In response to recently being diagnosed with a rare and terminal type of brain cancer, sitcom star Valerie Harper declared, “we are all terminal.” In a cover story for “People” magazine and an interview on CNN, Harper, age 73, stressed that she is determined to live the limited time she has on earth to the utmost. Best known for playing Rhoda Morgenstern on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and its spinoff, “Rhoda,” she insisted that she is trying to focus on the moment. In addition, she expressed gratitude for her wonderful marriage and enjoyable television career. “I really look at my life as blessed,” Harper stated.
Those who receive word that their time on earth is likely to be brief often respond as Harper did by emphasizing that they intend to make the most of their final days and by remembering and cherishing the best aspects of their lives. These individuals sometimes also take comfort in their contributions to society and children who will remain when they are gone.
While before 1945 Americans often talked about death, we rarely mention death today. In the past people discussed death and frequently witnessed it as loved ones died at home in their own beds. Today we try to sanitize death and keep it out of view. Yes, we often have to deal with tragedies – in Aurora, Colo.; Newtown, Conn.; soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; and victims of natural disasters – but most of the time we can keep death out of sight and mind.
However, despite all the amazing advances humanity has made in medical technology, the words of the Psalmist are still true: “Our days may come to 70 years, or 80, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (Psalms 90:10, NIV). We will all someday die. Pastors and priests continually hear parishioners with incurable diseases say, “It wasn’t until I learned I was terminal that I learned how to live.” Harper is right. We are all mortal. Our life may end tomorrow, next year, or 90 years from now, but it will end.
As Christians around the world celebrate Easter this year, we are reminded of another way to deal with our impending death in addition to those previously mentioned: we can rejoice in the biblical promise of unending future life in heaven. Heaven’s wonders are regularly described as luscious, stunning, spellbinding, exhilarating, and captivating. We routinely use the adjective “heavenly” in literature and conversation to describe life’s most joyful experiences. To the faithful, majestic mountains, cascading waterfalls, breath-taking canyons, magnificent cathedrals, pealing organs, angelic choirs, and sensational symphonies all pale compared with the dazzling beauty and splendor that awaits them in heaven. If God could create such a spectacular earth and endow human beings with such marvelous gifts of creativity in the arts, sciences, and industry, many people reason, the heavenly home, which He has prepared for them to live in forever, must be even more fantastic.
Throughout church history, Christians have generally agreed that the saints’ communion with and worship of God the Father and Jesus will be central to heavenly life. They have concurred that heaven will be more spectacular and beautiful than anyone can imagine and that life there will be far more enjoyable than it is on earth. They have envisioned a heaven where the saints recognize family and friends and enjoy closer relationships with them than they did on earth. Social events, work, service of others, leisure activities, and spiritual growth will all continue in heaven. Christians have portrayed heaven as a destination and a reward, relief from earthly trials, a perpetual reunion with those we love, and humanity’s real home and true country. Heaven has been described as the New Jerusalem and Paradise Regained, the community of saints and the eternal Eucharist, everlasting Easter and a million Christmases, and the eternal, ever-growing experience of God.
Yes, we are all terminal. Remembering that, we should strive to live life to the fullest, cherish relationships, and love and serve others. We can take satisfaction in the work we do and the contributions we make. However, in a more important way, Christians argue, we are not terminal. We will live forever. As Christians celebrate Easter, we rejoice because Christ’s resurrection is the first fruit. It assures those who trust in him as their Savior that they will someday join him in heaven.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009) and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).