From time to time, I’m asked to provide a description of heaven. Thus far, I have been able to provide nothing more than a paraphrase of Abraham’s response to the rich man’s request in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus: ‘Between us and heaven a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to there or from there to our side.’ (cf Lk. 16:26) No one alive on this planet has ever experienced heaven. It is impossible, therefore, to describe.
The impossibility of describing heaven has not prevented many from trying. Today’s Gospel reading contains references to some popular descriptions of the afterlife; it also contains Jesus’ teaching about life, death, and resurrection.
The Sadducees mentioned in the Gospel had preserved Hebrew religious beliefs that pre-dated the Babylonian Exile. The Sadducees did not accept any of the exilic and post-exilic Hebrew religious texts or practices that were embraced by the Pharisees. As today’s Gospel reading indicates, they rejected belief in the resurrection of the righteous, along with belief in angels and spirits. Today, some segments of secular society hold a similar opinion, namely, that death is the complete obliteration of the human person.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, taught belief in angels, spirits, and the possibility of bodily resurrection for the righteous. As Jesus was a Pharisee, he defended such belief. The conflict instigated by the Sadducees on this occasion wasn’t primarily about Jesus’ claim to be the Savior sent by God; rather, it was more an expression of the Sadducees’ disapproval of the Pharisees and their teachings.
A third non-Jewish opinion about the afterlife would have been prevalent among the congregation to which Luke’s Gospel was written. Some of the ancient Greek philosophers taught that the human soul was eternal and that it survived death. These philosophers believed that the soul was born into multiple bodies successively through history, a belief much like the modern Asian belief in reincarnation.
Among the several references to the afterlife in today’s Gospel reading, one does not have a secular analogue in our contemporary culture. Jesus summarized his views on death and resurrection by saying that God “is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” (Lk. 20:38) According to Jesus, eternal life is a possibility created by God; it is not a destiny that pertains, by nature, to human persons.
In the Christian Scriptures, the created world is conditional: there was a time before the universe existed. All created things came into being, not under their own power, but by God’s decree. While this means that creation is contingent, it does not mean that creation’s value is contingent. The Scriptures are very clear about the way God values God’s creation. The central truth communicated by Jesus’ death is that God values creation much more than creation values itself (or God).
God values creation too much to allow the corruption of sin and death to destroy creation eternally. Bodily resurrection is God’s remedy for creation’s frailty.
At the time the Gospel was written, some people assumed that there was nothing beyond this life; death was seen as the obliteration of the individual. Others assumed that this life was merely a single chapter in an eternal story about the human soul; death was seen as a temporary transition. The Gospel recognizes that the human heart searches for more than is apparent to the senses; the “more” expected by the human spirit is found in God, but only through faith. This is not merely a middle position between two extremes; this is truth that comes only from God. Jesus said that, to God, “all are alive.” (Lk. 20:38) It is, therefore, incumbent on us to “be alive” to God, that is, to live faithful lives.
Going through the motions of religion reaches no farther than this life. Focusing all of one’s attentions on eternity denigrates the value of God’s creation and is nothing more than a means of avoiding responsibility in this life. The salvation offered to us in the death of Jesus requires that we fulfill our responsibilities in this life as if they matter eternally, because they do, in fact, have eternal value.