Monday, August 10, 2009

Life after death - or life again after death?

"What happens when we die?" is the central question of most religions. Certainly it is the central focus of the New Testament, for it is on the answer to this question that everything else about Christian religion depends - ethics and morals, for example, the question of our duties and obligations in this life.

The reason for this is summarized by a verse from the book of Hebrews: "And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that comes judgment ..." (v. 9.7). Which is to say that each of us survives the death of our bodies in a personal sense and that we are the judged by a wholly righteous God for how we lived this physical life and what we did. The passages emphasizing this point are so numerous that I hardly feel compelled to point them out. Start with Matthew 25, for example.

It would be pretty hard to find a church man or woman - or child, for that matter - who does not know that the church teaches that death is not the end of existence for human beings. Do what we teach and what we believe accord with what the Bible teaches?

Death is an enemy of God, so powerful an enemy that Paul wrote death is "the last enemy [of God] to be destroyed." And this will not happen, says Paul, until after "every rule and every authority and power" that is an enemy of God has already been destroyed.

For about 2,000 years Christians have been waiting for Christ to "put all things under his feet" and vanquish injustice, conflict, estrangement and death. In the meantime, we are born and live and die. Because the first Christians expected Jesus to return very soon, they became distressed when some of them died before Jesus had done so. Apparently, these believers thought that they would be saved by Christ only if they were still alive when Jesus returned.

In response to this fear, Paul wrote (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17),
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, [1] that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 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, and so we will always be with the Lord.
This is one of the passages some Christians use to support the idea of the Rapture, popularized by the recent "Left Behind" novels, but that topic is outside the scope of this post. On topic, here are some key things this passage points out:

1. Note the future tense of the passage: Paul is prophesying what will happen, not something that had happened or is already going on. Hence, the salvation of the dead is a future event.

2. Because Jesus died and was raised from the dead, we are enabled to look forward to the same grace, including persons who have died.

3. Those left alive at the eschaton (the return of Christ) have no advantage in salvation over those who have died. In fact, "the dead in Christ will rise first," noting again the future tense.

Clearly, we should take to heart that we should not worry whether those who die in Christian faith will be saved. Death of the physical body is no impediment to the saving grace of Christ. So, on the basis of this passage and its correlates in the New Testament, we are able to say with certainty that, as Paul later wrote, "For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's" (Romans 14:8).

This really is the fundamental teaching upon which everything else is commentary.

And yet, the early Christians' question has not gone away. We do await the return of Christ, but in the meantime - and we've had a lot of meantime since Jesus' day - what is the status of the dead?

The earliest Christians were Jews in Judea and pagans outside Judea, plus some diaspora Jews living in Gentile cities such as Corinth, Greece. (The concerns about the status of the dead seems to have arisen from the converted Gentiles rather than the Jews.) Because Jesus was a Jew and the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus still considered themselves Jews, they would have instructed the Gentile converts of Jewish thought about the fate of the dead.

In that way, the Jewish Scriptures are not comforting about the grave. Here are some relevant passages.

Psalm 115:17 - The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence. (Hence, according to my close friend, Rabbi Daniel Jackson, we should avail ourselves of every opportunity to praise God in this life - while we still can! See for example Psalm 34.)

Ecclesiastes 9:5 - For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.

Psalm 39:13 - Look away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more!

Job 7:21 - Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity? For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be.

Isaiah 40:7 - The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.

Ecclesiastes 7:2 - It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.

There are many other examples. The main thrust of the Jewish Scriptures on this subject is that death is the dissolution of the body and the end of the joys and meaning of this life. From the earliest days, the souls of the dead were thought to be consigned to Sheol, "the pit," an abode of the dead in which they are the merest shadows of their former selves. Sheol was thought literally to be in the depths of the earth and was specifically a punishment place for the wicked: "The wicked shall return to Sheol, all the nations that forget God" (Psalm 9:17), even though there is a thread in the Old Testament that it was the destiny of all who die. However Sheol as envisioned was never presented as a place to look forward to. The Psalmist, for example, repetitively prayed for deliverance from Sheol, which is to say deliverance from death.

Though the Jewish Scriptures view death entirely negatively, they are also are enormously encouraging that being dead is not the final destiny of human beings. A consistent thread throughout the Old Testament is that the righteous will be exempted from death - more precisely, the permanence of death. In the same way that the psalmist prayed for deliverance from Sheol, he praised God for (prospectively) doing so.

Psalm 86:13 - For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

Psalm 16:10 - For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.

Again, there are many other passages in the Jewish Bible - which was the only Bible the first Christians had - that echo this hope of deliverance from permanent death. The Jews professed great hope that the grave was not their final fate (at least not of the righteous), though death itself was viewed with abhorrence. At some time in the future, God will deliver the righteous from the corruption of death and restore them to life even more filled with God's presence than ever before.

Over time, this belief developed into a doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Concurrently, a popular Jewish belief developed that the souls of the righteous dead awaited the day of resurrection in the "bosom of Abraham" while the souls of the unrighteous were consigned to a hot, dry place where they suffered from thirst and loneliness.

