I know… I know… I said I was on holiday, and I am. But we all need to be gently weaned from our addictions. And the past week has been so filled with death it just seemed to demand some blog attention.

This past week of death culminated for me yesterday as I officiated at a funeral and heard the sad announcement of Jack Layton’s death at the age of 61.

I want to honour Jack Layton’s life in this space and pray for God’s peace and blessing on Olivia Chow and all of their family.

Whatever anyone thought of Mr. Layton’s politics, he was, by all accounts, a fine man. He laboured tirelessly for the public good in our Nation and had an amazing impact on the Canadian political scene.

But now, Jack Layton is gone. Or at least his physical presence is gone. It is difficult to say definitively just how “gone” Jack Layton actually is. Is it just his body that has disappeared, or has the entire essence of the man been obliterated?

Death faces us with the fundamental question mark that stands over all of life.

Does the end of physical life mean that the person we knew in the body with which we were familiar has been obliterated, annihilated, wiped out? Is a human life simply a line drawn on a white board? At a certain point in the chronology of every human being does a great eraser come down out of the sky and erase the entire existence of that person, leaving nothing but a great white empty space where there was once a dynamic energetic living reality? Do we live on only in those who remember us and in the legacy of the actions and choices we have made throughout our physical lives?

Or, is there something more to us than simply the physical properties that constitute the 60, 70, 80, or however many years we take up space on this earth? Is there some inner vitality to a human being that transcends the biological components that constitute the physical dimension of our being? Is it possible that that which is most real and true about us as human beings will exist beyond the veil of physical death in a realm we can only faintly intuit in this life?

There is no third option. Physical death is either a total end, the absolute annihilation of life, or there is something that exists beyond physical death. None of us has any concrete definitive evidence one way or the other. The conclusion we reach in the face of physical death is based upon personal subjective experience and the choice of faith. Life as we experience it provides no ultimate conclusive proof about the likelihood of existence or non-existence after physical death.

But there is one piece of evidence that is seldom factored into considerations about what might be the ultimate human destiny following physical death.

Few but the most hardened cynics suggest that the historical figure of Jesus was nothing but an imaginary tale dreamed up by a small group of Jewish rebels intent upon justifying the existence of their breakaway church. Even the most skeptical scholars acknowledge that the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus as a real person is as strong as the evidence for any figure in ancient history. And most people seem willing to credit this historical person with having left behind a body of wisdom and insight that has rarely been matched in the history of human thought. The respect extended to Jesus by most people makes it curious that one of the fundamental convictions of his teaching is so commonly dismissed.

Jesus taught that there is a dimension to existence that transcends the realm we normally perceive with our physical senses. He said to his followers,

life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. (Luke 12:23)

Comforting Martha at the death of her brother, Jesus declared,

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. (John 11:25,26)

At the end of his physical life Jesus sought to comfort one of the men with whom he was being crucified when he assured him,

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise. (Luke 23:43)

It is a curious teacher of wisdom who could be so fundamentally wrong about such an important aspect of the nature of life and the reality of life after physical death.

But the teaching of Jesus is not the only evidence with which we must come to terms if we are going to face honestly the possibility that there is something about human existence that transcends physical death.

When Jesus died he left behind a deeply dispirited, defeated, and fearful little band of followers. They were not people of power. They were not highly educated or influential. They had no standing in the religious establishment of their day and they had absolutely no plan for the continuation of Jesus’ teaching or for founding any kind of organization that would sustain the memory of the man they had loved but who they knew had been brutally executed as a despicable criminal. One of them had betrayed Jesus, another had denied even knowing him. They had all hidden from the authorities fearful for their own lives.

And yet, 50 days after his death, this tiny collection of defeated disciples was boldly declaring their testimony that they had experienced the living presence of the man they all knew had died and whose lifeless body had been sealed in a tomb for three days.

Three hundred years later, despite centuries of brutal persecution, the ancestors of these first believers had filled the world with their faith that the living presence of God embodied in Jesus transcended physical death. Against all reasonable expectation the unlikely story of Jesus’ resurrection had by 390 been declared the official religion of the mighty Roman Empire.

By what wild imagining might we possibly explain the existence of the Christian faith that grew out of the defeat of crucifixion? How is it possible that the tiny seed of faith planted in the hearts of a few people in a remote corner of the world, grew into a movement that became an institutional embodiment of conviction in a church that today numbers approximately 2 billion adherents?

One possible explanation for the existence of the church is that, despite their terrible failures and their great fearfulness, an invisible power reached across the barrier of death and was released in the hearts of Jesus’ followers, empowering them with a strength and conviction that transformed their lives. This will not be a convincing explanation for many people. But, it suits me.

I see in the lives of Jesus’ earliest followers evidence of a reality that transcends death. I see in them a love that never goes away. I see a power of faith that is greater and more real than any force of death or destruction that has ever been unleashed in this world. I want to commit myself to living in conscious awareness of that power until my physical death finally proves to me that it was either the greatest truth in the universe or the most beautiful illusion created by any human being.