Eschatalogy is the branch of theology that deals with "the four last things". Brian Grogan SJ's book is a fresh and hopeful look at the Christian vision of life after death.
Eschatalogy is the branch of theology that deals with “the four last things”, that is, death, judgment, heaven and hell. This has always been an area that put the fear of God into you. Indeed, it still does: it faces us starkly with the consequences of the decisions by which we live our lives. See The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1020-60. The author of this book, while not setting aside the stark realities, brings to light some more positive themes. These can be seen in the titles to some of the chapters: “The Best is Yet to Come”, “Purgatory: Remedial Education in Loving”, “Judgment as Reconciliation”, “How Far Will God Go For Us?” “Will All Be Saved?” “Might Hell Be Empty?” This indeed is a fresh and hopeful look at the Christian vision of life after death. But is the author selling us short? One can’t help wanting him to narrow the gap between himself and The Catechism. But the book makes very positive reading and I found staying with it with these questions, brought me to another question: “If God is for us….?
Brian Grogan SJ is a former president of the Milltown Institute, where he lectures in Applied Spirituality. Author of a number of books, his biography of Ignatius of Loyola, Alone and on Foot, was published by Veritas in 2008. With Phyllis Brady he co-authored Meetings Matter! Spirituality and Skills for Meetings, published by Veritas in 2009.
PART ONE: STARTING POINTS
Why Believe in God?
Why Believe in an Afterlife?
Why Write About Life After Death?
The Sound of Music
Changing Christian Thinking on the World to Come
PART TWO: THE DIVINE PROJECT
Love of Another Kind
‘He is Risen!’
We Too Can Arise!
Our Solidarity in Christ
The Communion of Saints: A Network of Good People
‘You’re Looking Divine!’
PART THREE: OUR JOURNEY TO FULFILMENT
Dying as Communion
The Best is Yet to Come
Jesus at the Heart of the World to Come
Purgatory: Remedial Education in Loving
PART FOUR: COULD THINGS GO HORRIBLY WRONG?
Judgement as Reconciliation
How Far Will God Go For Us?
Will All Be Saved?
Might Hell Be Empty?
PART FIVE: FULFILMENT
‘Are We There Yet?’: Time and Eternity Heaven: The Ever-Flowing Celebration Our Transfiguration
The Completion of History
‘I Am Making All Things New!’
198 pp. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie
A must-see for tourists in Barcelona is the unfinished cathedral, La Sagrada Familia (The Holy Family), now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Antoni Gaudi began work on it in 1883, but at his death in 1926 less than a quarter of the project was complete – a fact that Gaudi took philosophically when he remarked, ‘My client is not in a hurry.’ Other architects have played their part since then, although not without criticism from their colleagues. Mid-point in the construction of this extraordinary work was reached in 2010 and completion is planned perhaps for the centenary of the architect’s death.
Attempting a book on the world to come brings elements of Gaudi’s project to mind. Firstly, God doesn’t seem to be in a hurry or to have a completion date for the epic of world history, but enough of the grand design is available to us to allow some sense of the final masterpiece. Secondly, whereas only approved architects are allowed to leave their mark on the unfinished cathedral in Barcelona, every inhabitant of this planet contributes to the shaping of God’s project – the life of the world to come.
This book considers life after death through the lens of relationships. So as you move through it, or if you find yourself puzzled at any point, it will help to remember that key word: ‘relationships’. To a child or an outsider – and to many insiders also – Christian belief can seem like an enormous jumble of disconnected facts, but each aspect of faith is to be understood in terms of the divine–human relationships established among us by Jesus. Thus, while we are surrounded by mystery, the concept of relationships offers a dynamic and unchanging viewpoint which illuminates every aspect of the world to come.
Although mortality is an unavoidable fact, theological study of the afterlife is still fairly uncommon in Christian circles. Of greater popular interest is the experiential aspect of relationships with those who have died. Some people attest to being aware of the death of a loved one before being told, and many of us have a sense of connectedness with someone who has died. Cemetery Sunday, with prayers and the blessing of graves, is a major pastoral event. The month of November brings crowds to Catholic churches to remember their departed ones in rite and symbol and in the Altar List of the Dead. Funerals, especially of younger people, can remind pastors of the past when churches were better attended. Remembrances of the dead are a healthy reaction to death, because we are spirit-enfleshed, and we want to keep bonded with those relatives and friends with whom we have shared so much of life, with its joy and tears.
