Few things challenge our tranquility and provoke a sense of existential dread more profoundly than the thought of death. If all we have striven for – all we have learned and experienced, everyone we have loved – simply comes to nothing, is there any point to life, we wonder. Does life have any meaning?
As Vatican II rightly observed: “It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence grows most acute. Man is tormented not only by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction” (Gaudium et Spes, 18).
Throughout history, many people have been convinced there must be some life after death for there to be any meaning in life. And yet, some views of life after death can also make this life seem meaningless.
If Heaven is so wonderful, why waste our time on earth? And what about all we have struggled for, all our relationships, our loves, and our dedication to others? Do we simply abandon all we love when we die? For many, even those who believe in an afterlife, their greatest fear is losing their connections with the ones they love.
So too, one’s view of the good life for man in this life should not contradict the life of the blessed in Heaven, and vice versa. If the “best life for man” is the life of virtue, then we cannot, without being guilty of a serious inconsistency, claim that the life of the blessed in Heaven involves dissolute sex with seventy virgins.
Similarly, if a Christian believes that Heaven is a realm of selfless love of God and others but lives now in pursuit of wealth, power, and status, then that person has failed to grasp the essential relatedness between this life and the next.
One thing we find in divine Revelation, confirmed most fully in the Resurrection appearances of Jesus, is that Christ’s promise of eternal life includes the resurrection of the body. Sadly, many Christians seem unaware of this central tenet of their faith. Although every time we repeat the Creed we proclaim our faith in “the resurrection of the body,” awareness of the Christian teaching about the resurrection of the body seems rare.
If a Christian claimed that death entails the liberation of the soul from the body, as Socrates seems to have thought, their view would be at odds not only with St. Paul’s teaching about the resurrection of the body but also with the Christian understanding of the intrinsic unity of body and soul. Even Christians who know their faith includes belief in the resurrection of the body will ask, “What does that mean?”
This a big question, obviously, more than can be dealt with in a short column, so I hope the reader will forgive me if I take a moment to hawk my new book, From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body, just out from Emmaus Press. Let me give you the gist of it so you can decide whether it’s something you’d care to read (or buy multiple copies to send to friends – not that I’m hinting or anything).
In the book, I argue that the Christian view of the afterlife is revealed most fully in the person of the risen Christ. There are other scriptural images of “Heaven,” and they are not unimportant. But they are still just images. The most central and important revelation about the afterlife is given by Christ himself in his own resurrected body.
That revelation assures us that, after death, we can, if we respond to the graces God has given, share fully in the triune love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But it also shows we will be united with God in such a way that we do not lose our identity or our connection with those we love. The risen Christ who reveals Himself in the upper room is still Jesus, the one they knew, not a gnostic “spirit” liberated with the death of His body.
Mary and the saints are not “absorbed” into God like a drop of water returning to the ocean. They remain distinct persons, still connected to us in love, but even more intimately, not merely beside us, but now above and inside us, praying for us even more powerfully at every moment, united to us because united to the Risen Body of Christ.
The Resurrection of Christ and the general resurrection of the faithful give us hope – not merely the hope of an escape from this life, leaving all those we love behind (as in the Protestant Left Behind series). It is hope for the transformation and redemption of this life — a journey that, although it only reaches its terminus in the next life, begins now, today, in this life.
“We were buried with him by baptism into death,” writes St. Paul to the Romans, “so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Just as the Church has long held that grace does not violate nature but perfects it, so, too, the Christian notion of the afterlife does not negate the value of this life but is perfective of it. The Christian promise is that, when we live our lives in continuity with Christ crucified and risen, we are living even now a foretaste of the life enjoyed by the blessed – all the saints we celebrate today – in Heaven.
The Christian message, therefore, is this: Begin the life of heaven now, which is the life of Christ crucified and risen, a life purged of our false self and its selfishness, to make way for an “eternal life,” a life devoted to the selfless love of God and neighbor. The “good news” is that no power on earth, no matter how great, not even death, can separate us from that love of God and neighbor.
Click on the cover to order
*Image: The Resurrection of the Flesh by Luca Signorelli, 1500 [Duomo di Orvieto]
You may also enjoy:
Michael Pakaluk’s “The Body is for the Lord”
Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Respect for the Body