Afterlife: Christian Concepts

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Biblical and Ancient Concepts

Early Christians, including the authors of the New Testament books, were steeped in beliefs concerning the impending approach of the end of the world, which would occasion the resurrection of the dead and the beginning of a new aeon. For Jewish people suffering under the oppression of the Roman Empire, "the resurrection of the dead" became a rallying symbol, particularly for those who were led by Pharisaic teachers. This belief set them apart from other segments of contemporary Jewish society, most notably the Sadducees, but also the Gentiles. Belief in the resurrection of the dead also played a crucial role for the emerging circle of Christians, for to Jews resurrection meant belief in a hoped-for future occurrence, whereas to Christians it meant a conviction concerning that which had already occurred in the person of Jesus, guaranteeing the future resurrection of all the faithful.

Jesus himself seldom addressed the issue of resurrection, and when he didusually in response to challenges from his listenershe always answered with an emphasis on the present need for conversion to a God-oriented life and neighborly love. It was Paul who made resurrection the focal point of his message. Through his encounter with the "risen" Jesus, Paul became convinced that through the resurrection, Jesus, the Christ, conquered sin and death for all humanity. Paul perceived death as running counter to God's creation, which called life into being. Death could not be a part of God's creation; it had entered into human destiny as a result of sin. Sin was the real cause of death; human beings who sinned in and with Adam, the first human, were responsible for their own mortality. Jesus' rising from the dead accomplished the conquest of sin along with its wage, death. Jesus' rising, however, was not a return to the old mortal body (resuscitation); rather, it was a resurrection to a new "spiritual" body.

Coming from a Hebraic background, Paul was unswerving about the body's essentialness to human existence because he saw the body as an integral part of God's creation. Paul insisted on the resurrection of Jesus into a new "body" to conquer death. Using a metaphor familiar to the Pharisaic circle from which he came, Paul explained bodily resurrection as analogous to a grain of wheat that, planted brown into the soil, rises afresh in green the next spring (1 Cor. 15: 4243). Paul's dualism was not between body and soul, the two elements comprising the human being, but between one form of life governed by the flesh and another guided by the spirit. No one who remains in the former could expect salvation and eternal life. One has to be reborn, re-created into a spiritual beingdead to the old self and raised into a new self. This, Paul was convinced, was made possible by the resurrection of Christ.

In the New Testament the Revelation to John is the only book that provides a clear scenario of the end times. In Revelation the second coming of Jesus, fervently awaited by the early Christians, is presented as the signal for one thousand years of messianic rule, during which martyred Christians will all be resurrected and Satan will be kept bound. After a thousand years of peace and messianic rule, Satan will be unleashed to be permanently defeated in a final battle with the divine forces. With Satan consigned to eternal damnation, a second resurrection will take place in order for the whole of humankind to stand in final judgment. There is no question as to the important role this book played in the life of the early church. It not only provided an inexhaustible source of comfort and encouragement for those who had lost their loved ones to, or themselves suffered the ordeal of, persecution, but it also became a constant source of inspiration to Christians throughout history by giving them images of eternal bliss for the righteous and damnation in a fiery hell for the ungodly.

Apocalyptically conceived Christianity was a movement announcing the quick end of history, and hence, necessarily, its own end. Therefore, when the Christian movement survived beyond the first century it was forced to reevaluate its own stance. It was John's gospel that formed a bridge beyond the initial apocalyptic stage for the enduring presence of Christianity in the ensuing centuries. As the final judgment began to be seen as a distant reality, Christians began thinking about salvation as attainable in the present life. The present moment in life, rather than the end of time, became the crucial point for human existence. Jesus Christ as the Logos of the universe embodies the true meaning of the world, including human life. Turning from the ungodly to a regenerated life by believing in the divine intent embodied in the Logos is the message of the Gospel of John, which was written around the turn of the second century ce. The eternal life that is offered by God through Christ can be attained here and now when one's life is turned to God. Eternal life in this context is not endlessness of life but the fullness of life as God had intended in creation. Life lived with God, in itself, would constitute salvation without waiting for the final judgment. In the same way, life lived without God constitutes damnation quite apart from damnation in hell. "Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (Jn. 3:18).

Though Paul wrestled with the conquest of death, Christians from the outset accepted the mortality of the human being. One must fight spiritual deadness; physical death is unavoidable. Any attempt to see human beings as immortal is rebuffed by God, who alone is eternal. Created beings possess no "natural" immortality of their own. Natural immortality would be an endless life without God's blessing, as seen in a demon that does not have to die the way humans do. During the second century ce Tatian unequivocally rejected such immortality, which he believed could be nothing but a curse. Living endlessly in itself contains no delight; it is living in communion with God that makes life desirable. For this reason, according to Jaroslav Pelikan's interpretation, Christians prefer to use the expression eternal life in the sense of being alive in God, both now and always (Pelikan, 1961, p. 23), to avoid the vitiated implication of immortality as a meaningless prolongation of life without God. Thus, Christian faith does not preach the circumvention of death, but rather the acceptance and overcoming of death as exemplified by the cross of Jesus.