This strong belief in the continued life of ‘the dead’ sets the pastoral context for the explorations herein. I hope to provide a theological background to the Christian practice of remembering those who have gone before us, and to indicate what we can say in faith about how things are with them now. This book may encourage conversation about topics of ultimate importance, which otherwise are left unspoken. This often happens when someone is terminally ill and everyone knows but nothing is said, because no one knows what to say.
Limits of this Book
To establish the scope of this book, some clarifications are in order. Firstly, while the writings of saints, mystics and poets can provide valuable insights into what the future may hold for us, this work is based in the Christian scriptures and Christian theology. Secondly, I will not be dealing with Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), except to say that the reader will note points of convergence between many of these reports and the theological findings. Scientific research is understandably critical of the claim that NDEs give us insights into what awaits us after death. But we are here on the point of intersection of two worlds – the human and the divine – and along this border, science and religion must negotiate with mutual respect and caution. Thirdly, although not a topic in this book, the issue of communication with those who have died is to be taken seriously. `There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ as Hamlet remarks, and there are indeed grounds for asserting that there can exist communication between living and dead, of a sensitive if not a dramatic kind. C. S. Lewis has expressed what went on in him, unbidden and unexpected, after the death of his beloved wife, Joy. This has awakened some of his readers – and
I include myself here – to a sensitivity towards the unobtrusive but solid presence of a deceased beloved: ‘The sound of a chuckle in the darkness … so business-like … yet there was a cheerful intimacy … Solid. Utterly reliable. Firm. There is no nonsense about the dead …’ (1).
G. W. Hughes SJ, author of the bestselling God of Surprises, touches on his sense of the presence of his sisters who had died tragically. They were, he remarks, like shy guests at a cocktail party who turned out to be the best of company once you gently engaged with them:
In imagination, I speak to Marie, and to the rest of my family, who are now all dead. Margot, like Marie, is close to me, a strengthening, reassuring presence … Somehow their good and my good are identical (2).
Irish TV broadcaster John Quinn wrote to his wife, Olive, after her death:
I believe in your presence totally. That’s why I talk to you all the time. You are in the light. It’s me that needs the letters … I am at once heartbroken by your absence and consumed by your ‘presence’ – more in love with you than I ever thought possible… I know you give me little signs now and then, and I know I must be patient (3).
Such intimate revelations are congruent with what many people experience. We differ in our levels of awareness of reality, and those with exceptional awareness can challenge us to tune into a new frequency. As we shall see below, human solidarity and the communion of saints offers a theological underpinning, in terms of relationships, of our widespread experience of connectedness with those for whom we cared.
Finding a suitable title for this book was difficult, because there is no satisfactory term to name what none of us have yet experienced. ‘The life of the world to come’ expresses the Creeds, but it suggests a radical discontinuity from this life, as does the term ‘afterlife’. ‘Human fulfilment’ catches the continuity between the next life and the present, but can seem too psychological and personalist. ‘Graced fulfilment’ catches the Christian dimension. ‘End’ is a bit stark, though one of my professors liked it. ‘Eschatology’ and ‘eschaton’ (from the Greek, meaning ‘end’) are forbidding terms. The traditional term ‘The Four Last Things’ lacks dynamism and ignores the relevance of the future to the present. ‘The Lasting Things’ better connects the two.
The title finally chosen reflects the radical question hidden in our hearts: ‘Where to from here?’ The sub-title acknowledges that the book offers a Christian response to that issue. In a world beset by confusion, anxiety and meaninglessness, Christianity offers a grounded and hopeful vision of the future of humankind which merits serious attention.
Again, how should we refer to those who have died, Are they to be called ‘the dead’? Hardly, since Jesus asserts that to God everyone is alive (cf. Mk 12:27, Mt 22:32). For Christians, then, there are no ‘dead’ but only those who ‘have died’. The term ‘faithful departed’ acknowledges the reality of death, but have the dead indeed departed, or does that spatial metaphor do a disservice to the reality? In these pages a variety of terms will be used, though each is inadequate to convey the full reality of what is yet to come.
