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Text: Exploring the Farside: Biblical Visions of the Afterlife

October 30, 2011:

Welcome to this eve of Halloween celebration.  The name “Halloween” itself is derived from anticipation of the feast of All Saints—it is the eve of the hallowed or all saints celebration.  So we are on the eve of the eve…  Since I stole the name The Far Side from Gary Larson I thought it best to begin with one of his cartoons, literally about the farside!!

            Our focus here is on the Bible’s images or imagining of the afterlife, the “far side.”  And here the Bible joins all peoples of virtually all cultures and all period of history who have wondered about the question of life after death.  In the modern world, of course, many dismiss such a notion as a childish view of reality—maybe even a flight from reality.  What you see is what you get; when human beings die their bodies dissolve and that is the end.  If we have an afterlife it is only through the heritage we leave behind in the memory of others—for better or for worse.  Others are perhaps hedging their bets—hoping that there might be some form of life beyond life but wondering how that could be possible and certainly not banking on it.  And then there are believers—Christians, Muslims, some observant Jews, and many other religious traditions around the world—the vast majority of human beings—who hold varying beliefs about the afterlife and what it might entail.  A recent poll of U. S. Catholics reported that 73% of Catholics hold that belief in the resurrection was one of the most defining characteristics of what it meant to be a Catholic.

            Story of woman who called (on the recommendation of a friend) to ask where she could find in the Bible was some assurance that she would see again the face of her beloved adult daughter that she had just lost through an untimely death.  Her voice was filled with anxiety and pain.  Trying to probe beyond the boundary of death, especially to reestablish the bonds of love with those we have lost, is a profoundly human question.  And it is that question we want to explore today, using the Bible as our guide.

            In many parts of the ancient world, there was an elaborate mapping of the afterlife.  Egyptian culture is a prime example.  Many of you may have visited Egypt and seen firsthand the extraordinary and elaborate ritualizing of death as a preparation for the afterlife.  Both the soul and the body (at least of those who could afford embalming and mummification) were prepared for their journey to the realm of the immortals, crossing the river of death—the river Styx, navigated by the feared river God Charron, and accompanied at least in the case of the Pharaohs and other elites, with food supplies, symbolic helpers and servants, and an array of amulets and symbols and magical formulae that would help the deceased cheat death and insure immortality.   The pyramids, the beautiful and lavishing decorated tombs and funerary temples, and the entire mythology of ancient Egyptian religion were an expression of a firm belief in the afterlife.  

            There is one glaring and ironic exception to this clear picture of the afterlife in the ancient near east and that is Israel and its Bible!   The biblical peoples from the time of their inception down until a century or two before the birth of Jesus had no clear idea of life beyond death and certainly no firm conviction about the immortality of the human soul, much less the human body.  Even though influenced by Egyptian culture in many ways, in this realm—that of views about life beyond death—Israelite religion took a very different course.   Mummification was forbidden, as was the Egyptian custom of equipping tombs with amulets and equipment and supplies to accompany the person in their journey to the realm of the dead.  The dead were to be buried on the same day they passed away—their bodies consigned to the earth before sundown.

            The reasons for this exceptional diffidence about an afterlife on the part of the biblical peoples remain somewhat unclear—as we will discuss later—and the question continues to be debated.  Perhaps the answer lies in Israel’s laser-like focus on God as the source and endpoint of all life.  God was the God of life and nothing about death could co-exist with the God of life.   Contamination of the sacred with symptoms of death was an impurity to be avoided at all costs.

            To understand the biblical view of human destiny beyond death we should first recall their “map of the universe.”  One thing the biblical peoples did share with the surrounding cultures of the Ancient near East was an understanding of the structure of the universe in its macro terms.   Their world was a three-story universe:


I. The Realm of the Divine

The waters above the heavens

The heavens (Shamayim)


II.        The Earth

The waters beneath the earth.


III.The Underworld:





            I.  The Heavens (shamayim).

                        This was a canopy extending above the earth described in Genesis I.  This canopy, called in Hebrew the shamayim, restrained the waters above it and formed as it were a shield and divide from the divine realm that loomed further above the waters.  In that farthest realm above the heavens was the realm of the divine: here God dwelled along with heavenly beings such as angels and spiritual powers.

