4/7/2011 3:10:00 PM WORD OF FAITH Musing on the afterlife
BY REV. ROGER KARBAN
FROM A READING FOR APRIL 10, FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT 'Jesus said to her, "Didn't I tell you that you would see God's glory if you believed?"' John 11:40
No one's 100 percent certain what's going to happen when we die. We need only listen carefully to Sunday's readings to discover that our ancestors in the faith had differing ideas about this event.
As a biblically-formed people, we must be careful not to uncritically accept some catechism explanations about the afterlife, explanations based more on a desire to reconcile contradictory theologies than on an honest attempt to explain the reasons behind those divinely-inspired, different beliefs.
In grade school catechism, I learned that "the gates of heaven were closed" because of Adam and Eve's sin. No one could get into heaven until Jesus died for our sins. Later, I discovered that teaching was based on the observation that, except in the late Wisdom writings, none of the Hebrew Scriptures' important people were ever spoken of as "going to heaven" after they died.
Scholars tell us that, until those later Wisdom books were written a century or so before Jesus' birth, the sacred authors had no concept of heaven. Once heavenly belief entered their theology, most Jews believed those faithful to Yahweh continued to live with Yahweh in heaven.
That means in the sixth century BCE, when Ezekiel's Yahweh (Ez 37:12-14) speaks about raising people from the dead, God's not referring to having individuals live forever in heaven.
Yahweh is simply promising to return those Jews to Israel who died before being liberated. The understanding is that, after they live some years in the Holy Land, they'll once again die.
Part of the reason behind our belief in a particular and a general judgment comes from differing opinions in the Scriptures about what happens to Christians who die before Jesus' Second Coming.
In I Thessalonians, it's clear that Paul thought dead Christians would have to spend a short time in the grave until Jesus arrived and raised them. We presume Mark and Matthew shared Paul's belief.
But Luke takes for granted that Jesus won't return until everyone in his community has died. He believes that, at death, Jesus' followers experience a "personal Parousia:" Jesus comes for them and immediately takes them into heaven with Him.
That's why his Jesus can assure the good thief, "This day you will be with me in paradise." If the good thief were in Mark and Matthew, their Jesus would have promised, "After a short time in the grave, you'll be with me in paradise."
Luke's personal Parousia eventually develops into our particular judgment; Paul, Mark and Matthew's Second Coming becomes the general judgment, even though our sacred authors thought of them as either/or, not both/and.
But, as we hear in Sunday's Gospel (John 11:1-45), John's Jesus goes one step further by assuring Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me even if they die will live, and those who live and believe in me will never die."
John's convinced that what we're looking for in the future, we already have. His Jesus would have told the good thief, "Once you believe in me, you're already in paradise."
Perhaps the best way to approach life after death is to fall back on Paul's insight (Romans 8:8-11): "If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you."