I WAS about six and as my dad tucked me up in bed he said, ‘Now Peter, straight to sleep, no nightmares, no getting out of bed and wandering around. There’s nothing to be afraid of.’
Yes, dad, but it is precisely nothing which frightens me . . . I was going to say to death.
Many of us, perhaps most of us, are afraid of death. I have met some who are not. When I was a country parson in Yorkshire, my best pal was my organist Tim Tunnard, the complete musician, and I was lucky to have him in an obscure village parish. Tim had been Master of the Music at Birmingham Cathedral, but when the illiterate new forms of service came in he resigned ‘because the new words don’t fit the old tunes’.
Tim was the healthiest, most genial man I’ve ever met. The son of a Norfolk village parson, music scholar at Windsor, then Classics at Oxford in the days when the place was a university. He walked his dogs every day, smoked his pipe, liked a whisky mac before lunch, real ale in the evening and finish off with a drop of malt. When it came to funerals, we were the dynamic duo: Tim at the console and me at the lectern. My fee in those far-off days was eight quid and Tim’s was six. After all was done with decency and in order, we went off to the White Swan in Wighill and spent it on ale. We called it our bier money.
Tim believed in someone he referred to as The Almighty and he went to church every week, because that’s what a traditional English country gentleman does. He did not believe in life after death but that ‘we flourish as a flower of the field . . . as soon as the wind bloweth over it, it is gone . . . it fleeth as it were a shadow and never continueth in one stay . . .’
This didn’t make Tim afraid, or even sad. Life is what you have, so live it well and be grateful for it. Don’t overstay your welcome. That was Tim’s creed.
As a townsman I didn’t have Tim’s rootedness in the natural order but, as an incipient philosopher, I could see the sound logic in his view. If there is no life after death, if we lose all consciousness when we die, then what’s to worry about? We won’t be lying there complaining about how awful it is to be dead!
So where death is, I am not; and where I am, death is not.
So if our consciousness does not exist before we are born, and if it is extinguished when we die, then our life here in this material world is experienced by us as if it were everlasting.
This was never my view. I am a Christian and I believe in the resurrection and the life of the world to come. But I hardly know what I mean by this apart from the pictures which the Bible and the Creeds give us. And these are pictures. But that doesn’t mean they’re not true – only they are not literally true. And one cannot regard the Bible as literally true without plunging into absurdity.
Those who believe the Bible as literally true are compelled to believe that Elijah went up into heaven in a chariot of fire and that Balaam owned a talking donkey. And when the Bible speaks of the eyes of God and his strong right arm, are we led to wonder if God wears glasses or contact lenses, a dress shirt and cufflinks?
Of course it is impossible to take the Bible literally without lapsing into nonsense. But this does not mean that the biblical pictures, images and metaphors are untrue. Pictures are true and so are metaphors. A camel really is a ship of the desert – only it is not a ship with a sail and a rudder.
The mistake which the literalist makes is to think that truth is conveyed solely by words.
We see through a glass darkly, says St Paul. And when we try to envisage eternal realities, we have to employ earthly speech, language, images and metaphors – because this is what we are given to work with.
I don’t know what the next life will be like but, as I said, I firmly believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. And I believe it – though I don’t understand it – because I am a Christian and therefore when Jesus Christ promises me heaven, I take him at his word. And here are his words on the subject:
‘Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. I will come again and receive you unto myself; that where I am there ye may be also.’
Do not be afraid. It is as he said it is. And it will be as he said it will be.
I guess that Tim Tunnard knows more about this now than I do.