In this Plough Weekly series, we read Scripture together with Blumhardt (1842–1919), a theologian, evangelist, and pastor who inspired Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Moltmann.
He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 1:8, NIV).
We may take this verse as a word of comfort today, though we certainly may not take it lightly. If we do, we deceive ourselves and it will be no real consolation. If we make a false comfort out of the words of the gospel by ignoring the conditions which we have to fulfill for God’s comfort to become real, we can easily give those words a twist. In general, people who come across these words will read them in this way: “Jesus Christ will keep you firm until you die, even if you live wrongly, because through his grace you are blameless until his day comes.” When scripture speaks about the end, we humans have grown accustomed to think of the end of our own lives, our death. For many people it is a sufficient comfort to imagine: “God will make sure that in spite of our sinfulness, our earthly life stands in the light of a grace that sees beyond the sin. At the end – that is, in death – we will be blameless, and death will purify anything impure.” The unspeakable torment of earthly life – where it seems to us that many are innocent and the tormented ones seek to justify their behavior – causes countless people who believe in God to connect the end with physical death, in which the struggle ceases. Even serious Christians look at death as God’s last judgment. They think God’s eternal love will follow, and death will lose its sting when it has killed.
It is easy to understand why we try to evade the thought: “Death could keep its sting after it has killed the body.” It is hard to think of a further struggle in the hereafter, when the struggle in this life has already led to defeat. Now, even if we understand the scriptures differently, we do not want to ignore the human cry of agony over this present lifetime. But we also do not want to indulge in any illusion. What Jesus said is clear: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
What the Apostle Paul said also remains true: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died” (1 Thess. 4:13-14). Also, the word still stands: “Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord” (Rev. 14:13). But all these words from the gospel which comfort us with regard to the hereafter, do not look to death as a helper, as though it were some kind of divine power. There are many who think that death is a purifying fire, like a furnace that pulverizes and melts rock in order to extract the gold. Scripture, however, never speaks of death as a helper. It takes for granted that death is no longer death to those who are in Christ. They do not need to die to be torn out of their misery, fear, and need.
On the other hand, scripture gives us a presentiment that where physical death occurs and the verse “death is no longer death to those who are in Christ” has not been fulfilled, the person who has died will remain in death, also after his soul has left his body until the curse of death is removed through the same condition – the blood of Jesus Christ – as for those who are still living.
Don’t take death as a solution
But thirdly, it is clear from all the words of scripture that unhappy people cannot take real comfort in death – even if in many cases it appears as if death is their only solution. According to both the Old and New Testaments the misery of life will cease only when Jesus Christ can truly become the resurrection and the life (John 11:25) in his own people while they are still alive. Through the continued development of those who have already risen with Christ here on earth humankind will be led to the end that, according to scripture, lies in the reappearance of Jesus Christ, or the “Day of Jesus Christ,” as it is often called.
That day is connected to a judgment, which is completely different from the judgment of death – namely a judgment by the spirit of truth, which will enlighten people about sin and justice. It is essential for Jesus Christ’s fighters to turn away energetically from the idea of death as a solution. This would be unfaithfulness in view of the great and magnificent goal that God places before our eyes through Christ, for whose sake we may fight death and its roots during our physical life. We know very well – perhaps better than others – how hard it is in the face of a ruined life to resist the thought, “Oh, if only this person could die soon!” Instead, we must hang on to the one thought, “Oh! If only the kingdom of God would come; if only we could fulfill the conditions to hasten its coming, so that such misery could be averted!” Human sympathy gets carried away in a kind of fog spread by the mourning for the dead, that sees death as the end of suffering. But I believe that it is not right if we can’t imagine anything better than death for people in misery. Anyone in whom Jesus Christ is living should be ashamed at the thought: “Oh, if only these people would die they would be better off!” With Jesus Christ this is never the answer. We have to close our eyes and ears to this so we are not distracted from wrestling for the goal, for the end that comes from God, the Creator of life, which will be accomplished for all creation through Christ the Risen One.
