We approach November, the Month of the Dead, which begins with All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2) and ends on Christ the King. Here is a question and an answer from the Immanuel archives. The answer has been expanded to take into account the images I chose for this article.
Question: What happens to us at death? Christ promises the thief on the cross that he will be in Paradise that day. What is Paradise and where is Paradise? Can you recommend some good books that help to explain more about what happens to us after our bodies die?
Frank Answers: The image above this post is “The Death of Adonis” (c. 1614) by the early Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Rubens was known for his extravagant and sensuous paintings (the epitome of the Baroque style). In this scene Rubens depicts the moment Venus discovers her dying lover, Adonis, after he has been gored in the groin by a beast while hunting. The myth of Adonis is complex, as were his love relationships, especially with Aphrodite. In Rubens’ painting Cupid hovers overhead and the Three Graces are nearby (daughters of Zeus who were said to represent beauty, charm and joy)—as is the death-inflicting wild boar just out of sight. Adonis became the dying and rising god of fertility and mystery cults. (In the biological world sex and death are often related.) I chose this painting to place above this post about death precisely because it shows death intruding in the midst of the vitality of life (the hunt and sexuality). We are reminded, as the medieval antiphon says, “In the midst of life we are in death.”
Let’s begin by asking what we are. We are dust of the earth molded into a being that can serve as the image of God in the world. Genesis 2 tells about God fashioning us from clay to be his idol in the world, his representative to the rest of creation. But we are not a dumb idol. God breathed into us the breath of life. So we are a body with breath, with spirit. The Hebrew ruach, the Greek pneuma, and the Latin spiritus all refer to breath, wind, spirit—like the breath/wind/spirit of God that moved over the pre-created chaos and brought creation into being. This is not the same as “soul,” for which the Greek word is psyche. (We get “psychology” from psyche.)
Humans have had a disinclination to see the body as our real selves and this has affected Christian thought. Ancient Christians struggled against Gnosticism, which regarded matter (including the body) as evil. Christians maintained the goodness of God’s creation and of the human body and affirmed the resurrection of the body. But Neo-Platonism saw the physical body as the container of the soul and many Christian thinkers of late antiquity were influenced by this philosophy. The soul has been the object of spiritual interest ever since, although there is little information about souls in the Bible.
We usually refer to human beings as having bodies, mind, and spirit. The 17th century philosopher René Descartes said “I think, therefore I am” (Cogito ergo sum). Ever since Descartes we have thought of the mind as distinct from the body. But what is the mind? Is it not a function of our marvelous human brains? There’s no doubt that our thoughts can transcend and survive us, but we should stop thinking that we are minds with a body. Our minds are also a part of our body. Modern phenomenologists after Maurice Merleau-Ponty have emphasized that we don’t just have a body; we are a body. This view was also espoused by the late Pope John Paul II in his extensive writings on “the theology of the body” which were brought together in Male and Female He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, Translation and Introduction by Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006).
The soul (psyche) might be understood as the essence of each person—our personality. Isn’t that what psychology studies? Greek philosophy thought of the soul as the spark of immortality within the human being. But if we ever had immortality, according to the Bible it was taken away as punishment for overreaching. God says to Adam: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” St. Paul also said that the consequence of sin is death. We die when the body ceases to function. The heart stops beating. Oxygen doesn’t get to the brain. The mind goes blank, we stop breathing, and the body decomposes.
But God doesn’t want to lose his creatures. So God overcomes evil by the atoning sacrifice of his Son for the sins of the world, and destroys death in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The dead will be raised. As in Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, the breath comes back into our restored bodies, and the mind and body praise and serve God eternally in a new creation. Our soul, our personality, is in God’s keeping (that’s why we think of the soul “going to heaven” at death). Our soul is restored to our recreated resurrection bodies so that we remain who we were. (See my Frank Answer About Going to Heaven.)
From our standpoint as the living, it seems like a long time between death and resurrection. But from the standpoint of the departed, we are raised “in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye,” since there is no consciousness in death. It’s like falling asleep and the next thing you know you are awake. Christians have spoken of “sleeping in Jesus” while they await the resurrection.
By the way, I don’t think “after death experiences” are really after death; they are more properly “near death” experiences. Persons who have had them often speak of a bright light at the end of a tunnel, although they don’t get to it. By all accounts the experience gives those who revive a good and pleasant feeling. Many of the stories speak of healing. I heard one woman who was abused as a child speak warmly of a feeling of love and affirmation. People who have these experiences are not afraid of dying. But these experiences are not the promised resurrection of the dead.
There’s also the whole issue of time in Purgatory, which projects time into eternity. This purpose of this Western Christian idea (Eastern Christianity has no comparable teaching) is that souls need to be purified before they can enter heaven and the presence of God. But that imaginative concept, which owes a lot to Dante in his Divine Comedy, was rejected by the Protestant reformers. And recent Catholic theologians, Pope Benedict XVI among them, have spoken of the purification that takes place when the dead are raised and we stand in the purifying light of the glorious Christ.
But the light of Christ also exposes the deeds of darkness and there is a judgment. The unrepentant cannot be a part of a new creation (which includes a new earth as well as a new heaven). Dante imagined the creatures of hell acting out their earthly inclinations, as depicted in this romantic painting by William Bouguereau of Dante and Virgil viewing the torments of Hell (c. 1850).
So what do we make of Jesus’ promise to the penitent thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise?” Luke’s Gospel portrays Jesus as a king on the cross. The thief acknowledges Jesus’ kingdom. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus promises not just to remember the thief, but to take him into his royal garden (“paradise” is a Persian word for a royal garden) “today”. It’s like when Queen Elizabeth takes the prime minister and other visitors for a stroll in her royal garden behind Buckingham Palace. It is a place of beauty and also of intimacy. But it is quite an earthly image. The promise to the repentant thief has to mean “As of today you are with me in Paradise.” The repentant thief also awaits resurrection.
I recommend the book by Bishop N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope:Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperCollins, 2008). It is a bit controversial because Bishop Wright tries to be faithful only to the biblical evidence, which eliminates a lot of traditional thinking about the afterlife that has come into Christian thinking through Greek philosophic ideas. But for a succinct understanding of what happens after death you can’t do better than the hymn by Martin Schalling (1532-1608), which J. S. Bach used for the final chorus of his St. John Passion (Lutheran Book of Worship # 325, stanza 3).
Lord, let at last thine angels come,
To Abr’ham’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me,
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, thy glorious face,
My Savior and my fount of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ,
My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise thee without end.
Pastor Frank C. Senn
Resurrection of the Flesh by Luca Signorelli (c. 1500) – based on 1 Corinthians 15: 52: “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible …”