Life is good, and God wants the good to last forever | National Catholic Register


Three weeks into Lent and in our reflections on mortality, we realized that not only are nearly all human cultures hoping for some sort of post-mortem existence, but that the very wiring of our being – our souls, our spirits , our brains, our language – makes it impossible even to try to imagine non-being other than from the point of view of being. No matter how we try, a thinking being attempts the Herculean, rather Sisyphean, effort to conceptualize non-existence, non-being.

We saw last week that although the Greeks, Romans and Jews formulated some kind of post-mortem existence, the existence of Hades and Sheol offered was not particularly attractive. We also noted an emerging problem with their notions: the problem of morality, more specifically, of justice.

If everyone dies and ends up in the same “place”, where is the justice?

Let’s take a step back. Although modern sophists peddle a religion allegedly devoid of the morality of “love”, asking who are we to judge (which is why the Pope’s words here are so problematic, regardless of his intentions), is that true religion is inseparable from morality. Indeed, humanity is inseparable from morality. Let’s start by looking at these two ideas.

First, no man can escape the “experience of morality.” Just as for being, the inescapable wiring of man is fixed on morality, on the good. The good is unavoidable. “Good must be done and evil must be avoided” is the first principle of practical reason, that is, a principle applicable to all human beings regardless of their “religion”. It is also a principle both necessary and enabling practical life. Person proves “Good must be done and evil avoided.” It is an axiom. Even if someone is stubborn or stupid enough to demand “evidence”, what would we say? Because the good is better what the harm? As with being, goodness frames our very capacity to conceptualize, to think, to speak. One cannot speak of action apart from the good.

This brings us to what Karol Wojyła called “the experience of obligation”. Because of our inherent and unavoidable lack of good, we feel an obligation. Every normal human being has experienced “I should do x”. But if morality were a human creation (or worse, a human imposition, a tool by which a “privileged” group exercises power), then this universal experience would be meaningless. The fact that we feel the call to “do x” even when we (or others or elites or power brokers) want us to “do y” indicates that goodness – morality – has an intrinsic basis in the way human beings are made, the one who challenges a person before a decision and judges them afterwards. Kindness is essential.

The great contribution of Judaism and Christianity was that our relationship with God, ie religion (since “religion” speaks of what binds us, relationship), is linked to morality. The Greek and Roman “gods” were no good. They were bigger and stronger than the men, but they were no better – and often worse.

The God of Israel, however, is “holy.” The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God who lives in an inaccessible light, whose face one cannot look at without dying because of the fundamental disparity between his holiness and my absence. This is why, for Christianity and Judaism, to follow the Lord is to keep his commandments. God is the ultimate foundation of our innate lack of goodness.

It was necessary to explain all that to return to the problems of Hades and Sheol. Man has an innate inclination for good, for doing good and avoiding evil. It also recognizes the need to favor good and oppose evil before we do anything, and to be accountable to good for what we have done. True religion cannot fail to entail morality.

But human beings are also aware that sometimes the bad guys seem to thrive, “get away with” the bad, while the good guys suffer and get screwed. These facts of life contradict our intrinsic orientation towards the good and arouse in us a demand for justice.

For the early Greeks and their epic culture, everyone finding themselves in the shadow of Hades posed a problem. Their “democratic” culture might have been willing to swallow most of the people living in this mediocre “existence,” but shouldn’t the greatest heroes earn some sort of reward? And, likewise, shouldn’t the greatest villains deserve some sort of punishment?

Eventually, as Hades became the leveling ground for most of the dead, the Greeks were ready to skim some heroes, like Achilles and Ajax from the Trojan War, to the blessed rest of the Champs Elysees. On the other hand, evildoers like Sisyphus and Tantalus found themselves in the punishments of Tartarus.

We want to stick with revelation, not mythology – although mythology also helps us understand basic human experiences. That said, Israel’s awareness of post-mortem existence also needed to grow.