                        The shamayim had windows and doors and sluice gates that allowed rain to fall; allowed God to view the earth and, occasionally, allowed certain privileged souls to peer into heaven and even to enter the heavenly realm.

                        According to Genesis, the “heavens” were hung with illuminators: the sun by day; the moon and the stars by night.

            II. The Earth (ha aretz).  This the place created by God to be the abode of all living beings, with the human person as the summit of creation.  This is the realm where human beings live out their days through the gift of life that God had instilled in the lump of clay that is the human.

            The earth was divided between dry land and water.  Floating beneath the dry land was a vast reservoir of water and beneath that was Sheol.  The layer of Earth actually capped the chaotic waters that churned beneath the earth.  In Israelite cosmology, the main capstone around which the earth was built was Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. (See Is 28:16)

            III. The Underworld (Sheol).

            Here in this lowest level of the universe was the abode of the dead.  For the Bible life in Sheol was a shadowy existence; the realm of the afterlife; a place of silence, of stillness.   It was located below the primeval waters upon which the earth was set.

            Sheol was equivalent to the grave and perhaps imagination of its condition triggered by the experience of burial—but Sheol in fact was conceived of as a much broader concept than the grave.

            The etymology of the Hebrew term Sheol is debated but the most probable explanation is that it derives from the Hebrew verb “to inquire, to ask.”  May have originated with either the notion of necromancy—which was popular in the ancient world where those who were living inquired through oracles or magic or witches (think of Saul with the witch of Endor) to see if they could contact the dead.  We should note this important point at the outset, namely that the boundaries between earth and heaven, on the one hand, or between earth and Sheol on the other were vast and uncrossable.  Yet the desire to cross the vast chasms between life and death, between earth and the heavens or between the earth and Sheol has been a mark of human longing since the beginning of time and still exists.

            The Septuagint Greek translation of the Bible uses the word hades for Sheol—using a Greek term that was also used in Greek mythology to describe the realm of the dead.

            --Both Sheol and Hades also seem at times to be personified so that Sheol and Hades become personal beings.  Sheol, for example, is described as terribly hungry and devouring human lives; in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says that the power of Hades will not be able to overcome the church.

            Sheol is also imagined as a walled region with strong and imposing gates, something of a prison.  You could check in but not check out.

            There is another level or dimension to Sheol and Hades that emerges later in biblical tradition.  That is the term Gehenna or what we think of as hell.  This is used several times in the New Testament.  This is the lowest level in the map of the universe—the very bottom.

                        Etymology: the valley of Gehenna runs along the original boundary of Jerusalem; border between tribes of Benjamin and Judah; runs along southern rim of ancient Jerusalem.  Later under the early monarchy it was the site of a “high place” or a pagan altar where human sacrifice took place, particularly sacrifice of children who, terribly, would be forced to enter into a furnace of flames which the worshippers believed was the portal to the afterlife in order to appease the gods.  In later reforms of Josiah this site was destroyed but its horrifying reputation lingered on in history.  Later it apparently also became a place outside the city walls of Jerusalem used for throwing garbage with constantly smoldering fires burning the refuse.   You can see how this would become a metaphorical name for the place where the wicked would meet their fate.

            The second letter of Peter uses the unique Greek term Tartarus for this abode of the wicked. In 2 Peter 2:4 the author notes that the fallen angels were consigned to this lowest level in the pits of hell.   In Greek mythology, Tartarus was so far to the bottom of the universe that it was said that an anvil dropped from earth would travel nine days and nine nights before hitting the bottom!

            As I noted between these various realms there are great distances, chasms that cannot be easily crossed.  Those in Sheol cannot communicate with those on earth much less in heavenly realm (recall parable of Lazarus and rich man…).  In ancient mythology and art there is often depicted the “river ordeal” – those passing from life to death transported across the great raging river that divides the realm of the living from the realm of the death.  No can those on earth ascend to the heavenly realm, although there appear to be some exceptions in the Bible; the prophet Elijah who ascends to heaven in his fiery chariot; the mystical figure of Enoch found in some intertestamental Jewish writings; Paul himself who says he was transported mystically to the third realm of heaven (2 Cor 12:3);  and, of course,  Jesus who in the first letter of Peter and apparently in the Gospel of Matthew 27:52-54 visits Sheol to rescue the dead trapped there and, of course, in both Luke’s Gospel and in the Gospel of John is ascended into heaven.  Later tradition beyond the New Testament would also indicate that Mary, the mother of Jesus was transported body and soul into heaven.


            Before turning to the Bible’s images of the afterlife, let me first give a quick sketch of the remarkable evolution in the Bible’s view of human destiny beyond death.  As I noted, for many centuries the Biblical peoples did not have a strong conviction about life beyond death, despite the fact that most of the surrounding cultures did so.    The human body, as described in the creation accounts of Genesis, was seen as a “bag of clay” – created of earth and belonging to the earth—that was given life through a pure gift of the God of life.  In the second creation account in Genesis, God breathes into the lump of clay and a living human person is created.  But the human being remains essentially a creature of the earth; the divine breath within it gives the human life but it is a gift only for a time and ultimately returns to God. 

            This is the clear imagery in a remarkable passage from Ecclesiastes which describes in imaginative terms the death of the human village:

Before the sun is darkened. and the light, and the moon, and the stars, while the clouds return after the rain;

2When the guardians of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders are idle because they are few, and they who look through the windows grow blind;

3When the doors to the street are shut, and the sound of the mill is low; When one waits for the chirp of a bird, but all the daughters of song are suppressed;

4And one fears heights, and perils in the street; When the almond tree blooms, and the locust grows sluggish and the caper berry is without effect, Because man goes to his lasting home, and mourners go about the streets;

5Before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, And the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the broken pulley falls into the well,

            And the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it.

            Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, all things are vanity!

            As this eloquent text notes, the life breath is given back to God and the human body dissolves into the dust of the earth from which it came.  There is no assertion of life beyond death for the human being.

            But as Israel’s history unfolds, there begin to be intimations of life beyond death.  This did not come out of a conviction that the human being was composed of both body and soul, with the latter being immortal and able to escape ultimate death.  This was Greek thought that began to influence the biblical world after the time of Alexander’s conquest of the Middle East.  Platonic philosophy believed that the immortal soul was the essential component of the human being.  During a lifetime it was trapped in a material body but death enabled the immortal soul to escape and join the realm of the divine.  But this never became a strong conviction of the biblical peoples.  They were convinced through their understanding of creation that the human being was an embodied spirit, with human flesh an essential and inseparable component of human life.  Thus when the body would die, the human being as we know it would also die.  Thus death was feared; it was the end of one’s days; it was not seen as an escape or liberation of the soul from the body to an immortal realm.

            On the contrary biblical intimations of life beyond death ultimately broke into view not because of a conviction that humans had an immortal soul but rather because of a conviction that the God who loved them, who had created them, and in whom they placed their trust—this God of the living—would ultimately rescue the human person from death.    Later, in the century or two before Jesus the influence of Persian thought which believed that the gods would ultimately raise up the death from the grave gave some biblical peoples a way of conceiving of life after death. 

            So, too, did the dilemma posed about God’s goodness and justice concerning some experiences of death.  The book of Wisdom, for example, wonders about the death of the young or the untimely death of the innocent.  How could God allow this?  The Book of Maccabees worries about those brave patriots who lost their lives for the sake of Israel during the heroic revolt of the Jewish people against the Seleucids who had blasphemed the temple in Jerusalem—would God abandon them?  Consign to Sheol the very ones who had fought to purify and protect God’s temple?  In the book of Job, Job’s friends assume that the death and destruction that falls upon Job and his family must be God’s just punishment for some wrong that Job or his ancestors have done.  But Job refuses to accept such a simplistic explanation and, with no explanation making sense, has to ultimately to throw himself on God’s wisdom and mercy.  The visions of the prophet Ezekiel wrestled with the apparent “death” of the people Israel themselves in exile—the temple, the monarchy, their hold on the land—all destroyed.   In a vision he sees the bleached bones of the people Israel rise from their graves and march back into the land of Israel—a feat accomplished because the God of life chose to breathe on the bones and restore them to their existence.  Although applied to the destiny of the people as a whole, this vision was a strong inkling of the possibility of life beyond death.  And the basis for that belief was again not because of a conviction of an immortal soul but of a God of the living who would not abandon his people.

