What happens when you die? This is a question that has been pondered, puzzled over and debated since time immemorial. This is a question that lies at the heart of the exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees as featured in the gospel last Sunday. This, also, is the question that prompted the author of Maccabees to share with his readers the narrative of seven brothers, who were martyred for their faith which we heard in the first reading last Sunday.
Before the question can be discussed with any degree of satisfaction, however, another question must first be considered. What is death? Death is a very painful and harsh reality that has inflicted the whole of humanity. It somehow paralyzed us and made us slaves of fear of facing our own death. It is a delicate topic of conversation among family members and so we simply ignore questions on death when they arise or find some other ways to confront the reality of death when circumstances set in.
Normally, we do not take seriously the thought of death for the simple reason that many of us do not feel that it is already approaching. There are moments, of course, when we jokingly talk about death and the topic is always focused on the financial woes that we might leave behind to our loved ones. Spiritual people talk about death but only with few people who are close to them, or to those whom they feel can relate with them.
Death, for many of us, is a separation, a termination of life, and a journey towards the land of the unknown. These ideas about death give us an uneasy feeling and discomfort, thus, making our lives miserable and unhappy and frightened. The sting of death is well at work in us.
The lesson in the Scripture says that death is not the end of life. It is merely a change of life. It is not the end but the beginning of the life that God ultimately had in mind for us when he created us. But then, it is only through the eyes of our faith that we will be able to see this reality and accept it by heart. If our faith in the resurrection of Jesus can move the mountains of our doubt, it is only then that we can face and embrace the stark reality of dying because we know that death for a Christian is beautiful. It changes our life and makes us one with God our creator and our savior Jesus Christ. What can be more beautiful in this life than being united with God? It is only then that our hearts can rest in peace and genuine happiness.
The Bible is absolutely clear on the fact of life after death. But the Bible is less clear on what life after death is like. It talks about it only in general terms. In the gospel last Sunday, Jesus affirms the existence of an afterlife, but he does not say what it is like. We know, of course, that God has prepared for those who love him “what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart.” This Pauline description of the state of heaven gives us a big reason to hope and long for our life with Jesus in his Kingdom. Maybe our eyes have seen all the beautiful things in this world which made us genuinely happy, and maybe our ears have heard alluring sounds of music that has brought us to the cloud nine of contentment. But St. Paul is telling us that the happiness that is intended for those who love God is way far beyond the happiness in this world when they come to see him face to face in their death.
On the other hand, the punishment of eternal fire awaits those who are doomed and those who did not live out their lives in witness of the charity of Jesus. Maybe it is not a physical fire, but the parable makes it clear that hell is eternal separation from God and maybe this separation is a punishment more than being cast into the fire for all eternity. It is a state of eternal regret but even if we regret and be sorry for all our sins, the fact is, we are doomed for all eternity.
My dear friends, the world we live in is a battlefield between the good and the bad. In this arena we are made to choose between God and Satan. God gave us ultimate freedom when he created us, and he never attempted to take even a pinch of that freedom away from us. So, in the afterlife, the state which we will find ourselves in is simply the choice that we ourselves have made. God continues to guide us in our everyday existence, but we continue to disregard him and decide to do everything at our own will, even if it means turning away from his love. We hate pains, sufferings, and death because we want to live our human life to the full. But in the last analysis, what we actually opted to take is the way that leads to doom.
Let us not be fooled by our false idea regarding freedom. The popular understanding of freedom is our ability to do what we want to do and to do it without no one objecting to it. Most of the time, this false idea of freedom leads us at odds with the law itself and with other people whom we might have trampled upon along the way of our exercise of freedom. But the real meaning of freedom is not actually doing what we will to do but it lies in doing the will of God. Freedom must lead us to happiness and doing God’s will surely leads us to our ultimate happiness by being one with God. If we exercise our freedom within the Christian context, then we will be free to enter God’s kingdom in the afterlife.
What happens when we die? Obviously, we do not know with any empirical certainty; nevertheless, we can anchor ourselves in the sure faith that ours is a living God and a loving God, who has accomplished our salvation in the dying and rising of Jesus. In this faith is also founded our hope, and this hope gives meaning and purpose to our days and nights until such time as death takes us beyond the limits of time unto life everlasting in peace and glory with the Lord.