A shift in emphasis from the remote eschatological future to the present life became more pronounced on the theological level. The futuristic kingdom of God of the New Testament came increasingly to imply a sphere of influence already present and spreading, a sphere that manifested itself in the visible institution of the earthly church, though it was not identical with it. This is the manner in which Augustine of Hippo (354430) conceived his "City of God." The City of God was the domain of influence where love of God (amor dei ) prevailed, whereas the earthly city (civitas terrena ) was the domain of self-love (amore sui ). The Roman Empire was the embodiment of the latter, but of course it was not identical with it. Augustine saw the history of humankind as the process through which a drama was unfolding in the struggle between these two forces for ultimate victory. Augustine interpreted early Christian teaching according to the dictates of the changing historical situations in which Christianity had survived. He had little to say about "heaven." It was the City of God transcendentwhich manifested itself in the historical unfolding of the power of Godin which Augustine invested his entire theological energy, leaving heaven and hell mostly to the popular imagination.

Medieval and Roman Catholic Concepts

The New Testament addresses the issue of salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ, rather than heaven and hell. Through the centuries, Christian theology has developed along similar lines. It was popular piety, however, which is no less important to Christian life, that fostered and kept alive beliefs about heaven, hell, and purgatory (with increasingly vivid imagery) through the Middle Ages. With the final judgment pushed considerably into the future, people's concern became sharply focused on the fate of the individual immediately after death. The dualism of the soul and the body was firmly established by the Middle Ages, and death was seen as the separation of the soul from the body.

The postmortem journey to heaven or hell became the most widely accepted pattern of understanding the destiny of departed souls. Relying heavily upon pictorial imagery, the soul was often depicted as traveling to or residing in a heaven or hell that was conceptually integrated, and often even physically located, within a three-tiered medieval universe, with heaven always up above and hell down below. For Christians the distinctive accomplishment of Christ was the conquest of death, by which he liberated all the faithful from the yoke of death for entry into heaven, where they might know and enjoy the state for which God had created them in his own imagethat is, God-centered and totally free of moral imperfections. Inestimable spiritual rewards would await those who suffered unjustly in this world or toiled for justice's sake; the final truth would be revealed to those who had sought it. In heaven, souls were to be reunited with all the loved ones who had preceded them, even though, apparently, earthly relationships, such as that between husband and wife, were not supposed to be carried over into heaven. In short, ultimate blissfulness characterized this community of all souls who were in fellowship among themselves and with God. This heavenly fellowship was the model for fellowship among Christians (communio sanctorum ) in this world.

No longer corporeal, citizens of heaven were allowed to "see" God face to face or to "know" him immediately. In this beatific vision, the knowing of God transcended the earthly epistemological gulf between the knower and the known. The blessed would know God in contemplative interpenetration with God's knowing of himself. Thomas Aquinas (12251274), the monumental theologian of scholasticism, was the most eloquent proponent of the theology that made this beatific vision the ultimate goal of human beings. Faced with the infinite fullness of God, the created intellect of human beings would never cease to wonder and enjoy the inexhaustible source of knowledge, God himself.

In contrast, hell, evolving from the archaic concept of the underworld called Sheʾol in the Hebrew scriptures, was initially the place of all the dead, regardless of their earthly deeds. Only later in Jewish history, and then in Christianity, did it become bifurcated into the realm of punishment (hell, Gehenna ) as distinguished from heaven. Hell came to denote the underworld to which unrepentant sinners were to be consigned. Sinners were to be cast into "outer darkness," with weeping and gnashing of teeth (see Mt. 25:30), or they were to be thrown into "eternal" (Mt. 25:41) or "unquenchable fire" (Mk. 9:43), or even into "a lake that burns with fire and sulfur" (Rev. 21:8). It was not so much the New Testament as the teaching of the later church that solidified the concept of hell as a place of punitive torture in which sinners suffer unending pain. Dante's fourteenth-century masterpiece, Divine Comedy, is the definitive literary representation of these widespread beliefs about hell, which were established enough to find their way into the teachings of the church.

As heaven and hell were firmly established in the medieval Christian mind into two postmortem realms with such graphic details of celestial blissfulness and ghastly underworld pain, some unresolved practical problems arose in popular piety. The idea of purgatory addressed these problems.

The great majority of Christians believe that they die in a state of moral and religious imperfection, and thus not ready for heaven. For this reason, a belief has come to prevail in popular piety that there should be an intermediate realm between this world and heaven. This realm, called purgatory, has no direct references in the Bible, and it only gradually found its way into Christian piety. It was not until the councils of Lyons (1274) and Florence (1439) that the Roman Catholic Church gave it an official definition. In purgatory a process of cleansing and purifying was to take place through the pain of fire. Though the capital (mortal) sins led one directly to hell, venial (minor) sins were to be expurgated in purgatory so that one might be purified enough for admission to heaven.

