“All who were destined for life everlasting believed in it.”
As lively and supple as our imaginations may be, some of us
draw blanks when we entertain the possibility of heaven. We
are so time- and matter-bound that all our visions of another
world are necessarily chained to images of this one.
“Will there be ice cream in heaven?” Thus might gradeschoolers echo
the question put to Jesus: “Will there be marriage in heaven?
In the Book of Revelation, the imagery is more grand and ambitious. Whether visionary
or dreamer, the narrator awes us with a scale that embraces every nation, race,
and tongue, arrayed in long white robes, bearing palms before the throne and
“These are the ones who have survived the great period of trial; they have
washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. ... Never
shall they know hunger or thirst. ... He will lead them to springs of life-giving
water, and God will wipe every tear away from their eyes.”
But how can we adequately conceive of life everlasting, the destiny of those
embraced by Christ’s life and death? The Acts of the Apostles announces the promise
of an afterlife but does not give much description of what it might be like.
And Jesus, in many passages in the fourth Gospel, reminds us: “I give them
eternal life and they shall never perish.”
We can only guess what such a life might be, and all our guesses will be freighted
with limits of the life we now live. Moreover, the limits of earth-bound experience
cannot help but foster skepticism about any future life.
In my philosophy classes, when the talk turns to our final fate and the immortality
of the soul, a web of unbelief is quickly woven. “How can an ‘after’ life
have any continuity with this life when all our experience is so brain-based?
Our memories, our joys, the delights of every sense, the faces of our loved ones
all seem so inseparable from this world and our bodies.” A telling point.
Even mighty Aquinas mused that a soul, separated from the body after death, would
somehow be radically incomplete, bereft of the body it informed. Surely, if we
had no body, we could not speak of personal immortality. Billy and Mary are not “souls”;
they are embodied souls. For Aquinas, happily, his Christian belief in the resurrection
of the body answered the nagging questions of reason. Not just our souls, but
our bodies are promised eternity.
This does not make things very much clearer. What on earth could such bodies
besupposedly outside of space and time? But that’s just it. They are not
on earth. And the earth cannot adequately contain their reality.
To my students, then, I pose a thought experiment. Imagine us in a class-womb.
We are a remarkable group of fetuses who are aware of and can talk about our
condition. What troubles us is the regular and inevitable departure and disappearance
of our brothers and sisters. It seems a dread experience, not only for the one
who is untimely ripped from our comfortable state but for all of us. We never
see them again. They’re gone. All that is left for us is mourning and memory.
The question is then posed. Could there be an afterlife, a form of existence
beyond this womb, so familiar and secure? Could there be another world beyond
the walls of our experience?
One budding philosopher-fetus, clearly on the route to skepticism, deems it impossible.
How could there be life after womb-death? Every means of sustenanceoxygen,
blood and nutrimentis gone. The cord is cut. How could there be an existence
without it? Every piece of evidence we have indicates that we could have no life
Unfortunately, the fetuses who have passed away, do not (maybe cannot) come back
to tell us what happened when they died to us and our world. They cannot report
what happens on the other side because of the limitations of our lifewomb, barring
their direct entry to our lives.
But let’s pretend. One does return to give an account of the other side.
I know you
have a wonderful life here, but this is only preparation.
You say that life without a womb is impossible, but that
is only because of the womb’s boundaries. You think that
there could be no food or oxygen without the umbilical
cord. Yet there is. Believe it or not, you will receive
food, but it will be through your mouth. And
your mouth is for much more than mere sucking, breathing, or eating. You
will speak and sing, kiss and cry. And your arms and legs will do more
things than you could ever imagine with your kicking and swimming around.
The new world beyond your womb is connected to what you are right now,
but it is wondrously different. All the gifts you have are only glimmers
of what they will become.
Could it so be
with us? Are we all aborning? And do those slight but awesome
moments of ecstatic love and luminous insight only hint at
what eyes have never seen and ears have never fully heard?
John Kavanaugh, SJ