Moving beyond death and into our inheritance

O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)

May 08, 2014

By Daniel Mulhall
O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)

The Greek word euangelion translates into English as “good news.” From this word we also get the words “evangelize,” “evangelist,” and “evangelical,” meaning the act of spreading the good news, the person who spreads the good news, and something done in the spirit of the good news. Euangelion is also the root of the English word “gospel.”

Pope Frances, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the “Gospel of Joy,” makes the point that Christians are to live the Good News of Jesus Christ joyfully, living each day as if the Christian message is the secret of a happy life. But what really is the good news of the Gospel?

St Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians leaves no doubt as to what the nature of Jesus’ good news is: By giving of himself even unto death and then rising into new life, Jesus has conquered sin and death once for all, and all of his followers share in Jesus’ resurrection. No longer will humans have reason to fear death. No longer must we grieve unbearably over another’s death.

As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:20: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) puts it, “For those who die in Christ’s grace it is a participation in the death of the Lord, so that they can also share his Resurrection.” (1006)

Death is a natural part of the life cycle for anything that lives: all living things are conceived in some fashion and given birth in some way. After a given time, which differs for all living things, death occurs. There is no mystery there. The physical body eventually breaks down into its chemical components and returns to the earth from which new life will spring. According to the CCC, “It is in regard to death that man’s condition is most shrouded in doubt.” In a sense bodily death is natural, but for faith it is in fact “the wages of sin.” (1006)

And so the cycle went for eons, with no changes made-until humans developed the ability to reason, consciousness emerged, and humans became aware that they were more than just a body; they also had a spiritual soul. With this great emergence of awareness came the question: what happens to the soul when our bodies die?

Throughout human history people have struggled to answer this question. Some believed in an afterlife for the spirit. Ancient pyramids, cairns, and mounds have been found around the world across many different cultures that were constructed to house the remains of a dead ruler.

While each of these tombs is different in style and substance, they are each alike in an important way: they each symbolize that life did not end when the body died. The bodies placed in these tombs were prepared for life in the “underworld,” and the tombs contained the resources needed for a happy life there. While some groups had a clear belief in an afterlife, others did not. The early Hebrews, the tribe of people from whom the Jewish people emerged, did not have a sense of an afterlife. When you died, life ended. What was left after death was only what you created in life of substance, including one’s children and grandchildren, and the good or bad that one did.

The Hebrew word sheol, which is translated into English as “hell,” literally means pit-like a garbage dump-or “abandonment.” This is where the dead went after their lives ended. The possibility of an afterlife with God does not develop in Jewish theology until about 100 years before Jesus’ time.

As St. Paul and the early Church realized, Jesus’ resurrection changed everything. No longer did humans have to worry about what follows death: we now had a living testament to what the future holds. While the body still dies and we still grieve for the loss of those we love, we also know with certitude that although they are no longer with us on earth as they once were, they still continue to live with us in heaven. The Christian belief in the Communion of Saints is an expression of this certitude.

As the Catechism notes, “death is transformed by Christ.... The obedience of Jesus has transformed the curse of death into a blessing.” (No. 1009) No longer is death abandonment to nonexistence. Now we realize that in death, God calls us to live eternally. (No. 1011) “We believe that the souls of all who die in Christ’s grace... are the People of God beyond death. On the day of resurrection, death will be definitively conquered, when these souls will be reunited with their bodies” (No. 1052) “The Christian meaning of death is revealed in the light of the Paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ in whom resides our only hope. The Christian who dies in Christ Jesus is “away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (No. 1681)

In Baptism we died to sin and rose to new life in Christ. While we await the final resurrection, we celebrate our new life in Christ now.

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