The most significant and most inspiring aspect of the Christian religion is its doctrine of life after death. It gives a sense of tranquility and orientation to the present life. Without such belief, one can hardly cope with the disappointing experiences of the present life. While Christianity inherited the belief in the resurrection from Judaism, Jesus became the first person believed to have actually experienced real resurrection. In today’s Gospel from Luke 20:27-40, Jesus explains to his Jewish interlocutors, particularly the Sadducees, the real meaning of the resurrection and the nature of life in the resurrection.
Origin of the Belief in the Resurrection
The belief in life after death is found in many religions but the nature of the belief in each of these religions differs. The three religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all share the resurrection faith, but each of them expresses the belief system in a different way. The Jewish religion developed the idea of life after death in the later part of the history of the Old Testament. This was the period between the last part of the Old Testament and the early part of the Christian movement. The period was called the Intertestamental era. It runs through the Hellenistic period and the early part of the Roman period. The belief emerged when Judaism was in danger of extinction during the Hellenistic period, as many were killed because of their determination to continue with the traditional forms of the Jewish religion. We find this elaborately stated in the two books of Maccabees. The belief was linked to the doctrine of reward and punishment which individuals were to receive beyond the grave for the type of life they lived before death. The first reading of today from 1Macc 6:1-13 recounts how the great persecutor, King Antiochus, ended up miserably, thus confirming the words of the day’s Psalm 9: “For my enemies turn back; they stumble and perish before you” (9:4).
During the persecutions of the period, people began to think that those who remained faithful unto death would receive some form of reward in the otherworldly existence. However, the nature of this otherworldly existence was not fully developed. The understanding of the otherworldly existence took two forms: one form stressed the continued existence of a disembodied soul or spirit while the other stressed the resurrection of the body. The first form, which was belief in non-bodily afterlife, was more related to the Greek way of thinking. It is found in the Wisdom of Solomon, which was written in Alexandria about 50 B.C. It is also the idea of afterlife held by the author of the books of 1-2Maccabees. The second form, which is belief in afterlife bodily existence, was held by the Pharisees but the nature of the resurrected body remained a matter of debate. The other Jewish party, the Sadducees, opposed every idea of life after death, whether bodily or non bodily. In fact, they ridiculed it.
Explaining the Idea of the Resurrection
The aim of the Sadducees in coming to Jesus in today’s Gospel was to ridicule the belief in the resurrection by presenting the story of the woman that married seven brothers successively. Which one would she marry when the dead are raised? In his answer, Jesus goes beyond the idea of bodily resurrection and presents resurrection as the experience of a new reality. The children of the resurrection are like the angels, meaning that they do not possess the type of materiality that distinguishes people as males and females, and so they do not marry. Moreover, since they are children of God and no longer die, there is no need to procreate through getting married. The idea of Jesus is that the dead enter into a new existence with God who is the reason for their existence. All who live for God never see death as God is a God of the living and not of the dead.
Living with a Better Hope
The most interesting part of the Gospel text of today is the statement of Jesus in Luke 20:38 that all who live for God remain always alive, meaning that all who are linked to God while here on earth will continue to be alive since in God nothing is really dead. This assurance of a more glorious life with God after this life is the greatest source of hope for the Christian believer. Without such hope the present life becomes meaningless and boring. This explains the inner turmoil of many people today who have lost the belief in life after death. In most cases, they have to struggle only for the life here and now, and when frustrations set in, they easily lose hope and give way to melancholy and depression.