The Reverend Robert Reiss Canon of Westminster
Sunday, 2nd December 2007
Now attitudes to death and any possibility of life beyond death have changed and probably still are changing. A YouGov survey in 2004 found that 44 % of the British population believed in life after death, 31% did not and 26% did not know, with women being slightly more likely to believe in it than men. A rather higher proportion of the population than that 44% say they believe in God, so clearly there are a significant number of believers in God who do not believe in life after death or who at least are not sure about it. And I imagine the problem is that for many people any consciousness we have seems so dependent on our bodies and brains that it is difficult to see how any of that can survive the dissolution of our physical bodies.
Now a traditional Christian response to that would be to say that in fact in most of its official pronouncements Christianity has never espoused any belief in the immortality of the soul, even though some individual Christians may have held to that, but Christianity is about the resurrection of the body. It is not that there is some sort of ghost in the machine of our human bodies that will survive death, but rather that God, being God, will raise us from the dead. But exactly what that might mean is, of course, a subject for much speculation amongst Christians, but little agreement.
And so I suppose the first thing that must be stated about this whole question is that we do not know, and cannot know exactly what happens to us, if anything, after we die. Any belief in this area is about hope, it is not about certainty.
But then a second thing that I believe is worth pointing out is that there is more to us than simply our consciousness. I may have a sense of being me, and that seems to be clearly dependent on my physical existence, but others also have a sense of me, my family, friends and colleagues, of course, and I suppose in one sense even all of you even if you have never been to this Abbey before and are unlikely to come again. Each of us has an existence in the minds of others, in some others obviously a far more significant presence than in a passing meeting, but that existence certainly survives our death. There are certainly people I knew in the past who have died but who still influence me now in the sense that I am aware of what they thought and believed about various matters and I remain at the very least in a sort of intellectual debate with them in my own mind about such questions. In that sense of being in the minds of others we do, all of us, survive our own death.
And I do wonder whether, in that fact, we can find some sort of clue about what to believe about death. For if my being continues in the minds of those who are close to me after my own death, then, if you believe in God, it will continue in his mind as well. The Christian church has always believed that each individual has the opportunity of establishing a relationship of love with God, and in the words of St Paul ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ To still exist in the mind of God when we have escaped the boundaries of time following our own death does seem to me to be a reasonable hope, based as it is on our understanding of God and our own experience of remembering those who were close to us. What that might mean in terms of our own consciousness is something about which, personally, I am more than content to remain agnostic, and I do not see how any of us can know. But to continue to trust in the reality of the enduring love of God but to be uncertain about anything else does seem to me to be an authentically Christian way of approaching death when the time comes for each of us personally.
For I have a suspicion that the need for certainty or very clearly defined hopes for what happens beyond our own death is more an expression of our faithlessness than our faithfulness. It may spring simply from an over concern about our own importance and a reluctance simply to accept the fact of our humanity. But God has made us what we are, including the fact that on many matters we have incomplete knowledge. Maybe we just have to accept that, but in accepting it and still trusting ourselves to God we may find that sort of courage and hope in the face of death that seems to have been the impressive characteristic of some of the martyrs of our faith.
But that is not in any way to deny the fear of dying. Probably for the vast majority of us medical science has advanced in such a way that, unless we get killed in some dreadful accident, we are unlikely to face ghastly pain, but that will not remove the mental anguish of having to say a final goodbye to those who are close to us, or, indeed, to the very pleasures that life in this world offers. Nobody can lightly embrace death. And speaking purely personally neither do I believe we should be able to choose when it will happen. I certainly do not want medical science officiously to keep me alive when there is little prospect of a reasonable quality of life when the natural order of things means that I shall die, but neither do I want medics to kill me off, not least of all because I suspect creating a fear of that in many elderly people will cause far more mental suffering than it will solve. In my mind there is a clear distinction between administering drugs that are designed to relieve pain as we approach death, and administering drugs that have the clear intention of ending life. The former seems to me highly desirable, the latter definitely not.
But whatever the arguments might be about that, the fundamental point I want to make in this address is that we should approach death, our own and that of others who are close to us, not with naïve hopes and expectations which at least part of us will probably fear may not be justified, but simply with that trust in God that St Paul so clearly stated. The rest, I believe, we can and must leave to him.