• Readings for today's Mass

Beyond Death: What can we hope for?

Summary of main ideas

Faith helps us to understand ageing and dying as part of our destiny, as God's creatures. Unfortunately, the message of Christian hope – 'a total hope even for the material world' - has been neglected in recent centuries. We will be helped recover this total vision, if we become more familiar with the hopes of the Old Testament. Old Israel's hope in God's promises was boundless – looking forward to a new Exodus and a new Paradise, through sharing in God's friendship. In the Old Testament period God's people had no clear expectation of an afterlife; their vivid hopes looked to some kind of resurrection, and the transformation of the present world in 'a new heaven and a new earth'.

In Jesus Christ, our 'hope of glory', these expectations have been fulfilled in a manner beyond all the imaginings of the Old Testament. What we can hope for in eternal life is shown to us in the Risen Lord: he is the 'first fruits' of a humanity given to share in the very life and joy of the Creator – in a creation that is 'freed from its bondage to decay' through 'the power of his resurrection'. He is the New Adam through whom Paradise is regained. 'Knowing Christ' with a lively faith, we are given to know – 'in a glass darkly' - what we can hope for.

We have another intimation of what we can hope for in a fulfilled human destiny, in the universal yearnings established by the Creator in the human heart (Augustine, Aquinas, Manning Clark, William James). This theme is taken up by Vatican II (Past. Const. On Church in Modern World, n.39). - we may look forward to the fulfilment of personal yearnings (especially, 'love and its fruits'), the fulfilment of our social existence, and fulfilment of our sense of kinship with material creation.

A healthy Christian faith should have a balanced understanding of the traditional themes: Heaven (not a place, but a state in which our total fulfilment will be rooted in union with God - the source of all life and goodness); Hell (not a place, but a state of absolute rejection of God, possible to our human freedom, a destination towards which some are journeying, but from which we may dare to hope all will be saved by God's grace and mercy); Purgatory (a mysterious transition, in which the remains of selfishness are removed to make us worthy to share all things with God – comparable to the purification of the great saints in this life); and Judgment (self-knowledge in the presence of God's truth – as individuals, and in the total plan of God's creation, as the persons the present life has made us.