I heard it again today, while attending the death of an elderly woman.
“This is not her. What we see here is just the shell. The real her is now in heaven with Jesus and with grandpa.”
And again a little later.
“It’s amazing to me how little seeing her shell bothers me. That’s not her. Everything that was truly her is now in heaven.”
Like it or not, this is what is understood at ground level as the Christian hope. One day we’ll cast off the shell of our body and go to our true home, where we’ll be free to be who we really are.
Problem: “everything that is truly who we are” includes our bodies. Right? We are embodied, vivified creatures. Dust and breath together, as Genesis 2 metaphorically affirms. In fact, I would argue it is impossible for us to imagine what human life is, what a human being is, without having some sort of physical, materialistic picture in our heads.
That’s why people say such mixed up things in the presence of death. On the one hand they express gladness that their loved one is free from “the shell,” out of their mortal body, that their “spirit” is in heaven. On the other hand, without any conscious regard for the inconsistency, they talk about how grandma is now “up there” dancing with grandpa or playing cards with Uncle Jack or holding the little baby she lost as a young woman. They simply can’t conceive of their loved in any other terms than what is familiar to them — this earthly, embodied life.
Let’s consider again what I consider to be a much more coherent and satisfying understanding of the full Christian hope. This is by N.T. Wright, from Rethinking the Tradition:
We should remember especially that the use of the word ‘heaven’ to denote the ultimate goal of the redeemed, though hugely emphasized by medieval piety, mystery plays, and the like, and still almost universal at a popular level, is severely misleading and does not begin to do justice to the Christian hope. I am repeatedly frustrated by how hard it is to get this point through the thick wall of traditional thought and language that most Christians put up. ‘Going to heaven when you die’ is not held out in the New Testament as the main goal. The main goal is to be bodily raised into the transformed, glorious likeness of Jesus Christ. If we want to speak of ‘going to heaven when we die’, we should be clear that this represents the first, and far less important, stage of a two-stage process. That is why it is also appropriate to use the ancient word ‘paradise’ to describe the same thing….
…In the New Testament every single Christian is referred to as a ‘saint’, including the muddled and sinful ones to whom Paul writes his letters. The background to early Christian thought about the church includes the Dead Sea Scrolls; and there we find the members of theQumran sect referred to as ‘the holy ones’. They are designated thus, not simply because they are living a holy life in the present, though it is hoped that they will do that as well, but because by joining the sect — in the Christian’s case, by getting baptized and confessing Jesus as the risen Lord — they have left the realm of darkness and entered the kingdom of light (Colossians 1.12-14).
This means that the New Testament language about the bodily death of Christians, and what happens to them thereafter, makes no distinction whatever in this respect between those who have attained significant holiness or Christlikeness in the present and those who haven’t. ‘My desire’, says Paul in Philippians 1.22, ‘is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.’ He doesn’t for a moment imply that this ‘being with Christ’ is something which he will experience but which the Philippians, like Newman’s Gerontius, will find terrifying and want to postpone. His state (being with Christ) will indeed be exalted, but it will be no different, no more exalted, than that of every single Christian after death. He will not be, in that sense, a ‘saint’, differentiated from mere ‘souls’ who wait in another place or state.
…Nor does Paul imply that this ‘departing and being with Christ’ is the same thing as the eventual resurrection of the body, which he describes vividly later in the same letter (3.20-21). No: all the Christian dead have ‘departed’ and are ‘with Christ’. The only other idea Paul offers to explain where the Christian dead are now and what they are doing is that of ‘sleeping in Christ’. He uses this idea frequently (1 Corinthians 7.39; 11.30; 15.6, 18,20,51; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-15), and some have thought that by it he must mean an unconscious state, from which one would be brought back to consciousness at the resurrection — so much so, perhaps, that it will seem as though we have passed straight from the one to the other. The probability is, though, that this is a strong metaphor, a way of reminding us about the ‘waking up’ which will be the resurrection. Had the post-mortem state been unconscious, would Paul have thought of it as ‘far better’ than what he had in the present?
This picture is further confirmed by the language of Revelation. There we find the souls of the martyrs waiting, under the altar, for the final redemption to take place. They are at rest; they are conscious; they are able to ask how long it will be before justice is done (6.9-11); but they are not yet enjoying the final bliss which is to come in the New Jerusalem. This is in line with the classic Eastern Orthodox doctrine, which, though it speaks of the saints, and invokes them in all sorts of ways, does not see them as having finally experienced the completeness of redemption. Until all God’s people are safely home, none of them is yet fulfilled. That is why the Orthodox pray for the saints as well as with them, that they — with us when we join them — may come to the fulfilment of God’s complete purposes.
Finally, lest you think I would rudely insist upon doctrinal precision when I’m visiting with grieving families and try to convince them, in the midst of fresh loss, that they should change their thinking about the future hope, let me assure you that I usually just stay silent and focus on being present and providing appropriate comfort. The last thing they need is a lesson in eschatology.
I may cringe when I hear them call the body of their deceased loved one a mere “shell,” but I don’t say anything. I just gather them at the bedside and lead them in prayer:
God of life, at this important moment we thank you that ______ is safe in your care. You tell us that to depart this life and be with Christ is far better, and so we pray that you would take _______ into your care and give her that joy and peace in your presence. May she rest in your love until the day of resurrection, when this mortal body will be raised and she will be remade, complete and new, in a whole new creation, where we will be reunited and there will be no more sickness, separation, and sorrow. Thank you that, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord and that nothing can ever separate us from your love. Hold ______ and her family in your love until that day. In your holy name we pray, Amen.