Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The Afterlife

I thought the mainstream Christian view of the afterlife involves "Going to Heaven." However, it occurred to me that nothing like this existed in the older poetry I was reading. Instead of immediately entering Heaven (or the other destination, as the case might be), we must wait for resurrection and judgement on Earth. Here are two examples.

"Dies Irae" by Thomas of Celano (1200 – c. 1265)
Day of sadness, day of sighs,
When we from the coals will rise
And to judgement be consigned
therefore, God, please spare mankind
(My translation).

"Holy Sonnet 7" by John Donne (1572-1631)
At the round earth's imagined corners blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go;
The image of bodies arising on Judgement Day is certainly there in the Old Testament.
12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord. ’” (Ezekiel 37:12-14).
And in the New.
And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. (Revelations  20:13)
It's in the Apostles' Creed
...the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
and the later Nicene Creed
We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
and Ghostbusters.

So, the Christian consensus seems settled: When we die, we go into some sort of waiting period until the day that our bodies physically rise from our graves, from the sea, from wherever, and we come back to physical life. This takes place on earth, either the Earth we know or a recreated New Earth. Where is there room for "going to heaven" in this?

Well, there are two ambiguities here. One is, where do the souls wait? The other is, are they conscious when they are waiting? Ink and blood have been wasted on whether the souls (1) sleep or (2) die and will be resurrected, or (3) watch and wait. Donne is with the "soul sleep" camp in "Holy Sonnet 10":
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more ;  Death, thou shalt die.
If you hold with the "watch and wait" opinion, however, then heaven could be our waiting room until the New Earth is created.

I recently wrote a short poem about my father's death that includes both views on the afterlife: heaven and soul sleep.
He’s with his maker, in a higher place,
and looking down to see his former loves;
and till we rise to join in Heaven’s grace,
we flutter on the Earth, like fledgling doves.
I’ve also heard my father’s soul’s asleep—
he waits for Christ to order his rebirth,
he waits for resurrection from the Deep,
he waits to walk forever on the Earth.
All that I know for certain is he’s gone,
an absence like an abscess in a tooth,
a certain solid fact of life withdrawn,
that leaves an empty echo as the truth.
It seems odd that most of our euphemisms for death are about going to heaven, movies about death seem to be about going to heaven, and so on, but I can't find the justification for Christians to think that they are going to heaven. It seems to be a mostly twentieth-century idea, but I have not chased down why or when as yet.

1 comment:

  1. Eric Stoutz, on the "Catholics United for the Faith" website, makes an articulate defence, from a Catholic viewpoint, of the idea of the souls of the dead being conscious as they await resurrection is on

    As a Catholic writing on the afterlife, he is concerned with showing that dead saints can still hear our prayers and intercede for us, a question I had not considered.

    The following quotation from the article give some background on the question of the afterlife.

    "Continuing with the theme of history and tradition, you could point to times when the Christian Church addressed soul sleep. For example, the historian Eusebius, remarking that Origen in his later years (c. 245) had become more publicly active, mentions a synod in Arabia:

    "About the same time others arose in Arabia, putting forward a doctrine foreign to the truth. They said that during the present time the human soul dies and perishes with the body, but that at the time of the resurrection they will be renewed together. And at that time also a synod of considerable size assembled, and Origen, being again invited thither, spoke publicly on the question with such effect that the opinions of those who had formerly fallen were changed [2].

    "A millennium latter, Pope Benedict XII had to deal with a broader controversy when his predecessor, John XXII, suggested a version of soul sleep. The ensuing debate ended after Benedict convened a commission of theologians, with them studied the Church Fathers, and solemnly pronounced that each person immediately receives his eternal reward or punishment in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death [3]."

    Benedict XII died in 1342, so I suppose that the Catholic Church regards the matter as being well and truly resolved.