What would it be like to know that you would never die? Death is so much an enemy that we fear, that our first thought might be: How wonderful it would be to live forever! We would have endless days to see and do everything we could ever desire, to enjoy every pleasure life could afford, and to do so again and again. We would never have to feel rushed or stressed, because no matter how long something took, there would always still be an endless amount of time left, when we had finished it.
But in fact we know that all through history people have thought endless life would not be such a good idea. In fiction and legend, people have imagined that living forever would prove to be more of a curse than a blessing. Think of legends like that of the Wandering Jew, who was punished by having to walk the earth to the end of time. Or stories of people for whom endless life without perpetual youth brings the misery of just being old, and then growing older and older for all eternity. It’s as if we cannot escape the certainty that things run down relentlessly (it’s the second law of thermodynamics, they tell us). Living forever would become a bore and a burden. There are only so many pleasures you can tolerate, after all, before they become a pain.
And yet the Easter Story would have us believe that death has been defeated, and eternal life is on offer to everyone, because Jesus rose from the dead. Where modern people dismiss the story of the Resurrection as impossible nonsense, it wasn’t so hard for Jesus’ contemporaries. King Herod, who had had John the Baptist beheaded on a lustful whim, believed that Jesus was himself John the Baptist who had been raised from the dead. Jesus was said to have raised the dead, notably his friend Lazarus. But these resurrections were of a different order: even though these people had supposedly been brought back to life, it was only for a relatively short time before they would die a second time, and this time for good.
Jesus’ Resurrection was different in that it was forever: he would never die again, and furthermore, his Resurrection was an event that would have consequences for the whole human race. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Of course our experience is that we die, just as everyone we love dies. What Jesus was saying was not that the normal processes of biology would be subverted, but that the spiritual realities behind life and death had been changed for good. ‘Death’ is the ultimate metaphor for separation from God, the separation caused by human hostility towards God and turning away from him. What Jesus did when he died on the cross, and rose again from the dead, was to remove that separation, and bridge the gap between human beings and their Maker. Because of this we have something to hope for even better than infinite quantity of earthly existence; we have the promise of the infinite quality of existence that God himself enjoys. And this ‘eternal life’ is something that begins on this side of the grave – even though it may usually seem that we don’t so much see it with complete sight, as only catch glimpses of it from time to time. The beauty and splendour of the Easter liturgy often contain moments when we catch those glimpses.
When Jesus made that promise to his friend Mary, that those who believed in him would never die, he asked her, “Do you believe this?” She answered, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” As we join in her confession of faith, so we shall grow in confidence in God’s promises that nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God, and we can both enjoy life in the here and now, and know that this is an enjoyment which – second law of thermodynamics or not – will never run down or come to an end.