11/3/2011 10:00:00 AM WORD OF FAITH Pondering the afterlife
BY REV. ROGER KARBAN
FROM A READING FOR NOV. 6, 32ND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR 'We do not want you to be uninformed...about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.' - I Thes 4:13
One of the most difficult things for new Scripture students to accept is that some of what most Christians believe today wasn't believed by some of the faith communities for whom our sacred authors wrote.
Sunday's I Thessalonians 4:13-18 passage provides a classic example.
Back in 1945, in my first-grade religion classes, I learned what happens when we leave this earth: The instant we die, we'll face a "particular" judgment. God will review our entire life and decide whether we go to heaven, hell or purgatory.
Then, when Jesus returns in the Parousia, everyone who's ever lived will undergo a "general" judgment: Now everyone will be able to find out where everyone else ends up. Purgatory will be eliminated; we'll spend eternity in heaven or hell.
I later discovered this precise sequence is found nowhere in Scripture. As a matter of fact, in the earliest Christian writing we possess - I Thessalonians - Paul provides his community with a belief few of us would accept today, a belief later contradicted by other biblical authors.
Why'd they die?
It seems the first Christians were convinced no follower of Jesus would die before He returned in the Second Coming. That's why there was consternation in Thessalonica when someone walked into a room one morning and discovered a dead Christian.
Would the deceased miss out on being with the risen and returned Jesus when He finally arrived triumphant on earth? Would they be relegated to the "end of the line" when the heavenly goodies were passed out?
As we hear on Sunday, Paul is convinced those who have died won't bring up the rear: The living "will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep." But the Apostle presumes the dead will have to pass the interval between their demise and Jesus' Parousia lying peacefully in their graves. There's no particular judgment.
About 35 years after I Thessalonians, when we get to Luke's Acts of the Apostles narrative of Stephen's martyrdom, we first hear about Jesus coming to meet the faithful at the moment of death.
(That's why Luke's Jesus can assure the good thief, "This day you will be with me in paradise!")
In the now
In our bridesmaids passage (Matthew 25:1-13), Jesus is more concerned with what's happening now than what will take place when we die. Though most interpret "kingdom of heaven" as a synonym for where we hope to spend eternity, Scripture scholars remind us it's one of the Gospel-Jesus' terms for God working effectively in our lives now.
Jesus teaches that only the "properly prepared" will be able to experience God in their day-to-day lives. For the rest, it's like being outside a locked door.
Though Scripture isn't as specific on life after death as we would like, perhaps our Wisdom (6:12-16) author can cushion our discomfort. He or she is convinced our purpose in life isn't to have all the answers, but to engage in a constant quest to discover the essential role God plays in everything we do and are.
True wisdom consists in such a day-by-day endeavor: "Taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence, and whoever for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care."
There are still things to discover about the afterlife - but only the "wise" will engage in the quest.