Remember the line in John Lennon's song "Imagine" about the possibility of there being no heaven and no hell?

It doesn't take much imagination to realize the vast majority of authors of the Hebrew Scriptures knew nothing about a heaven or hell. The idea that someone could enter a meaningful life after death didn't enter Jewish belief until a century before Jesus' birth.

And even when the Pharisees reached the insight that anyone who formed a relationship with Yahweh here on earth would continue that relationship in heaven for all eternity, that belief wasn't (and isn't) automatically held by all Jews.

In Sunday's Gospel, Jesus confronts a group of Sadducees, Jews who not only believed that this earthly life was the only life, but also contended that Yahweh had inspired just five biblical books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuter-onomy (Lk 20: 27-38). (That's why Jesus bases His biblical argument on a passage from Exodus, one of their five inspired books.)

Evolving belief

Few readers of Scripture today know about the evolution in faith that led to belief in an afterlife. But even among those who have that knowledge, many presume that, as soon as people realized that heaven exists, they simultaneously began believing in hell. The first reading shows us the process wasn't that simple (II Macc 7: 1-2, 9-14).

The eternal choice originally wasn't between heaven and hell; it was between life and death. The just - those who entered, maintained and developed a relationship with Yahweh - would continue to live and develop that life-giving relationship for all eternity. The unjust - those who refused such a relationship - would simply die. There was no need to worry about a place of fire, demons and torture. Dying was punishment enough.

That's why the fourth brother, before dying, proclaims to his killers, "It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by Him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life."

In His struggle with the Sadducees, Jesus mentions nothing about punishment after death. He's concerned with only two issues: to show from Scripture that the just live even after death and to let people know that heaven is more than a simple transfer of their present life into eternity.

He accomplishes the first by referring to the burning bush episode in Exodus 3. Though Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had died more than 500 years before Yahweh appeared to Moses in the Sinai, Yahweh refers to their relationship in the present tense. "I am the God," not, "I was the God." The three must still be alive.

New life

Jesus achieves the second purpose by pointing out that the restrictions limiting our relationships here on earth will be eliminated when we cross heaven's threshold: "Those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage." Heaven will be a whole new experience.

It's significant that the disciple of Paul who wrote II Thessaloni-ans not only grounds his own faith in a relationship with God and Jesus, but also believes it's a relationship that takes us beyond the limits of this world.

"Brothers and sisters," he writes, "may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our father, who have loved us and given us everlasting encouragement and good hope through His grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word."

Though our ancestors in the faith might not have been as "theologically sophisticated" as we, they understood that every experience of God springs from and revolves around life. The more they reflected on their experiences, the more they came to understand the unforeseen depth and breadth of that life. Those experiences eventually carried them into eternity.

(11/4/04)