What do Christians hope for after death, and on what grounds?

No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path. One that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass... then you see it! White shores... and beyond. A far green country, under a swift sunrise.
(Gandalf the White to Pippin in The Return of the King).



Losing a child is an impossible blow. When I lost my precious, precious daughter Ruth in July 2009, I called out to God in utter anguish. His response was immediate and overwhelming, to the extent that we were left in no doubt that He well knew what was going to happen and had put in motion hundreds of tiny events that would allow my wife, family, and I to, somehow, cope with the devastation.

I have often thought that I should have documented these things. Some where tiny coincidences some huge miracles. One was that I was in my third year of a five year degree in theology. Just at the time all this happened, I was studying Moral Theology, the source of morality and issues like blame, guilt, and what makes an act moral. I was also studying Fall and Redemption and Grace and Glory. This meant that all my lectures before and after seemed impossibly pertinent. They seemed to be God speaking directly to me, explaining everything, speaking to my pain and anguish, my fears and concerns. Letting me know that my faith would be the thing that got me through this tragedy. To counsel me, I had the Dominican vice regent of Blackfriars Oxford, Father Richard Conrad, explaining exactly what happens when someone dies. I was able to sit in a lecture room with him for four hours or so and grill him. My first academic writing after the accident is very raw, and I'm not sharing that with you today. But I wrote this essay on 30th January 2010, after I'd had a little time to reflect and come to terms with everything that had happened. This isn't all of it, but most of it. I think it demonstrates how important the question is/ was to me and I think it may help anyone who has lost someone and is wondering what that means in the context of being a Christian.

 ~Auctore Deo~

“A subitanea morte, libera nos, Domine.”

Introduction

In this post, I will speak of what I know of death insofar as I have experienced it in my own life. I will attempt to explain how the thoughts of theologians have helped me to develop an understanding of death in the context of my own experience-something I, as a Christian, hope for after death. I will not write about hell, purgatory, the parousia, judgement or any of the things that are associated with death as I want to focus on what can be understood of dying, what we hope for after death and what reason we as Christians have for that hope. I will examine what heaven can mean and where Christians gather information from to encourage a belief in future beyond our mortal existence. I will consider Old Testament and New Testament sources, as well as the teaching of the Church and theologians. Finally, I will attempt to show how our hope for heaven is centred in the person of Jesus Christ.

Reflections on the Question

What do we hope for after death? It’s quite a big question! It may at first seem simple to answer by saying “heaven”, but what does heaven mean? Does it mean life going on forever? If so, one might think that could become rather boring eventually.

A fulfilling life does not necessarily mean an easy life; throughout history, philosophers have summed up that fulfilment in lots of different words which express the same sentiments. For example, the ancient Chinese maxim accredited to Lao Tzu “you must taste bitter in order to taste sweet” speaks of our need to face challenges, to overcome difficulties. It is only in the domination of the vicissitudes we encounter throughout our lives that we find some sense of fulfilment  For the Christian, the fulfilment we enjoy is born of grace. Grace enables us to share in the source and goal of our lives, which we know to be God. St. Augustine opines:
“for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (CCC 30). 
Human kind then, has the desire for God written in their hearts, because we are created by God and for God “only in God will he ever find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (CCC 27). The scope of this search is beautifully expounded by Thomas J. Norris in his work A Fractured Relationship, where he intimates how modern historians, archaeologists and palaeontologists have identified “an explosion of symbolic expressions signifying a search for a communion with the ultimate Source of our existence.” This is a search we can recognise in each and every civilisation science has encountered from the cave-painters of Lascaux and Altamira to the philosophers of ancient Greece. For Norris, this reaching out for an “Ultimate source” constitutes proof of Augustine’s maxim. In considering humanity’s search to understand the irreducible seed of eternity we all bear in ourselves I cannot help but see a great deal of synchronicity with St. Thomas Aquinas’ teleological argument or argument of "design" (ex fine), which takes note of the direction all our lives take. As St. Thomas has it;
…as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer…[so]…some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end…(St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theoligae, I,2,3)
Over time, this has become my favourite of the Quinque viae, because it relates so closely to this issue of the cycle of birth, life and death which forms the inescapable leitmotif of our time here; as inevitable as the flight of that arrow, we move to our ultimate goal. This direction is immutable and definite and something that modern society seems to try very hard to ignore. Certainly in England death is something to hide from. Increasingly the elderly seem to be marginalised from society, kept away from the family unit and looked after by strangers in “care” homes. The shocking legalisation of euthanasia in some countries also points to this trend, offering further escapism from the realities of our mortal existence, dressed up as compassion. Taken to its extreme, we must consider that this may even lead, in time, to people feeling that they should kill themselves when they reach a certain age, lack a certain independence, require a certain amount of help.

