Three weeks into Lent and into our reflections about mortality, we’ve realized that not just have almost every human culture hoped for some kind of postmortem existence but that the very hardwiring of our being — our souls, minds, brains, language — make it impossible even to try to imagine non-being except from the perspective of being. No matter how we try, a thinking being attempt the Herculean, rather Sisyphean effort of conceptualizing not existing, not being.
We saw last week that, though the Greeks, Romans and Jews had formulated some kind of postmortem existence, the existence Hades and Sheol offered was not especially attractive. We also noted a budding problem with their notes: the problem of morality, specifically, of justice.
If everybody dies and winds up in the same “place,” where’s the justice?
Let’s take one step back. Though modern sophists hawk a supposedly morality-free religion of “love,” asking us who are we to judge (which is why the Pope’s words here are so problematic, regardless of his intentions), the fact is that true religion is inseparable from morality. Indeed, humanity is inseparable from morality. Let’s start by looking at both those ideas.
First, no man can evade “the experience of morality.” Just as with being, humans’ inescapable hardwiring is set on morality, on the good. Good is incapable. “Good is to be done and evil is to be avoided” is the first principle of practical reason, ie, a principle applicable to every human being regardless of his “religion.” It’s also principle both necessary to and making possible practical living. Nobody proves “good is to be done and evil avoided.” It is an axiom. Even if somebody is stubborn or stupid enough to demand “proof,” what would we say? Because good is better than evil? As with being, goodness frames our very ability to conceptualize, to think, to speak. We cannot speak of action apart from the good.
This leads us to what Karol Wojyła called the “experience of obligations.” Because of our inbuilt and inescapable default to the good, we experience obligations. Every normal human being has had the experience of “I ought to do x.” But if morality was a human creation (or worse, a human imposition, a tool by which some “privileged” group exercises power) then that universal experience would make no sense. The fact that we experience the call to “do x” even when we (or others or the elites or the power brokers) want us to “do y” indicates that goodness — morality — has an intrinsic foundation in how human beings are made, one that challenges a person before a decision and judges him after it. Goodness is inescapable.
The great contribution of Judaism and Christianity was that our relationship with God, ie, religion (since “religion” talks about what binds us, relationship), is connected to morality. The Greek and Roman “gods” were not good. They were bigger and stronger than men, but they were not better — and often were worse.
The God of Israel, however, is “holy.” The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is the God who lives in unapproachable light, upon whose face one cannot look without death because of the fundamental disparity between his holiness and my lack of it. That is why, for Christianity and Judaism, to follow the Lord is to keep his commandments. God is the ultimate foundation of our inbuilt default to goodness.
We had to explain all this to get back to the problems of Hades and Sheol. Man has an inbuilt bias towards the good, to do good and avoid evil. He also recognizes the need to foster good and to oppose evil before we do something, and to hold to account before goodness what we have done. True religion cannot entail morality.
But human beings also have the awareness that sometimes bad people seem to prosper, to “get away with” evil, while good people suffer and get shafted. Those facts of life contradict our inbuilt orientation towards the good and elicit in us a demand for justice.
For the early Greeks and their epic culture, everybody winding up in Hades’ shadows posed a problem. Their “democratic” culture might have been willing to swallow most people perduring in this mediocre “existence,” but shouldn’t the greatest heroes earn some kind of reward? And, likewise, shouldn’t the greatest villains earn some kind of punishment?
Eventually, while Hades became the levelling field of most of the dead, the Greeks were ready to squirrel away some heroes, like Achilles and Ajax from the Trojan War, in the blessed rest of the Elysian Fields. On the other hand, evildoers like Sisyphus and Tantalus wound up in the punishments of Tartarus.
We want to stick to revelation, and not mythology — although mythology also helps us to understand basic human experiences. That said, Israel’s awareness of postmortem existence also had to develop.