            This is precisely the argument that Jesus himself would make in the gospels when he encounters the Sadducees, a group of Jewish religious leaders contemporary with Jesus.  The Gospel of Matthew explains that the Pharisees believed in resurrection but the Sadducees did not.  They pose for Jesus the show stopper of a problem: a woman had seven different husbands, each of whom died before her.  In the resurrection, they ask, whose wife of the seven will she be?  Jesus’ reply is direct: “You are wrong, he says, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.  He goes on: “as to the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  He is God not of the dead but of the living.”  (Mt 22:23-33).

            For Christians, the destiny of Jesus becomes the ultimate illumination of the question about life after death.  Jesus truly experiences death—a terrible and wrenching death on the cross, a death of someone young and vital and completely good.  But, through the power of God, Jesus triumphs over death, being raised to a new and transformed life.  And, in the explicit scenario of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus ascends back into the realm of the divine.  John’s Gospel, too, notes the cosmic journey of Jesus, whose origin is with God and equal to God, but as the eternal Word becomes flesh, lives a human life, and is raised up on the cross and goes back to God in triumph, to the Father who had sent him and continued to love him. 

            Christian conviction that Jesus Christ was forerunner—the “stalking horse,” as the letter to the Hebrews puts it—who runs through the valley of death ahead of us and is united with God, his Father forever—this resurrection conviction  was the breakthrough in Christian reflection on the afterlife.  Jesus, in the language of John’s Gospel, is the way that leads to eternal life and beginning in the New Testament and continuing in Christian tradition ever since there was robust imagining of what the afterlife might be.  In the case of Jesus—and in the case of those who believe in him—the chasm between the world of the living and the world of the dead is dissolved.

            And it is to the Bible’s mapping of the far side that we now turn in this third and final segment of our reflections today…


I. The Bright Side

            It soon becomes clear that once the Bible comes to believe in life beyond death it imagines life in the heavenly realm as, in a sense, a projection of what is most meaningful for us in this life—experiences that give joy and peace and satisfaction in this life are seen to extend into the afterlife, at least for those who lead a just life.

            a) Meals   One of those defining human experiences that give life and joy and a sense of profound well-being was the meal among family and loved ones.  A powerful text that expressed the hopes of Israel for future life in these terms is that of – Isaiah 25:6-9;

On this mountain* the LORDof hosts

will provide for all peoples

A feast of rich food and choice wines,

juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.

7On this mountain he will destroy

the veil that veils all peoples,

The web that is woven over all nations.

8He will destroy death forever.

The Lord GODwill wipe away

the tears from all faces;

The reproach of his people he will remove

from the whole earth; for the LORDhas spoken.d

9On that day it will be said:

“Indeed, this is our God; we looked to him, and he saved us!

This is the LORDto whom we looked;

let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!”e*

            The yearly celebration of Passover also became a sign of future hope when the family and indeed the nation would be gathered in safety and joy.  At the last supper in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus, on the eve of his death, tells his disciples that he will not eat and drink wine with them again until he dines with them in the kingdom of heaven (Mark 14:25).  Images of great banquets that are filled with guests from the highways and the byways abound in Jesus’ parables. The book of Revelation evokes that great text of Isaiah 25 in describing the “new heavens and a new earth” where God’s dwelling is with the human race.  “He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4).

            b) The renewed city: Another important image of the afterlife is that of the new city where all will be peace and prosperity.  Some year ago, the theologian Thomas Berry sponsored a conference at the United Nations entitled “the city as sacred place.”  As he pointed out the fundamental movement in the biblical saga is toward the city.  Israel was, in a sense, born in the desert but it does not remain there.  It seeks the promised land—the desert is only a sojourn—but the real goal is the city and the nation.  In the land of milk and honey (both images suggestive of herding and farming) the Israelites would eventually build the city of Jerusalem, symbol of the united nation where both the king and God’s house would dwell.  Likewise the final book in the biblical canon is the Book of Revelation which ends with a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem coming down to earth and forming a safe and beautiful and joyful community of life in which God himself would dwell and be the light that illumines this new world of peace and safety. At the last supper in his final discourse, the Jesus of John’s Gospel tells his disciples that he goes to prepare a place for them, to the city of God where there are many dwelling places (John 14:1-3)a text so frequently used in Catholic funerals.  Paul, too, speaks of leaving behind the tattered and fragile tent of this life to be given a magnificent dwelling place in heaven by God (see Paul 2 Cor 5:1-5). 

            c) The reconciliation and restoration of nature: the new creation   Among the so-called “paradise visions” found in the Old Testament one that is particularly beautiful and timely is found in such texts as Isaiah 11:1-9 and Isaiah 66.  Here the promise of redemption and final peace held out by God effects not only humans but the world of nature as well.  Here is a text often read during the Advent season:

But a shoot shall sprout from the stump* of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.a
The spirit of the LORDshall rest upon him:b
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
A spirit of counsel and of strength,
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,
and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips…
* Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.f
The cow and the bear shall graze,
together their young shall lie down;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.g
The baby shall play by the viper’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea.

A similar text is found in Isaiah 65:

See, I am creating new heavens
and a new earth;
The former things shall not be remembered
nor come to mind.e
Instead, shout for joy and be glad forever
in what I am creating.
Indeed, I am creating Jerusalem to be a joy
and its people to be a delight;
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and exult in my people.
No longer shall the sound of weeping be heard there,
or the sound of crying;
No longer shall there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
nor anyone who does not live a full lifetime;
One who dies at a hundred years shall be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred shall be thought accursed
They shall build houses and live in them,
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit;
They shall not build and others live there;
they shall not plant and others eat.
As the years of a tree, so the years of my people;
and my chosen ones shall long enjoy
the work of their hands.
They shall not toil in vain,
nor beget children for sudden destruction;
For they shall be a people blessed by the LORD
and their descendants with them.
Before they call, I will answer;
while they are yet speaking, I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall pasture together,
and the lion shall eat hay like the ox—
but the serpent’s food shall be dust.g
None shall harm or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.


This set of images speaks of life with God as a renewal of creation itself.  We can also think of the beautiful imagery in John’s Gospel which speaks of his death and the subsequent passage from death to life in his resurrection and exaltation as a moment of birth. 

So some of his disciples said to one another, “What does this mean that he is saying to us, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” 18So they said, “What is this ‘little while’ [of which he speaks]? We do not know what he means.” 19Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Are you discussing with one another what I said, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’? 20Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.j 21When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world.k 22So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.l

Texts like these provided the biblical peoples and all of us with the imagery and language to express our hopes for life beyond death.
            d)  Communion with those we love: Here we touch on the anguished question of the woman who asked me whether there was any place in the Bible that could assure her she would see her daughter’s face again.  Perhaps there is not a text with such a specific reference but the notion of being rejoined with the ones we love—above all, God himself and Jesus, the beloved son—is found in a number of places in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament and even more particularly in the Gospel of John.  Here I would turn to chapter 17 of John, the climactic section of Jesus’ final discourse with his disciples.  With great eloquence and poignancy Jesus speaks of returning to his father through his death on the cross.  That journey through the valley of death would ultimately lead to a joyful and unbreakable reunion with the God who had loved Jesus into existence.  In that unfathomable union of father and son, all who follow Jesus will also share.  We can let Jesus’ own words speak:

And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are. …But now I am coming to you. I speak this in the world so that they may share my joy completely. “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me. Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am* they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world.  Righteous Father, the world also does not know you, but I know you, and they know that you sent me.I made known to them your name and I will make it known,* that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.”


            II.  The Dark Side

            Just as the language used to imagine those blessed to live with God forever are a projection of human joy and well-being, so notions of those condemned to Hades (Sheol) are images of isolation and torment.  A kind of anti-life.  Particularly strong—drawing on the Old Testament imaging of the Sheol as a place of separation and silence, of darkness, a place of torment, of non-life.

            So many of these images are found in the Psalms, in particular Psalm 88.  Allow me to read some of it and you can catch the accumulation of images found there.

LORD, the God of my salvation, I call out by day;
at night I cry aloud in your presence.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is filled with troubles;
my life draws near to Sheol.
I am reckoned with those who go down to the pit;
I am like a warrior without strength.
My couch is among the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave.
You remember them no more;
they are cut off from your influence.
You plunge me into the bottom of the pit,
into the darkness of the abyss.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me;
all your waves crash over me.
All day I call on you, LORD;
I stretch out my hands to you.
*Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades arise and praise you?
Is your mercy proclaimed in the grave,
your faithfulness among those who have perished?
Are your marvels declared in the darkness,
your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?


III. Intermediate State (purgatory)

      One can find a growing conviction in the Scriptures that emerges a century or so before the time of Jesus about a place in between Sheol and Heaven, a place of purification and completion.  Particularly noteworthy is a famous text in the Second Book of Maccabees (chapter 13).  After a battle with the Greek forces that were oppressing their country, members of the army go into the field to reverently bury their dead comrades—only to discover that on the bodies of the fallen there were amulets or good luck charms.  Their leader, Judas Maccabeus, while regretting this act of idolatry, at the same time believes that God will give these fallen heroes the opportunity to be purified after their deaths and thereby to avoid damnation.  Here is the text that is cited as an important biblical warrant for the doctrine of purgatory:

      “On the following day, since the task had now become urgent, Judas and his companions went to gather up the bodies of the fallen and bury them with their kindred in their ancestral tombs. But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden. Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen.  He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.”

            While the Catholic Church has put aside a belief in Limbo—that neutral state where those who were not baptized yet were innocent people were consigned—it still retains a conviction about the existence of purgatory—this time or state of purification for those who are judged not yet ready for entrance into eternal glory.

            One of the most beautiful explanations for purgatory I have ever come across is found in the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, most recently in his encyclical on hope—entitled Spe Salvi (from a phrase in Paul’s letter to the Romans—“we are saved by hope”.)

            The Pope observes that in reviewing human history, we note that some human beings are totally oriented to love and virtue; their lives are beautiful in every way.  We think of the saints such as Francis of Assisi; Theresa; Dorothy Day; Cardinal Bernardin; or a family member you know.

            But on the other side of the spectrum we also think sadly of some human beings who appear to lead lives that are totally consumed by hate and violence: Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein; Kadafi, etc.   In Catholic tradition we hold that we cannot be sure of any single person who is surely condemned to hell but we wonder about such lives that are so hardwired for hatred, if they have not chosen their fate in the way they lived their lives and have chosen in effect to be separate from the God of love for all eternity. 

            But for most of us, the Pope went on, we live lives hat are a mixture of good and evil, of virtue and vice.  What happens to us at the end of our lives? What happens when we come before the God who is the ultimate judge of our lives?

            Here he suggests that the fires of purgatory are not the kind of fire we might think of, not some fiery torment.  But something very different: the fires of purgatory are the fires of Christ’s love for us.  As we stand before the infinite love of Christ for us, that intense and pure love   burns away from us anything that is not inclined to love.  Understood this way I think purgatory is yet another sign of God’s love for us and God’s desire that we not be lost.  Here are the Pope’s words:
            The encounter with him [Christ] is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us forever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Passion. At the moment of judgment we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.”


            Let me conclude this exploration of the afterlife from the Bible’s vantage point with two observations—both taken from two articles I have recently come across as I desperately prepared for this presentation!

            1. We have seen how the Bible’s images of the afterlife are mirror images of our present lives—all that is good and beautiful and hopeful is projected onto our hoped-for life with God. John Garvey, a long time commentator for Commonweal magazine, recently reflected on this very point.  He noted that in the ancient pre-Christian world, it was thought that those who had died and went to Sheol lived a life that was only a shadow of the present life.  Instead of conversation, they knew only silence; instead of light and brightness, they know only darkness and cold; instead of the comfort of someone nearby to love, they knew only isolation and solitariness.  The afterlife was but a shadow existence compared with life on earth.