Joseph Ratzinger explains how the modern home has become like a “sleeping-bag” and death and sickness have become purely technological problems to be handled by the appropriate institution, not metaphysical and physical problems to be handled in the midst of a communion of life (i.e. the family). (cf. Eschatology Death and Eternal Life, p. 69-70).

And yet how can this turn in our society’s comprehension of its own mortality constitute anything less than a denial of reality for us? For Joseph Ratzinger, the fact that in today’s society, the historical process is in crisis, has meant that eschatological theology has moved to the very centre of the discussion about what our “being” means. Hans Urs von Balthasar understands “being” in the context of the destination of the human person after death. He suggests that love offers us a strong clue to the indissoluble interconnection between spiritual nature and personhood (cf. von Balthasar, H.U., The von Balthasar Reader, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982, p. 78).

It has always seemed clearly ludicrous to me to think that life, in the context of love, might amount to nothing at all. In other words, it is clearly the case that, from the moment we are born into this world, we begin a journey of discovery that consists of a manifest development of a web of ethereal bonds. We build up relationships, love, wisdom, and understanding. We exist in relationship with others (cf. GS 24f), it is these relationships that define us to the extent where von Balthasar can say:
the human being can find its enlargement and happiness only in the you of another human being (Ibid, p. 78).
This idea is completely consistent with what we understand of God the Holy Trinity, i.e. the transcendent archetype of unity-in-love-without-rivalry. The integration of the “I” into the body of Christ, its disponibilité at the service of the Lord and of others, is not the self’s dissolution but a purification which is, at one and the same time, the actualisation of its highest potential. This is why heaven is individual for each and every one. Everyone sees God in his own proper way. Everyone receives the love offered by the totality in the manner suggested by his own irreplaceable uniqueness. Despite this truth, we are left to face the inevitable end of this communication which we call death. Death sprawls like an impenetrable barrier across our existence and development, inconceivable, final and seeming in direct contravention to our being, growth and purpose. At this point, we cease that communication. Our loved ones pass through the barrier and are no longer there. Yet the love we share with them does not cease, and in some inexplicable fashion they remain with us, a real part of who we are and of our individual experience of life, our particular journey.

To recap on what we have understood so far, death is inevitable, it is final, it is horrible, it is painful, it is bitter. So what hope do we have and what reason for expressing it? The answer is summed up in one person; the one person who came back from the cold finality of death, rose having defeated its unavoidable embrace and gave us understanding of what it means to be fulfilled. What we hope for after death as Christians is Him, as St. Paul explains, life in this world is “Christ”, but death is gain, since in the “dissolution” of all that is earthly, death means “being with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).

What do we hope for?

The glory of him who moves everything
Penetrates the universe and shines
In one part more and, in another, less.

I have been in the heaven which takes most of his light,
And I have seen things which cannot be told,
Possibly by anyone who comes down from up there;

Because, approaching the object of its desires,
Our intellect is so deeply absorbed
That memory cannot follow it all the way.

—Dante, The Divine Comedy (Oxford: OUP, 2008), p. 351.