Some readers may be disconcerted by the fact that there is too long a run-in to the discussion of the world to come. ‘Why not cut to the chase?’ they say, ‘this would make the book shorter and more direct’. But these are uncertain times for belief, hence a solid groundwork will help some readers. Also, we will be dealing with the evolving present rather than jumping straight into the future. While there is discontinuity between this world and the next, there is also continuity – life is changed, not ended. So only if we grasp the lasting things as given to us now will we be able to project forward rightly. Gaudi’s successors can move his unfinished cathedral toward completion only when they contemplate the existing construction, immerse themselves in his vision, and study his remaining sketches. Likewise here: present and future reality must interplay and illuminate one another if the final result is to be a masterpiece.
Each topic will begin and end with questions, to assist personal appropriation of the issue under consideration. Questions, when answered, lead to further wondering, so suggestions for additional reading are sprinkled through the text. Since the divine is characterised by intelligent imagination, readings around the future which God dreams for us should stimulate in turn both the left and right brain. Imagination is strongly linked to good theology.’ Hence I have found C. S. Lewis’ writings very helpful in preparing this book. His Chronicles of Narnia are not intended simply to amuse children: they are eschatological in intent. The children are making for a mysterious country in which they will participate in the divine and enjoy an intimate relationship with the Creator. This is what eschatology is all about!
1 C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London: Faber & Faber, 1961), pp. 60-1.
2 G.W. Hughes SJ, God, Where Are You? (London: DLT, 1997), p. 55, p. 85.
3 John Quinn, Letters to Olive: Sea of Love, Sea of Loss, Seed of Love, Seed of Life (Dublin: Veritas, 2011), p. 129.
4 To explore this link you might read J. T. Sellars, Reasoning Beyond Reasoning: Imagination as a Theological Source in the Work of C. S. Lewis (Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2011).
WHY BELIEVE IN GOD?
Does God Exist?
Belief in a worthwhile afterlife depends on accepting the existence of God. But does God exist? Perhaps you have no difficulty with this question, and if that be so, it is a blessing: you are in tune with people of countless ages who have taken the existence of God for granted. But for the sake of readers who, like myself, often have to renew their decision to believe in God in the light of human evil and natural disasters, I will outline my personal reasons for believing.
Let’s admit that God doesn’t make things easy for believers! What do you say when asked: ‘If God exists and sustains us, why the misery of millions on the planet today?’ ‘Why doesn’t God simply destroy the wicked” ‘Why is God so hidden? A big revelation would answer our doubts.’ ‘Why do bad things happen to good people and why does God allow tsunamis and other disasters?’ I have no intention here of addressing the issue of God’s existence in a way that would satisfy a scientifically minded sceptic. The existence of God cannot be proved or disproved by scientific criteria. Theists believe God exists; atheists believe there is no God. Reasonable evidence for either position can be adduced. Scientists, atheists, humanists and believers share a common love for ‘our garden planet’. My simple purpose here is to outline elements of my personal credo.
The Ultimate ‘Why?’
We are born with a curiosity which expresses itself in asking the question ‘Why?” There is in us a desire to know, which drives beyond partial answers to ever further questions. So it appears to me to be fair to ask, ‘Why does this world exist,’ Reality indeed exists all around me, but how can it do so? I came into existence a number of years ago, and at some stage – not too far distant – I will cease to be. So how do I exist at all? ‘What explains me?’ is the real issue, rather than ‘What explains God’? For me the existence of material reality needs an explanation, so I judge it reasonable to postulate a Being That Simply Is, the ultimate and necessary cause of all that exists. The world outside my window raises the God-issue for me. Where did it come from and what keeps it in existence? As an amateur gardener I find nature mysterious, wonderful, fascinating. Behind it and within it I believe there must be a Being who is even more mysterious, wonderful and fascinating.
The scientific mind can explain much about material reality. But the ultimate ‘Why?’ goes beyond the physical, and since science is not the only form of knowledge, to me it is reasonable to go beyond it and to ask the ultimate ‘Why?, which brings us to what we mean by ‘God’ – the ultimate cause of everything. Like scientists, I believe in an intelligible world, but intelligibility emerges from intelligence. The universe has at least a temporal purpose, and purpose emerges from decision. This indicates to me the personal nature of the Being That Simply Is: persons have minds and wills.
Elizabeth Johnson suggests that originally the word ‘God’ may have meant ‘to take care of and cherish all things, burning all malice like a consuming fire’ (1). ‘Caring and cherishing’ expresses the kind of God I believe in. I join in with those who reject a being that would diminish whatever is good about human life, especially freedom and happiness. My concept is of a God who is neither distant nor intrusive, but who enables the fulfilment of the deepest needs and desires implanted in us.
