And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.
What happens when we die?
It is one of the greatest questions of all time and inquiring minds want to know: What should we expect after we die? What will it look like? Yet, it is exceedingly difficult to answer. No one has come back and filled us in. But we do have guideposts to inform us.
We do know that there are absolutes, heaven and hell. Scriptures tell us that much. We know heaven is paradise and that it is reserved for the holy ones of God. Revelation gives us a picture of what heaven will look like, a place with no more mourning, weeping, pain or fear. Jesus also gave us examples of what Gehenna will be like, a fiery garbage dump where those who lived lives apart from God wail and gnash their teeth. We know from the story of Lazarus the beggar that there is an uncrossable boundary between heaven and hell. Those things give us a fruitful heads-up, a forewarning that no – everyone does not just go to heaven. To say so is in fact heresy.
We know our path starts with faith, faith in Jesus Christ. We need to confess our sins and give ourselves completely to Him. Through baptism and our cognizant profession of faith we are members in His body, and we are washed in His blood. From there, we embark on the path of sanctification – the process of becoming more and more like Jesus. That is why we can never take a break or slowdown in following Jesus. There is always more to become.
This process of becoming and growing in faith is so important because it is an act of caring and cognition – how we live matters. If everyone just goes to heaven, then why Church, why prayer, why the sacraments, why do anything good, why care. If I’m going there anyway nothing really matters. Yes, how we live, how faithful we are matters. How we place our trust in the Father, how we follow the Son’s gospel path and become more like Him, and how we live out the promptings of the Holy Spirit in Strength of Faith one-hundred-percent matters.
Indeed, something happens when we die. We do not just disappear.
The Church, throughout is history, has come up with different theories about what happens after death. At one time, it was thought that the soul did not actually leave the earth for three days – thus one of the purpose of wakes and the funeral on the third day, as well as the Absolution of the Dead.
Rome placed its bets on the idea of Purgatory, a place of purification – imagine a car with a whole bunch of souls saying – are we there yet? The suffering that leads to purification is achieved in the waiting, in the expectation of desire and longing. The important thing here is the theme of waiting.
The Orthodox do not have any one theory, instead stating that anything we think about the afterlife is ‘speculative theology,’ a theology that tries to define the future by what we do know about God. For this reason, in Orthodoxy, there is diversity in the teachings on what happens after death. This diversity is perfectly okay because attempts at explanation are feeble before the mystery of God. Key concepts are that the soul has awareness, does not lose it identity, and awaits the resurrection of the body because, like Jesus, both body and soul are equally important. Note again the theme of waiting.
There is quite a bit of diversity of thought about what happens immediately after death among Protestants. Most believe that we retain our unique identities after death. Some denominations believe the soul goes immediately to be with Christ in heaven, awaiting the Day of Judgment and a resurrected body. This echoes Paul – but remember that Paul was speaking to Christian communities that were living out their faith deeply and wholeheartedly, often to the point of sacrificial loss. Other Protestants suggest there is an intermediate time of “soul sleep,” an unconscious waiting for the resurrection.
Do the dead go to Sheol – the Jewish concept of a holding tank for souls? No, for Christ emptied that place following His death on the cross.
Further, for our study, Christianity never has taught reincarnation. There is no return trip. While fanciful, it is totally against scripture. Our lives are a what you see is what you get matter.
So why do we pray for the dead, and what is today’s Observance all about?
The Latin phrase Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi literally means “the rule of prayer [is] the rule of belief.” More simply said, we pray what we believe. We pray for the departed based on scriptural instruction and most importantly because of the mystery of the afterlife. We pray for the dead because we believe they need our prayer in a period of waiting.
In the Book of Maccabees (2 Maccabees 12:39-46), Judas Maccabee takes up a collection so prayers will be said for some of his soldiers that had died. Factually, the soldiers were being faithful in fighting for Israel, while at the same time they were unfaithful; their dead bodies were found to be holding idols of false gods.
And so betaking themselves to prayers, they besought Him, that the sin which had been committed might be forgotten… And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection… It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.
We pray because God left us an instruction to do so in Scripture. We pray because we do not know. We pray through the mystery of God, seeking His mercy for our departed loved ones in a time of waiting. Can those not perfectly pure enter heaven by our prayer? Can their sins be forgiven? Is there a place and time of waiting? Our prayer says that is true, and as such we pray and we offer Holy Masses for our departed loved ones, making up by our actions where they had fallen short in life.
This day, in the end, calls us not just to prayer for the dearly departed, but also to an honest evaluation of our own spiritual state, to measure where we are on the road, and toward what destination so that by living genuinely Christian lives and following Jesus’ gospel path more closely we may reduce any time we need to wait in getting there.