The “Penny Catechism”, once known by heart by every child, held a succinct answer as to why God made human beings: “God made me to know Him, to love Him and serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next.” If we are made by and for God, we have to answer this question by postulating God as what we hope for after death. We long to be with Him and to gaze upon His face: “we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2), “for now we see in a mirror darkly, but then we will see face to face” (1 Cor 13:12), “and they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads.” (Rev 22:4). Tradition has put the name “Heaven” on the place where this will happen, but we can only begin to grasp in a human way what this actually means. In the Catechism, Heaven is “God’s own place… eschatology glory…the saints and the “place” of the spiritual creatures, the angels who surround God”. It is a word which means
communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed…the ultimate fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness (CCC 1024)
In his work Many Religions-One Covenant, Joseph Ratzinger suggests that fulfillment for us means finding definitive answers to the great questions of our existence; who am I? Where am I going? What do I do to put my life in order? Frank Sheed develops this idea in the context of death and explains what happens after death as a definitive answer to these questions; an end to wavering of the will- a setting of the will for, or against God.
Time in its flow brings to the foreground one, or another, or another of all the myriad objects that can attract the will, so that the will finds itself played upon almost intolerably by competing fascinations. And to an ordeal so continuously exacting, the will brings different energies of acceptance and resistance.—Frank Sheed, Theology & Sanity (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993, p. 337)
Consider his idea in the context of our journey (grace) towards the life of the Holy Trinity (glory). Sin constitutes our encounter with God in the still of our hearts (cf, GS 16) and a decision to turn away from Him—it is in this way all sin is a form of pride, a repetition of the first sin. As we learn more about Him, as we learn to pray to Him and love Him, as we develop our life within the Church, we receive the Sacraments and we receive grace, gratia sanans (healing grace), gratia elevans (divinising grace). We come to better know His will and we begin to grasp that our hearts are restless until they rest in Him (cf. CCC 30). In this way, we begin to align ourselves with the divine will. Life becomes easier—this does not mean that we avoid the difficulties and vicissitudes of our existence, but that we find that we are better able to cope with these events—we are more fulfilled. God provides us with the strength and wisdom to comprehend difficulties in the context of his plan for us, and the grace and strength we draw from our sharing in the divine life of the Holy Trinity in this way (cf. 2 Peter 1:4; 1 John 3:1). We thus begin to properly understand freedom in the context of our divine goal. We find it easier to avoid occasions of sin, even as they may have seemed impossible to avoid quite recently, and we long increasingly to devote ourselves to the Gospel. This is what Sheed is saying. Heaven will mean a fixing of our will, but not in a way that limits our freedom, rather in a way that fulfils it. The beatific vision will be so powerful and fulfilling, that one could never turn away or turn against God because to do so would be to deny the very truth, our happiness and the fulfilment of our being.

The approach made by Joseph Ratzinger, to considering heaven, is one I have found particularly useful. It is grounded in reality, Sacred Scripture, a complex anthropology and is thoroughly Christological in essence. Ratzinger emphasises heaven as a further revelation of the “deeply hidden presence by whose gift we truly live”(Ratzinger, J., Eschatology Death and Eternal Life, op. Cit., pp. 233-4.) a phrase which reminds me of the Old Testament’s teaching about the beginning of wisdom; tabin adonai, the understanding that we cling to existence by our finger-nails; our being depends entirely on the divine will of God, which holds all things in being. Ratzinger agrees with Sheed that in our temporal existence we camouflage this presence, displacing it with all the objects that tend to occupy our immediate attention (p. 234). This has helped me to deepen my understanding of what the Catechism teaches about the reality of heaven more as a state of being than an actual “place”. It is located in the person of Jesus Christ and it is through the Incarnation that we are able to enter into that state. Heaven then, is truly being with God, before or after death “we find the true location of our existence as human beings in God.” (Ibid).

