(From autumn of 2016)
Many people speak to me about the afterlife with great confidence but not much clarity. They say things like, “We know Maria is in a better place. She is perfectly happy in heaven right now.” I appreciate their attempt to encourage me. Most who make these statements are people of faith and have a genuine hope. Many probably have a greater faith than I do. I still have faith, but it feels weakened. I have enough to get me through today. That’s sometimes the most I can muster. I have hope, but my hope is not simple. It contains sorrow, doubt, and unanswerable questions. My hope is not sentimental, but it remains. My hope has changed, but it is still there.
When I’m being honest I ask a lot of question, not as a cynic, but as one whose hope is not simple. I ask, “What do people mean when we say Maria is in heaven?” I think most people mean that she has arrived at her final destination with God, but this doesn’t seem right. The Christian hope is not that we will one day leave our bodies behind and enter into an eternal spiritual existence. The creed declares our hope, “We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” The resurrection. The BODY restored. Our hope is a real, physical, and eternal life, not a gnostic, spiritual, euphoric state of the soul. Our hope is founded on the resurrection of Jesus. It is the hope that one day there will be a new heaven, a new earth, and new bodies. On that day life will not just be restored, it will be glorified to a state beyond all beauty, goodness, and joy we experience now. On that day death will be swallowed up by LIFE. But that day hasn’t come yet. So, we wait. I imagine Maria is waiting for that day too.
My desentimentalized hope asks, “What is Maria experiencing right now?” I honestly don’t know. Is she dancing and twirling on the streets of gold? Some people say things like this. It sounds nice, but it doesn’t help me. Why? Well, it sounds like bodily resurrection. It’s hard to think about how a person can dance and twirl without a body. Since the resurrection hasn’t happened yet, I just can’t imagine what it means to dance and twirl. It also sounds like wishful thinking. It’s what I would want to be true to make me feel better about Maria’s death, but wanting something to be true does not make it so. Hope is not the same thing as wishful thinking. If I base my beliefs only on my desires, I am only fooling myself. I will not allow my emotions to dictate what I believe to be true, even about Maria. Hope must have a foundation in reality. Wishful thinking is the stuff of fantasy, not faith. I wish Maria never died. I wish she were still alive. I wish I was holding her right now. But wishes are just wishes. My hope about the afterlife cannot be based on what I want. It cannot be founded on what I wish to be true. My hope must be established on something substantial, and the one substantial hope I have is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I agree with St. Paul. “If Christ has not been raised….then our faith is in vain.” My hope is not in conjured up images of Maria dancing in clouds. My hope is in the resurrection of Jesus. Don’t misunderstand. I do believe in a very real afterlife. I believe that Maria’s soul still exists, but what that existence is like is far more mysterious and less tangible than I can pretend to know.
Finally, my desentimentalized hope asks, “Is Maria perfected?” or “Has Maria arrived at her final state of rest?” I am referring here to the state of Maria’s soul (not the resurrection of her body). Is she holy? Has she been made complete? Most Christians seem to assume that Maria and all other Christians who die are instantaneously perfected at death. They speculate that the dead are immediately glorified the moment after they breathe their last breath. Maybe that’s possible. But I’m not sure it’s what happens. Paul said to be “absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” but does this imply that the soul is instantly matured and made perfect the moment one dies? In this life, maturation and transformation require discipline and struggle and grace and time, and I’m not convinced that one’s journey into the afterlife is all ease and pleasure. Maria was not even four-years-old when she died. She had a lifetime of learning and maturing ahead of her. It’s hard to imagine that she would gain complete wisdom, maturation, and perfection in a mere moment. Certainly she will not remain perpetually transfixed as an immature, almost four-year-old child for all of eternity, so how will she be made complete? I imagine she will continue to grow and be transformed, but I have no idea how or what that looks like beyond the grave. To assume much more would be vane speculation.
Here is what I do know. God is merciful. He is also terrifyingly holy. Who among us could stand before the LORD? If you casually think that standing before a perfect, holy, and all-powerful Deity will be a comforting experience, then I’d argue that you just haven’t given it much thought. The day she died, Maria was far from perfect. This is not a criticism of Maria; it’s a statement of fact about nearly every Christian I know including myself. Almost all of us continue to be selfish, sinful, immature, and unwise. We lack certain virtues and continue to struggle with vices. For heaven to truly be heaven, many things within us must be changed. If we’re honest, we should admit how far we are from reaching perfection; from being made complete. Imagine spending the rest of eternity with all the people in your community or church if everyone remains as they currently are forever. Would you all be able to live in loving fellowship for five years? Or for a million years? What about just with your family? What about with just yourself? I think we all know that for eternity to be good, our hearts need to be drastically changed first. We all need to be made complete.
Maria was far from being perfect, far from being made complete when she died. Maybe she is now fully changed. Maybe she is still being changed. Maybe she is at peace. Maybe she is still struggling on her journey. Maybe speculating about what Maria is experiencing now is vanity. If her soul has left space and time, maybe words like “now” become meaningless. Maybe I just don’t know much. Maybe nobody really knows; except for Him. And in Him I place my hope.