Jesus may have even believed this himself. In his parable of the wretched Lazarus and an unnamed rich man (Luke 16:19-31) the soul of Lazarus is located next to Abraham while the rich man's soul suffers from thirst and "agony in these flames." The Bosom of Abraham is not heaven, but a sort of halfway house for the righteous awaiting the resurrection.

By Jesus' day this was the majority, but not universal, belief among Jews. The Sadducees rejected this belief because it did not appear in the Books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy). It was, however, firmly affirmed by the Pharisees, who were extremely influential among the Jews because of their studiousness of the Torah and devotion to faithful living as Jews under foreign occupation. Jesus, being sympathetic to the Pharisees even though often at odds with their practices, also affirmed the doctrine of resurrection (being its first practitioner, this is hardly surprising!).

Now we are ready to tackle the question, "What is the status of the dead until Christ returns?" On this question, the Church has responded in three major ways.

First: those who have died in Christ endure a Sheol-like place, without the punishment, until the eschaton, when Christ will raise them to new life. This is reflected in the Revelation of John, where the evangelist writes (6:9-11),
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; 10they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’ 11They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow-servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.
Revelation is, of course, an apocalyptic book, written in highly visionary language. It would be a stretch to claim that its visions and beliefs were typical across all Christians of the day. Even so, there is a a good indication of belief here that the dead are basically "warehoused" until the fulfillment of the eschaton.

This belief did not survive in the Western wing of the church long. When Emperor Constantine gained control of the entire Roman Empire in the early 300s,he made Christianity the empire's official religion. The number of church people rocketed, leading to the formation of what know now as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. (These churches already existed, of course, but not in the full bureaucratic splendor they had to adopt to deal with explosions of numbers in the fourth century.) And this notion of "warehoused" souls of the dead did not survive in the Roman Catholic Church after its transformation into a bureaucratic church.

However, in the Eastern church the doctrine did survive and continues to this day. In their thought, the souls of the dead simply await the day of resurrection. The souls of the saved await in a pleasant abode of light and the souls of the unsaved suffer in darkness. But salvation is not finally accomplished until the resurrection and judgment.

Second - the souls of the dead pass immediately into heaven, purgatory or hell.

The church before Constantine was necessarily concerned foremost with literal survival. The two worst persecutions it suffered were in the 250s and very early 300s. These were quite severe. While important doctrinal issues did arise and were dealt with before Constantine, the explosion of converts after 300 more firmly established the institutionalization of doctrine and practice.

In this light, the 4th-century church was faced with two predominant tasks. One, how shall the life of Christians be ordered according to Christian principles? Two, what shall be the authority of priests and bishops in doing so?

At the 4th century's inception, about 10 percent of the empire was Christian. At century's end, about 10 percent was not Christian. To deal with this explosion of adherents, and to teach them the basics of Christian faith, the church developed its systems of catechism and sacraments, not from scratch, though, since both already existed. But they became deeply entrenched as a way of ordering the lives of the legions of new converts. They enabled the church not to have to "reinvent the wheel" over and over to cope with the influx.

The sacramental system also established the church (meaning the Pope and the priesthood) as the gateway to salvation after death. Two sacraments in particular were key to that purpose, baptism and penance.

From the earliest days, and continuing until now, the Catholic Church has held that baptism remits the guilt of original sin. And baptism also remits the guilt of volitional sins committed up until the moment of baptism. But sins committed after baptism had to be remitted another way. That is done through the sacrament of penance.

Penance consists of confession to a priest and the faithful carrying out of deeds he prescribes to remit the sins confessed. The nature of these deeds is not the issue here; suffice it is to say that baptism followed by faithful practice of confession and penitential submission were seen to guarantee that one could die with all, or almost all, sins remitted.

Long, long before the Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s, Catholics were taught that for those who died within the grace of Christ, mediated through the Church, there were one of two immediate destinies. First, if someone died with no sins left unremitted then that person's soul would fly directly to heaven. But heaven was exclusively for the sin free. The souls of those dying with some sins still unremitted went directly to purgatory where penance continued until all sins were worked off. (The only exit from purgatory led to heaven.) Not all sins can be worked off in purgatory. Based on 1 John 5.16-17, the souls of those who died either unbaptized or with unremitted "mortal" sins went directly to Hell, from which there is no exit or escape.

Protestants who adhere to this belief discard the notion of purgatory but affirm the ideas of immediate reward in heaven or punishment in Hell (although a large number of Protestants don't really believe anyone goes to Hell).

This teaching did not actually become official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church until the Catholic Counter-Reformation that began in the mid 1500s. Its pronouncement as dogma seems to have been impelled, at least in part, by Martin Luther's doctrine of "soul sleep."

Third - "Soul sleep." In the Eastern church's doctrine of a sort of afterlife waiting room, the souls of the dead are aware and in either pleasant or suffering circumstances, depending on their state of grace at death. And they know it.

