When we die…

February 25, 2010

The topic of death, heaven, and the resurrection often comes up in our house, because of my daughter’s recent obsession with death and afterlife. My mom came to visit us yesterday, like she does every week, and the conversation was steered by Isabel. She asked, “Grandma, are you going to die?” which we generally respond to with “Probably not today.” Isabel said she wouldn’t be sad because she could still talk to her. My cheeky daughter. Then Grandma corrected her, “Well, I’ll be able to see you, but not hear you. When I want to talk to my mom, your great-grandma, I just ask God to give her a hug for me.”

There’s a very weird difference here between the Catholic and Protestant positions, and I’d venture to say the Protestant one is defined by an effort to be not Catholic. We have taught Isabel that when you die, if you want to (essentially true), you go to heaven and be with God. You can then see people on Earth and they can talk to you even though you can’t talk back (normally). In heaven, you can talk to God and ask Him to help people on Earth, and they’ll see you when they die, and then God brings us all back to life later. There’s a new heaven and a new Earth. We will walk with God and will be as He created us to be, glorified and one with Him in Christ. We usually leave out that last bit for Isabel.

I can’t explain very well the Protestant, non-denominational, Bible-only derived version of the afterlife held by my family. Part of it is I never had a very good grip on what they believed when I was growing up. The resurrection was an afterthought and heaven was our final goal. I think that it goes something like this: when you die, you go to Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:19-26) and become one of the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). There, they believe you can see things, hence the witnessing part, but you are “asleep in the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:13,14). Essentially, here, you are not in heaven, you cannot pray to God, and you cannot hear others talking to you. But God can give you hugs. Judgment Day comes and those deemed “saved” will be resurrected and go to heaven in their resurrected bodies. Those not saved will go to hell. I’m not sure if they get bodies, but I think they don’t. My brother very adamantly was defending this view when we told Isabel that death comes first, then heaven, then resurrection. He insisted that death comes first, then resurrection, then heaven. I don’t think he realizes the idea that we are all resurrected and then go to heaven kind of ignores the new Earth (Rev 21:1).

There are so many reasons this view is self-contradictory, I don’t know where to start. First of all, I don’t know why Abraham’s bosom is considered separate from heaven, especially since there exists an obvious corollary to Abraham’s bosom for the condemned. They don’t believe in an individual judgment and a general judgment later, but then I don’t know how they avoid that God decides some go to Abraham’s bosom, and others to… not Abraham’s bosom, where there is fire and agony. Kind of sounds like hell. If it is not an individual judgment that decides this, then what is it?

They acknowledge that the dead form a cloud of witnesses and combine that fact with the idea that those who have died have “fallen asleep in Christ” to make it sound like we enter some kind of spiritual state of paralysis. We can see, but not function in any spiritual way. Maybe it didn’t occur to them that falling asleep only referred to our physical selves. Here, I think the only reason they believe the dead can’t hear the living and can’t talk to God when we’re “asleep” is to avoid Christians asking those who have died to pray for us to God. It’s a move motivated only to distance themselves from Catholic practices that are deemed idolatrous. But there’s nothing idolatrous about it, since we’re not worshiping those we ask to pray for us. It’s Biblical, and there is no Biblical or logical reason to demand the cloud of witnesses can’t hear and pray.

Likewise, my mom seems to want to allow for the dead who are in Abraham’s bosom to be able to see God such that He can communicate with them and give them hugs, but not that they are in heaven or that they can ask Him for things for those on Earth. The only reason I can see for this is she is making an effort to be consistent with the Biblical testimony that we are comforted by God in Abraham’s bosom, but again maintain separation from Catholic teachings. I’m not sure what heaven is if it is not being in the presence of God. It makes absolutely no sense to say that someone who is in heaven, in the presence of God, and is able to witness what goes on on this Earth, is unable to ask God to help us.

Both of my parents are very respectful of whatever way Chris and I decide to raise the kids. My mom wouldn’t knowingly contradict what we teach them. At least I don’t think she would. So I will have to at some point sit down with her and explain our views on these, and probably other, matters. It’s uncomfortable for a couple reasons. Firstly, I’ll be revealing more of my Catholicity. Also, my mom isn’t very easy to talk to about things that displease her, and she has a tendency to get very defensive when “corrected” about the kids. But I’ll bite the bullet, and soon, so that poor Isabel won’t get a wonky and confused version of reality, especially since this topic means so much to her right now.

