Afterlife 101: Cemetery Seminar


Down the street there’s a peaceful hilly patch of land, so I walk there with the dog most days.

It happens to be a cemetery. And every time I wander among the crumbling gravestones, I feel like I’m taking a seminar in theology, and I’m not well prepared.

The seminar theme is, of course, death, and the old graveyard silence raises a thousand questions: Where are these deceased now? Do they sense cemetery visitors? Are they now with God and their ancestors? Are they contentedly asleep in an unfathomable post-mortem zone, waiting out the decades and centuries until Judgment Day?

Pop culture’s answers don’t help. The image from cartoons and movie land says we become winged angels after death, riding a puffy cloud in a non-denominational heaven and brandishing a sudden talent for harp-playing.

But the church’s answers confuse too. I’ve heard it preached that everyone goes immediately to heaven or hell – end of story. Or that our souls float toward God’s healing light. Or that everyone lies waiting until the final trumpets sound on the Last Day.

Recently I picked up Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright, a retired Anglican bishop and vigorous explainer of scriptural themes. He finds a lot of muddle on the subject of the afterlife. In his reading, scripture says surprisingly little about it, but what it does say sharply departs from the fixed idea that a blazing disembodied heaven is the ultimate destination.

Instead, God has other plans for the future. The Book of Revelation describes a “new heaven and new earth” – a vision of the whole universe, earth included, transformed by the power of God – and it will be populated by the resurrected bodies of believers. The Easter resurrection was the first glimpse of this.

“That final redemption,” Wright says, “will be the moment when heaven and earth are joined together at last, in a burst of God’s creative energy for which Easter is the prototype and source.”

Wright says his book is really a meditation on a single passage from the Lord’s Prayer, which churchgoers know by heart yet don’t necessarily grasp its revolutionary ramifications: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Earth is usually left far behind in speculations about the afterlife and the end times. Wright wants to reclaim the earth as part of the landscape of God’s redeeming future. According to Paul in Ephesians 1, Philippians 3, First Corinthians 15 and elsewhere, the newly transformed bodies of people will colonize God’s transformed cosmos, including the transformed earth.

And until then? Wright interprets Paul to mean that the dead are “held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ” while they await the Final Day. Call it heaven if you want: heaven is wherever God is.

Wright says many Christians will resist this idea because of habitual thinking about streets in heaven paved with gold. But he thinks the biblical evidence is clear.

“The ultimate destination is not ‘going to heaven when you die’ but being bodily raised into a transformed, glorious likeness of Jesus Christ,” he writes.

I don’t know if this perfectly squares with what my church (Episcopal Church) says in the Book of Common Prayer (Prayers of the People, Form III):

Give to the departed eternal rest; 

Let light perpetual shine upon them.

We praise you for your saints who have entered into joy; 

May we also come to share in your heavenly kingdom.

But Wright prods me to examine the biblical evidence and confront my own half-baked hunches. There’s no need to fall back on soft-headed cultural images of afterlife … or to change the subject.

The Easter resurrection promoted earth – physical reality – to a more exalted place in the divine redemption. My strolls through the cemetery now feel a little less anxious, more serene. Now it’s a place of spiritual forensics and clues.