“When I awake, I shall be filled with the sight of your glory!”
What does happen to us when we die? Many people who have been brought back from the brink of death talk about seeing a “light at the end of the tunnel”. Some report meeting God and being told it’s not their time yet. A few people have reported a vision which seems more like Hell than like Heaven.
It’s good to keep an open mind about these reports. Science suggests good reasons why a brain starved of oxygen might experience “tunnel vision” and human imagination is quite capable of wishful thinking or self-condemnation. Even so, there are certainly some powerful stories around, not least from an Anglican vicar I know who prayed for a 19-year-old teenager killed in a motorcycle accident… the boy woke up in the morgue the next morning having had such a powerful religious experience that he joined a church and got baptised soon afterwards!
If we put our trust in what God has said through the Bible, what can we be sure of? When our church leaders put together all the relevant bits of the Bible, what we know goes like this:
- On the day we die, our souls are judged immediately by God – or some would say that we judge ourselves in comparison to the pure love we see in God. Either way, we can go in one of three directions.
- For those truly repentant of their sins who do not need to be greatly purified, they go straight to heaven. These are the souls we celebrated on All Saint’s Day.
- For those who call on God’s mercy but who need significant purification, they go to Purgatory until they are ready for heaven. Those are the souls we remember on All Soul’s Day, and for whom we offer Masses.
- For those who have not chosen God’s mercy, God allows them to be separated from his loving presence, and this we call Hell.
- We believe that Our Lord and Our Lady already have bodies in heaven – this is why we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption of Blessed Mary. The rest of us live there as souls without bodies. We may be full of questions about how that works – the Sadducees in today’s Gospel certainly were, and they tried to trip up Jesus. But he insisted that heaven was real, and left the details to God. Will husbands and wives be re-united in heaven? As long as they have accepted God’s mercy, yes – but not to live as a couple in the heavenly Jerusalem. Like all the saints, they will be members of the body of Christ. They will not love their earthly spouse any less; but the love they give to Jesus and receive in return from Jesus will be immeasurably greater than we can know in even the best marriage on earth.
- One day in the future, this world as we know it will come to an end. Will that happen through a natural disaster or by God intervening in an amazing miracle? We don’t know. But we are so certain that this will happen that every Sunday in the Creed we assert: “We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” When this happens, God will raise every soul who has ever lived and give them a new and everlasting body – or for those who are still alive on earth when this happens, their earthly body will be transformed. This is the moment we call the Last Judgement. Those whose souls were already in Hell, or were alive at the end of the world but had not chosen God’s mercy, will be sent bodily into Hell. Everyone else will be welcomed into what the Bible calls the “new heaven and new earth”.
What Our Lord says today is an uncomfortable message if you are married, even more so if you are widowed. But… don’t panic! If you are in a second marriage, relax. There can be no jealously in heaven. You can hope to be there with both your earthly spouses, and there will be no unpleasantness.
Our Christian faith is not wishful thinking. If it were, we would believe that married couples live happily-ever-after in heaven, and the Sadduccees would have a valid point. So here is a useful check of where your faith comes from. If you believe in heaven because the alternative is too horrid to imagine, open your ears to Jesus! Believe in it because he rose from the dead. If you need to, ask him to increase your love for Him!
Today’s reading also reminds us that there is such a thing as a “fate worse than death”. When a human being is martyred, that is a tragedy for the family they leave behind, but a triumph in being faithful to God. As the familiar reading from Wisdom says, “their going seemed like a disaster, but they are at peace”. And remember that Leon Bloy once wrote, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”
Your loved ones are alive to God. The dead will rise again. Not only will you see them again, but you, and they, are destined to be given new and glorious bodies which will never perish. As for where that body goes, that’s up to the choices you make on earth. Whatever happens, we can be sure of this: “When we awake, we shall be filled with the sight of God’s glory!”