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The Mystery of the Resurrection

May 21, 2009

Alright, maybe I can’t get babies and a puppy under control enough to blog more often right now! But that’s okay… right? So, the mystery of the Resurrection:

Right now, I’m not really talking about Christ’s resurrection, but the resurrection of the saints. It’s a strange thing. I remember in my Protestant days there wasn’t a heck of a lot of talk about our physical resurrection. We more heard about heaven and worshiping in the presence of God, clouds and music, that sort of thing. I don’t know if I remember it this way because of my muddled and childish view of things or if Protestants really ignore the physical resurrection as some kind of side-note in the Bible. In my adult days, I can’t remember any “hope of the resurrection” sermons. But I remember being afraid of heaven when I was little. Weird reaction to people’s attempted description of paradise, I know. But I thought everyone’s formless spirits all lined up singing, which was my child-like view of worship, sounded boring. Now I realize there is a lot more to worship than just singing. To love our God, in His perfection, is to worship Him. That relationship with God, to perfectly know and be known, will fulfill the godly nature of our Earthly desires. Nothing bad about that.

Heaven is one thing I can accept now, but what about our physical bodies, raised from the dead, like Lazarus, glorified like Christ’s? Now that’s something else entirely. I feel like there’s some deep truth hidden behind the resurrection, and the Eucharist, and Christ’s words “It is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits nothing.” It’s out of my grasp, but I can feel it, a mystery in the hope of Christians. Why is that our hope? Why isn’t heaven our final goal?

And why don’t Protestants talk about it that much, and instead focus on going to heaven? After reading the wiki-page on the resurrection of the dead, and the section on the modern “de-emphasis”, I’ve decided I’m not crazy! Since the 17th century, Protestants have focused more on souls going to heaven instead of the hope of the resurrection. The author of the wiki-page offers some suggestions as to the cause:

  • Interviewed by Time in 2008 senior Anglican bishop and theologian N.T. Wright spoke of “the idea of bodily resurrection that people deny when they talk about their ‘souls going to Heaven,'” adding: “I’ve often heard people say, ‘I’m going to heaven soon, and I won’t need this stupid body there, thank goodness.’ That’s a very damaging distortion, all the more so for being unintentional.”
  • Early church fathers defended the resurrection of the dead against the pagan belief that the immortal soul went to heaven immediately after death.
  • Dartigues has observed that especially “from the 17th to the 19th century, the language of popular piety no longer evoked the resurrection of the soul but everlasting life.

Some time ago, I read Augustine’s homily on John 6, where Christ says “It is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits nothing.” He compares these words to the words in 1 Corinthians 8:1 “Knowledge puffs up, but charity edifies.” Augustine points out that this doesn’t mean knowledge is useless, but that without love it is useless. Likewise, he says, when Christ says “It is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits nothing.” He doesn’t mean that flesh never profits, but that without the spirit, flesh profits nothing. Augustine explains this is how we must understand Christ to understand Him consistently after He has just commanded us to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, and that we have no life in us unless we do. Seems rather obvious when he puts it like that, now, doesn’t it?

There’s a connection between the physical world and the spiritual world, in which physical things are moved by the spirit. Yet we can’t abandon the physical for that which moves it. Our ultimate goal is to exist as we were first created, body and spirit together. After the resurrection, we’ll be as we were intended, our glorified bodies in unity with our Father. All we can conclude is that Augustine is right, and flesh profits. We see it in the Eucharist, as Christ’s Body and Blood give us life. And now we see it in the resurrection, our goal. Personally, I’m glad. I can’t fathom God’s understanding of these things, but I love the works of His hands. I love the stars, the ocean, the fields, and a breeze on my skin after it’s been warmed by the sun. I love eating a good food prepared by a good cook, and waking up from a good nights sleep (though that’s a distant memory). Almost with some level of absurdity, I love Chris’s touch. It is the spirit that gives life, but I know at some level the physical moves the spiritual as well.

On Called to Communion, Brian Cross writes: “The interior is more important than the exterior. But, (and here is what so many people miss, and what gnostic Christianity misses entirely) the bodily and the external is what incites our affections to submit to God. The exterior moves the interior. Why? Precisely because we are humans, and not angels trapped in bodies. This is why it is connatural to us, says Aquinas, to proceed from the sensible (i.e. the physical, external, material) to the intelligible (i.e. the internal, the spiritual).”

This is exactly the train of thought that I’ve been on. The resurrection is pointless unless the physical matters, and gnostic Christianity, popular Protestantism, the evangelical traditions that have been thoughtlessly handed down to us, miss it entirely! They miss it in the sacraments, too, not realizing that God uses material things to move the spiritual. The spirit gives the flesh life, so the flesh profits! They miss it in worship, in reverence, in anything sacred itself. I posted before that I believe the Reformation destroyed the sacred, and this must be why. It’s a confusing turn in theology in which Protestants look solely to the spiritual realm, to the interior, for benefits. This must be why Protestants have all but abandoned the resurrection as well sacraments, sacrifice, and all things sacred. Basically any words beginning with “sacr”.

The dual nature of humanity is new to me. At least the importance and inextricable qualities of it are new to me. And as always, light is shed on issues I never expected with this new understanding. All these thoughts tumbling around my insufficient brain, and I keep hearing these words ringing in my ears: “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

Interesting links:

Google book on the creed

Catholic view of the resurrection