The creed concludes with: “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
The life of the world to come began for each of us on the day we were baptized. It comes with a bit more fullness each and every time we celebrate the wedding feast of the Lamb known as the Mass.
We shall enter into it (or reject it) definitively at the moment of our death.
But we drastically misunderstand our faith if we think it is merely about “going to heaven.” To be sure, there shall be the particular judgment in which we are either found to have died in the grace of Christ or, by our definitive act of self-exclusion from the life of God, to have shut our souls into hell for all eternity.
But even that is not the end of the story. Rather, the Christian story asserts a crowning strangeness, for we believe in what New Testament scholar N.T. Wright calls “life after life after death” — the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.
The idea of the resurrection on the Last Day appears to be something like the stuff of fairy tales to most modern people. Why? No reason, really. It’s just a current mood.
It’s rejected not with arguments, but with those sorts of shallow jokes that are the fruit of a mind that has never bothered to think about it much (“Are you going to get back the leg you lost in the war?”).
We are comfortable with the idea of “spirits” in a dimensionless void called “heaven.” We don’t know what to do with the idea of a real physical body (albeit glorified) that throws a shadow and makes a noise when it tramps the floorboards. Yet, this, in the end, is what Scripture says will happen.
It says so because the authors ate fish with the risen Christ, and he told them (between bites) to touch his hands and feet and see for certain that he was not a ghost but a real physical body.
When the New Testament speaks of everlasting or eternal or abundant life, it is not speaking of mere duration.
Yes, in heaven we will live forever. But merely living forever is not itself much good (as any vampire can tell you). Indeed, one of the functions of horror stories about vampires, zombies and the undead is to remind us that mere duration of life without the life of God in the soul is, quite simply, hell.
What we need is not longevity by itself, but life that is fully “lifeful.” It is this that Jesus comes to give: a life that doesn’t just drag on until the last syllable of recorded time, but a life that is meaningful, joyful, purposeful, loving and creative — forever.
At the same time, Christianity insists that heaven is emphatically not merely “a state of mind” or an attitude.
Eternal life is far more than mere bodily life, but it is not less that that. And so one of the things which comes with belief in the resurrection of Christ is belief in the resurrection of the body (including yours). Moreover, with that belief comes, sooner or later, belief in the renewal of the entire created order.
For bodies, unlike spirits, have to be somewhere. They don’t exist in a void, but are made to fit the rest of creation. Therefore, the Church looks forward to “the world to come,” a “new heaven and a new earth” which will be like, yet unlike, the present fallen, damaged and frustrated world — just as the glorified body of Christ is like and yet unlike his mortal body.
Every time we celebrate Mass we stand in the reality of the Now and Not Yet: a creation which is being slowly prepared for the glorious moment when Christ returns and the world is finally renewed!
And so we say “Amen.” To moderns, that is a word simply stiff with “religion” in its starchiest forms, demanding (so moderns fear) that we make ourselves slaves.
Yet the paradox of “Amen” is that it means, in Hebrew, “So be it!” When you think about it, it’s rather odd that we humans say things like “Amen” to the plans of an omnipotent God whose will, whatever we say about it, will be done anyway. And yet, we are called to say “Amen” nonetheless: to give ourselves over completely and freely to the will of God, not as robots or slaves, but as free sons and daughters.
That is our dignity and destiny as new creations in Christ, called to share in his freedom and, on That Day, to be full sharers in body, soul, and spirit in the life of the blessed Trinity.
Mark Shea is the content editor