If everyone ended up Sheol but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is just, so good had to be rewarded and evil punished at one time or another. At first, this time and this place seemed to be in this lifetime. This is why for much of the Old Testament there is an unclear notion of the afterlife. This is also why, for much of the Old Testament, the idea that justice was accomplished here and now assumed that good was rewarded and evil punished in this life. The good ones have been blessed with long life. They were blessed with health. Their fate was certain – perhaps not wealthy (though possessions are also a sign of divine favor) but sure. And, above all, they lived in their descendants, their children and grandchildren…

Conversely, for much of the Old Testament, only the wicked die young, painfully, suddenly, or unexpectedly. Only the wicked suffer and are cursed by ill health and insecurity. And barrenness — the lack or loss of children — is surely a sign that God wants to erase your being and your memory from the face of the earth.

This worldview lasted a long time in the Bible. We see traces of this in the New Testament, for example when the disciples ask Jesus about the blind man “who sinned—he or his parents?” (John 9:2). When Elizabeth speaks of her conception of John the Baptist not only as a promise but as the removal of a “reproach among men” (Luke 1:25). And there was a reason the Pharisees didn’t just lynch Jesus in a stoning, but wanted him nailed to a tree (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). To die “on a tree” in the prolonged and tortuous execution of the crucifixion would be for them a certain proof that God had rejected him. The older view of a hazy afterlife had its proponents, for example the Sadducees, to whom we find references in the New Testament, including in attempts to deceive Jesus (Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18; Luke 20:27; Acts 23:6-8).

This perspective made sense. The problem was that it didn’t match the experience.

The good died young and the bad prospered. The good guys were shattered while the bad guys exulted.

We see the Old Testament questioning this. The Book of Job is a huge question on this. Ecclesiastes too. Job loses everything – house, possessions, children, health – but remains convinced that he did not do wrong to deserve this.

Job and Ecclesiastes ask questions, but their answers are based on faith: “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away—blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21-22). Job continues to confess his faith in God’s righteousness—”in all this Job did not sin by accusing God of wrongdoing” (v. 22)—even though he cannot explain the ways of God.

And, at some level, God is content to leave them in their faith. When, after refuting the explanations of his “comforters”, Job turns to God, God’s response is essentially “I am God, you are not – have faith”. The language is poetic, because God asks Job if he was there when God designed the universe, but the main thing is that Job is invited to have faith. Read work 38.

The Old Testament had not yet reached a clear notion of the afterlife to answer Job’s questions on its terms, that is, the terms of this world.

This answer comes later, much later, at the very dawn of the New Testament. It is found in the last book of the Old Testament to take shape, the Book of Wisdom. Wisdom is the first place in the Old Testament with a clear notion of the afterlife, a notion revealed not as that of logic but of love. Can love fit within the narrow confines of this life? Should love be forced into the Procrustean bed of “seventy years, or eighty for the strong?” (Psalm 90:10). Or does love continue, going beyond the limits of this world and projecting itself into eternity?

“God did not create death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things to exist, and the creatures of the world are sound; there is no… domain of Hades on earth. For righteousness is eternal” (Wisdom 1:13-15).

God, says the author of Wisdom, is the giver of life, and justice is eternal. The author of Wisdom also anticipates a fundamental idea of ​​who God is, for – as John reminds us – “God is Love” (1 John 4:8). Love and kindness – their ultimate standard and measure is God, who is beyond all measure and limit – and so are those who love him. “Eye has not seen, nor ear has heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the great things which God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

This week sit down and read Wisdom Chapters 1-5. For a book just over 2,000 years old, it is surprisingly modern, especially its description in chapter 2 of the fool (cf. Psalm 14:1), that is, one who will not live by God, and the fool’s estimation of the meaning of life and death. The author of Wisdom has all the temporal arguments — long life, health and prosperity, descent — to get to the heart of the problem: “God created man to be incorruptible, and made him to ‘image of his own eternity’ (Wisdom 2:23).

This is the Good News of Christianity and its developed eschatology: that man’s orientations to being and good, to life and justice, are not illusions, are not distortions and deep flaws in his being.

Life is good, and God wanted the good to last. This is why the last word in human and cosmic history belongs to being and to goodness. This Word belongs to God. It is God (John 1:1).

Wisdom reminds us that “through the devil’s jealousy death entered the world, and those of his party experienced it” (Wisdom 2:24). God is faithful; our faithfulness is something else, so we are reminded to “work out our own salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) — not because we cannot rely on God, but because we can not.

And the defining moment of our salvation is the moment of death. Why then? This is next week’s reflection.


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