In the doctrine of soul sleep, promulgated by Martin Luther and a feature of some Protestant denominations, the soul survives the death of the body but with no awareness. Think of its state as a sort of deep unconsciousness. It endures neither reward nor punishment, but simply awaits resurrection at the eschaton.

One step further than this is the idea that the human person consists of a fully integrated being of body and soul and that the soul dies along with the body. In this idea the person concerned is re-created at the resurrection by God.

"How are the dead raised up, and in what body do they come?"

Its seems clear to me from the New Testament that the apostles Paul and John did not even consider, much less affirm, the second of the above doctrines, that the souls of the dead go right away either to heaven (even with detour) or Hell. Both apostles were Jews and their apostolic calling did not change that identity as far as they were concerned. Although the concept of the soul going to heaven exists among Jews today (at least some), it's not clear that this was so 2,000 years ago or before. Heaven was seen as the place of God and his heavenly beings, not of mortals. John echoed this idea thus, "No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man" (John 3:13). In this understanding (and I am reluctant to argue with John!), mortals do not go to heaven. Instead, heaven comes to us. Hence, Revelation 21:1,
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
There were some exceptions. Paul, for example, wrote,
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. (2 Corinthians 12:2-4)
And the prophet Elijah was taken directly to heaven.
And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven (2 Kings 2:11).
For both Paul and John, the destiny of the dead is to be raised up in the general resurrection, after which comes eternal life with God.

Paul observes in 1 Corinthians 15 that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable." In the resurrection, we are not raised as the bodies we enjoy in this life. "The dead," Paul writes, "will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality."

So, "If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. ... Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Paul is referring to Adam], we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven [the risen Christ]." And so in Philippians Paul wrote that Christ "will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body."

While neither Paul nor another apostle actually denounce the idea that at death our souls go either to heaven, neither do they promote or affirm it. They do emphasize resurrection into eternal life, but this is always presented as a future event.

Since that is the actual hope of Christian faith, the status of the dead awaiting the resurrection seems seemed to be of no concern to the apostles. After all, "If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's."

Good enough.

Postscript: What about Jesus' words to the thief on the cross, Luke 23:43? Here is the verse in its context:
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." 42 Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 43 He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (NRSV)
There are a couple of points here. First, the term, "Paradise" is extremely rare in the New Testament, appearing only here and two other places. One is the Pauline passage I quoted above and in Rev. 2.7, where Jesus gives permission to the faithful "to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God."

"Paradise" is used in other Greek literature, referring to a cultured park or on occasion an orchard. The word was probably borrowed from the Persians where it had the same meaning.

"Paradise" does not mean heaven. In its use of Jesus' day, Paradise would have meant something close to the Bosom of Abraham in the spiritual sense, a pleasant place where one awaited the final redemption of God. The Essenes, who left us the Dead Sea Scrolls, described Paradise as a land across the sea where breezes were gentle and weather mild. (Think of Hawaii without the high costs or crowding.)

In any event, whatever Paradise meant 2,000 years ago, it did not mean the resurrection or the final fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. And we are clued into that by the thief's plea and Jesus' response.

The thief's supplication is not oriented on that same day, but to the future. He pleads to Jesus, "Remember me when you come in your kingdom." (Some translations say "into" rather than "in," but I think "in" is correct.) On the face of it, this plea makes no sense at all. Jesus is dying on the cross right next to the thief. If Jesus is merely a man, then the thief has lost his mind!

But if the thief understands that Jesus will survive crucifixion in some sense and return to establish his divine kingdom, then the question does make sense. And so the thief begs Jesus to remember him when that day comes. But clearly, the thief expects nothing on crucifixion day except death. In his plea, he is looking forward to the end of the age, the eschaton, when Jesus as Lord brings all unholy things into submission and the righteous are brought into eternal life.

And it is in this sense that Jesus answers him: "Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise." In the Greek manuscript, there are no commas or any other punctuation. But English syntax demands them. So where to put the comma?

Consider: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Now compare to, "Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise."

There is a difference in meaning, is there not? On the basis of what "Paradise" probably meant in that day, Jesus would have meant the former. An expanded way to phrase the answer would be, "Truly, I tell you: today we will both die and I will take you to Paradise where I will remember to redeem you when I come in my Kingdom's power." This also would be consonant with the meaning of Paradise in Rev. 2, where Paradise is the state of being from where the redeemed enjoy the fruit of the tree of life and then enter into eternity, this being highly poetic language, of course.

Paradise cannot have meant heaven because Jesus was clear in his own prophecies about his passion that he would "be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40) which is certainly not heaven. And on the first Easter Jesus told Mary Magdalene, "I have not yet returned to the Father."

However, the meaning of Paradise is, at bottom, deeply ambiguous and without exactitude. Jesus' answer to the thief simply assures him that he will be redeemed when Jesus comes in his Kingdom. (If Jesus had simply replied, "Okay," we would not be wondering what he meant.)

Like the thief, we still await that day.

1 comment:

whatwas said...

Here is a kind of life after death you can be sure of...