What Really Happens After We Die

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Johnny laughed to himself — or rather, at himself — as he pulled on his flannel jacket. Being the boss was supposed to have perks. It was supposed to mean less time out on the road, less time in the truck. It was supposed to mean less work, not more. And wasn’t there some vague expectation of the owner of the business getting to wear fancier clothes? He set his lunchbox on the passenger seat and started up the truck. He paused for a moment more, listening to the echo of the diesel engine in the driveway. He reminded himself to be thankful, and then he put it in reverse, and backed into his day.

As the truck pulled into the strip-mall parking lot, a larger-than-usual group of men was milling around in front of the big-box builder’s store. They all moved in the direction of Johnny and his truck. They moved somewhat humbly, heads a little down, but purposefully. He knew that walk. He had seen his father walk that same way, many years ago, before he was known as Johnny, when everyone called him Juan. He was only one generation away from that walk.

As few words as possible were exchanged — all in Spanish — about the project for the day. “Cinco,” Johnny said, as he held up five fingers. Five men climbed into the back of his truck, and without looking at the others still standing there, he pulled out of the parking lot.

Lunchtime came, and the project was behind schedule. An-noyed, Johnny had to make a trip to the store for some last-minute supplies. When he got there, he saw that there were still some men standing by the front door, bouncing on the balls of their feet to keep themselves warm. Coming out of the store, the men looked at Johnny, and he couldn’t look away. He nodded and then walked to his truck. But as he backed out of his parking spot, he stopped. What the heck, he thought. He spun the truck around and drove up in front of the door. “Tres.” Three men got into the truck bed. Johnny sighed. “Cinco — dos mas.” And two more men jumped into the back.

Three o’clock came, and the project was back on schedule. Time for a coffee break. Johnny got his coffee to go, but from the drive-through, he could see that there was still a small group of men in front of the store, hoping for work. These were the guys who hadn’t given up at one o’clock or two. These were the guys who really didn’t want to go home and tell their families there was no work that day. With five more men in the back of his truck, Johnny arrived at the site with less than two hours left in the day. But it didn’t matter. There were too many workers now, and the project was finished after the last group of men had worked for only half an hour. Johnny gave them some busy work and had everyone clean up the site, and when five o’clock finally rolled around, he gathered the men and pulled out his wallet.

Johnny knew exactly which guys had worked all day, and they did too. The first group of five lined up first. Johnny handed each one of them a new hundred dollar bill. The next group of men — the ones who started after lunch — now lined up, hoping to get half that much. Johnny gave each one of them a new hundred dollar bill. He did the same with the last group of five. One hundred dollars for less than two hours of work. Johnny couldn’t look any of the men in the eye. He didn’t want to have to try to explain. Just paying it forward.

A couple of men from the first group grumbled that it was not fair. Johnny just shook his head and said, “Well . . . I’m the boss.”

Every Time a Bell Rings . . .

As you were reading that story about Johnny and his workers, you probably figured out somewhere along the way that it was a version of Jesus’ parable of the laborers (Matt. 20:1–16). This is one of several parables that Jesus begins by saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like this . . .” These are stories that Jesus used to teach about God’s priorities and the way God does things, and about what Heaven is like, because after all, Heaven is where God’s will is done the way it should be done on earth. The story is an analogy — that is, the elements of the story represent more important things. In this case, the landowner represents God, and the laborers represent, well . . . us — people whose lives are dedicated to God in some way. And one meaning that we can get from this parable (because parables often have multiple meanings) is that it doesn’t matter that some of us seem to do more for God in our lives than others, or that some of us come to know Jesus later in life. When the work is over, we all get the same reward. Not because we’ve earned it. Not because it’s fair. But because we all get more than we deserve. But what is that reward? It’s obviously not money. So what does the money represent in the parable? If “the Kingdom of Heaven is like this,” then the reward must be Heaven itself. But what does that mean?

Whatever it is, it has to do with what Jesus called resurrection. Sure, looking back on it now, we all think we know what resurrection is, but back then — especially before Jesus’ own Res-urrection — there was a lot of confusion about it. Well, that’s what this book is about. For now, we’ll just note that Jesus said we will be “sons of the resurrection.” I’m tempted to translate that as “children of the resurrection” or “sons and daughters of the resurrection,” and that would not be wrong, but the point of being “sons” in the world of Jesus and the apostles is that sons are heirs. When Jesus says that we (even the women) are “sons” of the resurrection, He is saying that we are heirs of the resurrection. It is our inheritance. It is the reward.

I remember as a kid being particularly affected by a movie called The Littlest Angel (1969), starring a young Johnny Whitaker as a shepherd boy who dies and finds himself in Heaven — as an angel. Although I was a little disturbed by seeing the depiction of a kid about my age dying in an accident, Whitaker’s charac-ter isn’t really phased by that. His biggest problem is that his angel robe has no pockets. Or maybe you’re more familiar with the movie that everyone watches around Christmastime, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). This film deserves all the attention it has received over the years, but it, too, has an element that is based on the assumption that when people die, they become angels. Clarence the angel used to be a regular human, and now on his first assignment as a guardian angel, he has to talk George Bailey out of committing suicide. In the process, George learns that every time you hear a bell ring, an angel is graduating from flight school.