Invisible Yet Real
There exists around us a huge set of invisible yet operative realities. You can’t see air, electricity, gravity, radio signals, or nuclear energy, but they’re real: put your hand on a live wire and you’ll know electricity exists, look at the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima in 1945 and you’ll know the awesome power of atomic energy. Likewise, the being I name as ‘God’ can be massively present and active, without being visible. But while these invisible realities can be measured and controlled, God cannot be – despite our best efforts at divine domestication. God is abundantly free.
Moving along, there’s a lot more to human life than can be observed, measured, compared and controlled. These dimensions include the reality of friendship and love; appreciation of music, art, and literature; prayer, longing, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, religious experience. Such dimensions express the best of us, they sustain us, and their existence is not to be denied simply because it can’t be ‘proved’ in lab tests. I can’t accept the following comment: ‘Relationships? They’re only fresh air between two persons – and some dust!’ Love exists: though you can’t see it, you know when it is present or absent. You can’t tie a relationship down and examine it scientifically, but it is real: a happy couple will tell you it’s the most important thing in their lives. We live within a network of relationships, invisible though they may be, and I hold that the primary relationship that sustains us is God’s relationship with us.
Every relationship is sustained by belief. People don’t know that their partners love them simply by looking at them – instead they believe they do. And such belief is not necessarily naive and groundless. We live our lives by exercising reasonable belief. We check for evidence before saying ‘I think this milk is sour’ or ‘I believe she loves me’ or ‘Chemo is tough, but it will cure my cancer.’ We decide to believe only when the reasons add up for us. We are faced with an unknown future, but we check the evidence and the reasons before we step into that future. Good decisions emerge from reasonable belief. It is unfounded belief that is naive and leads to bad decisions.
Belief is an essential component of human living, as Lonergan argues in Insight (2). Personally acquired knowledge, he notes, is a rare commodity. In other words, few of us know that Ireland is an island; we believe it is. We trust the stock market report or we
don’t, for reasons that we believe to be sound. Non-scientists and scientists hear of new discoveries, but both groups can only believe them to be true, pending corroboration. Our human world is built on reasonable belief. Successive generations of scientists don’t start from ground zero and reinvent the wheel – they take past achievements as starting points for their own work. If flaws emerge, they revisit earlier insights to detect error and then move forward again.
Our lives are sustained by belief. Imagine a world devoid of belief and of its partner, trust. Getting out of bed and having breakfast would be impossible – the floor might give way, the cereal might be poisoned. Human living as we know it would fall apart. Against this scenario the necessity of reasonable belief emerges, and belief in God as the answer to the ultimate ‘Why?’ appears less than outlandish in an intelligible world. In fact, to many people, belief in God appears more reasonable than not believing.
Knowledge Born of Love
The above is a laboured account of my reasons for believing in God. But of course the living history of my belief began elsewhere: in family love, in a believing environment, in catechesis and education, and in personal experience. William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, and the ensuing multitude of books on the topic, find an echo in the experiences of many people, including the young, who often seem to have an innate religious sense (3). My religious experiences were helped by time spent in two churches, one awesome and the other intimate. There grew spontaneously a relationship with ‘God’– whatever God was. Commitment to this relationship through prayer and worship made life comforting and meaningful. While the images of God presented to me were sometimes distorted, they were healthy enough for my personal or inner life to grow, although not of course without ups and downs and blank patches. Just as my parents were present to me long before I reached the use of reason, God was too. I didn’t hold off from relating to them until I had decided, ‘my parents exist!’ They were simply there, sustaining and affecting me in each detail of my existence. Likewise, the ‘Mystery that is fascinating and awesome’, Rudolf Otto’s phrase for God, was all around. Like everyone else, I was immersed in mystery from the beginning.
We know the experience of finding ourselves in love and how, as the relationship grows, more is revealed: there is a knowledge born of love. My relationship with God, happily, has kept developing. The Latin word credo comes from two smaller words, cor do: ‘I give my heart.’ To some degree at least I have given my heart to God. This otherwise risky action is sustained by my ongoing experience of God’s loving kindness. Let me admit it: I expect God to back me up, support me, and enable me to do what I should! Left to myself I would fail, fall apart and cease to exist. I am a cry for help and God meets my needs. I ‘know’ God is around! Good things happen to me, doors open up, insights occur – someone’s watching out for me, I am cared about and I know it.
