What are your first thoughts when you consider the afterlife? Do you think of classic images of heaven or hell, do you tremble at the thought of judgment or smile with anticipation of bliss? Do you worry about loved ones who died before they ever embraced faith? In the gospels Jesus talks a lot about the kingdom of God, judgment, and eternal life, but most of us remain confused about what we are to expect after our mortal bodies cease to function.What are your first thoughts when you consider the afterlife? Do you think of classic images of heaven or hell, do you tremble at the thought of judgment or smile with anticipation of bliss? Do you worry about loved ones who died before they ever embraced faith? In the gospels Jesus talks a lot about the kingdom of God, judgment, and eternal life, but most of us remain confused about what we are to expect after our mortal bodies cease to function.
We live with conflicting expectations and images, which we have absorbed from the various theologies presented in scripture and the traditional teachings of the Church. For many of us, these sources raise more questions than they answer. Is heaven a place? Can you go there if you weren’t baptized? Do we need to keep our physical remains intact so that we can be resurrected in them? What about grace—does it really matter how we live our lives if God is going to forgive us all our sins anyway? Do good people who don’t believe in God get a pass? What about our pets? Will we have to share heaven with people we didn’t like in this life? Will we be able to watch over our loved ones left behind? Is hell a place of fire and pitchforks? And on, and on.
Any rational reflection on the afterlife is complicated by our cultural reluctance to think about death. We have come a long way from the devout Anglicans of the early Reformation, who slept in shrouds and prepared themselves daily for the possibility that they would not wake up in the morning. We have almost succeeded in convincing ourselves that death is avoidable—just notice the way mortality statistics are reported, with their percentages of probability of death (hint: the probability is always 100%).
For most of Christian history, and still in most of the world, life has been fragile and early mortality likely. Life was and is hard and filled with suffering, heaven a longed-for blessed rest after a life of drudgery. But we who live in comfort in the developed world live pretty good lives, for the most part, and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what comes next, until a loved one dies or we are brought face-to-face with our own mortality. We lack incentives to focus on the afterlife because this life is so sweet. And our Anglican tradition has, thank goodness, largely let go of the guilt-inducing theology of the past, which was, to our shame, used to exercise control over people taught to be terrified of the consequences of disobeying Mother Church.
Having stripped away the remnants of our pre-Enlightenment understanding of the afterlife, what is left?Of course nobody actually knows what happens to our souls after death. We must, in the end, come to terms with the not knowing: that is where faith comes in. But imagine this possibility: that when we die we are exposed to the fullness of the love of Christ. As so beautifully rendered in Elgar’s setting of Newman’s poem “Gerontius,” that exposure is exquisitely painful, even for the most devout Christian, for we can have no conception in this life of just how vast and intense that love is. The degree to which we have prepared in this life to know that love, through practicing love ourselves, dictates the level of pain we suffer as we pass through the crucible of love. What remains is absorbed into some eternal dimension that transcends all that we can imagine and is the ultimate source of love.
As for the eternal life to which Jesus refers, I believe that this is something that we can strive toward in the here and now, rather than hoping for it in the by-and-by. Eternal life means abundance of life for all, the triumph of justice over oppression and love over hate. It’s a quality that we glimpse in transcendent moments: communion, intimate relationships, birth and death, great music and awe-inspiring nature. Or, to quote the catechism, it is “a new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other.” What more could we wish for, in this life or the next? +
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