ON ETERNAL LIFE
A German minister, Helmut Thielicke, has observed, “The real trouble of modern man expresses itself in two kinds of fear: Fear of the past and fear of the future.” Fear of the past—how can I get away from guilt for things I can never undo? Right and wrong decisions which I have made, and which are unalterable now, shape the course of my present life. Time seems to be a one-way street leading to the future, never allowing me to turn back to the past and make corrections. My relationship to the future is just as difficult. The time seems past when men imagined bright new Utopias just over the horizon. Our scientific technology and our humane concern for one another was supposed to lead mankind to paradise. But our world keeps getting more complex and less secure and no one knows how the future will turn out. What we need is something that will free us from our paralyzing fear of the past and of the future, and help us gain a new attitude toward what lies behind and ahead of us. Christianity's words for these two needs are forgiveness and hope.
People have often wondered why Christianity spread so quickly at its beginning. How did it win out over all the other religions in the 1st century Roman Empire? Edward Gibbon, the historian who wrote "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," himself far from being a Christian, had an explanation. Christianity spread and triumphed because of its concept of “eternal life” and its unique ability to communicate this concept to the masses. He may be right. No truth is closer to the heart of the message of Christ
than the promise of everlasting life. Perhaps the best loved verse in the Bible is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Eternal life—what does this mean? Is this a quantity of life, or a quality of life, or both? It is often understood primarily in terms of quantity. “Amazing Grace”—one of few hymns to make the popular music charts—has a stanza which says, “When we've been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun, we've no less days to sing God's praise than when we've first begun.” If you have had an unhappy life here, you may not want to live forever.
But if your life here and now is happy and fulfilling, the prospect of living forever may be exciting and intriguing. “Forever,” “everlasting”—these words may suggest an infinite prolonging of our present lives. If you think of your life as a line stretching one foot for each year you have lived, this would mean prolonging that line to infinity. That may not be a happy thought. Medical science has been able to extend our lives to the point that you may wonder just how long you want to live. But eternal life is not just the prolonging of mortal life. We only know this world by experience, and it is hard to imagine what life after death will be like. But the Bible does not say anything about endless inactivity or perpetual retirement in heaven. If we are to look forward to eternal life, we must place as much emphasis on the word “life” as we do on the word “eternal.” the more you know about the history of the 1st century A.D., the more you will realize that people in Jesus' day were not responding to the mere promise of prolonged existence. Despair and. pessimism were widespread. Josephus, the Jewish historian who was contemporary with Christ, notes that the suicide rate was at an all-time high during the period when Jesus began preaching in Galilee. If Jesus had only offered an extension of mortal life as people knew it then, weary, discouraged people would not have responded so enthusiastically.
“The common people heard him gladly,” the gospel says (Mark 12:37 KJV). Multitudes followed him wherever he went, hoping to hear more about the life he offered. When the church began on Pentecost, three thousand people were baptized the first day(Acts 2:4). Soon the number of disciples “came to about five thousand” (Acts 4:4). The New Testament almost seems to run out of language to describe the growth of the new movement. “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women” (Acts 5:14).
How do you account for this rapid acceptance of Jesus' offer of eternal life? One preacher commented, “Jesus took life in both hands, and what he made of it made people want an eternity of it.” He made life real. In Jesus' own words, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). It was the quality he gave to life which made people want an eternity of it. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men,” John's gospel says (John 1:4). We need this “abundant life” today. Our generation has been called a generation of “hollow men.” Willy Loman in d"Death of a Salesman" has become the example of modern mem. He worked energetically, made the right contacts, followed the rules of his society to get ahead, but died a suicide. His tragic epitaph was that “he never knew who he was.” Albert Camus, a French atheistic philosopher who met an untimely death, used to describe life as “absurd.” As he put it, “It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, street-car, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, street-car, four hours of work, meal, sleep and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why' arises.."
