We cannot but ask questions about the after life. What is its character? What shall be the relations there of those who in the present life have been united in friendship? What effect has dying on the human affections? Does it dissolve the bonds which here have been so strong? Or do friendships go on through death, interrupted for a little time only, to be taken up again in the life beyond? Surely God will not blame us for our eagerness to know all we can learn about the world to which we are going.
True, we cannot learn much about this blessed life while we stay in this world. Human eyes cannot penetrate into the deep mystery. We are like men standing on the shore of a great sea, wondering what lies on the other side. No one has come back to tell us what he found in that far country. We bring our questions to the word of God, but it avails little; even inspiration does not give us explicit revealings concerning the life of the blessed. We know that the Son of God had dwelt forever in heaven before his incarnation, and we expect that he will shed light upon the subject of life within the gates of heaven. But he is almost silent to our questions. Indeed, he seems to tell us really nothing. He gives us no description of the place from which he came, to which he returned, and to which he said his disciples shall be gathered. He says nothing about the occupations of those who dwell there. He satisfies no human yearnings to know the nature of friendship after death. We are likely to turn away from our quest for definite knowledge, feeling that even Jesus has told us nothing. Yet he has told us a great deal.
There is one wonderful revelation of which perhaps too little has been made. After Jesus had died, and lain in the grave for three days, he rose again, and remained for forty days upon the earth. During that time he did not resume the old relations. He was not with his disciples as he had been during the three years of his public ministry, journeying with them, speaking to them, working miracles; yet he showed himself to them a number of times.
The remarkable thing in these appearances of Jesus during the forty days is that we see in him one beyond death. Lazarus was brought back to earth after having died, but it was only the old life to which he returned. The human relations between him and his sisters and friends were restored, but probably they were not different from what they had been in the past. Lazarus was the same mortal being as before, with human frailties and infirmities.
Jesus, however, after his return from the grave, was a man beyond death. He was the same person who had lived and died, and yet he was changed. He appeared and disappeared at will. He entered rooms through closed and barred doors. At last his body ascended from the earth, and passed up to heaven, subject no longer to the laws of gravitation. We see in Jesus, therefore, during the forty days, one who has passed into what we call the other life. What he was then his people will be when they have emerged from death with their spiritual bodies, for he was the first-fruits of them that are asleep.
As we study Jesus in the story of those days, we are surprised to see how little he was changed. Death had left no strange marks upon him. Nothing beautiful in his life had been lost in the grave. He came back from the shadows as human as he was before he entered the valley. Dying had robbed him of no human tenderness, no gentle grace of disposition, no charm of manner. As we watch him in his intercourse with his disciples, we recognize the familiar traits which belonged to his personality during the three years of his active ministry.
We may rightly infer that in our new life we shall be as little changed as Jesus was. We shall lose our sin, our frailties and infirmities, all our blemishes and faults. The long-hindered and hampered powers of our being shall be liberated. Hidden beauties shall shine out in our character, as developed pictures in the photographer's sensitized plate. There will be great changes in us in these and other regards, but our personality will be the same. Jesus was easily recognized by his friends; so shall we be by those who have known us. Whatever is beautiful and good in us here, -- the fruits of spiritual conquest, the lessons learned in earth's experiences, the impressions made upon us by the Word of God, the silver and golden threads woven in our life-web by pure friendships, the effects of sorrow upon us, the work wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, -- all this shall appear in our new life. We shall have incorruptible, spiritual, and glorious bodies, no longer mortal and subject to the limitations of matter; death will rob us of nothing that is worthy and true, and fit for the blessed life.
"We are quite sure
It is interesting, too, to study the friendships of Jesus after he came from the grave. He did not take up again the public life of the days before his death. He made no more journeys through the country. He spoke no more to throngs in the temple courts or by the Seaside. He no more went about healing, teaching, casting out demons, and raising the dead. He made no appearances in public. Only his disciples saw him. We have but few details of his intercourse with individuals, but such glimpses as we have are exceedingly interesting. They show us that no tender tie of friendship had been hurt by his experience of dying. The love of his heart lived on through death, and reappeared during the forty days in undiminished gentleness and kindness. He did not meet his old friends as strangers, but as one who had been away for a few days, and had come again.
The first of his friends to whom he showed himself after he arose was Mary Magdalene. Her story is pathetic in its interest. The traditions of the centuries have blotted her name, but there is not the slightest evidence in the New Testament that she was ever a woman of blemished character. There is no reason whatever for identifying her with the woman that was a sinner, who came to Jesus in Simon's house. All that is said of Mary's former condition is that she was possessed of seven demons, and that Jesus freed her from this terrible bondage. In gratitude for this unspeakable deliverance Mary followed Jesus, leaving her home, and going with him until the day of his death. She was one of several women friends who accompanied him and ministered to him of their substance.