The Good News keeps me going, though it is an unending challenge to believe that God walked this world in human form and died as Jesus died. While God’s providence becomes more mysterious, the Christian vision of life makes sense to me. I am helped by the concreteness of the Gospels, while the spirituality that nourishes me challenges me to find God in all things. I am fascinated by the mystery of why people love one another at all, yet love is the fabric which holds society together. Why are most people basically good and why do they devote themselves to the selfless care of others? How did the universe ‘know that we were coming’ and why is there a providence supporting and guiding us? Why is there a yearning in us for ‘something more’ – why don’t we simply chew the cud as cows do? The answers to these and other musings cluster for me around a ‘God’ who is relational and caring.
At the same time I labour over my belief, it gets challenged by every TV news programme I watch. How can God’s goodness be compatible with the suffering and tragedies that humankind endures? Why is God silent? Where the hell is God? (4). Such questions cannot be fully answered in this life. I have to remind myself over and over of the Christian tradition that it is from God that everything good comes and that evil comes from our unreasonable decisions.
Science and Religion
One of my brethren who was quite conservative read the Tablet weekly. When asked why, he’d respond: ‘I want to know what the enemy is thinking!’ It may help in ending this chapter to sketch the positions which scientists take up in regard to the God-issue, not to understand an enemy but to be respectfully aware that intelligent people see the same reality differently. Some scientists and believers accept the complementarity of science and theology.’ Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science is written by a convinced atheist, Michael Ruse, who is aware that something important hinges on the question of God’s existence (6). For him, belief in God is rationally valid. Science is not the only fruit of human reasoning. On the other hand, religion must not try to explain everything.
Some scientists hold that the universe is self-generating – that it evolves randomly, on its own, without purpose. God, they say, does not exist because God cannot be known through scientific method, which is, for them, the only true way to knowledge. For others, the exploration of cosmic and quantum reality bring a sense of mystery. But, they hold, the universe itself is ultimate: there is no further mystery lurking behind it. Our mysterious world is simply there.
Others again hold for Intelligent Design. Life, they argue, is no random accident. Against all the odds, the universe was so arranged that the emergence of life became a high probability. Thus, they postulate the existence of a being that is intelligence itself, and name it ‘God’. Against this position are scientists who say that evolution itself will explain what has happened, and that the ‘God of the Gaps’ is dragged in only when needed to comfort believers.
At the high end of the belief scale are Creationists. For them, Genesis is to be taken literally. Thus they deny the theory of evolution, especially as it purports to explain the origins of human life. They see science as a threat to faith, and choose the latter.
Among Christian thinkers, Thomas Berry, author with Brian Swimme of The Universe Story, defends the divine or the sacred in nature. Appreciation of and respect for the earth, he argues, can be diluted by over-emphasising a transcendent God: cosmic wonder must be restored lest we destroy the biosphere. A new paradigm is needed if we are rightly to relate faith and science, religion and material reality.
Finally, some Christians believe that religion and science are complementary. All scientific knowledge, they say, including evolution rightly understood, is to be accepted: God is revealed within nature. But, they continue, a dimension of human reality beyond the material and the scientific must be acknowledged. For Christians, the universe story and the Judaeo- Christian story are mutually enriching. The latter is to be seen in terms of personal self-communication by the Author of the material universe (7).
For myself, belief in God seems reasonable on the grounds I have outlined above. As to how the universe came into being, I accept provisionally the current scientific hypothesis, the Big Bang theory – though this is being challenged, at least in some of its details, as in a recent issue of Scientific American. But my belief in God does not hang on a scientific hypothesis. I find it reasonable to believe that God has a meaningful project for the world, and that God has communicated something of it to us through what we term ‘revelation’.
This leads into the issue of belief in a world to come, which we will address in the following chapter.
1 Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad. 1995), p. 44.
2 Bernard Lonergan, Insight (London: Longmans, 1957), pp. 703-18.
3 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Touchstone, 1997).
4 Richard Leonard’s Where the Hell is God? (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2010), has been described as a life-changing book, one of the best available on the question of suffering.
5 For a wide-ranging recent account of human origins in the light of creation and evolution, see Brendan Purcell, From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (Dublin: Veritas, 2011). Writing from a Christian perspective, the author assumes the complementarity of science, philosophy and religion.
