A lifetime of religious ministry, study, and teaching has convinced me that the academic discipline of theology is the process of interpreting mysteries beyond human comprehension with clumsy words. This does not discourage me from theological pursuits, but the thought keeps me humble. In following blogsites of catechists, and the Catechism itself, I see terminology and statements claiming a finality that is premature. I think this is particularly true with matters of death and what may lie beyond.
In the history of the Catholic Church November has been designated as the month to reflect upon “the last things,” i.e., death, judgment, destiny, the Second Coming of Christ. Theologically speaking, November is the month of “eschatology,” the branch of theology devoted to matters of the future. Eschatology is not discussed much in adult education or parish life, probably because none of us are too enthused about talking of our own deaths, judgments, and eternal destiny.
Another reason we hesitate to ponder “the last things” is the way the later books of the Judeo-Christian Bible depict the future. There are many literary forms employed in the Bible; one of them is “apocalyptic style.” Wikipedia’s definition of apocalyptic literature is not bad: “As a genre, apocalyptic literature details the authors' visions of the end times as revealed by an angel or other heavenly messenger. The apocalyptic literature of Judaism and Christianity embraces a considerable period, from the centuries following the Babylonian exile down to the close of the Middle Ages.” Jesus himself uses apocalyptic language to describe the end times in the three synoptic Gospels; in fact, Matthew 24 is often referred to as the “little apocalypse.” St. John’s Book of Revelation is entirely apocalyptic in its literary composition.
Apocalyptic literature is so dramatic and mysterious that since the Enlightenment and the modern era there has been a tendency to approach such passages as Matthew 24 as literary outliers, somewhat exaggerated language to point us in the direction of preparing for our future death and judgment. Scholars today share the belief that Matthew 24, and similar passages in Luke and Mark, were inspired by the dramatic fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 A.D. The Gospels were composed after this catastrophe and borrowed many details of the actual event for insertion in standard apocalyptic format. Apocalyptic language is often employed in times of fear and persecution, so its appearance at a time of Roman persecution of Christians—most notably in the Book of Revelation—certainly makes sense.
As the centuries passed, the Church maintained apocalyptic imagery in describing life after death and incorporated some of it into its formal decrees [though Jesus never spoke of Purgatory, or Limbo, for that matter.] Depictions of the glories of the saved and the torments of the damned were the inspirations for the preaching and the art of the Medieval and Renaissance Era. If you have been fortunate enough to see Michelangelo’s apocalyptic panorama in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, just the eyes of the damned speak volumes. It is little wonder that in Luther’s day the sale of indulgences—promises of forgiveness and remission of punishment for every sin committed in one’s life—would be eagerly pursued, though as historian Kevin Madigan writes in Medieval Christianity, [p. 435], a large number of Christians were taking a more cynical approach toward indulgences and confession and despairing of the salvation process altogether.
It should be remembered that for most of the Old Testament era, the concept of life after death was unknown to Israel. Reward and punishment were a matter of this life only. Thus, in the Book of Genesis, God promises Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore. There is no mention of heavenly reward. Favor from God was bestowed in terms of this life’s riches—prosperity, numerous descendants, and the esteem countrymen. It is not until the writing of the Bible’s 2 Maccabees 12: 43-46 that we see a statement about death, those who die in sin, and what we can do to help the dead.
The Books of Maccabees [a portion of which will be read at this weekend’s Mass, November 9-10] describe the revolt led by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers to overthrow the sacrilegious religious persecution from Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria. The events described occurred around 165 B.C. and the books were composed about 100 B.C., very late in the pre-Christian era, and as the Gospels would later record, there were still many Jews in Jesus’ lifetime who found Jesus’ teaching of eternal life ridiculous. [See Luke 20: 27-40, which happens to be this weekend’s Gospel]
2 Maccabees 12 describes how the surviving Jewish warriors tended to the bodies of their fallen brethren in battle and discovered to their horror that the dead men were wearing amulets dedicated to pagan gods, a grave violation of God’s covenant to trust no other gods.
