Sometimes you hear songs that only your eyes know how to talk about. I’ve spent all day talking with my eyes as I listen to a very beautiful album of songs by Zach Sobiech, a kid who died of cancer yesterday after recording an album in the final months of his life. Zach formed a band called A Firm Handshake with his lifelong friend Sammy Brown when he learned that he had less than a year to live. I’ve spent time that I don’t have trying and failing to summon up the right combination of adjectives to describe his music about living richly in the shadow of death.
One of the things that Christian hipsters and seminarians like to get worked up about is the way that many Christians have a Greek pagan view of the afterlife instead of a Christian one. Basically the Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul, that when we die, our soul leaves our body and spends forever in a non-physical reality. The Bible, on the other hand, describes the afterlife as a resurrection of the body in which all humanity is restored after a period of time to a completely physical but imperishable existence. Our Christian ethics professor in seminary told us that we shouldn’t tell bereaved people that their loved ones are “still with them,” but rather that, despite the fact that their bodies are decomposing in the ground, they will see them again at the end of time when they are resurrected (great bedside manner, eh?).
Sometimes I ponder the logistical problems of bodily resurrection. They are similar to the logistical problems Noah would have faced in getting a pair of each of the millions of species of animals, many of whom are natural predators for each other (some of whom only subsist as parasites actively destroying another animal’s body), into a boat the size of a football field in which they all would have had to eat and poop for forty days and nights plus the amount of time it took for the water to drain (the air in the hull would have been almost entirely composed of methane by the time they were done). The problem is that most of us learn Bible stories like Noah’s ark and Jonah’s three days of not suffocating or getting dissolved by stomach acid in the belly of a whale when we’re young enough to be oblivious to the logistical details of life.
Normally I’m good at just living in the story of the Bible and not worrying about this kind of stuff. I guess it’s just when people get very particular and emphatic and literal about bodily resurrection that I start to ponder considerations like the Earth’s finite surface area, the fact that only a very small percentage of the people who have existed throughout time actually speak the same language, etc. And I wonder how in the world I will find the people who matter to me in heaven, the resurrection, or whatever you want to call it.
Yesterday, I shared Thomas Merton’s thoughts on suffering and death, that our belief in the resurrection of Christ is what allows us to face our death with hope. That seems like the right thing to say and I do of course believe in the resurrection. At the same time, I find myself attracted to the innocent, hopeful uncertainty with which Zach Sobiech writes about the mystery of death. His song “Sandcastles” is about heaven:
I’ll collect some shells, and you move the sand.
We’ll build our little sandcastle in a far off land
where no one gets hurt and no one dies
and your tears are scared of leaving your eyes.
So grab the shovel and start digging deep,
cause our little sandcastle is all we can keep.
Our little sandcastle will probably never exist,
But I like to dream and build our lives in it.
I don’t think I could live if I didn’t trust that somehow I will spend forever with the people I’ve lost in a far-off land where no one gets hurt and no one dies. My trust feels about as tenuous as a sandcastle, but it’s a sandcastle that I’m guarding more fiercely than any 8-year old boy on the beach.
I’m not sure what justifies my belief that we’ll somehow end up together in the end and that the afterlife is not as bleak as the fundamentalists make it out to be. It’s perhaps very silly and romantic, but somehow I want to say that I can believe these things because of the existence of love. That’s pretty much what Zach says in his song Ames:
Our sleep will become deeper soon
more beautiful than the sun, sea, the moon
that’s ours, and no one can take it . . .
It might be time for me to go.
But that doesn’t mean you have to leave.
And winter might be giving us snow.
But who’s to say we can’t still believe?
Our engine will keep on turning,
and the stars will smile on us.
And even when we’re torn apart,
I will not lose this love.
It’s just an emphatic declaration: “I will not lose this love.” But it’s so flooded with hope. Somehow I prefer saying it that way to quoting Bible passages that are supposed to make other people say okay, well I’m supposed to agree with that if I’m a Christian, so I’ll just pretend like I’m not scared of death and not talk about it. Doctrine or not, scriptural proof-texts or not, best-selling heaven tourism books or not, death remains a mystery. Zach Sobiech’s songs make me smile and cry at the same time with beauty that proves to me the existence of an eternal life that must be behind them.