Class: 
Cycle C: Nineteenth Sunday of the Liturgical Year

 

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER DEATH?

 

 

Will it be possible one day to prove that there is something after death? That is indeed an important question asked by a large number of human beings. Most religions have proposed answers to that question, but will we be able to get proofs one day? Even the N.D.E.s (Near Death Experiences) evoked by Dr. Moody, in his book,  Life after Death, gives us no proof, even if these experiences suggest that there is another life after death.

 

We have no proof whatsoever but, to us Christians, a sign has been given: Jesus of Nazareth, who died on a cross and rose again. Before they met Jesus, the apostles believed, according to their Jewish faith, that a resurrection would take place, but only at the end of times. When they saw the risen Lord, they realized that the resurrection had already begun. They became aware that someone they had known personally, who had died but was now alive, was giving them a sign. They had their own doubts, of course, but they finally believed and began to proclaim that good news. No one was able to silence them and they sealed their testimonies with their blood. From that time onwards, believers were ready to stake their lives on these testimonies, because they knew that death would not have the last word.

 

I-    The sign of the Resurrection

 

So, we have no proof about life after death, but we have a sign: Jesus is truly risen from the dead and some have seen him alive.

Will those who lived before Christ share also in his resurrection? Saint Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy: “God wants everyone to be saved” (1 Tim. 2: 4). However, it is normal for us, human beings, to consider the mysteries of faith in a very human way. For us, there is a time “before” and a time “after.” But, for God, everything takes place in the present moment. God sent His Son to redeem all human beings, those who lived before as well as those who lived after Christ.

 

Let’s use a few comparisons to understand that. First, take the image of the leaven in the dough. It is the whole dough that rises and not only what is found on the left side or the right side of the leaven. In the same way, the resurrection of Christ has its impact on those who lived before and those who lived after him.

 

Or take the image of salt. A little bit of salt changes the taste of the whole dish. In the heart of human history, there was a person who loved to the end and who lived his human life in a divine way. As a result, it is the whole of humankind which, in the eyes of God and in our own eyes, is potentially redeemed by that person. Then every human being can consider him/herself redeemed by the Son of God, if only he/she is ready to welcome that grace in a good conscience.

 

Let’s take another comparison. When a painter is not satisfied with his painting, it is enough for him to retouch it and his painting becomes truly a work of art. When he is finally satisfied with it, the old canvas does not matter anymore. There is no more “the first canvas” and “the second canvas”, or the canvas “before” and the canvas “after.” There is only one masterpiece. The painter has redeemed his work of art.

 

In the Creed, when we proclaim that Jesus “descended into hell,” we express our faith in universal redemption. The word “hell” (Hedes) here refers to the abode of the dead. So, we say that Jesus went to rejoin all those who died before him. When God sent His Son into the world, He gave the whole of humankind the retouch that was lacking, the retouch of Christ’s love. That retouch was a costly gift from God: it was done with His Son’s blood.

 

II-      If Lazarus had spoken

 

It seems that Lazarus did not say anything about what he saw after his death. Neither did Jesus do. When he appeared to his disciples, he made them understand that he had won victory over death and that God now welcomes in His open arms of mercy all those who chose to love, even if they only gave a glass of water to a thirsty person.

We will never know in this life what exactly is taking place after death, not more than a child in his mother’s womb knows what will happen when he is born. However, modern psychology tells us that, in his mother’s womb, a child already hears what is going on outside. In the same way, we will never see what is going on in heaven as long as we remain on this earth, but we can already hear the voice of the Beloved who says: “I am the resurrection. Anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies, will live” (Jn 11: 25).

 

Some people do not believe in the resurrection of Christ. Yet, Saint Paul writes in his first Letter to the Corinthians: “If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most pitiable” (1 Cor. 15: 19). Jesus was the Son of God, but he also became man. So, it is not only the Son of God who rose from the dead, but also the man Jesus. That is what Saint Luke wants us to realize when he writes in his Gospel that, after rising from the dead, Jesus asked his apostles to give him something to eat (Ref.  Lk 24: 41).

 

Faith in the resurrection is not an illusion. On the contrary, it is what gives meaning to our life here on earth. Could God have created us only for an earthly life, while He Himself is the Eternal? Jesus came to give us his body and blood as food for eternal life: “Whoever east my flesh and drinks my blood will live for ever” (Jn 6: 51).

 

To believe in the resurrection is an invitation to take our earthly life seriously. You know from experience that, if you want a tree to bear good fruit, you have to take care of that tree. It is right now and wherever we are that we prepare heaven.

“Once upon a time – according to an ancient legend – there were two monks who sat together, reading out of a very old book. The book said that at the end of the world there would be one place where heaven and earth would meet, and the kingdom of God would begin. So, the two monks decided to go in search of that place and not come back until they had found it. They wandered up and down the highways of the world, exposed themselves to all sorts of danger, took all kinds of risks, suffered all kinds of setbacks, and were tempted many times to give up the search.

 

The book had said that when one got to the right place, there would be a door there, and all a person had to do was knock and it would open. There one would stand right in the kingdom of God. Finally, they found the door they were looking for. They knocked on it, and their hearts beat faster as it began to open. They stepped over the threshold and what did they find? They were right back in their own monastery!”      (Michael Skalendar).