The idea of indulgence, the remission of punishment for venial sins, developed concurrently with purgatory. It was punishment for venial sins that took place in purgatory, from which sinners were expected to emerge cleansed for final beatitude. The indulgence, then, was the remission of this limited punishment in purgatory, or a shortening of the stay therein. As developed by the church, the practice of indulgence involved praying, doing penance, and merit-making in preparation for death and the consequent journey through purgatory. For hundreds of years during the Middle Ages, this practice remained important for Christians in Europe. Further extending the practice, praying and merit-making by the living, not only for themselves but also on behalf of their deceased relatives, developed into a major religious practice, enough for the church to consider it an adequate basis for the institution of the "sale" of indulgences.

Purgatory and the attendant practice of indulgence presupposed several other beliefs: first, the belief in sin that called for retribution even after Christ has accomplished reconciliation (redemption and forgiveness); second, the practice of indulgence, especially the sale of it, being based on the belief in a "treasury of merit" accumulated over time from the surplus merit bequeathed to the church by all the saints throughout history, as well as by Christ himself; and finally, the belief that the church possessed the authority to administer the said treasury and dispense merits as deemed fit, with the pope holding, as it were, the key.

Protestant Concepts

It is well known that financial abuse of the belief in purgatory and indulgences and the manner in which the church raised funds using them ignited the Protestant Reformation. The sale of indulgences provoked Martin Luther (14831546) into uttering diatribes such as, "No doubt the majority [of the papacy] would starve to death if purgatory did not exist." "How can you," he continued, "bear on your conscience the blasphemous fraud of purgatory, by which treacherous deception they have made fools of all the world and have falsely frightened it and stolen practically all their possessions and splendor?" (Plass, 1959, vol. 1, p. 388). Luther's ninety-five theses of 1517 were a direct assault upon the sale of indulgences. Luther considered the need for sin to be further punished after redemption as undermining the meaning of the death of Jesus. Following Luther's lead, Protestant Christians rejected all teachings concerning purgatory and indulgence.

Important in all of this is the medieval Catholic frame of reference in which things were viewed in terms of "substance," with "quantity" as the predicate. This was largely due to the influence of Aristotelian philosophy during the scholastic period. In the context of indulgences, sin and grace were considered in quantitative terms. The distinction between mortal and venial sins was as much a quantitative distinction as it was a qualitative one. Thus, even within venial sins, degrees of offense were differentiated and expurgated accordingly.

For Protestants, sin amounted to consciously ignoring or distrusting God. There were no degrees of offense once one turned one's back on God. Likewise, grace, for Protestants, was God's loving acceptance of sinners, through his sacrifice and forgiveness. There were no gradations of grace. When Luther declared that salvation could be attained by grace alone (sola gratia ), he meant that grace is the universal act of God reconciling humankind to himself, whether sinners acknowledge it or not. The Roman Catholic conception of grace, on the other hand, was thoroughly substantial, permitting the linguistic habit of referring to it as an entity capable of being, as it were, injected into sinners. Thomas Aquinas made frequent reference to this "infusion of grace." Thus, substantialized grace could be further quantified into something measurable, just as sin was measured and expiated accordingly.

Even though at the close of the sixteenth century the Council of Trent rectified, by officially condemning, the abuse of the sale of indulgences, the Roman Catholic Church did not alter its basic posture toward the belief in purgatory and indulgence. With renewed vigor the council reaffirmed the fundamental structure of Roman Catholic soteriology, along with the worldview that sustains it. The quantitative and substantial ways of viewing sin and grace were maintained as valid, and indulgence and purgatory continued to be accepted beliefs within Roman Catholic piety and theology.

Luther, who was largely responsible for the pattern of subsequent Protestant attitudes toward salvation and eternal life, considered the Pauline interpretation of salvation as "justification by faith" to be the single most important teaching of the Bible. No one devoted more energy to bringing this Pauline teaching to the center of Christian religion than Luther, who believed that salvation lies not so much in the context of the final judgment, the bodily resurrection, and the messianic rule, as in Christian life, lived in faith, consequent to "justification." Like Augustine, Luther rebuked millenarians by arguing that "this false notion is lodged not only in the apostles (Acts 1:6), but also in the chiliasts, Valentinians, the Tertullians, who played the fool with the idea that before Judgment Day the Christians alone will possess the earth and that there will be no ungodly" (Plass, 1959, vol. 1, p. 284). Luther brushed aside ideas about the imminent approach of the end, particularly the way the adventthat is, the physical establishment of messianic rule on earthwas anticipated by some millenarians. Though Luther did not dismiss the last judgment, he did not lend the full weight of his theological articulation to the eschatological concept of the general resurrection. For Luther, it was the justified life that counts. Justification carries the entire weight of soteriological and eschatological significance when Luther says that "the article of justification, which is our only protection, not only against all the powers and plottings of men but also against the gates of hell, is this: by faith alone (sola fide ) in Christ, without works, are we declared just (pronuntiari justos ) and saved" (Plass, 1959, vol. 2, p. 701).

It is thus clear that "eternal life" was to be experienced in the reality of the justified life here and now. For Luther the ideas of immortality and heavenly blissfulness, which played such an important part in popular Christian piety, were absorbed into the significance of eternity invested in the justified life of a Christian. This remains the predominant pattern of the Protestant understanding of eternal life, at least in its normative theological sense.


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Hiroshi Obayashi (2005)