32nd Sunday in Ordinary time

I was looking for a story – or at least a quotation – to start this sermon in an interesting way. I flicked through numerous pages and read up on a vast number of sayings and short stories, but virtually nothing appealed to me. But it wasn’t a waste of my time. Many of those quotations gave me an insight into the world of multiple and different visions of the afterlife, Heaven and Hell. Some of them were very noble, some were funny, and some rather depressing. All of them were shaped and moulded by multiple sources, like the Bible, the arts, ancient and modern cultures, influences from different religions, personal experiences and so on. Seemingly in Christendom we have one, universal vision of the afterlife based on the Bible. But we know that denominations differ significantly on what form the afterlife is likely to take, and how it is likely to work. So, what is your personal vision of the afterlife?

The discussion between Jesus and a religious group of the Jews was provoked by Jesus’ talks and promises regarding life after death. The group, called the Sadducees, didn’t believe in an afterlife of any sort; for them, physical death was the end of the story. So, the Sadducees presented a scenario concerning the consecutive marriages of a woman to seven brothers; the woman eventually died childless after she’d buried her last husband. The story was credible, as it fell in line with a tradition of the Ancient Middle-East. The Sadducees’ argument was that, if there were a resurrection and an afterlife, the woman would have seven husbands in Heaven – and that was against the Law. Interestingly enough, it wouldn’t have been a problem the other way round, as men were allowed to have many wives…

Jesus points out the fundamental flaw in the Sadducees’ argument, as their perception of the afterlife was an identical reflection – a mirror image – of the earthly life. Jesus presents the afterlife as a completely different state of existence, comparing it to the lives of angels. Well, it doesn’t help us much here and now, because how can we know what the life of an angel is? In the Bible, we can find so many different visions of the afterlife; some of them present Heaven as a massive gathering of the redeemed who worship God endlessly. Others are perhaps even less attractive, as they talk more about Hell as the place of everlasting pain and torture. The problem with those representations is that they were not meant to describe the afterlife. They were used to illustrate or to emphasise specific aspects of Jesus’ teachings. They are parables or metaphors, not descriptions. Even when Jesus did speak about Heaven, as in the famous quotation: ‘in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places’, he was referring to a familiar image rather than giving an exact description of Heaven.

And, at the end of the day we are all heading to Heaven – though quite reluctantly, it must be said. In November, the month when we particularly remember the deceased and pray for them, let’s ask what Heaven is like. The answer is very simple: nobody knows. To be very honest and very blunt: whatever your vision of the afterlife is, it’s most probably mistaken. What we do believe about Heaven is that it will involve ultimate and timeless happiness. I found the best ‘description’ of Heaven in St Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians: ‘no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor 2:9). Galileo Galilei, the scientist condemned by the Church for his theories, rehabilitated 360 years later, had the best insight of all into the connection between Bible and Heaven. Although he used these words in a different context, what he said is just spot-on: ‘The Bible shows the way to go to Heaven, not the way the heavens go.’ So, I’m not bothered in the slightest what Heaven actually looks like – I’ll find out when I’ve got there.