My mother-in-law is dying. Nearly ninety, she has congestive heart failure and diabetes. Her kidneys aren’t working properly. She cannot stand; she cannot sit up in bed without assistance. The doctors have recommended hospice care and pain management; there is no medical intervention that can restore her to health. Betty and her daughters, including my wife, must decide whether to accept the doctors’ advice. They know that the hospice decision probably means Betty will die very soon (perhaps with less pain and psychological distress). They also know that Betty will probably die very soon with or without hospice care.
Betty’s situation—and that of her family—is not unusual. Today, and every day, thousands of American families face the imminent death of a loved one. Someday I will die. Unless death comes suddenly by accident, criminal act, or natural disaster (the sort of thing that might garner a headline), the people who love me may have to make hard decisions about my care. Like Betty’s daughters, they will decide while experiencing grief.
What hope is there in the face of death? Specifically, what hope is there for the person who is dying?
Death puts stop to our ordinary projects. The “hope theory” and “hope therapy” promulgated by C.R. Snyder and his fellow psychologists are silent here. I intend no criticism of hope theory/therapy; I simply point out that Snyder’s theory focuses on ordinary projects in this life. There is no “pathway” around death; it puts a final block to all of one’s goals.
Tough minded naturalism tells us to take heed of the finality of death. There is no hope for those who die. The best one can “hope” for is to come to the end of one’s days without regret. Naturalism advises: live life as best you can now. It hardly needs saying that naturalists do not agree on what living well now entails. Epicureans and Stoics—and their philosophical descendants many centuries later—have opposing and plausible doctrines to preach. But they agree that personal hope does not reach further than the grave. An individual may hope that humanity or some portion of humanity might achieve some long term good, but she will never know if her hope is fulfilled or frustrated.
Certain religious and philosophical worldviews offer a kind of hope to the dying person. These views emphasize the solidarity of the human race. The dying person may believe, on these views, that she is one aspect of universal consciousness; after death she will be free of individual consciousness. On some accounts individual consciousness is an illusion anyway; we will be glad to abandon it. The dying person can hope for unity with the universal spirit. Of course, “universal spirit” will mean different things for different religions and different philosophers.
The monotheistic religions offer a more robust hope for the individual. The God of Abraham is a personal being (three persons according to Christianity) who knows each of us intimately. These religions teach that by the power of God a person may live after her death in some form or fashion.
(Judaism, Christianity, and Islam also agree that God is just. What will God do with the wicked in an afterlife? Who are the wicked? How can a human being be justified before God? There are at least a dozen significantly different doctrines relating to divine judgment. I will ignore these questions and focus on the believer who hopes for an afterlife. I will assume that the believer has met whatever qualifications there are for a good afterlife.)
Betty is a Christian. Christian hope centers on the idea of resurrection. Every Easter we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and we believe that Jesus will raise from the dead those who believe in him. Betty can hope that some day she will have a new body. The New Testament somewhat mysteriously calls this a “spiritual body.” Paul uses a metaphor: just as the seed we sow in a field gives rise to a plant that seems very different from the seed, the body we “sow” in death gives rise to a body that will seem very different from the ones we are now. “The dead shall be raised and we shall be changed.”
There are at least three aspects to Christian hope. First, Betty hopes for a life after death in which she will still be Betty. That is, resurrection offers a personal hope, not an impersonal blending into the universal spirit. Second, Betty hopes to be changed. The resurrection body will not only be better than Betty’s worn-out body of the last few months; she hopes it will be better than her most active and healthy body (the body she had as a young mother, perhaps). Third, Christians also hope that we will be changed; that is, we hope for a changed community, the kingdom of God. Betty does not merely hope that the kingdom will come; she hopes to participate in it.
In Romans 14, Paul says that the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. He meant his words as a description of how life should be in a Christian fellowship here and now. Too often, we know, our churches are not exemplars of righteousness, peace, and joy. In hoping for the resurrection, we hope to live in a perfected community under God’s rule.