In The Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais openly mocks Christians’ views on the afterlife. While Gervais’ character’s mother is dying, he comforts her by making up a story about a better place – a heaven of sorts. This experiment snowballs and soon Ricky Gervais’ character is making up a whole religion – which sounds a lot like Christianity. He shows how easy it is to make up stories, promote them as true and create a new religion.
What motivates us to make up stories of an afterlife and a benevolent God who welcomes us into heaven? Fear it would seem – In particular a fear of the unknown. Gervais paints himself as an authentic atheist with the courage to admit that ideas about life after death are garbage. Ideas of heaven should be dismissed as misleading and dangerous. People who could make a difference to the world are lulled to sleep by the promise of an afterlife.
Contrast Ricky Gervais with the Apostle Paul in Philippians. In Philippians the apostle is also presented as fearless. He believes he is united with Jesus, which gives Paul purpose in this life and something better in the next life. In pithy language he says, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” He claims he has a mission and a purpose on earth which will improve the conditions of the Philippians. His life is meaningful and significant. Although he can imagine joy in serving his fellow man, he is convinced he will encounter greater joy when he departs this life and is united with Jesus. Given the life and the sacrifice of the early church, we see they too were unafraid of death. They believed with great confidence their martyrdom was not the end. How could this be so? Were they just primitive? Are we just more enlightened by our empirical research? Through observation we have concluded death is final and no-one lives a life on the other side of it. However, these early Christians were set ablaze because many of them had encountered Jesus after he had returned from the grave. Many others of them met witnesses whose testimony to resurrection convinced them.
I struggle with the idea of my own mortality. I am presently at 8,000 ft above sea level in Estes Park, Colorado. I find it more difficult to breathe here and my lack of physical stamina on mountain trails reminds me I am no longer 21. Life is running out for me. How can I deal with the fear of my inevitable death? Is Ricky Gervais correct about my desire to believe a made-up story from 2000 years ago? Or is it possible that the story that changed the world was true: Jesus did rise from the dead and promise his followers eternal life. Paul’s passion and conviction are testimony to his utter confidence. Can we say with him, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain?”
But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.