Do we become angels when we die? Most Christians today probably know that we do not become angels. The angels in the Bible are an entirely separate thing — spiritual beings created by God who come from the spiritual realm, but who are sometimes used as messengers in our world. In fact, that’s why they are called “angels”: the Greek word angelos means “messenger.” But Jesus did say that in the Kingdom, we would be like angels (Matt. 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:36). What did he mean by that? He seems to mean that our life in Heaven will be the life of an angel — that our vocation will be to worship and serve God, as opposed to a vocation such as marriage. In fact, Jesus tells us that there will be no marriage in the afterlife. But we’ll get to that later.

Apparently in the early centuries of the Church, they had their versions of The Littlest Angel and It’s a Wonderful Life, be-cause people were asking the question “Do we become angels?” Some of the Church Fathers felt compelled to answer the ques-tion. No, they said, we do not become angels. St. Jerome, in letters to a couple of laypeople named Theodora (Letter 75) and Eustochium (Letter 108), wrote that to become angels would be to cease to be human, and the afterlife is not the end of our humanity. We do not cease to be human, he said. “The apostle Paul will still be Paul.” In fact, as we will see, in the afterlife our humanity is not relinquished; it is perfected.

Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust

We used to use the expression “man on the street” for a reporter who stood outside somewhere with a microphone, asking ques-tions of random people walking by. It was supposed to be like taking an opinion poll of regular folks. Now, of course, reporters can be women, too, so we don’t use this expression anymore. But I suspect that if you took a “person on the street” poll of people who profess to be Christian, and you asked them what happens when a person dies, most would say something like, “Your soul leaves your body, and it goes to Heaven.” Their assumption would be that the body is left to decay in the ground, and the human soul or spirit goes on to a life lived in the spiritual realm. And that’s not entirely wrong — but it is incomplete. And if anyone thinks that this is the end of the story, then that’s a real problem, because Jesus, the apostles, and the Church Fathers all taught that this was not the end of the story.

In fact, it was the pagans (philosophers) and heretics (gnos-tics) who said that the afterlife would be a purely spiritual — that is, disembodied — existence. They believed that the things of the material world were inferior to the things of the spiritual realm, and some of them went so far as to say that the things of the physical world were inherently evil, while only the things of the spiritual realm could be good (for more on this, see the sec-tions on docetism and gnosticism in my books Reading the Early Church Fathers and The Earliest Christologies). But this teach-ing of the philosophers and gnostics directly contradicted the Judeo-Christian conviction that creation is good. Creation is good because the Creator is good. Still, the philosophers and the gnostics maintained that the human body was something vile, a prison to be escaped at the time of death, a shell to be discarded, as a snake sheds its skin. And for this reason, they rejected and denied the Christian doctrine of the resurrection.

The Church Fathers tell us that we do not become angels, because angels are purely spiritual and live a purely spiritual existence. But as we will see, our existence in the afterlife will not be purely spiritual — it will be in some sense corporeal; that is, as humans we are embodied beings, and we will again be em-bodied in the resurrection. So whatever “resurrection” means, it cannot mean being raised to an existence that is spiritual only — if we believed that, then we would be no different from the philosophers and the gnostics. No, when Jesus talked about resurrection (not to mention when He was raised Himself), He was teaching us something else. The word He used for “resurrec-tion” (or the Greek word that the authors of the Gospels used to translate His Aramaic word) was anastasis. It means to stand again, to return to an upright position. That’s not a word that means to go from bodily to spiritual, or from tangible to ethereal. It means to return to the “stasis,” or position, we once held. My students often ask me why we say that Jesus “rose again.” Was He resurrected more than once? It’s a fair question, because the expression is kind of a confusing idiom in English. But the point is that He was standing once, then He died, and then He was standing again. In His Resurrection, He “stood again.” And so will we.

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust is not the end of the story. It’s true that our bodies will decay for a time, but they will also be restored in the resurrection and reunited with our spirits to make us once again the complete human beings we were created to be.

So, what happens when we die? What do we mean when we say our souls leave our bodies? Are our bodies disposable shells, or are they an essential part of who we are as humans? Do we retain our personalities, or are our souls just absorbed into the universe? What is the Kingdom of Heaven? This book will at-tempt to answer all of these questions, as much as possible. We will make this attempt with the help of Jesus, His apostles, and the Church Fathers (and Mothers) who received the teachings of the apostles and passed them on to us. We’ll say as much as we can, and then we’ll accept that at the end of the day, there is much about this that’s still a mystery. How could it be otherwise? Heaven has to be something that you can’t really understand until you get there. So, we have to admit at the beginning that we can know only a limited amount about this, as though we are looking through a dark glass (see 1 Cor. 13:9–13). And yet it’s exactly this kind of present limitation that will be lifted in the resurrection. When that time comes, it will not be more dim, smoky glass and mirrors, as the pagans thought. It will be glory and clarity.

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This article is adapted from a chapter in What Really Happens After We Die by James L. Papandrea, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Art for this post on the Afterlife: Cover and featured image used with permission.

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