In the month of November, the Church focuses in a special way on what is to come after death. The month begins with All Saints Day and All Souls Day, and it concludes with the Solemnity of Christ the King, which is the celebration of what will take place at the end of time. Every Sunday of this month, we have a glimpse of what happens after death.
One way to teach about the next life is to tell stories, as Jesus does in some of his parables. In today’s Gospel, the Sadducees try to use a story to teach a lesson of their own. They do not believe in life after death, but they do profess to follow the Mosaic law. The law specifies that if a man dies childless, his brother must marry the widow and raise children for his deceased brother. So they present Jesus with a case of seven brothers who all marry one woman and then die, one after another. Then the Sadducees pose what they believe to be a profound trick question: “Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be? For all seven had been married to her.” They think the Mosaic law proves that the doctrine of the resurrection is ridiculous. Jesus patiently teaches them the truth about the next life as well as the truth about marriage.
The first lesson Jesus teaches is that in the next life people do not marry. Therefore, the question of whose wife the widow will be is invalid from the start; her seven marriages all ended when the brothers died. Jesus does not say that we will not have any relationships after death, or that we will be without love. The truth about Heaven is that whatever is good in our relationships here will remain on the other side. Thus, we will know our loved ones in Heaven, and we will love them. In fact, we will know them better and we will love them more. Our relationships will be perfected in Heaven. The error of the Sadducees is their assumption that if there is a next life, it must be the same as this life, when in fact it will be much better. Life after death is a continuation of our life, but in new and different way; it is transformed and made perfect. Jesus gives us, then, a most positive way of understanding the next life.
He continues, explaining that in the next life the dead “can no longer die, for they are like angels.” The popular notion that when a loved one dies he or she becomes an angel is incorrect. There is a big difference between a human person who has died and an angel. Jesus says we become like angels. That is, after death our life continues forever; we cannot die. We are free of the limitations and weaknesses and temptations that we experienced in the body. We can still know and we can still love. We still have freedom – in fact we have even greater freedom. In all these ways we become “like angels” in the next life.
When Jesus says that the dead “can no longer die,” he reveals that belief in reincarnation is also incorrect. Many people believe in reincarnation – that the dead come back to life in this world in a different body – but the truth is that we live once, we die once, we are judged once, and we enter into the next life once (cf. Heb 9:27). Our faith in the next life helps us remember that our sufferings here will indeed come to an end and then we will enter our reward. It is very important to be clear about this because it affects how we view our life on earth. We are not helplessly resigned simply to wait around for life to reach its dead end. Rather, we live in hope because we know the truth about the next life. Not that we understand everything about it, but we know that we will be in the presence of God, where we will live the fullness of life with him, like the angels do. We will be called children of God and see him as he is. This sure hope makes it possible for us to endure great sufferings and to persevere in offering sacrifice in this life.
An inspiring example of hope is the story from 1 Maccabees in today’s first reading. Like the hypothetical case raised by the Sadducees, it is also about seven brothers, but this account is true. The seven brothers and their mother are being forced to eat pork – a blatant violation of their religious freedom, since it is against the Mosaic law. They refuse and are therefore subjected to excruciating torture. Where do they get the strength to withstand the torture? Why are they ready to die rather than sin? Because of their faith in the resurrection. One of the brothers says to the evil king, “You are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying.”
Christian hope gives us strength. It sets us free from the idea that we suffer endlessly or in vain. If we have faith in the next life, even our natural fear of death can be overcome. We are like travelers journeying through a foreign land on the way to our final destination, our true homeland. Pope Francis sums it up very well in this week’s Spiritual Reflection: “Jesus invites [us] to consider that this earthly dimension in which we now live is not the only dimension, but that there is another, no longer subject to death, which will fully manifest that we are children of God. It is of great comfort and hope to listen to this simple and clear word of Jesus about life beyond death; we need it very much especially in our time, so rich in knowledge about the universe but so lacking in wisdom about eternal life.”
The truth is that we look forward to a future of peace and of joy because Jesus tells us that God is “not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” Let us live by faith and in joyful hope in the risen life that has been won for us by Jesus Christ.
What sustains me in this life of trials and tribulations? What are my thoughts about my life with God after death? How do I relate to the courage of the mother and her seven sons as they face death?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 8. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.