With this in mind, we should not put undue emphasis on certain phrases from the scriptures – for instance, that poor Lazarus was comforted in the bosom of Abraham. As long as death prevails, we will not think that it is possible to avoid death. That would be bad. God's whole relationship with humankind would be brought into question if, in Revelation, Christ did not give us a promise of life in spite of death and its sting. What is offered at the end for the entire human race is possible today for those individual souls who have conquered. But it would certainly be wrong to interpret this influence of God in the lives of those who conquer to mean that there is something good to be found in every death, and that we no longer need to fight to overcome death. It is only natural that people want to find a way out, because death contradicts everything we know.
Where do the apostles and prophets fit in with their earthly experiences, the fate of the world, and the ideas of their time? What makes them a shining light through which we see a different world when we try to understand their thoughts? It is their experience of God that no longer looks to the end of death (the curse of sin), but looks only to the death of the flesh, through the blood of Jesus Christ, and a new world in which different powers are at work in people’s lives. All those who want to fight for God must take this attitude if they don’t want to accommodate the flesh. If we imagine that with death the struggle against our flesh comes to an end, and that after death this struggle is irrelevant, we do not recognize that the power of the flesh is not only physical, but much more spiritual, contradicting God and hostile to life. In order to overcome our flesh we must stop thinking of death as a possible remedy given by God and look to the gifts that will be sent by the Father in heaven, gifts which through faith in Jesus offer the fullness of truth and healing. Then while using these gifts of life, we have to wait and hasten toward the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will “keep us firm to this end.” Only with this attitude can we be true soldiers of Jesus Christ and be held blameless, because we keep the goal firmly before our eyes without deviating.
God is a God of Life
If we allow anything else to creep in, our outlook will become just like everyone else’s. Then, for better or worse, we will also have to create a Christian philosophy to justify our position – which contradicts the words in Revelation. Christ says: “I am the life” (John 11:25) – that is, “I, in person.” If we walk in his presence and live in such a way that we can walk in his presence – which is possible, because he rose from the dead – then we will be on the way of truth and of life – even here on earth. It is completely unnecessary for Jesus or the apostles to explain the hereafter to us; we do not need to know anything about it. Let us leave the hereafter to God. Clearly, he knows how to care for those who have died; it is none of our business. We only need to find ourselves in Jesus Christ, who has risen from the dead. He desires to be with us so that we pattern ourselves after him and turn our thoughts toward what we need to do here on earth for the future goal of humankind. We can leave everything else to God.
May many hearts be turned again to Jesus Christ alone. Then, certainly, things will happen that will clarify for us God’s purpose in our mortal lives. But through continual deviations, through human thinking and human experiences, we become weak and fall away from the circle of life with God and Jesus Christ. Ultimately, we are left alone in our own ideas, dependent on our assumptions. On the other hand, if we remain faithful our assumptions will cease and, like children, we will take one step at a time, without looking to the right or left. We will have experiences of life which deny death, even if we still see it.
I know very well how difficult it is to speak about this and to witness to it, because in general everything is directed toward death. But I want people to think about it because I hope that they will be moved to concern themselves with their physical lives, even if they are crippled and wasted, because they are created by God. At a deathbed, people pray that the miserable, tormented person will die quickly. This does not occur to God. He waits and waits, while we wish that the last breath had already been drawn. God treasures life! God wants the way of life to be found during our physical life, so that, here on earth, the radiance of the resurrection may be seen. Then the consolation of the hereafter recedes before the longing to see the works of the heavenly Father here on earth. Whoever has this longing will never passively lie back, thinking: “The dear Lord will do it all!” He will get to work and will put his life in order, even though awkwardly, surrendering himself to the judgment of God through Jesus Christ. Then the blood of Jesus will be fulfilled in him, and by dying with Christ he will also experience something of the resurrection.
In this way, taking on the nature of Christ, who wants to give a new radiance to the whole creation for God’s honor, we can say, “He will keep us firm to the end – yes, beyond the end, into the new beginning, so that we remain blameless until the day of our Lord Jesus Christ!”
From Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt: Sterbet, so wird Jesus leben: 1888 – 1896, (Zurich: Rotapfel Verlag, 1925), no. 59, trans. Jörg Barth and Renate Barth, © 2014 The Plough Publishing House.
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