Judas’s management of this grim scene reflects an evident and significant shift in thought from the days of Abraham, two millennia in the past. While acknowledging the gravity of the sin, Judas articulates a new practice: “He [Judas] then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus, he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.” I should add that this passage from 2 Maccabees is one of the choices authorized for funeral Masses in today’s Catholic Lectionary. Protestants do not recognize Maccabees in their biblical canons, possibly due in part to Luther’s opposition to the sale of indulgences.
The New Testament teaching on life after death and glorious resurrection evolved in stages, since for several decades after Jesus the infant church believed that the Second Coming was arriving momentarily. The first discovered Christian prayer reads: “Come, Lord.” The first written book of the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians [51 A.D.], is St. Paul’s response to the fear of many that if some had died before the Second Coming, they would not be taken up into glory. Paul emphasizes that the baptized dead would be called from their tombs ahead of the living to share the infinite wonder of the fulfillment of the kingdom of God, won by the death and resurrection of Christ. Two things to note:  the apocalyptic tenor of these early days of the Church, and  the absence of the term “soul,” which did not come into theological play until the Christological councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. The earliest Christians were Jewish converts who retained the unity of a human being. The idea of “soul” did not enter Christian theology till Greek philosophy impacted the Christological councils of the fourth and fifth centuries.
By the Middle Ages Christian anthropology defined a human as possessing a body and a soul. Thanks to St. Augustine—and probably collective common sense—it was agreed that all humans had sinned. But Augustine held that all of us inherit the sin of Adam, i.e., Original Sin, which can be forgiven only through baptism [though the official Church has gone to considerable difficulty to open salvation possibilities to such populations as infants who are not baptized due to the neglect of others; no more “limbo.”] Augustine believed that original sin was biologically inherited from Adam and Eve, and thus, that this sin was passed on through sexual intercourse, an interpretation that has hamstrung many branches of later theology.
It is safer to say that every human is born into an incomplete world still in need of the redemptive power of Christ. Baptism, pastorally speaking, does not so much forgive a specific inherited misdeed as it embraces a human into the saving body of Christ, his Church on earth, and begins his journey to a glorious life beyond the grave. Catholicism, by the way, recognizes the saving power of baptism in all Christian churches, while acknowledging that the full saving dimensions of God subsist in the Roman Catholic Church. This Vatican II terminology was the result of much debate which continued to make news as recently as 2007.
Created as we are with free will, our choice to embrace in faith and conduct the example of Christ and to do his will to the best of our ability is the only determinant of our destiny. That there is life after death at all, and that Christ will take us to post-life glory, are the two ultimate beliefs we are called upon to make. Call it just my impression, but I don’t think my culture stops to think about this. Or, we have collectively domesticated conversation about death possibility by talking about it with congenial scientific tone: how common to hear at funeral events clergy and laity alike speak of the dead as “up in heaven free of sickness and playing 27 holes every day in perfect weather.” The funeral setting is probably not the most charitable time to raise the possibility [actually, the probability, objectively speaking] that everything in golfing Uncle Harry’s life—his personhood and his future, as well as his 5 stroke handicap—will end up in an urn on the fire place till the house is gutted and remodeled.
I long for the day when a preacher stands up to announce that there is a real chance there is nothing after death…and that the heart of belief is in a Savior who was raised from death by his Father for his perfect love. So much of Catholic life is arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, when we ought to be calling forth an adult faith instead of coasting along on “givens.” The awe and joy of the witnesses to the risen Christ were not just celebrating the Savior’s good fortune; his resurrection shocked and amazed them because they knew that Easter was about them, and what they might hope for in faith. They also knew what they must do…and so many of them died as martyrs of witness for preaching a very inconvenient truth.
The two realities we need to address are the very genuine possibility that there is nothing for us after death besides decay or ashes, and that even if there is life after death as Christians profess to believe, our participation in it rests upon our body of work in this life. I don’t like to be cold [too many Buffalo memories], and on those rare Florida nights when the temperature hovers near freezing and I am adding a second blanket, I stop and think about the many cold poor in my area—transients and those with no heat. I feel pain for them. But my next thought turns to myself and my destiny. Jesus has made it very clear that future life depends upon actual imitation of his good works. As St. Luke puts it, “Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” And that brings me a chill that no blanket can erase.