Mary's devotion to Jesus was wonderful. When the tomb was closed she was one of the watchers who lingered, loath to leave it. Then, at the dawn of the first day morning she was again one of those who hurried through the darkness to the tomb, with spices for the anointing of the body -- last at his cross, and earliest at his tomb. Mary's devotion was rewarded; for to her first of all his friends did Jesus appear, as she stood weeping by the empty grave. She did not recognize him at once. She was not expecting to see him risen. Then, her eyes were blinded with her tears. But the moment he spoke her name, "Mary," she knew him, and answered, "Rabboni." He was not changed to her. He had not forgotten her. The love in his heart had lost none of its tenderness. He was as accessible as ever. Dying had made him no less a friend, and no less sympathetic, than he was before he died.
Soon after Mary had met Jesus, and rejoiced to find him her friend just as of old, he appeared to the other women of the company who had followed him with their grateful ministries. They also knew him, and he knew them; and their hearts suffered no wrench at the meeting, for they found the same sweet friendship they thought they had lost, just as warm and tender as ever.
That same day Jesus appeared to Peter. A veil is drawn by the evangelists over the circumstances of this meeting. The friendship of Jesus and Peter had continued for three years. He had often given his Master pain and trouble through his impulsive ways. But the culmination of it all came on the night of the betrayal, when, in the hall of the high priest's palace, Peter denied being a disciple of Jesus, denied even knowing him. While for the third time the base and cowardly words were on his lips, Jesus turned and looked upon his faithless disciple with a look of grieved love, and then Peter remembered the forewarning the Master had given him. His heart was broken with penitence, and he went out and wept bitterly. But he had no opportunity to seek forgiveness; for the next morning Jesus was on his cross, and in the evening was in his grave. Peter's sorrow was very deep, for his love for his Master was very strong.
We can imagine that when the truth of the resurrection began to be believed that morning, Peter wondered how Jesus would receive him. But he was not long kept in suspense. The women who came first to the tomb, to find it empty, received a message for "the disciples and Peter." This singling out of his name for special mention must have given unspeakable joy to Peter. It told him that the love of Jesus was not only stronger than death, but also stronger than sin. Then, sometime during the day, Jesus appeared to Peter alone. No doubt then, in the sacredness of love, the disciple made confession, and the Master granted forgiveness. Several times during the forty days Jesus and Peter met again. The friendship had not been marred by death. The risen Lord loved just as he had loved in the days of common human intercourse.
One of the most interesting of the after resurrection incidents is that of the walk to Emmaus. Cleophas and his friend were journeying homeward with sad hearts, when a stranger joined them. His conversation was wonderfully tender as he walked with them and explained the Scriptures. Then followed the evening meal, and the revealing of the risen Jesus in the breaking of bread. Again it was the same sweet friendship which had so warmed their hearts in the past, resumed by the Master on the other side of death.
It was the same with all the recorded appearances of Jesus. Those who had been his friends previous to his death found him the same friend as before. He took up with each of them the threads of affection just where they had been dropped when the betrayal and arrest wrought such panic among his disciples, scattering them away, and went on with the weaving.
May we not conclude that it will be with us even as it was with Jesus? His resurrection was not only a pledge of what that of believers will be, carrying within itself the seed and potency of a blessed immortality, but it was also a sample of what ours will be. Death will produce far less change in us than we imagine it will do. We shall go on with living very much as if nothing had happened. Dying is an experience we need not trouble ourselves about very much if we are believers in Christ. There is a mystery in it; but when we have passed through it we shall probably find that it is a very simple and natural event -- perhaps little more serious than sleeping over night and waking in the morning. It will not hurt us in any way. It will blot no lovely thing from our life. It will end nothing that is worth while. Death is only a process in life, a phase of development, analogous to that which takes place when a seed is dropped in the earth and comes up a beautiful plant, adorned with foliage and blossoms. Life would be incomplete without dying. The greatest misfortune that could befall any one would be that he should not die. This would be an arresting of development which would be death indeed.
"Death is the crown of life;
There is need for a reconstruction of the prevalent thoughts and conceptions of heaven. We have trained ourselves to think of life beyond the grave as something altogether different from what life is in this world. It has always been pictured thus to us. We have been taught that heaven is a place of rest, a place of fellowship with God, a place of ceaseless praise. The human element has been largely left out of our usual conceptions of the blessed life. Not much is made of the relations of believers to one another. That which is emphasized in Christian hymns and in most books about heaven is the Godward side. Much is made of the glory of the place as suggested by the visions of St. John in the Apocalypse. In many of these conceptions the chief thought of heavenly blessedness is that it is a release from earth and from earthly conditions. There is no sorrow, no trouble, no pain, no struggle, no toil, in the home to which we are going. We shall sit on the green banks of beautiful rivers, amid unfading flowers, and sing forever. We shall lie prostrate before the throne, and gaze and gaze on the face of God.
