One of the most penetrating theological writings about the after-life is Joseph Ratzinger’s treatise on Eschatology, Death, And Eternal Life which he published in 1988. As a theologian and later as Pope Benedict XVI, I have always found him an enormously thought-provoking thinker not because he gets it right all
the time but, on the contrary, because of the stark tensions one constantly finds in his works between the brilliant scholar and the unbending watchdog of orthodoxy. Reading his works is a bit like going to a SPA and alternating between pleasant high temperature steam rooms and shocking immersions in pools of gelid water – the combination of the two might be unpleasant but is very good for circulation.
So, in this book Ratzinger cannot help hammering the usual flimsy (at best) doctrinal arguments for the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory or trying to argue that elements of pseudo-philosophical anthropology like the existence of a soul separable from the body is validated by Scripture.
On the other hand, however, he provides the best case I have ever found for what I call a “healthy agnosticism” about life after death.
Undoubtably, Scripture talks about sheol, heaven and hell, and resurrection of the flesh, but it never let us forget that these are not descriptions but only images and metaphors. Scripture is equally capable of giving voice to human angst about the finality of death, the dissolution of the body, the prospect of total oblivion and the fact that however much we might try to convince ourselves that there is life after death, we will never overcome our dread of returning to sheer nothingness.
I said, In the middle of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years. I said, I shall not see the LORD in the land of the living; I shall look on man no more among the inhabitants of the world. My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me like a shepherd’s tent; like a weaver I have rolled up my life; he cuts me off from the loom; from day to night you bring me to an end (Isaiah 38.10-13)
In the biblical understanding of human nature, bodily existence is so crucial that it is very difficult to think about a form of existence once the body is no more. True, at a later stage in its history, Israel did come into contact with the Greek idea of an immortal soul that might be conscious after death and it is tempting to think that this is the reason why they slowly came to believe in life after death. In fact, the idea of the immortal soul remained completely alien to biblical spirituality and never helped Israel to come to terms with their angst about what happens to us once we die.
Now, this I think, is good news for us.
It means that Christian faith in life after death is not based on adherence to a philosophical idea. This appears in Jesus’ answer to those who did not believe in life after death: “Have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Mt 22.31f).
In other words, Jesus is saying: has not God become the friend of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Has he not established a relation with them, promised to be with them wherever they go, be faithful to them in all circumstances, never abandon them? And because God never dies, his friendship too never ends, nor his promise to be with us and keep us with him. We do not know how, but we are sure that God will find a way of remaining with us and keeping us with him even after our death, even if we do not know how.
This shift is momentous. Traditionally, humanity has tried to ensure survival after death through memory, monuments, preservation of the body or theories about some part of our make-up which remains after the dissolution of our body.
Israel, on the contrary, can courageously acknowledge its dread of nothingness and preserve a healthy agnosticism about the life to come because its source of consolation and certainty is the constantly renewed experience of a love and a faithfulness which not even death can end, since the God who takes the initiative in this relationship is the Living par excellence.
This means that in the end, just as our present life, so the life to come too depends on just one thing, namely relationship.
If we think about it, what is to live for a human being other than this: we come to life thanks to a relationship, we grow through relationships and we overcome every challenge in our life thanks to relationships. The more we welcome life from others and give life to others, the more we thrive and experience joy. What matters for us is not just surviving. We would shudder in horror at the thought of eternal survival if we were told that we would be alone forever.
This is what makes the difference between mere survival and real life.
Life is about loving and being loved, possibly with less of the complications we experience in this field here on earth. As far as I am concerned, the only description of life after death I find comforting in Scripture also is the shortest (and incidentally the earliest, since it is found in the oldest writing we have in the NT, namely Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians): “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with those who have fallen asleep, in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Ts 4.17).
“Always be with the Lord”: this is what will make our eternity not simply a form of “survival” but truly fullness of “life”.