On Life After Death
(2Macc.7:1-2, 9-14; 2Thess.2:16-3:5; Lk.20:27-38)
Is there life after death (Job 14:14)? And what happens when we get there?
The ancient Aztecs, Vikings and Egyptians believed in an afterlife. Some Native American tribes also believed in a happy hunting ground, and many eastern religions believe in reincarnation.
But our secular society doesn’t accept any afterlife, at least not officially. It assumes that there’s no God and no spirit world, and many people claim to be atheists.
Yet the popular culture seems obsessed with vampires, zombies and ghosts, and heroes with supernatural powers. And surveys reveal that most people do have mystical experiences, when they sense that there’s ‘Something More’ to life than what they can actually see. [i]
It seems that searching for the supernatural is a very human thing to do (Jer.29:13).
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem preaching about the resurrection of the dead, when some Sadducees decide to challenge him.
Now, who were the Sadducees? They were a powerful sect of Jewish priests and merchants who didn’t believe in angels, spirits or resurrection (Acts 23:8). They only accepted as truth the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.
They put a hypothetical question to Jesus. ‘Teacher’, they say, ‘Moses told us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, then his brother must marry her and raise up children for his brother’.
To explain, this practice of a man marrying his brother’s widow comes from the Torah (Gen.38:8; Deut.25:5-6). It’s called the Levirate Law of Marriage, and its purpose was to ensure that a widow is looked after and that the first husband’s name continues to live on after him.
The Sadducees’ question is this: whose wife would a woman be if she marries each of seven brothers, one after the other, after each one dies?
The point they’re trying to make is that God’s Law, as given to Moses, cannot be broken, and that God would never create something that contradicted his own Law. So, he could not have created an afterlife, because it would simply undermine the sanctity of marriage.
Jesus answers them in two ways. Firstly, he says that marriage is an earthly institution blessed by God, and it doesn’t exist in heaven.
Then he says that Moses learnt about the resurrection before he received the Law from God. He learnt this when he first encountered God in the Burning Bush, when God said to him ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’ (Ex.3:4-6).
What Jesus means is that because God is the God of the living, and because God is also the God of the patriarchs, then the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – must still be alive. For God is a ‘living’ God and only the living can experience something that lives. The patriarchs, therefore, are still alive and they’re now in heaven.
What, then, does Jesus say about heaven?
He gives few details in this passage, but he does say that in heaven there’s no more death or decay, but only eternal life. This means that there’ll be no more suffering or pain (Rev.21:4).
He also says that life in heaven is different to life here on earth (‘life is changed, not ended’), and marriage won’t be needed. However, this doesn’t mean we’ll be separated from our families and friends. Rather, our relationships will be different, and the fellowship of marriage will be replaced by the depth and diversity of new life in the presence of God.
Our eternal lives won’t be reduced to some level below that of marriage, though. Rather, we’ll find ourselves living a much fuller and closer life with God himself and with all of God’s family, and the emotional intimacy and affection we now restrict to just one spouse will be shared with everyone in heaven. [ii]
All this points to the model of the Trinity, which reveals to us that the essence of divine life is perfect loving communion. Here on earth we experience this in a very special way through the Holy Eucharist, and in heaven we’ll experience it by living in perfect loving intimacy with God and all his angels and saints.
This is why Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment of all is to love God and our neighbour, with all our hearts, all our souls and all our minds (Mt.22:34-40).
This is our challenge. Jesus wants us to prepare for eternal life by learning to love God and each other, before we get there.
CS Lewis said that in this life we write the title page of what we will be in eternity.
But my own father likes to put it this way: our life here on earth is basically the qualifying round for our next life.
So, what do you think? Is there life after death?
And are you ready for it?
[i] William Bausch, The Story Revealed. Twenty Third Publications, New London, CT. 2013:144-145.
[ii] KJV Study Bible, 2nd Edition. Thomas Nelson, Nashville. 1988:1588