The way in which we will encounter God in heaven has been the cause of some discussion through the centuries and meditation on what the saints considered regarding this possibility is not without merit. Much of the biblical data for Apostolic belief comes from the Pauline corpus. St. Augustine considered that St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:12 did not mean that we would view God’s corporeal visage, but rather we will “see God by the spirit without any interruption”(St. Augustine, City of God, 22.29). Augustine goes further, and seems to really grasp the idea of a community united in self-giving with God the Holy Trinity:
Perhaps God will be known to us and visible to us in the sense that he will be spiritually perceived by each one of us in each one of us, perceived in one another, perceived by each in Himself. (Ibid).
St. Thomas Aquinas quotes this in his Summa Theoligae (Supplementum) 92,2. He is also interested in the extent to which the blessed understand God when seeing Him, and how this affects the way in which they see other things. In 92,23 he suggests that the blessed will go on growing in the knowledge of God until the Day of Judgement  after which they will all be omniscient. This idea, however, is not found in any official Church doctrine, although the idea he puts forward of a “hierarchy” in vision in heaven has a long tradition behind it and has been assimilated by the Church and was confirmed at the Council of Florence in 1439:
Also the souls of those who have incurred no stain of sin whatsoever after baptism, as well as souls who after incurring the stain of sin have been cleansed whether in their bodies or outside their bodies, as was stated above, are straightaway received into heaven and clearly behold the triune God as he is, yet one person more perfectly than another according to the difference of their merits. —Definition of the holy ecumenical synod of Florence, Session 6, 6th July 1439, Tanner, N., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (Georgetown: Sheed & Ward, 1990), p. 528.
This takes us back to the Holy Trinity and the idea of unity and individuality expounded by Joseph Ratzinger that heaven is “a response to this life-way, this biography, this particular person with his actions and experiences.” Eschatology, Death and Eternal Life, op. Cit., p. 236.

Where does our hope come from?

The biblical concept of heaven refers to both a natural phenomenon as well as a theological conception. Although the Old Testament does not appear to ascribe a notion of heaven as eternal bliss for those who die in a state of grace, the term heaven is used in a variety of different ways throughout the books that constitute it. Heaven is a physical part of the created order; it was common among ancient Semitic people to conceive of the visible universe divided into several different levels or stages. These stages vary from people to people and according to the period. In Exodus 20:4, we see reflected the perceived threefold division of the heavens, the earth and Sheol. The earth is seen as being the vault of the sky (Gen 1:1; Isa 40:22; Ps 104:2). Importantly, it is called a sanctuary, the LORD’s holy temple (Ps 11:4; Mic 1:2; Hab 2:20), the place of the divine throne (Ps 11:4; Isa 66:1) and the house or city of God (Gen 28:17; Ps 46:4; 48:1,8; 87:3). Yet God cannot be contained in heaven and earth (1 Kings 8:27; Jer 23:24). God’s transcendence and sovereignty over heaven and earth is symbolised by the physical heavens. Genesis 1:1 has the creation of the heavens and the earth, and this is reflected in the eschatological renewal at the end of history will involve the creation of a new heaven and a new earth:
For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before me, says the LORD; so shall your descendants and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the LORD. (Is 66:22, cf. 65:17, 2 Peter 3:13; Rev 21:1).
If heaven means, as I have already asserted, that we will see God as He really is, face to face (q.v.), then heaven is the beatific vision. McBrien asserts that this is an idea which has no basis in the Old Testament ( see: McBrien, Catholicism, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1994), p. 1164-5.) and although it is true that the connection between Jesus Christ and heaven has no antecedents in the O.T., clearly it’s imagery along with that of the inter-Testamental period, is taken up into the language of the New Testament. There is much in the Old Testament tradition that speaks of man’s yearning for the face of God:
My soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for you God,
For the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God? (Ps 42 [41] cf. Ps 13).
Indeed, the Psalms tell of humanity’s fundamental aspiration as imago Dei; alone in all creation and yet, paradoxically, only able to be fulfilled from eternity.
You have said “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
“Your face, LORD, do I seek.”
Hide not your face from me. (Ps 27 [26]).
Essentially, it is through God’s disclosure that humanity is transformed. Revelation opens man up to God’s creation “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). What is taught implicitly in the Old Testament is revealed in fullness through the Incarnation. Heaven is shown to be the total fulfillment of man in Scripture and is envisaged from different aspects. Sometimes it speaks of the “resurrection of the flesh” (1 Cor 15), which means total fulfilment, or “being with Christ” (Phil 2:23) and seeing God “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus Himself tells us “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” (Mt 5:8). In this context, one can challenge McBrien’s assertion regarding the Beatific Vision, indeed, he remarks himself that Mt 5:8 is pronounced without any refinement or explanation. (McBrien, op. Cit., p. 1165).

