As a theologian, Deanna Thompson understands the collective reticence to talk about life after death. But as a cancer patient, she is hoping for more.
My story of life with cancer began with a fractured back and a grim diagnosis: I had stage IV breast cancer that had spread to over a dozen places in my bones. I had cancer and I had it bad: in the progression of cancers, I was maxed out at stage IV. There’s no stage V.
But my story of life fractured by cancer is one that continues in hope. The path from fractured to hope has certainly not been a linear one. That my life continues in hope doesn’t mean there’s an end to the fear or to the wishing I weren’t a cancer patient.
What continuing to live in hope does mean is that I am learning to trust that grace is sufficient for today, for tomorrow and beyond. That whatever happens, I know that grace will continue to accompany me on the rest of my journey through this life and even into the next.
When I think about how having cancer has changed the way I think and talk about hope, I have become aware of how many present-day theologians like myself have a lot to say about the present and seemingly little to say about the future -- that is, about life after death.
I understand the reasons for the collective reticence. Christian history is replete with theologies that bypass earthly life for elaborate visions of life beyond. Many in my profession are calling for a Christianity that focuses more on today, especially on the injustices that mar our earthly existence. When talk of heaven results in devaluing life on earth, there’s a problem. Christian faith is an expectant faith but not an otherworldly one.
I get the focus on the present. As a cancer patient who’s also a theologian, I see a need for more theological work on how to talk cancer while talking faith. Indeed, the gospel’s main attraction -- Jesus -- spends his time not just talking about God’s future but siding with the outcasts and healing the sick. We need to talk more about how contemporary incarnations of the body of Christ side with those with cancer and participate in the possibilities of healing.
At the same time, there’s more to the story.
Recently I’ve been wondering whether those of us who talk about God for a living do a disservice to the God of the Bible and to those who suffer when we limit our discussion to the present. The Bible is full of promises of life with God not only in the here and now but also in life beyond the grave.
For all of us who struggle to trust in these promises -- even in the midst of deadly conditions -- hearing that there’s more than just this terminal diagnosis or that life-shattering earthquake offers a word of hope. That the suffering of this world isn’t the final word is an essential part of the gospel’s good news.
The hope I’m talking about is a hope that begins with lament, in the cries of “Why, Lord?” uttered in the midst of the sorrow and despair that fill our lives. Crying out to God acknowledges the sorrow even as it demonstrates we’re hoping for more.
But hope that arises from lament is often achingly ambiguous. We hope for the joy of a promised future with God even as we take stock of our current suffering, fears and painful recognition of our mortality.
In the scientific, postmodern age in which we live, contemporary theologians emphasize the limits of knowing what lies beyond this life. While Christian faith talks of heavenly feasts and bodily resurrection, many of us struggle with how to set these claims alongside the science of decomposing flesh or suspicions regarding consciousness beyond the grave.
In light of these tensions that govern contemporary understandings of materiality and death, what should theologians be saying about our future life with God?
I don’t pretend to have adequate answers to these questions.
But even as I admit ignorance on the details, I take hope in the fact that the biblical images of life with God are consistently and inescapably communal. The Apostle Paul asserts that in hope we have been saved; he also writes that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. At the heart of the vision of life beyond this one is the affirmation of continued connection, of life in community.
My life-altering experiences of community over the past year -- from my graced relationships with my husband and daughters to my exponentially expanded notion of the power of the church universal to the vision of the heavenly feast in the form of a quilting bee -- have convinced me that despite knowing little of the details about life with God beyond this one, I’ve been granted faith that it will look something like the banquets of grace to which I’ve been treated since my cancer diagnosis.