Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on All Souls' Day 2012
2 November 2012 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
In this holy Eucharist on All Souls’ Day, as we give thanks for the lives of those we love and see no longer, and as we celebrate the lives of those buried or memorialised in this holy place, we plead the eternal sacrifice of the dying and rising Christ on behalf of all the faithful departed, trusting in the mystery of God’s good providence that our prayers and love can be to their benefit.
As we do so, our thoughts inevitably turn to questions of death and life, of life beyond life, of life after death. Whatever the strength of our faith, inevitably in the depth of our soul we ask: Is there anything? What will it be like? Imagination may run wild, but what is there to hold on to?
You may have heard of a recently published book by a distinguished American academic neurosurgeon called Dr Eben Alexander. The book is called Proof of Heaven and describes his own experience. This is how the book is described on the Amazon UK website.
‘Internationally acclaimed neurosurgeon Dr Eben Alexander always considered himself a man of science. His unwavering belief in evidence-based medicine fuelled a career in the top medical institutions of the world. But all this was set to change.
‘One morning in 2008 he fell into a coma after suffering a rare form of bacterial meningitis. Scans of his brain revealed massive damage. Death was deemed the most likely outcome. As his family prepared themselves for the worst, something miraculous happened. Dr Alexander's brain went from near total inactivity to awakening. He made a full recovery but he was never the same. He woke certain of the infinite reach of the soul, he was certain of a life beyond death.
‘In this astonishing book, Dr Alexander shares his experience, pieced together from the notes he made as soon as he was able to write again. Unlike other accounts of near-death experiences, he is able to explain in depth why his brain was incapable of fabricating the journey he experienced. His story is one of profound beauty and inspiration.’
In a recorded interview, Dr Alexander said, ‘I had a very profound sense of the Divine presence, and also of the importance of love and how powerful love is in that realm.’ The publication of the book in this country was welcomed with an avalanche of sceptical comment. An English Professor of Neuroscience, writing in the Daily Telegraph, said, ‘Science has progressed by challenge and disagreement. But what is needed to consider seriously the kinds of claims made by Dr Alexander is not flowery prose and hyperbolic headlines. It’s hard evidence.’ Professor Blakemore’s scepticism is not surprising; nor should it worry us. There is no possibility of hard evidence of life after death, such as could constitute a scientific proof of heaven.
The Catholic writer Peter Stanford in the Guardian said of these near-death experiences, ‘At its most simple, all of these pictures of after-life touch on the most basic of human needs, something that predates written language, philosophy and even religion itself.’ From the time of the first experience of the death of someone they love, human beings ‘have wanted there to be something more, something beyond death.’
There is no scientific proof of heaven. But, unless our idea of heaven is of a place ‘up above the bright blue sky’, there is equally no possibility of science proving that there is no heaven.
The idea of heaven is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition and in the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ himself. He teaches his disciples to pray, ‘Our Father in heaven.’ Heaven is where God is. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes God to his disciples as ‘their Father in heaven’. But his disciples can themselves have the prospect of heaven. He tells the rich young man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor: then he will find treasure in heaven. [St Mark 10: 17-22]
In the parable of the judgement of the nations, the King says to those on his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ [St Matthew 25]
So, our Lord holds out the prospect of being with God in heaven. But that is not all. In the parable of the judgement of the nations, Jesus Christ goes on to condemn those who do not help the needy. The King says to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
In the parable of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus, both of whom die, the rich man going to Hades and the poor to Abraham’s bosom, Jesus speaks of a great gulf fixed in the after-life between those who have suffered in this life and those who have acted selfishly and ungenerously. The one will go to eternal comfort and the other to a place of eternal torment. [St Luke 16.19-29]
It is easy and comfortable for commentators to explain these parables as instructions from our Lord about how we should live, rather than teaching about the reality of life beyond death, about heaven and hell. But we should remember that the teachings and the example of our Lord take immensely seriously both the obligation on his followers to take the hard road, to bear the burden, to take up the cross and also the goodness and justice, the judgement, of God. The Christian life is surely not all sweetness and light, comfort and balm. The battle in us, in our communities, in our nations and in the world between good and bad, between on the one hand selfish and on the other generous attitudes, words and deeds is one that is very real; and it is a battle that has to be fought. If the battle between good and evil is not joined, it is lost.
Light and darkness, pleasure and pain, bliss and torment, good and evil: these are inevitable realities of life on this earth. We can see them, feel them, describe them. Heaven and hell are invisible, unknowable, ineffable. We might try speaking of the presence of God and the absence of God, being with God and being without God, of being eternally in the light or eternally in the darkness. But perhaps it would be better to say nothing at all, to keep silent, before these awful realities. Almost so – for we can and must pray for ourselves and for all people perseverance on the hard road, the Christian way.
On this day of commemoration, even though we fall silent before the mystery, it is inevitable and right that, putting our trust in the everlasting mercy of the Father, we should pray for the faithful departed that through the eternal sacrifice of Calvary and through the eternal life of our risen Lord, and the gracious gifts of the Holy Spirit, alive and active in his body the Church, they might find in him eternal rest.
At the end of this service, as the clergy depart, the choir will sing the last words of the Requiem Mass. May we make them our prayer too and may they give us comfort. In paradisum deducant te Angeli; cum Lazaro quondam paupere aeternam habeas requiem. May the angels lead you into Paradise; and with Lazarus who was once poor may you have eternal rest.