I Believe in Life Everlasting

How Easter Sunday and the end of the Church year are inseparably linked.

Raphael (1483-1520), “The Resurrection of Christ”
Raphael (1483-1520), “The Resurrection of Christ” (photo: Public Domain)

Christian creeds end with an affirmation of life everlasting. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which we say ever Sunday at Mass, affirms that “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” The Apostles’ Creed declares that “I believe in … the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”

If one looks closely at the Nicene Creed, there are many things in the past tense (e.g., “who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered,” etc.) and many in the present tense (“I believe in one God”) but only a few articles in the future tense (“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” and our “looking forward” to that resurrection).

God loves life.

The distinctive thing about God’s gift of life is that he never rescinds it. God’s gift of life—human and angelic—is permanent, both in terms of being once given and in terms of its eternity.

When God gave life to the human person, his image and likeness, his first blessing was a share in that life-giving mission: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28).

Death from a biblical perspective is not God’s doing: “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being …” (Wisdom 1:13-14).

We err if we think of death as a divine “punishment” in the sense that God had a variety of options in front of Him – like a parent who might send a child to bed without supper or put him in the corner or ground him – and he “chose” death. We would do God injustice if we were to think that, in warning man not to sin, the “punishment” of death was some sort of arbitrary and extrinsic divine imposition.

The better way to understand death is to remember Jesus’ saying to his disciples: “I am the vine and you are the branches; the one who remains in me and I in him bears much fruit” (John 15:5).

When a flower is cut—when its connection with the life-giving plant is broken—the flower starts to die. It’s not a “punishment” as much as an inevitability: the flower is not self-sustaining and, apart from its life source, it cannot live. It may retain the illusion for a little while, but gradually the petals start to brown, then wither, then crumble, then fall off. It’s inevitable.

Death is the result of being disconnected from God, like the vine from the branch or the petal from the flower. Sin—the self-choice to disconnect from God—must lead to death, not because God “punished” us with it as much as there is no other source of life and being. Fruit cannot be borne apart from the vine.

So God wishes us to “have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). He offers us the gift of life which, once given, will never cease. The sun, moon and stars may burn out; the cosmos may fall into a “big crunch” or peter out, but every human life God ever created will ever exist.

Some theologians debate whether and what “death” would have been like had man not sinned. Would he have died? It’s hard to say—much the same way that the Church carefully declares in the dogma of the Assumption that “at the end of her earthly life, Mary was taken body and soul to heaven.” That is why the Orthodox East speaks of Mary’s “falling asleep” (and perhaps why “sleep” and “death” interface so effortlessly in the Church’s Night Prayer). Even if man’s earthly life would have in some way ended, theological consensus is that “death” would be fundamentally different from as we now know it, a “passing over” without the terror or disintegration, the disruption of body and soul, that we experience. It might have been taking on the kind of “resurrected body” in which the disciples encountered Jesus—truly human, truly flesh, but subject to the soul and beyond our spatio-temporal limitations—but without the experience of sin that made Good Friday.

That is why we affirm “the resurrection of the body.” What Jesus has done, we who are baptized into his Death and Resurrection, are likewise called to do. As Mary has already done. Easter Sunday and the end of the Church year are inseparably linked.

God created the whole person: not just the body, not just the soul. It is the whole person that did good or evil. He became good or evil by the spiritual choices he made which were primarily executed with this body. And so, because this body and this soul made this person who he is, for weal or woe, this person—body and soul—joins in the glory of heaven or the terror of hell.

But there is one underlying principle: the life God gave, he gave. He never takes it back.

That life—whatever we have made of it—is destined for eternity. It is destined for eternity, because life is good, a good in itself, bonum honestum.

God’s vision of life clashes with ours. For many in our society, life is a bonum utile, a merely “useful good” – not valuable in itself but valuable only insofar as it serves some other purpose. In this way of thinking, life has no intrinsic value: it can be “good” or “evil” depending on its usefulness. We even sue today for “wrongful life.”

As the Church counts down to the end of the liturgical year, it is worth remembering that there are those who even try to transfer this “life usefulness” into eternity. I’m not talking about theological Pollyannas whose “hope all men be saved” seems to elide into presumption. I’m talking about those who advocate the idea that those who persist in sin do not perdure but, rather, are somehow “annihilated.”

Such a view would presume God takes back his gifts; that the goodness of life is somehow negated by what man does with it; that God, who is “not God of the dead but of the living” (Luke 20:38) would deny Himself by destroying existence. In the end, this vision ultimately takes neither life nor death nor good nor evil seriously. C.S. Lewis touched upon this question indirectly in The Great Divorce, when asked whether the blessed can truly be happy if anyone is damned. Lewis answered: “It must be one way or the other. Either the day must come when joy prevails, and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it; or else forever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves.” Proponents of annihilation are even more radical: for them, “good” can only exist if God destroys what he made good but which does not like being what he was meant to be. But that would require God denying Himself and to that Scripture already responds: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).

Life is good, death is not. God is faithful and true, the “Lord and Giver of Life.” God—not man. Let us not think of Him as the one who must accommodate our failure to take that life—that life that exists forever—seriously.

Matthias Stom (fl. 1615-1649), “The Supper at Emmaus”

Scott Hahn: What Does the Bible Tell Us About Coronavirus and God’s Punishment?

In these difficult days, it is powerfully helpful for Catholics to remember the authentic Christian meaning of death and the resurrection of the body. Our Catholic faith can give us hope as we face our mortality, but too often we’ve lost sight of what our Church teaches about the Four Last Things. This week on Register Radio, we talk with Dr. Scott Hahn about his new book, Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body.