An unusual incident reported in the New York papers illustrates the emptiness and the boredom with life in our time. A bus driver in the Bronx simply drove away in his empty bus one day and was picked up by the police several days later in Florida. He explained that having grown tired of driving the same route every day, he had decided to go on a trip. While he was being brought back, it was clear from the papers that the bus company was having a difficult time deciding whether or how he should be punished. By the time he arrived in the Bronx, he was a celebrated personality, and a crowd of people who had never known him were on hand to welcome him. When it was announced that his company would not punish him but would give him his job back if he would promise to make no more jaunts, there was cheering in the Bronx. Why would middle-class urban people make a hero of an auto thief? Perhaps it was because this driver who was bored with making his appointed rounds, going around the same blocks and stopping at the same corners day after day, typified an emptiness and futility which those people also felt. The message of the New Testament is that Jesus not only lived the abundant life, he knew how to impart it to others. What he did for Lazarus when he gave him new life after death, indicates what he can do for all of us. He can give real life.
What was Jesus' secret? How was he able to make life “come alive”? He certainly faced the anguishing trials of life himself. One of his last utterances from the cross was, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?“(Mark (15:34). But the important fact is that he did not shout this cry into the darkness of Golgotha which was swallowing him up in meaninglessness Rather, he was addressing his father, “My God...” In other words, he was still holding fast to his Father's hand. He brought his anxiety to the Father once and for all. The secret of his life lay in what Jesus knew about his everyday existence and in what he did with it. Jesus knew that life is not basically a riddle. It is a gift from God. In the Old Testament story of the creation, it is obvious that God considered the experience of being alive so wonderful that he wanted to share it with others. This is why he created us. Not to gain something from us but to give something to us ---to share the joy of life. Jesus knew when he awoke every morning that each day is a gift from God, and its purpose is to bring real joy. When he talked about heaven in the parable of the talents. he said, “Enter into the joy of your master”(Matthew 25:21,23). Jesus knew the goodness of his Father—this is why he enjoyed life to the full.
What Jesus did with his life is just as significant as his convictions about life. He found happiness first, in his own activities. When he talked with the woman at Jacob'swell, he was weary from hours of walking and was trying to rest (John 4:6). But this woman came with real needs. When his disciples came back from the city with lunch they were surprised to find him talking with her and refreshed. They decided someone had given him food, but Jesus explained, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work”(John 4:34). One way life became meaningful for Jesus was through service to God and his fellowman. But he did not work all of the time. He also found happiness in the beauty and goodness around him. It is apparent from his teachings that he loved birds, lilies, the sunshine and rain and that he carefully observed nature with her seedtime and harvest. He was interested in people. When the rich young ruler came to him asking the question about eternal life, Mark comments, “Jesus looking upon him, loved him...“ (Mark 10:21).
When Jesus sent out seventy of his followers on a preaching mission, they “returned with
joy” telling him that even the demons were subject to his name. Jesus' response was exuberant: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). He found real joy in the accomplishments of others, in the beauties of nature, in the personalities of human beings. Another way meaning came into Jesus̓ life was through his willingness to endure things he could not change. After he had preached for more than three years, he was rejected, humiliated and executed. There is no reason to think that he wanted to die at thirty-three. But when it was clear that obedience meant for him the way of the cross, he overcame the suffering rather than allowing it to overcome him. He accepted the Father's will. Ernest Hemingway, in his early novel, "The Sun Also Rises,", writes of the frustrations many people suffer in our time. He has one of his characters sum it all up in the remark that nobody but bullfighters ever really live “life all the way up.” I believe you could say that the whole Bible, end to end, deliberately sets out to refute that. Jesus came to give a whole new way of life—“life all the way up,” in a sense far deeper than Hemingway ever intended. And it is not a bullfighter who is living it. It can be you.*
*This message is a reproduction of a sermon by Batsell Barrett Baxter, now deceased.He pesented this semon on the Herald of Truth Televison program many years ago, sponsored by the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas.