Studying Scripture critically, one quickly learns that faith isn't a static experience. Faith either grows and evolves, or it dies. Those who follow through on Jesus' command to surface the kingdom of God in this world constantly discover new dimensions of God working in their daily lives. Jesus' first followers especially found this to be true when they dealt with one of faith's essential questions: What happens to us when we die?

Most Christians today don't have a problem with that question. Having learned about the afterlife not from Scripture, but from our grade school or catechism classes, we know exactly what happens when we breathe our last.

At the moment of death, everyone will go through a "particular" judgment, when God decides whether our soul goes to heaven, hell or purgatory. Then when the world finally ends we'll experience a "general" judgment. At that point purgatory will be taken off the board, our bodies again will be joined to our souls, and God will decide whether everyone who ever lived will spend eternity in heaven or hell.

One problem

It's a good, simple explanation of what happens when we die. There's only one problem: It's never expressed exactly that way anywhere in Scripture.

In Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians -- the earliest Christian writing we possess -- there's neither a concept of the separation of body and soul in death, nor any statement that even implies two judgments. According to Paul, the dead simply stay in their graves until Jesus' second coming. When the angel's trumpet announces His arrival, they take their place at the head of the heavenly line.

It's a logical explanation for first- or second-generation Christians, people expecting Jesus' coming to be just around the corner. The author of the second reading (Rev. 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20) expresses a similar theology. "Remember, I am coming soon!" Jesus promises the seer. And the writer responds, "Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!" Christians anticipating an imminent Parousia believed that the world as we know it would pass quickly away.

But when Luke writes in the 80s, many of Jesus' followers are beginning to question whether His coming will happen in their lifetime. The delayed Parousia seems to be why Stephen, the first Christian to die in Luke's Acts, looks up at the moment of death, sees "the Son of Man standing at God's right hand," and prays, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7: 55-60).

Luke evolves a new "after death" theology. He believes that each Christian experiences her or his own personal Parousia at the moment of death -- no waiting in the grave, no particular or general judgment. That's why Luke's Jesus can assure the good thief, "This day you will be with me in paradise!"

One with God

John carries this concept one step further (Jn 17: 20-26). The last evangelist believes in "realized eschatology." For him, it isn't enough just to worry about what happens after our physical death; we must also concern ourselves with Jesus' loving presence long before we breathe our last. As we hear in the Gospel, true believers are already one with Him and the Father right here and now.

Immediately before His passion, death and resurrection, John's Jesus prays to the Father "that they may be in us....I living in them, you living in me, that their unity may be complete." What other, earlier Christian authors expected in the future, John presumes we already have in the present. Were there a good thief in John's Gospel, Jesus probably would have told him to notice paradise already existing all around him.

The fact that we who are reading this commentary learned about the particulars of life after death not from Paul, Luke or John demonstrates that our theology didn't stop developing and evolving even with the closing of the Scriptural canon. It's amazing what one discovers when one continually surfaces God's presence in one's everyday life.

(05-24-01)