            But through faith in the resurrection of Jesus, Christians have reversed the scenario.  In many ways, this life is but a shadow of the fullness of life to come.  While we love imperfectly now and often disappoint and fail those we love, in God’s presence we will experience love without limit and without failure.  While here we enjoy what seem to be brief moments of joy as families and loved ones gather—only to be followed by absences and sometimes conflict and loss, there we will be together forever, with no tears, no sadness, no anxiety about death.  Where here we can live in fear of losing our job, our house, our children, our health—there we will experience the fullness of life—no anxiety, no loss, only the full beauty of joy and life.

            As Garvey notes, we fear death not for its own sake but out of a sense of incompletion.  Our faith assures us that the life we have experienced and savored now—even as incomplete—will find its fullness in the afterlife with the God of love. Resurrection frees us from mortality and suffering and enables us to be fully ourselves.  It is our current existence that will be revealed to be as but a shadow of our capacity to live fully as the human begins God created us to be.

            As Paul put it in the quote from Romans that began this presentation: “Now we see darkly, as if in a mirror—there we will see face to face….”

            2. And another thought found in a somewhat technical article in the Journal of Biblical Literatureby an Italian scholar Ilaria L. E. Ramelli.    She notes that in virtually all scenarios about the afterlife in the ancient pre-Christian world, there was the firm belief that a vast and uncrossable chasm separated the living from the dead.  One could not pass from one to the other—nor could one normally communicate with those who had left the world of the living and were now in the mysterious world of the dead.  Attempts through necromancy or magic were feared and a cause of shame in the bible.

            But again because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christian faith now sees a communion between the living and the dead.  No longer is there an uncrossable boundary between the living and the dead.  That portal has been opened by the death and resurrection of Jesus.  He, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, is like the stalking horse (the prosdromos) who goes through the veil first and brings us with him.  He is the first born of many generations.  He is the new Adam, the head of a new human race that has overcome the power of death.  Now our beloved dead are, in a sense, united with us—we form one body in Christ.  And even though we can communicate only with some difficulty, we do not hesitate to speak with them, pray for them, and ask their prayers for us.  As Pope Benedict noted in the same encyclical I quoted earlier: “The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon?”

            And so we have the feasts of All Saints and All Souls.  As Sr. Martha reminded me the other day, the Irish speak of this season at the beginning of November as the “thin” time—the time when the wall between the living and the dead becomes very permeable.

            We Christians mourn the loss of a loved one like all human beings but our communion with those who have gone before us in faith tempers our grief.  The dead are, in a common NT term, “asleep” not gone forever.  In this same vein Paul counseled the Christian community at Thessaloniki with these words:

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.  For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep. Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord,will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep.   For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together* with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.  Therefore, console one another with these words.

            Despite its many images for imagining the afterlife, our Scriptures remain tentative and modest.  I think of Paul’s famous comment in I Cor 13:12 (now we see in a glass darkly, then we shall know, as now we are known.)   Or the words of 1 John 3:2,   We do not know what we will be, but we will see Him as He is.   The ultimate surety is not our images or probing or nagging questions.  The ultimate surety is the limitless and faithful love of the God who made us, who instilled in us a longing for life, who made hearts that grieve for lost loved ones, who planted a deep desire in us for life beyond death.  

            One of my favorite quotes from the Bible is found in Isaiah 49.  In a soliloquy the prophet wonders if God has abandoned his people.  The Lord responds this way:

But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me;
my Lord has forgotten me.”i
Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
Even should she forget, I will never forget you.j
See, I have written your name upon the palms of my hands.*

And, finally, listen to echoes of this in this famous passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans:

What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we are being slain all the day;
we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who lovedus.For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things,nor future things, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth,nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Thank you for listening… Enjoy the “thin days” -- happy All Saints and All Souls day!!


Donald Senior, C.P.

President & Professor of New Testament Studies
Catholic Theological Union
October 30, 2011

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