Entering into a lifetime search for God working among us, as the author of Sunday's Wisdom passage encourages, (Wis 6:12-16), we discover some strange things.

Have you ever noticed, for instance, the different, contradictory theologies about life after death employed in the texts of an ordinary Catholic funeral liturgy? An introductory Scripture course shows that our biblical authors have divergent beliefs even on something that important.

We rarely recognize and appreciate their theologies since, as children, most of us learned a single, iron-clad belief system about death. Thinking it's the one and only, we presume every funeral prayer and reading faithfully echoes the material we memorized in our catechism class.

What next?

Teachers assured us that, at the moment of death, God first separates our bodies from our souls, then privately judges the latter. This "particular judgment" ends with our souls being sent either to heaven, hell, or purgatory.

Eventually, when the world ends, we'll undergo a "general judgment" in front of everyone who ever lived. Bodies and souls will be reunited, and purgatory will no longer be an option. Those still suffering in purgatory will be escorted to heaven.

A good, workable system; yet no sacred writer presents it just that way. Its individual elements can be found in various authors, but the complete version isn't in any one author.

The process of understanding the differing Christian theologies of death starts with Jesus' delayed Parousia.

First-generation Christians, believing Jesus' Second Coming to be imminent, thought no one would die before His arrival. But time passes, Jesus didn't return, and the unthinkable happened: Christians began to die. This is the point at which Paul composed the second reading (I Thes 4:13-18).

Opinion is divided: Some in Thessalonika believe those who die before the Parousia simply lose out and never experience eternal life with Jesus. Others believe these unfortunate individuals eventually will reach heaven, but they'll get only the dregs; the best heavenly places will be taken by those who are alive at the Second Coming.

Paul holds neither opinion. "We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters," he writes, "about those who have fallen asleep....For if we believe Jesus died and rose, so, too, will God, through Jesus, bring with Him those who have fallen asleep....We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.... 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."


We find this theology in the blessing which the priest or deacon invokes over the grave: "Grant that our brother/sister may sleep here in peace until you awaken him/her to glory, for you are the resurrection and the life. Then he/she will see you face to face." The indication is that the deceased will stay in the grave until the Parousia. There's no particular judgment, just a general one at the end of time.

Of course, were we to have a Gospel reading from Luke's good thief story ("This day you will be with me in paradise"), or from John's raising of Lazarus passage ("Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die"), we'd see that later authors no longer hold Paul's theology. They teach that, at the moment of death, Christians are immediately with Jesus.

In Sunday's Gospel of the five wise/foolish virgins (Mt 25:1-13), Matthew ignores the question by simply encouraging his community to be prepared for Jesus' arrival, no matter when it takes place or what happens after.

No doubt our faith-ancestors could have different opinions about death because they developed a relationship with a person, not with a system.