A couple of weeks ago, a comic strip in the newspaper depicted two angels standing on a cloud in heaven. One angel looked sickly and uncomfortable. The other angel said, “Altitude sickness? That’s a bummer, Hank.”
The sickly angel’s distress reflects a common concern about the afterlife. Many people wonder what awaits them after death, and the wide range of imagined possibilities adds to the uncertainty. Today’s Gospel reading refers to several possibilities for an eternal fate.
The Sadducees in today’s Gospel reading proposed the hypothetical situation of the serial widow because they believed that there was nothing about a person’s existence that could survive death. For the Sadducees, the only possibilities for enjoying the blessings of righteousness lay in this life; at death, both virtue and vice ceased to exist. Jesus taught and practiced the beliefs of the Pharisees. The Sadducees took the opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of their beliefs by posing a theoretical situation that would make Pharisaic beliefs look absurd. Today, the only people who don’t believe in an afterlife are atheists and positivists, but the Sadducees had nothing in common with atheists and positivists. The Sadducees were deeply religious people who held to a strict observance of the Mosaic Covenant; their disagreement with the Pharisees is very difficult for many people today to understand.
The Sadducees were able to formulate their hypothetical dilemma because the Pharisees believed in the bodily resurrection of the righteous. The Israelites taken captive during the Babylonian Exile adopted belief in angels and spirits. This belief, coupled with the Messianic prophecies of the period of the Exile, led to belief in bodily resurrection held during Jesus’ lifetime. This belief became enshrined in Christian beliefs and is still affirmed in the Church’s Creeds. If I can be honest, however, I don’t get the impression that many Christians believe in the resurrection of the body.
A third version of the afterlife is introduced by the Gospel author in an attempt to explain Pharisaic beliefs to his gentile church community. He referred to a belief of some of the ancient Greek philosophers that the human soul is immortal. There are many groups and individuals today which embrace this notion; belief in reincarnation and the occult are examples of this. There are even some Christians who believe the soul is immortal, despite the fact that this belief is incompatible with belief in Jesus as Savior. The Christian Faith says that human beings are created and finite. The notion that the human soul is immortal is incompatible with belief in a Creator God, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem for some of the baptized.
The multitude of differing beliefs about the afterlife tempts me to offer a clarification about orthodox Christian beliefs about the soul and eternity, but I don’t know if the effort would be worthwhile. While I was in graduate school, I saw one of my classmates in the university bookstore. My classmate, a member of a Catholic Religious Order, explained that he was looking for books on the afterlife because he hoped to be reincarnated as a porpoise. I avoided him for the rest of the semester. If a large faculty of theology professors couldn’t clarify my classmate’s beliefs, there is little chance that I might do the same for someone else.
Rather than focus on the beliefs of Sadducees, Pharisees, pagans, and modern Christians, perhaps it would be better to focus on their actions.
The group of Sadducees in the story tried and failed to confound Jesus. They lost the fight they started, and the loss was self-inflicted. The Pharisees rejoiced that Jesus had vindicated their beliefs, but their joy didn’t last very long. Within a short period of time, they found themselves plotting Jesus’ death because he condemned their extremely self-righteous behavior. (Lk 20:46-47) They proved themselves no better than criminals.
The Sadducees could have avoided embarrassing themselves if they had not provoked an argument with Jesus. The Pharisees could have avoided public shame if they had not been so intent on proving themselves better than others. Jesus concluded his teaching on resurrection by saying, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob . . . is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” (Lk 20:37-38) I’d like to suggest that, when Jesus mentioned “the living,” he wasn’t referring to those who were physically alive but rather morally “alive.” By “morally alive,” I mean those who live righteous, just, and merciful lives.
Rather than make a suggestion about what you should believe about the afterlife, I’d like to make a suggestion about how you should live this present life. Jesus forgave sinners, taught his disciples to be merciful to all people, and forfeited his life rather than his faith. Regardless of your beliefs about the afterlife, you should live in a way that makes you a candidate for a blessed afterlife. To that end, avoid the error of the Sadducees; don’t start conflicts because conflicts will only lead to your embarrassment. Further, avoid the error of the Pharisees; setting yourself above other people sets you up for a fall from grace. Finally, avoid the error of pagans; don’t treat God as if God can be coerced to do what you want. Rather, do what God wants.
God is God of the morally alive, that is, of those who avoid the easy work of making the world a worse place to live and, instead, take on the difficult task of making the world a better place for all people.