It must be admitted that one of the most appealing aspects of the Christian faith is its teaching on life after death. It speaks to the intuition and desire that is as old as humanity itself: that this life, as we currently experience it, is not all that there is.
While awareness of life after death is not confined to Christianity alone, it takes on a couple of interesting developments in the Christian understanding that are worth consideration. However, before embarking on that we must, as always, note the limitations of what can be done within these few words. Ideas for further reading or viewing are noted below. But even with those, the sincere theological explorer will soon encounter that we are dealing with something about which we know very little. We shall need eternity to come to terms with who God is, and who we are before God. All we can do here and now is get started.
And that is the first point about life after death from a Christian perspective: it starts here and now. By this is meant that the life that God has for you is not confined to the future beyond death. It would be better to describe this topic not as life after death but as life beyond death. That is to say, the life that God has for you, intended to take you into eternity, is being offered to you today. The afterlife (heaven, paradise, or whatever word you use to describe it) is intimately connected to your life in God as you now live it and experience it. Christians are not meant to live as if they we are waiting for a future reality. As Jesus taught: the kingdom of God is among you (Luke 17:21).
This brings us to our second point and bears significantly upon it: what are heaven, hell and purgatory? Before trying to explain those concepts, we begin where we left off at the previous paragraph as it is relevant. God is already at work in your life. The decisions that each of us makes in our lives today reveal and either enhance or detract from our connection to God. The purpose of this life, from God’s point of view, is to bring about in us the manifestation of the life of his Son. It begins with faith in Jesus and the salvation he offers to all humanity, and from there brings about the slow transformation of our lives in Christ. Christianity is an incarnated religion. That is to say, by becoming human, God set the pattern for our journey into the life of God: one that involves both the spiritual (faith) and the physical (what we do).
However, the degree we take that on and allow it to transform our lives varies from individual to individual. Our words and intentions may be good…but the test is what we do and how we live. As Scripture teaches us (Matthew 25: 31 – 46 & James 2:14 – 26), what we genuinely believe is revealed by how we live. This has implications for our ability to enter into the life that God has for us. For heaven is not a place as we traditionally understand it. Heaven is the individual entering into the intimate life of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just what this will look like we do not really know. What we do know is that anything that is not of God cannot exist in God’s presence. Therefore, if in this life we have not let the grace of God transform us entirely (i.e. become a saint), then we are not capable of living in the presence of God.
We cannot bring imperfection into the perfection of God. In the circumstances in which God cannot recognise anything of his Son in the individual, and therefore can see no capacity to inhabit life in God, alienation from God is the outcome. We call this hell. God doesn’t inflict this on the individual. It is self-imposed by virtue of how they have chosen to live. God respects our choices.
Where God can see some capacity within the individual to live in God for eternity, but for which they are not yet ready, they must be prepared and healed, so that they can live and thrive in God’s presence. The opportunity to be healed, and to complete the work begun in our lives here and now, we call purgatory. Far from being a punishment, purgatory is a manifestation of the mercy of God. For the imperfect, living in God would be too much, but eternal alienation from God would reveal God to be harsh and unloving. In mercy, God allows for our continued healing beyond death.
However, take none of this for granted. God has given you your life here and now, so that you may grow into the fullness of life that God has for you. Get started now and leave thoughts of heaven, hell and purgatory to God. All you require to enter into the life God desires for you is being provided; you just need to pay attention and learn to respond.
There is one final question to be addressed before we conclude: what is the connection between life beyond death and the idea of resurrection? For it is one thing to imagine a future where our souls exist with God for eternity, but what about our bodies?
The Christian understanding has always been that all spiritual experience is incarnated. That is to say; it involves the spiritual (in this case, our souls) and the physical (our bodies). This is set before us in the experience of the resurrected Jesus who, while different from the earthly Jesus, was recognisably himself. The tomb was empty.
Just what we are to make of this has had theologians debating for centuries. How it comes about is anybody’s guess and, to a limited extent, one theory is as good as another. However, the critical point is that it is deeply Catholic to understand that our bodies are an integral part of who we are: without them, we are not human. The traditional understanding is that after our death, our souls are with God (either heaven or purgatory) or alienated from God (hell). At the ‘end of time,’ all the dead will receive again their physicality (referred to as the resurrection of the body) and together with the then living will experience what is referred to as the ‘last judgment’. The practicalities of all this are slightly overwhelming. However, for the One who holds all things in the universe in being, it scarcely provides a challenge. The primary point to be made is that your body is integral to who you are and, as a result, you will exist in God in a form that allows you to do what you are doing now (to see, hear, touch, taste, feel etc.) while being recognisably yourself.
To conclude: the question of the afterlife is an important one and deserving of attention. However, it should not become a morbid fixation. It is the continuation of the life for which God has brought you into being. It is God’s desire that you be with him for eternity, and you are being invited into that life now. Place your hope in God, and leave the details to God.
Catholic Catechism Profession of Faith
Bishop Barron on the Resurrection of Jesus
New Advent: The Resurrection
Original text by Shane Dwyer
Labyrinth photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash
Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019
30 October 2019