Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Lifting the Veil

Romans 6.23  For the wage of sin is death; but God's free gift is eternal life.

The universe is a strange, mysterious place. It's full of wonder and surprise. Of all its many marvels, none is stranger than life itself.

Christians hope - but cannot prove - that life has some purpose. There are two main theories about how we might find out.

Put simply, the first theory states that the purpose is hidden. A spiritual breeze sometimes lifts an obscuring veil and we glimpse the mind of God. What we see may seem mysterious, and needs fathoming. But if there is uncertainty it is not because God has short-changed us. It is because we fall short of our promise.

Paul uses this theory when he writes about sin and death. First, his "wage of sin" image illustrates a standard Hebrew teaching that those who disobey God's rules are inevitably punished. Second, he contrasts these ancient penalties with a new arrangement. For those who want it, he says, there is now a free gift of life without end through allegiance to Jesus of Nazareth. Those who accept the gift can pass beyond the veil into God's realm. Death is brushed aside, loses its sting. We seem to die, but in reality we pass into the arms of eternity.

The second theory, again put simply, is that this world is but a tiny part of that great unity we call the universe. Something may exist "beyond" the universe - but we cannot know it. We are limited by our nature. As creatures of time and space, we cannot perceive what is eternal and infinite. If anything exists "beyond" or "outside" the universe it is, by definition, unknowable by us.

Death is normal and natural in this universe. It is therefore part of God's creation package. Death as a fact of life is right, good and proper. We have been blessed by God with a powerful drive to stay alive - the strongest of all our natural instincts. But that gift  is neither promise nor guarantee that our deaths are not final. No evidence is available about what, if anything, lies "beyond".

Millions of words have been written and spoken about each of these two theories - all to no avail. There is a realisation that the question, "Which theory is true?" leads only to dead ends. To put it another way, the old teaching that Christianity is primarily about "life after death" is increasingly perceived as irrelevant.

None of this means that Paul was wrong, only that the way he expressed a certain truth is no longer persuasive. What might take its place? One emphasis may provide a compelling contemporary answer. 

It is that God is glimpsed, not behind a spiritual veil, but in the vastness of space, in the gigantic forces and deep mysteries displayed there, and in the self-sustaining natural systems of sea, air and land on earth. But primary is the insight that God comes to us in life itself.

Each of us is not, as far as we can tell, eternal. But life seems to be just that. As one author put it, "Life is the property of planets rather than of individual organisms." As long as the processes of the universe continue, so will life. In other words, the purpose of the universe is life. The universe will exist longer than any human mind can grasp. So to all intents and purposes life will go on "for ever". 

Individuals, however, don't go on "for ever" - though Christians hope that because God loves us as unique individuals, death will not extinguish us but change us, as Paul put it.

Of course, we know that only God is "for ever". But that kind of life cannot be grasped by us. Our minds can contain only this planet, and to a lesser extent, the universe. To that degree God's free gift consists of my life and your life and the greater life of which each of us is part.

We can celebrate and preserve and grow that life. It can be brought to its full potential in each of us and in those with whom we share it. Life can be treasured or it can be used and abused.

One way leads to life, the other to death.

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