I’m always fascinated by so-called “designer funerals.” You know the ones—where the deceased has left some elaborate last wishes for their funeral. Columnist Gina Gallo writes of this absurdity, describing a “gaming theme” funeral:
“For a nominal deposit and low monthly payments, a ‘gaming theme’ funeral offers authentic slot machines discreetly positioned around the neon-lit casket, gambling chips the size of manhole covers, and a jumbo deck of cards in lieu of a flower spray covering the deceased. Instead of folding chairs, jumbo dice scattered about the viewing parlor will serve as ottomans, cocktail tables or the perfect surface for a memorial craps game.”
We don’t know what to do with death, so we try to domesticate it as if it were a wild dog. But death refuses to be reasoned or bartered with. Since the day we left Paradise, we breathe out, and death is no more.
It’s why we have to keep coming back to the concept of shalom—the Hebrew word meaning “wholeness,” “completeness”—the way things were meant to be all along. Man was made to experience shalom in three dimensions: spiritually (between man and God), socially (between man and neighbor), and environmentally (between man and creation). Sin ripped all of these apart. The gospel is about putting shalom back together again. The cross removes my sin, allowing me to be spiritually restored to God (spiritual shalom). And because it happens by grace, it removes the sense of superiority and inferiority that prevents me from fully loving my neighbor—thus restoring social shalom.
But that leaves one final piece for God to fix. That’s why I cringe when I hear people speak of being “complete in Christ”—because I’m not. I get sick. I will one day die. Death is all around me, whether in a designer funeral or the evening news. In the words of the rock band U2, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” I truly believe that one of the reasons so many are quick to dismiss Christianity is because we expect happiness to be immediate—and lasting. The gospel says no; we have to wait for the end of the story. We need to see the restoration of environmental shalom.
That’s what Isaiah’s text is all about. The latter portion of his prophetic masterpiece details God’s future plans for restoring shalom in all areas of life.
17 For look, I am ready to create new heavens and a new earth! The former ones will not be remembered; no one will think about them anymore. 18 But be happy and rejoice forevermore over what I am about to create! For look, I am ready to create Jerusalem to be a source of joy, and her people to be a source of happiness. 19 Jerusalem will bring me joy, and my people will bring me happiness. The sound of weeping or cries of sorrow will never be heard in her again. 20 Never again will one of her infants live just a few days or an old man die before his time. Indeed, no one will die before the age of a hundred, anyone who fails to reach the age of a hundred will be considered cursed. 21 They will build houses and live in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22 No longer will they build a house only to have another live in it, or plant a vineyard only to have another eat its fruit, for my people will live as long as trees, and my chosen ones will enjoy to the fullest what they have produced. 23 They will not work in vain, or give birth to children that will experience disaster. For the LORD will bless their children and their descendants. 24 Before they even call out, I will respond; while they are still speaking, I will hear. 25 A wolf and a lamb will graze together; a lion, like an ox, will eat straw, and a snake’s food will be dirt. They will no longer injure or destroy on my entire royal mountain,” says the LORD. (Isaiah 65:17-25)
I believe in heaven; I just don’t believe this is our destiny. We were created for earth, you and I. That’s partly what separates the Christian story from every other religious tradition. Other religions promise some form of “escape” from earth—whether a literal heaven or some ethereal state like Moksha or Nirvana. Christianity is the only faith that says that God will restore the earth.
This means there are some features to this text that might seem confusing. If this is God’s perfect world, why does he speak of death at all (v. 20)? We won’t live to 100—we’ll live forever, right? I tend to think that God—through Isaiah—is hinting at the larger story that we don’t see unfold until John’s book of Revelation. There—in Revelation 19:1-6—we see a promise that God will reign on earth for 1,000 years before He finally completes the work of restoration. Granted, there are many ways of understanding this complex subject, but I tend to believe the most literal reading of scripture tells us that on an undisclosed day, the church will be taken away (“raptured,” to use today’s terms). Following a seven-year period of judgment (the “tribulation”), Christ will return to rule and reign for 1,000 years. During this time, Satan will be bound. Yet I tend to believe that death and sin will still persist. Why? Because man is depraved, and for the first time we’ll see what life is like when we can no longer say “the devil made me do it.”
It’s only after this that we see God restoring all things to goodness and perfection:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more. 2 And I saw the holy city– the new Jerusalem– descending out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist any more– or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
I don’t know what happens to our memories—the Bible’s less than clear. Will we remember the past at all? Or will the future glory simply overshadow it? And on that day—will it matter?
Artistically, we’ve come to shun the “happy ending.” Artistic expression demands that in film, movies show a gritty world where things don’t always work out in the trite way of fairy tales. There’s just one problem: this isn’t what the public seems to want. Recent data reveals that in 2013, nearly half of Americans hadn’t seen any of the films nominated for Academy Awards. Apparently people are eschewing films such as The Wolf of Wall Street and The Dallas Buyers’ Club, favoring films like Disney’s Frozen or Iron Man 3—movies that chronicle sacrifice, and happy endings. Could it be that we are all uniquely wired to believe in happy endings?
In a famous essay entitled “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term eucatastrophe—literally “good catastrophe”—what Tolkien calls “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” The gospel represents the ultimate “eucatastrophe.” It promises that death does not have the last word—and that shalom might finally be restored.