Armed with this background, we can see how heaven must consist of the Beatific Vision. A full and definitive experience of the direct self-communication of God Himself, to a particular individual human being, “when, by free grace, God’s will has become absolute and attained its full realisation.”Rahner, K., Encyclopaedia of Theology, (London: Burns & Oates, 2004), p. 78). In 1 Jn 3:2, the disciple explains that we shall see God and that the vision will transform us into God’s likeness.

As Catholic Christians, we profess our hope in the living liturgy of the Mass “we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior” and the words of the Creed “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.” Our hope is focused on the resurrection Jesus Christ. He who illuminates the implicit message of the Old Testament, He who is the complete revelation of God and who has the “words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). In Jesus, God pours out His divine Being in superabundance, and it is this superabundant self-giving which provides the model for heaven. Grace perfects our nature, allowing us to grow and develop, to become super-abundant like God; eliminating any trace of selfishness from our nature. Only once we are fully open to each other, when we cling to nothing of our own do we fully reflect the imago Dei.
Now we receive adoption as sons, that is to say, we are converted, or turned round by God’s grace, turned back towards him so that we can once more reflect his image instead of being turned away from him…This conversion comes to us through faith[50] in the man Jesus Christ.—Hill, E., Being Human (London: Chapman, 1984), p. 214.
It is in the imitation of Christ that we find our hope converted to the action of pursuing heaven. It is through the pursuit of Christ that we strain towards a perfection unattainable now, but completed in the age to come. 
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been understood. —1 Cor 13:12
The pinnacle of our hope is defined by the historical reality of Easter Sunday. When One crosses the threshold of death; One who is utterly pure and therefore has nothing to fear from death's confrontation with reality. Jesus is the One who trusts God this way, He trusts God to death, He can truly obey his Father with all his heart and soul and therefore this is why he is the perfect 'trailblazer'; he is the one who successfully goes through death into everlasting life and thus becomes the way for us. The value as redemption, reparation, atonement and satisfaction, which is conferred on Christ’s sacrifice, is because of His love to the end.
The existence in Christ of the divine person of the Son, who at once surpasses and embraces all human persons and constitutes himself as the Head of all mankind, makes possible his redemptive sacrifice for all. (CCC 616)
The New Testament makes clear and vigorous allusion to Christ’s death as a true sacrifice, a supreme act of worship to be rendered to God alone. It is because of the reality of this death and resurrection that we can all look towards death with hope.

Bibliography


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Conrad, R., Fall & Redemption, (Birmingham: Maryvale, 2009).

Cruden, A., Cruden’s Complete Concordance (Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2005).

Dante, The Divine Comedy (Oxford: OUP, 2008).

Hill, E., Being Human (London: Chapman, 1984).

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Komonchak, J. A. (Ed) et al., The New Dictionary of Theology, (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1993).

Kreeft, P., (Ed), Summa of the Summa, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990).

McBrien, Catholicism, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1994).

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Norris, T.J., A Fractured Relationship, (Dublin: Veritas, 2008).

Ocariz, F., Mateo Seco, L., Riestra, J.A., The Mystery of Jesus Christ, (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1994).

Rahner, K., Encyclopedia of Theology, (London: Burns & Oates, 2004).

Ratzinger, J., Eschatology Death and Eternal Life, (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1988).

Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, (London: Bloomsbury, 2007).

Ratzinger, J., Many Religions-One Covenant, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999).

Sheed, F., Theology & Sanity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).

Tanner, N., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (Georgetown: Sheed & Ward, 1990).

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von Balthasar, H.U., The von Balthasar Reader, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982).




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