6 Michael Ruse, Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
7 For further reading in this area, consult Mary Ellen Sheehan, Four Stories: Integrating the Universe Story, the Christian Story, the Earth Story and the IHM Story (Monroe, Michigan: IHM Publications, 2007). Karen Armstrong, The Case for God: What Religion Really Means (London: Bodley Head, 2009) is also helpful. Noting that for the first time in history, many millions of people want nothing to do with God, she asks why has God become incredible, and she draws on the insights of our predecessors to outline a faith that can speak to our polarised world.
1. Believing is natural to us. What matters is that it be reasonable.
2. Many people find the reality of suffering and evil incompatible with belief in God.
3. Christians say that belief in God is reasonable, because the universe cannot explain itself.
4. To accommodate the reality of suffering, believers have to abandon the image of a ‘nice’ God in favour of a God who is infinitely mysterious.
• If you believe in God, how do you deal with the challenges that suffering and evil present,
• If you are a searcher or an agnostic, what do you make of the above argument for belief in God?
WHY BELIEVE IN AN AFTERLIFE?
To focus our minds on the issue raised in this chapter, let us consider the following comments:
Last year, my father-in-law died. When I sat at his deathbed, and looked at the body from which life had ebbed, I couldn’t help marvelling at the persistence of the concept of the afterlife. There he lay, in his frailty and banality, his body the register, the lined book, of his seventy-nine years. The corpse was so palpable in its morbidity, so finished. But for centuries, people believed the book would be opened again (1).
Well, could it end with a hole in the ground? … But I think if you can accept the existence of God, then all the other things are possible. Believing in God and the afterlife is the only way I can make sense of life. It’s a huge leap … Of course, for most of us the unanswerable question is whether or not there is a God and a life after death. There are those who have absolute certainty about eternal life and those who are adamant that eternal life is all ‘pie in the sky’. Those of us in between muddle about, flip-flopping, doubting, hoping and maybe even believing that there is a God out there with whom we will one day share eternal life. I have no trouble saying it’s to that category of people I belong. I can also say, with a certain strength and even conviction, that I believe (2).
The Struggle to Believe
In the previous chapter, I outlined why I find it reasonable to believe in the existence of God. But what of the next step – that is, belief that there is a world to come when earthly life ends? The issue of an afterlife can be a lifelong puzzle, or may come into focus only after losing someone we love, or being faced with a radical lack of meaning in life, as in the black comedy film The War of the Roses (1989), in which life falls apart for the couple when the house is perfectly finished. Then new questions arise: Does love die? Does death end everything? Will I ever be reunited with the person who meant everything to me? And even if there is an afterlife, do friendships endure there?
Tell Me Your Name!
I have said that the visible world, in all its wonder and complexity, makes me ask what sort of Being keeps it going. From the time the human race first emerged – about 150,000 years ago – people have speculated about the ultimate ‘Why” of things. Hence the phenomenon of world religions and their varied concepts of God. That this Being must be personal seems obvious. An impersonal force won’t do: this Being must have, in some super-eminent way, the qualities that ‘It’ shares with us – understanding and love and all else.
Granting the existence of this personal Being, the possibility of its self-revelation seems appropriate. That God might reveal the divine name strikes me as delightful. It opens up the possibility of friendship. You can hardly have a friendship with someone who withholds their name! Yet the name given in the Hebrew account —’I AM WHO I AM’ (Ex 3:14) – is full of mystery. It must certainly mean ‘I just am!’ but much more too. It distinguishes God from all other beings. We humans cannot say, ‘We just are!’ because our existence is contingent on the couple who became our parents, just as their existence depended on their parents. But God has no ancestry: God has been there all the time, is just so, and always will be. That this self-revelation of God was given historically first to a tiny group in a remote place rather than to everyone at once, respects how discoveries unfold and spread out slowly across space and time.
That God should talk to human beings does not seem inappropriate to me: parents talk to their infants long before the latter can respond, and children grow by reaching up to the minds of their parents. If God has plans and dreams for us, he needs to share them with us so that we can direct our lives by them. So we are told through Genesis that from the beginning of our existence we are in relationship with a communicating God. The Dictionary of Biblical Theology notes that the Hebrew mind thought it nonsense to speak of human beings outside their relationship with God, whereas to many today the notion of ‘divine revelation’ seems like an interruption, an interference, a threat to our freedom and our independence. To the Hebrews it was otherwise: God reveals that his heart is set on them, that he will direct and guide them, provide for them and keep them safe. This gives that tiny band of nomads a unique meaning, and they know it. God establishes an open relationship of love with the `Chosen People’ and biblical history chronicles the troubled and unequal relationship between the Jews and their God.
