Yesterday my wife’s grandfather died. He was an older gentleman, about to celebrate his eighty-ninth birthday in a couple of months. He struggled with his health as you would expect from someone that age. Yet his death came quickly, and somewhat unexpectedly.
My wife was notified on Wednesday afternoon that it was looking bleak, so we made a quick trip from San Antonio to the Westlaco area. She was able to say good-bye since he lived for almost twenty-four more hours after we arrived. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet him in person when he was alive. It was planned that I would do so at his birthday party. We did talk via Skype once, though it was difficult because of his age, health, and our language barrier (his first language was Spanish). Unlike the rest of the family present this man’s death didn’t feel like a direct loss. I grieved for my wife and her family, but I didn’t know the man who had died.
That said, it is impossible to watch someone die without it impacting you. It may be fair to say that I am a bit obsessive about the question of death. Death is the great question for me. It has shaped my life choices, my educational pursuits, my vocational goals, my religious commitments, and my worldview. In other words, I tend to live with an awareness that I have a ticking clock like all of us do, and I want to make sure that my years, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds were used wisely. Of course, sometimes this is paralyzing, because it makes it hard to relax, to “be present”, to develop virtues like patience and gratitude. Yesterday as I was present as this man’s death it hit me again that my clock could stop ticking at any time.
What will be said of my life? Will I be remembered fondly? Will it be said that my life changed other’s for the better? Will I see my wife, (future) children, and friends again or when I close my eyes is that “it”?
What happens when I close my eyes for the last time? What happened to my wife’s grandfather yesterday? Many of the family, committed Pentecostal Christians, talked about how he was reunited with “Grandma”, his wife in this life. Is that how it works? If he aware in some disembodied state where he can recognize and communicate with people he knew in his body?
I confess, I am a Christian because of the doctrine of the resurrection. It provides a great hope for me. It doesn’t provide “answers”, per se, because I can’t prove that Jesus was resurrected, and I can’t prove that there will be a great eschatological resurrection, but I do hope this is true.
Resurrection is what gives me peace when I think of the many people who die every day, many living lives of difficulty, hardship, and struggle for survival. What do I make of their existence? I don’t know, but I hope that if there is a deity anything like the one presented by Christianity, that this deity is just, that this deity is love, and that resurrection is this deity’s great equalizer.
Whether my grandfather-in-law is aware, “in heaven”, conscious in some sense, knowingly awaiting the great resurrection, I don’t know. Whether this great resurrection will happen, I don’t know. I hope. I believe. If the Apostle Paul was correct that the resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of the end of death, and if his taunt “O Death, where is your victory?! O Death, where is your sting?!” (1 Corinthians 15:55) is justified, then it is possible that the “human story” make sense. If it isn’t true, then Paul was right anyways, because he said, wisely (in 15:19), “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Death’s sting is felt to this day, but I hope that Paul is a prophet, and that his “already, but not yet” boast against Death is vindicated.
Interestingly, I have been reading V.S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human. This has led me to ask myself a lot of questions about the connection between the concept of “soul” and what we can “see” by monitoring brain activity, our physical signals for consciousness and being. I realize that neuroscience has not been able to explain many aspects of human existence. We don’t know fully why we are conscious beings in the sense that we are when juxtaposed with say dogs, snakes, and bugs, but we do know we are different. We can see the physical side of things. It is the metaphysical that remains a mystery to me.
In For Faith and Clarity: Philosophical Contributions to Christian Theology edited by J.K. Beilby, there is a chapter titled “Philosophical Contributions to Theological Anthropology” by William Hasker where he discussed the concept of emergent materialism (no, this has nothing to do with emergent ecclesiology) where, “…certain complex objects have properties and causal powers that do not exist in their simpler constituents and cannot be predicted on the basis of the properties manifested by those constituents.” He uses the example of machinery that generates magnetic force or other “non-physical” realities as an analogy for how the brain may generate what we call “the soul”, and somehow that “force” exists even when the machine stops working. If this is true, then somehow God the Father must preserve this force that makes me, me and you, you. Then at the resurrection this force, called soul, is reembodied, forever. I hope.
 William Hasker, “Philosophical Contributions to Theological Anthropology”, in For Faith and Clarity: Philosophical Contributions to Christian Theology edited by J.K. Beilby, 253.