Question: What happens to us at death? Christ promised the thief on the cross that he will be with Jesus 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, whose name Adon is of Semitic origin and means “lord,” became the dying and rising god of fertility and the object of devotion in eastern Mediterranean mystery cults. The details of the myth of Adonis differ from one location to another. But the myth provides the idea of a god-man whose rising and dying helps to explain the changes in the seasons: rising in the spring, dying in the fall. Christ has been compared with Adonis in his death and resurrection. The major difference is that Christ’s death was not mythological; it was historical. And Christ’s resurrection is good for all eternity. More than that, Christ’s resurrection is a triumph over death. Death’s final defeat is assured, along with the inauguration of a new creation.
I chose this painting 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.”
We shudder to think that this is the end of us. Humans are more than beasts. We project some kind of after life. Ancient peoples saw their ancestors as ghosts, spirits, advocates, or angels who went to Hades, Sheol, Heaven, or Nirvana after death. They believed that some sort of communion or communication was possible after death. The Catholic doctrine of purgatory enabled people to have some control over the death by praying for their release into heaven. These ideas linger. We can’t and won’t let go of life. But these ideas do not square with the biblical view of life and death.
Let us 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 were influenced by strains of Hellenistic philosophy. 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). He was trying to figure out what couldn’t be doubted, and he concluded that he couldn’t doubt that he was thinking. Ever since Descartes we have thought of the mind as who we are. We have regarded the mind as distinct from the body. But what is the mind? Is it not a function of our marvelous human brains and nervous system that runs throughout the body? Isn’t the brain and nervous system a part of our biology? There’s no doubt that our thoughts can transcend and survive us, but we should stop thinking that we are minds with a body attached. 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 said to Adam: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” St. Paul also said that the consequence of sin is death. So we die when the body ceases to function. The heart stops beating (pumping), so oxygen doesn’t get to the brain. The mind goes blank, we stop breathing, and the body decomposes. The person that we are cannot survive without the body. The intelligence of the mind is based on what we have experienced in the body. For that matter, the soul (who we essentially are) is also affected by what we experience in the body and in our embodied mind.
Humans may have longings for eternity embedded within us. But there would be no eternal life apart from the God who doesn’t want to lose his creatures. God overcomes death in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The dead will be raised bodily. As in Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, the breath comes back into our restored bodies so that the mind and body may 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, because that’s where God is). Our soul is restored to our recreated resurrection bodies so that we remain who we were, but with a glorified or spiritual body and a purified soul. (See “Frank Answer About Going to Heaven” and “Frank Answers About the Soul”.)
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,” as St. Paul puts it, 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. The 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 be in 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).
Where is this place of paradise? It is where the original paradise was: in the earth. God promises a new heaven and a new earth. The new earth is where we dwell, because we are earthly creatures. But there will no longer be a gulf between them. The Book of Revelation envisions the city of God coming down to earth and God dwelling among mortals. So we are not rising from the dead and going to heaven. We are rising from the dead with new spiritual bodies to inhabit a renewed earth.
These are among the controversial ideas in the book by Bishop N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope:Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperCollins, 2008). Bishop Wright tries to be faithful to the biblical evidence, which eliminates a lot of traditional thinking about the afterlife that has come into Christian thinking, mostly through Greek philosophic ideas.
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 chorale 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.
This is a Lutheran view of what happens after death. We sleep in Christ until he returns and the dead are raised bodily. Our souls, our personalities, are in God’s keeping until they are reunited with our risen bodies. Whether our souls have any consciousness apart from the living body is another issue. I tend to think not, because that would mean the soul has some kind of existence apart from the body. Christianity wants to affirm the unity of body and soul. A soul needs a body. But this body of mine, buried with Christ in Holy Baptism, will also rise with Christ to live a new life. Martin Luther taught that the whole life of the Christian is a dying with Christ in anticipation of being raised up new on the last day. As he wrote in his 1519 Treatise on the Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism:
“Therefore the life of a Christian, from baptism to the grave, is nothing else than the beginning of a blessed death. For at the Last Day God will make him altogether new.”
Pastor Frank Senn