Gary Green was my roommate at Union Seminary in the fall of 1965, just before my marriage to Embry. After graduating from Union, he received a PhD from Yale in religious studies and joined the faculty at Connecticut College where he taught in the religion department until his retirement a few years ago. Since retiring he has spent a great deal of time and energy in the Prison Movement, working with inmates. He is a noted scholar and theologian and without question the smartest guy I knew at Union or practically anywhere else for that matter. We have stayed in touch over the years since he and his wife, Pricilla, regularly visit DC to see their two adult children and grandchildren, who live in the Baltimore/ Washington region.
I want to thank you, first of all for taking the time and effort to share your honest and heartfelt response to your recent confrontation with our common mortality. In doing so you have also presented me with a difficult challenge, for a testimony like yours is not to be ignored or taken lightly. Like you, I’m slogging through my seventies, living through the funerals of friends and facing the inevitability of death with ever-increasing urgency. Since I’m also a committed Christian and a theologian by training and vocation, your letter challenges me to respond, even though it’s a task that part of me would like to avoid. So lest I be seen, by myself and others, as a hypocrite or a coward, I will heed the apostle’s advice to be “always prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).
If the resurrection of the dead were a minor issue for followers of Jesus—one of the adiaphora, those matters that the Protestant Reformers regarded as optional but not essential to faith—things would be different. But clearly it is not. It’s right there in the creeds we recite and in virtually every writing of the New Testament; but most important, it confronts us repeatedly and centrally in the life and teachings of Jesus himself. (There are some who would like to strip this teaching from Jesus while continuing to honor him as a great spiritual teacher, but this move simply turns Jesus into someone else with the same name.)
As you say quite rightly, death is a mystery. But what kind of mystery? In a secular culture like the one we live in, mystery is just a word for something we don’t understand and probably never will.
For Christian believers, however, life beyond death is a mystery, but one we affirm nevertheless. That affirmation is called faith, and it differs radically from the kind of worldly matters that we can simply know and take to be factually true. If we approach the question of eternal life as though it were a “normal” question, something we can answer by careful reasoning or common sense, of course it sounds implausible. So for secularists, the matter is settled: we can’t know for sure, but we suspect that it’s very unlikely that anything “comes next.” Most of the people I know who aren’t practicing Christians—and some who are—are de facto secularists; that is, they don’t really think much about ultimate questions (because it seems a futile effort) but they live and think as though there were no reality beyond the world of immediate experience, the world we understand through the empirical sciences or not at all. Those of us in our seventies grew up in a quite different culture, one in which you could be a Christian more or less by default. A few people still cling to that world, the world of the once-“mainline” churches, which continue to lose members. I am happy that for me that’s no longer a possibility, even though it’s hard to live in a culture (as a pastor friend of mine likes to say) that is “in the process of giving itself permission to persecute Christians.” Kierkegaard, who was one of the first to identify, and reject, modern Christianity-by-default, believed that there are only two possible responses to the message of Jesus: faith or offense. That’s becoming clearer to me every day now.
So what does it mean to affirm by faith the mysteries of God, including the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting? I love your analogy of life to running a marathon—not least because, as you know, I too ran (literal) marathons until my knees gave out. As a student of the Bible, you know that the apostle Paul used the same analogy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (1 Tim. 4:7). But it is also Paul who wrote, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).
For secularists faith can only be the holding of beliefs without sufficient evidence. But the apostle anticipated that reaction as well: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:22-25). That means that if I confess my faith in the gospel I’d better be prepared for people to see me as a fool.
You begin your testimony with accounts of the recent funerals of two friends, both of whom, you say, lived rich and productive lives. I want to tell you about my own recent experience of the death of a Christian friend. I met Geraldo five years ago at the prison where I serve as a Christian volunteer. He was an inmate and I was his pre-release mentor. He told me at our first meeting that he was the second youngest of seven brothers, two of whom had died in the past year. One of those older brothers had sexually abused him when he was eight years old and never acknowledged the abuse but just wanted to “move on.” This was Geraldo’s fifth incarceration. All were for larceny or burglary, motivated by alcohol and drug addiction. Once he had been shot and survived. Another time, while cornered inside a room, he had almost fired his shotgun through the door but hesitated at the last minute. He was later haunted by the thought that he had almost killed a man. But now he was a Christian, he told me, and was optimistic about not returning to prison again. For the next eight months we met, talked, and prayed together weekly. He was a quiet and gentle man (yes!) who spoke in a soft voice and suffered most in the prison environment from having to live in a dormitory with over a hundred other men, surrounded by constant noise and chaos. But he worked in the prison laundry, where inmates brought him their bags of laundry, and while the washing machines ran, he would counsel some of them and pray with them.
After he was transferred to another correctional facility at the other end of the state, I visited him once, the last time I saw him face to face. But he continued to write to me intermittently, even after his release. He was a gifted artist and drew greeting cards while in prison, from which he earned a bit of money. The photo shows me holding a gift he sent to me that I had framed; it now hangs on the wall of my study. He painted it on a handkerchief, using paints that he made by crushing colored pencils purchased from the prison commissary.
There was a lengthy gap in our correspondence: I learned later that he had served another term in prison. But he got back in touch with me after his release, and we texted periodically and talked a few times on the phone. My last text from him, just last July, was about a worrisome message he had received from his doctor. Then nothing more for several weeks. Earlier this month I received a phone call from his son-in-law, who had found my number in Geraldo’s phone. He told me that Geraldo had died after a brief but severe decline while awaiting a liver transplant. He was fifty-three years old. Had the son-in-law not called, I would never have known what happened to my friend.
Clearly, his was not a long, rich, and full life. If the life of this man is to have meaning, if it is to be redeemed, it will have to come from another source than his life on this earth. So, yes, when I learned of his death, I saw him—through eyes of faith—seated at that heavenly banquet table with the Lord Jesus. And I know, through a sure and certain hope, that all his tears have been washed away (see Rev. 21:4).
So Joe, my old roommate and friend, I can’t think of anything more to tell you. Like death and eternal life, our faith, too, is a mystery. I don’t know anyone who acquired it by study or reasoning or argument, because it can only come as a gift—as the free gift of God’s grace. I hope you will not take it amiss when I say that I look forward to joining you at that banquet table. If I get there first, I’ll save you a place, and I hope you will do the same for me.
Yours in faith, hope, and love, Gary