If everybody ended in Sheol But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is just, then good had to be rewarded and evil punished sometime or somewhere. At first, that time and place seemed to be in this life. That is why, for a large part of the Old Testament, there is an unclear notion of the afterlife. That is also why, for a large part of the Old Testament, the idea that justice was accomplished here and now assumed that good was rewarded and evil punished in this life. The good were blessed with long life. They were blessed with health. Their lot was secure — perhaps not rich (though goods were also a sign of divine favor) but secure. And, above all, they lived on their descendants, their children and children’s children …
Conversely, for much of the Old Testament only the bad die young, painfully, suddenly, or unexpectedly. Only the bad suffer and are cursed with ill-health and insecurity. And barrenness — the lack or loss of children — is surely a sign that God wants to wipe your being and your memory from the face of the earth.
That worldview lasted a long time in the Bible. We see traces of it in the New Testament, eg, when the disciples ask Jesus about the blind man “who sinned — him or his parents?” (John 9:2). When Elizabeth speaks of her conception of John the Baptist not just as a promise but the removal of a “reproach among men” (Luke 1:25). And there was a reason why the Pharisees did not just lynch Jesus at a stoning but wanted him nailed to a tree (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). To die “on a tree” in the prolonged and torturous execution of crucifixion would be proof certain to them that God rejected him. The older view of some foggy afterlife had its followers, eg, the Sadducees, references to which we find in the New Testament, including in attempts to trick Jesus up (Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18; Luke 20:27; Acts 23:6-8).
That perspective was logical. The problem was it didn’t tally with experience.
The good did die young and the wicked prospered. The good were reduced to nothing while the evil were exulted.
We see the Old Testament questioning this. The Book of Job is one huge question about it. Ecclesiastes does, too. Job loses everything — house, goods, children, health — yet remains convinced that he has not done wrong to deserve this.
Job and Ecclesiastes question, but their answers are one of faith: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away — blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21-22). Job continues to confess his faith in God’s righteousness — “in all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” (v. 22) — even though he cannot explain God’s ways.
And, on one level, God is content to leave them in their faith. When, having refuted the explanations of his “comforters” Job turns to God, God’s response is essentially “I’m God, you’re not — have faith.” The language is poetic, as God asks Job whether he was there when God designed the universe, but the bottom line is that Job is asked to have faith. Read Job 38.
The Old Testament had still not reached a clear notion of the afterlife in order to answer Job’s questions on his terms, ie, the terms of this world.
That answer comes later, much later, on the very cusp of the New Testament. It’s found in the last book of the Old Testament to take shape, the Book of Wisdom. Wisdom is the first place in the Old Testament with a clear notion of the afterlife, a notion revealed not as one of logic but of love. Can love fit within the cramped limits of this life? Is love to be forced into the Procrustean bed of “seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong?” (Psalm 90:10). Or does love continue, breaking beyond the confines of this world and projecting into eternity?
“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, and the creatures of the world are wholesome; there is not … any domain of Hades on earth. For righteousness is undying” (Wisdom 1:13-15).
God, says the Wisdom writer, is the giver of life, and righteousness is undying. The Wisdom writer also anticipates a fundamental insight into whom God is, because — as John reminds us — “God is Love” (1 John 4:8). Love and Goodness — their ultimate standard and measure is God, who is beyond measure and limit — and so, therefore, must those who love him. “Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what great things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
This week, sit down and read Wisdom, chapters 1-5. For a book just over 2,000 years old, it is surprisingly modern, especially its description in Chapter 2 of the fool (cf. Psalm 14:1), ie, the one who will not live according to God, and the fool’s estimation of the meaning of life and death. The writer of Wisdom disposes of all the temporal arguments — long life, health and prosperity, progeny — to reach the nub of the issue: “God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity” (Wisdom 2 :23).
That is the Good News of Christianity and its developed eschatology: that man’s orientations to being and to goodness, to life and to justice, are not illusions, are not profound warps and flaws in his being.
Life is good, and God intended the good to last. That is why the final word in human and cosmic history belongs to being and good. That Word belongs to God. It is God (John 1:1).
Wisdom does remind us that “through the Devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it” (Wisdom 2:24). God is faithful; Our fidelity is something else, which is why we are reminded to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) — not because God can’t be relied on, but because we can’t.
And the defining moment of our salvation is the moment of death. Why then? That’s next week’s reflection.