 

So, for us, faith in the resurrection is not a mere consolation in the midst of trials and temptations, but it is above all a responsibility. Don’t worry. The heart of God is big enough to welcome into eternal life all those He has created. Everything is a matter of love. And we know very well that the word “love” is meant to rhyme with the word “always.” Saint Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth: “Love never comes to an end” (1 Cor. 13: 8).

 

III-       A human invention?

 

There are people who think that some philosophers have invented the theory of a life after death to make it easier for us to accept death, which is inevitable. But we could also say the opposite: it is because there is an eternal life that we cannot believe that death will have the last word. We are born for life, and a life eternal. Death only ‘intruded” in that program.

 

We read in the Bible that, in the beginning, death was not part of the program. “For God did not make Death. He takes no pleasure in destroying the living” (Wis. 1: 13). Then, where does death come from? We find the answer in the same book of Wisdom: “Death came into the world only through the Devil’s envy” (Wis. 2: 24). In other words, death was not the first thing to come. It is evil, the poisonous fruit of freedom, that changed the program. Then death appeared as a punishment. But by dying on the cross, Christ made of that “punishment” a passage.

 

That is why, in the 2nd century AD, Saint Iraeneus saw death in a positive way. If it were not there, we would remain for ever prisoners of the evil we did in our earthly life. According to him, if human beings are subjected to death, it is to make it possible for them to go beyond that evil. So, for us Christians, death is not a fatal wound, but a liberation or a passage to another life.

Saint Charles Borromeo was once engaged in a game of billiards, when one of his priests, playing with him, asked: “Bishop, what would you do if you were told that in five minutes time you are going to drop dead? Would you get on your knees and pray, or would you go to confession?” The saint smiled and answered: “I would quietly continue to play this game of billiards. I began it with the intention of offering it all up to God, and if my action is for God, why should I stop it?”

 

If there is nothing after death, we would naturally feel that the sufferings endured by innocent people are really unjust. Paradise on earth would be reserved to the rich. Mother Teresa had the following testimony to share:

“One day, I took up a man who had been lying in a gutter for some time. His body was covered with ulcers and worms were foraging in his wounds. I took them out one by one. I myself washed that man. I attended to his ulcers. I knew that his end was approaching. Never did he show any fear neither did he complain about anything. When I took him up in my arms, he told me with a smile: “I spent all my life on the pavements like an animal, but I’m going to die like an angel, loved and cared for!” I gave him a special blessing, giving him the assurance that he would soon see the face of God for all eternity.”   (Navin Chawla)

 

It happened in the course of history that some priests preached about life after death only to console the poor and make them accept their sufferings with resignation. That is what led Karl Marx to say that “religion is the opium of the people.” No one can deny that there were times religion used to function that way, and it is still functioning like that in some parts of the world. But it is not because one does not know how to drive a car that the car is a bad vehicle. We have to acknowledge also that some took advantage of their lack of faith to promote all kinds of injustices and even to kill others. Only the hope of reaching heaven one day can give us a taste for the earthly tasks entrusted to us.

 

A famous Scottish explorer, in his old age, was holding some young people spellbound relating some of the most exciting moments in his life to them: how he shot a tiger springing at him, how he was saved from shipwreck after two days in a boat, how he saw the beautiful sunrise from a peak in the Himalayas, and so on. “But I’m expecting to have another thrill soon, bigger than any of these.” His hearers wondered, for they supposed his exploring days were over. So, they asked: “Are you planning another journey, Sir?” – “No,” he replied. “I was thinking of the first five minutes after death.”

 

IV-       Different for ever?

 

Are there differences between people in heaven? If there was no difference between human beings, how could we find joy in our relationships? Heaven is certainly the “place” where we will rejoice to see differences between human beings, while here on earth they are often the cause of suffering. But where will these differences come from? Not from an injustice, but from this life. Today, itself we are responsible for our heavenly countenance. We shape its beauty. Every gesture of love will beautify us for all eternity. In other words, our motto should always be: “Don’t die until you are dead!”

 

Saint Teresa of Lizieux compares each one of us to a glass. In heaven, all the glasses are full. But the countenance of each glass is decided by us today.

 

 “There is a legend of a wealthy woman who, when she reached heaven, was shown a very plain mansion. She objected. ‘Well,’ she was told, ‘that is the house you prepared for yourself.’ Then she asked: ‘Whose is that fine mansion across the way?’ – ‘It belongs to your gardener.’ – ‘How is it that he has one so much better than mine?’ – ‘The houses here are prepared from the materials that are sent up. We do not choose them: you do that by your earthly faithfulness.’”    (Bruno Hagspiel).

 

We did not decide what we would be when we were in our mothers’ wombs, but what we will be in heaven depends on our freedom today complemented by God’s grace. So, we have to live a life of love today. That is why Jesus speaks of “reward” in the Gospel.

 

What about the children who died in their mothers’ wombs? They did not have access to freedom. So, what will happen to them? To answer that question, we have to remember that each one of us is not only what he/she chooses to be, but also what God makes him/her become. The beauty of our life does not come only from the love we show, but also from the love we receive from God.

 

Author: 
Hervé Morissette, csc