Peter Massey, a priest of the Church of Ireland, who has worked in the Var for some years, has much experience of talking to the dying and to those they leave behind.It’s been one of those weeks which has involved three funerals. This actually means three families experiencing the loss of a loved one and each in their own way asking the question, “What comes next?” As a Christian minister serving in the Var amongst an ageing expat community, this is a regular part of our ministry here and increasingly so. The question, “What comes next?” is seldom asked directly, but is clearly part and parcel of the whole experience of losing a loved one and the subsequent grieving process. People search for connectivity and will often explore many avenues to do this, but for the Christian, the answer is, on the face of it, simple: Jesus died for me, took on the burden of all that was wrong in my life, and set me free. That gives me a hope and a future beyond this life, if I am able to accept that. And there is the dilemma because it requires me to believe, firstly, that Jesus did actually rise from the dead and, secondly, that that is my hope as well. Regrettably there is no proof, no one has come back to say, “It’s all okay”; there is only faith and the message of the Gospel.
In the secular and violent world that we live in, full of natural and man-made disasters, it’s a hard sell. How can a loving God allow all this pain and suffering on a national and personal level? It just does not add up. But that is part of the big picture, we are just passing through this life and make the best of it we can. Death is after all a fact of life but a belief in God or a power higher than ourselves, and life after death is not a unique thing to Christianity and is shared by many world religions. So who does have the answer? Maybe we all have a bit of it, a piece of the truth and could benefit from listening and sharing with each other, which has to be better than fighting and history proves that. The track record of religion, if we are honest, is not great.
For me the message I must convey is clearly expressed in the opening of the Anglican Funeral Service, “God’s love and power extends over all creation. Every life, including our own, is precious to God. Christians have always believed there is hope in death as in life, that there is new life in Christ after death, that is our hope.” And I try to share that sentiment at every funeral I take, and with every family I am privileged to help at this difficult time in their lives. I think it is true to say that most of these occasions are with people of no faith or belief, but I also have to say that never is there an absence of hope which is expressed through those who love and support the grieving families.
2011 Ipsos/ Reuters poll of 18,000 people in 23 countries found:
51% believe in the afterlife
23% think they’ll just “cease to exist”
26% don’t know what will happen after death
Whether anything at all “came after”
So what does come next? Jesus said, “Seek heaven here on earth, the Kingdom of God is all around you.” I never cease to be amazed at the expressions of love, empathy, compassion and care for those going through the pain of loss. I see Christianity living and breath- ing through many people who have yet to work it out in their heads and their hearts and for whom church has no relevance. The simplicity of accepting “Jesus died for me and that I will live in eternity with him” is always a unique journey that can be completed in an instant or may take a lifetime; it took me 40 years and I have still much to learn through the experiences and people I encounter. I have been with two people as they have died, one was my father many years ago, and the second, a friend quite recently. Through both those occasions, as I questioned the very existence of God, and I was left with absolutely no doubt of God’s love and his presence. My faith was strengthened, and perhaps that was necessary for the ministry that we are immersed in here in France. My conviction, as life ebbed away before me in these two people, was the assurance that there was a life after death in the way I believe and share with others through our ministry. I am certain that belief will be challenged again and again in the years ahead, for doubt is the other side of the coin of faith; the two are inseparable. But I am also certain that every time that coin is spun, it will come down Faith side up. I do not understand it, but I know it to be true. I doubt if I have answered the question about what follows this life, but just maybe that question has become a little more relevant and worth exploring.