many of us when he said, "We do not believe in immortality because we have proved it, but we are forever trying to prove it because we believe it."
Why do we believe that life continues after death? Are we so ego-centered that we cannot stand the thought of our own annihilation? Are we so weak we must have a crutch in hours of bereavement and loss?
This may be true in part as it relates to some of us, but was Socrates weak and ego-centered? He believed in life after death. The Apostle Paul, John Hus, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. all believed life continues after death. Were they weak and ego-centered?
Those who believe in immortality base their belief on faith rather than demonstrated truth. Their faith is based on four fundamental affirmations:
-- The supreme worth of each individual.
-- The justice, love and integrity of God.
-- The rationality of God's universe.
-- The resurrection of Jesus.
Humans are strange creatures. Like other animals, we can descend to depths of viciousness and depravity, and yet we can also be reasonably loving, capable of rising to great heights of nobility and self-sacrifice, possessing a soul and spirit. Is this spirit to glisten on the horizon of life as a soap bubble, only to disintegrate into nothingness when we die? It seems illogical to believe that it can ever be totally annihilated.
If Jesus, or even Socrates, Plato, Moses, Lincoln, or Gandhi, is extinct, then the rationality of the universe can be questioned. To believe in a continuing life beyond the grave is the supreme act of faith in the reasonableness of God's creation. There are many inequities and injustices in this world that need redress. Those who are born crippled or who die prematurely need life beyond this life to demonstrate the justice of God.
There are those who believe in an immortality of remembrance. Probably each of us would like to join the choir invisible when we die, and live on in the minds of the living, but we can see that if the only immortality we have is in the minds of those who remember us, then there is not a lasting immortality at all. Indeed, scientists tell us that the day will come when not even the ashes of this planet will remain. Can there be eternal values if there are no eternal valuers?
Whatever our state in the life to come, it seems necessary that it provide for the recognition of others. One of life's supreme values is companionship. We are not complete in ourselves. Our family and friends are the rest of us. Our hope is that we will be reunited with loved ones who have gone before us.
God has put within our lives meaning and possibilities that far outrun the limits of mortality. Can this life be only a preparatory school for what is to come? Ian McClaren, Scottish philosopher, believes that "heaven is . . . a land of continual progress" - not so much a reward for good already attained as additional opportunity to do better.
The joyous fact we celebrate on Easter is that the noblest life of which we have any record did not come to a full stop at Calvary. Death did not have the last word. God raised Jesus from the dead. His resurrection affirmed the cause of righteousness, endorsed everything he taught and lived, and gave to the world not a dead teacher but a living Lord.
The most convincing evidence is in men and women whose lives bear witness to his living reality. People transformed by the indwelling spirit of the risen Lord meet life and death with a radiant spirit. They are confident of God's love and goodness in both this world and the next. They make this a more loving and just world because they dwell and work within it.