The Human Face of God
That God’s engagement should move from speech to personal presence among us, is to me an unpredictable but wonderful surprise. Divine self-revelation reaches its high point here. God decides to become human, with all the vulnerability and limitation that this involves. The incarnation makes God accessible. We can look at the man, Jesus, see how he goes about things, and realise that this is what God is like and what God thinks about us. Hence the unending scope for contemplation of what Jesus said and did, and why he suffered, died and rose again. The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection from death is sufficient for me to believe that he is the Son of God. No other explanation, I feel, will do. But I can understand why others don’t find the evidence compelling and I quietly marvel that it is agreeable to God to leave us to speculate endlessly regarding Jesus’ claims.
Promise of Eternal Life
The ‘Good News’ that Jesus preaches is that God is in love with us and wants to engage us in eternal friendship. Why God should do this is a mystery to me, but love is free and needs no prior explanation for its choice. It is this desire of God that provides the context for my belief in an afterlife: but an afterlife of a glorious kind. ‘Hades’ and ‘Sheol’ conjured up for the Hebrews banishment from the world of God and endless wandering in darkness, because one cannot die and be done with existence. Instead, the words of Jesus are full of promise, and promises are the language of love. He offers a fulfilment that exceeds our wildest hopes and dreams by inviting us into the very life of God. The friendship begun when Jesus first reached out his hand to Simon Peter is to endure beyond death. ‘You will sit at my table in my kingdom’ (Lk 22:28-30). The disciples are promised a hundred-fold in this age, and in the age to come, eternal life (Mk 10:30). Peter could not prove that these promises would be fulfilled. But he knew enough of Jesus to believe them.
Like Peter, I have to renew my decision to believe what I cannot prove. I find it fitting that God should intend a resolution of human life that would make ultimate sense of it. Nothing less would make up for the chaos of human history, where many people never get a chance and most people suffer a great deal.
Jesus’ promise is that we will be where he is, and that ‘our joy will never be taken away’ (Jn 14:3; 16:20). Of course, I’d like more evidence to back up this divine promise: it would help so much if those who have died could come back, even once, to tell us that it’s all true. But I have to make do with what is given – the resurrection of Jesus and the promise that he will take us to where he is. I have to decide over and over again to cling to a belief that God, as Einstein said, is mysterious but not malicious. I have to battle with the negative indicators suggested by genocides and tsunamis. ‘Does God exist’?’ I say ‘Yes’. ‘Do suffering and evil also exist” ‘Yes.’ These truths are not incompatible if it can be shown that God works within evil and suffering to bring good out of them. The lesson of the Passion is that this is precisely God’s way of acting, as in the title of a book by Balthasar: Love Alone: The Way of Revelation (1968). What was the worst of Fridays becomes Good Friday only because of the love involved: it cuts across the downward spiral of evil, sin and death and it opens up to humankind a new world of freedom and love, God’s world.
Laughter at the End
A physicist, who once gave me the ‘Ladybird’ version of electrons, said that reality as we know it is marvellously interconnected. Electrons at either end of the universe vibrate in synchronicity with one another. ‘So true is this’, he said, ‘that we can’t understand anything by itself, but only in its connectedness. Everyone is linked with everyone else – past, present and future. Which means that only when the last of the human race has been gathered in will we know the full story. So history is like a cosmic joke. While you’re telling a joke, people are puzzled. They wonder how the story is going to work out. Only with the punch line do they get the point and laugh.’ So it is with the human story: I must be patient. Only at the end will the point be clear. Then the laughter will begin, laughter of the purest and most liberating kind, a laughter led by the three divine Persons who always intended that things would end well and who laboured mightily to bring this about.
1. James Wood, reviewing John Casey, After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) in London Review of Books, vol. 33 no. 8, 14 April 2011.
2. Bishop Willie Walsh, Irish Times, 6 November 2010.
3 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Touchstone, 1997).
1. The goodness of the material world and of human beings grounds belief that its originator is good and wishes us well.
2. That this Being might help us by self-revelation is not unreasonable.
3. Jesus, the self-revelation of God, sees what we are like but also what we can become. He has hope for humankind and promises us eternal friendship.
4. Suffering is to be explained not by denying the existence of a good God but by observing how God brings good out of evil.
• What instances can you find in which good emerges out of evil? Could this be an indicator for you that God is at work?