But this is not the kind of heaven and heavenly life which the teachings of Jesus Would lead us to imagine. True, he speaks of the place to which he is going, and where, by and by, he would gather all his disciples, as "my Father's house." This suggests home and love; and the thought is in harmony with what we have seen in the life of Jesus during the forty days, -- the continuance of the friendships formed and knit in earthly fellowships. But the vision of home life thus suggested need not imply a heaven of inaction. Indeed, no life could be more natural and beautiful than that which the thought of home suggests. We have no perfect homes on earth; but every true home has in it fragments of heaven's meaning, and always the idea is of love's service rather than of blissful indolence.
We may get many thoughts of the heavenly life from other teachings of Jesus. Life is continuous. Whosoever liveth and believeth shall never die. There is no break, no interruption of life, in what we call dying. We think of eternal life as the life of heaven, the glorified life. So it is; but we have its beginnings here. The moment we believe, we have everlasting life. The Christian graces we are enjoined, to cultivate are heavenly lessons set for us to learn. If we would conceive of the life of heaven, we have but to think of ideal Christian life in this world, and then lift it up to its perfect realization. Heaven is but earth's lessons of grace better learned, earth's best spiritual life glorified. Therefore we get our truest thoughts of it from a study of Christ's ideal for the life of his followers, for it will simply be this life fully realized and infinitely extended.
For example, the one great lesson set for us, the one which includes all others, is love. God is love, and we are to learn to love if we would be like him. All relationships are relationships of love. All graces are graces of love. All duties are parts of one great duty -- to love one another. All worthy and noble character is love wrought out in life. All life here is a school, with its tasks, its struggles, its conflicts, its minglings with men, its friendships, its experiences of joy and sorrow, its burdens, its disappointments and hopes, and the final education to be attained is love. Browning puts it thus in "Rabbi Ben Ezra": --
Our life, with all it yields of joy or woe,
What is this love which it is the one great lesson of life to learn? Toward God, it may express itself in devotion, worship, praise, obedience, fellowship. This seems to be the chief thought of love in the common conception of heaven. It is all adoration, glorifying. But love has a manward as well as a Godward development. St. John, the disciple of love, teaches very plainly that he who says he loves God must prove it by also loving man. If the whole of our training here is to be in loving and in living out our love, we certainly have the clew to the heavenly life. We shall continue in the doing of the things we have here learned to do. Life in glory will be earth's Christian life intensified and perfected. Heaven will not be a place of idle repose. Inaction can never be a condition of blessedness for a life made and trained for action. The essential quality of love is service -- "not to be ministered unto, but to minister;" and for one who has learned love's lesson, happiness never can be found in a state in which there is no opportunity for ministering. In heaven it will still be more blessed to give than to receive; and those who are first will be those who with lowly spirit serve most deeply. Heaven will be a place of boundless activity. "His servants shall serve him." The powers trained here for the work of Christ will find ample opportunity there for doing their best service. Said Victor Hugo in his old age, "When I go down to the grave, I can say, like so many others, 'I have finished my day's work;' but I cannot say, 'I have finished my life.' My day's work will begin again next morning. My tomb is not a blind alley, it is a thoroughfare; it closes with the twilight to open with the dawn."
Whatever mystery there may be concerning the life that believers in Christ shall live in heaven, we may be sure at least that they will carry with them all that is true and divine of their earthly life. The character formed here they will retain through death. The capacity they have gained by the use of their powers they will have for the beginning of their activity in the new life. There can be no doubt that they shall find work commensurate with and fitted to their trained powers.
So heaven will be a far more natural place than we imagine it will be. It will not be greatly unlike the ideal life of earth. We probably shall be surprised when we meet each other to find how little we have changed. The old tenderness will not be missing. We shall recognize our friends by some little gentle ways they used to have here, or by some familiar thoughtfulness that was never wanting in them. The friendships we began here, and had not time to cultivate, we shall have opportunity there to renew, and carry on through immortal years.
Even at the best, human friendships only begin in this life; in heaven they will reach their best and holiest possibilities. There are lives which only touch each other in this world and then separate, going their different ways -- like ships that pass in the night. There will be time enough in heaven for any such faintest beginnings of friendship to be wrought out in beauty. Friendships with Jesus here touch but the shore of an infinite ocean; in heaven, unhindered, in uninterrupted fellowship, we shall be forever learning more of this love of Christ which passeth knowledge.