What happens to us after we die?
The Bible is clear that, after the death of our bodies, we all will face God’s judgement, and also that there is the hope of life with God, fuller and more wonderful than this one. Beyond that we have no certain knowledge of the details of life after death. The Bible uses pictorial language, as in Christ’s parables and in the Book of Revelation, to convey the reality of judgement and eternal life, but these are not literal descriptions. Indeed, it is impossible that human beings with their limited understanding and experience could either envisage or communicate an exact or literal account of what happens after death.
The Church of Ireland, in common with the rest of the Anglican Communion, is faithful to the Bible’s reticence on this subject and does not require from its members any belief not clearly taught in the Bible. Many questions are left open and we can exercise our judgement on them. For example, is there progress after death or is the final state of each individual reached at the moment of death? The Bible does not give a definite answer to these questions either way. A complicating factor is the question of time in eternity. We cannot assume that time continues in the same way after death as it does before. The day of judgement is not a date in human reckoning that can be known. Judgement may be going on all the time, as some verses in St John’s Gospel suggest (e.g. “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” John 12:31).
On these and similar questions, many Anglicans hold one view, others hold another, and still others suspend judgement.
What is eternal life?
‘And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’ (John 17:3). That is, eternal life is a relationship with the eternal God. According to the Bible, eternal life is a gift of God to us through our faith in Jesus Christ, not a natural endowment. St Paul wrote, ‘this mortal nature must put on immortality’ (1 Cor. 15:53, italics added). Eternal life refers primarily to the quality, rather than the duration, of life. The converse of this state of blessedness is hell, or separation from God. Eternal life can begin on this earth but it does not end with our death. We have been created with a desire for communion with God, and God satisfies this desire by holding us in being, in this life and beyond this life, with a love that is stronger than death.
What is meant by ‘the resurrection of the body’ (Apostles’ Creed)?
The human person is a physical body with a spiritual dimension, described by such words as ‘mind’, ‘soul’, ‘spirit’. The Bible treats a human being as a unity, rather than as a soul imprisoned in a body. God’s gift of eternal life is richer, fuller, certainly not less, than physical life. Hence, in the fuller life beyond this one, there will be something corresponding to our bodies, but we cannot possibly envisage the precise nature of such life. Belief in ‘the resurrection of the body’ means that God brings the whole of us to life again after death, not just a part of us.
Should we pray for the dead?
Should we pray for anyone? If God knows what is best, need we ask for it? Christ clearly encouraged us to pray for each other and for ourselves (Matt.7:7-11), and it is a deeply engrained instinct to do so. We naturally pray for those we love, and we are commanded to pray for those who do not love us (Matt.5:44). But since God knows better than we do what is best for everyone, our prayer cannot be to change God’s will but to align our wills with that of God. In moving us to pray, God gives us a share in fulfilling the Father’s perfect will for all creation.
Should we, then, pray for the dead? On the understanding of prayer given above, if we pray for the dead we are not telling God what to do for them but aligning our love for them with God’s perfect love. Prayer for those on this earth is not always a specific request for a specific need. We often don’t know what is best for someone, but we bring their situation to God in prayer asking for the fulfilment of God’s perfect love for them and offering our love for them to God.
Do the dead need our prayers? It has been argued that the dead are either in a state of perfect holiness and happiness, or have finally and irrevocably rejected God’s love. For those in one state, prayer is unnecessary, and for those in the other, it is futile. But the Bible does not enable us to be so certain about the state of the dead or to say dogmatically that prayer for them is either unnecessary or futile.
Anglicans disagree about the rightness of specific petitions for the departed and the official documents of the Church of Ireland leave the question open. It is significant that prayers for the dead were not rejected in the 39 Articles.
Prayers in the Book of Common Prayer remember the faithful departed, thank God for their good examples and pray, ‘that we, with all those that are departed in the true faith of thy holy Name, may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul, in thy eternal and everlasting glory’ (The Burial of the Dead). This and similar petitions can be understood to be for the living only, or for both the living and departed. Anglican comprehensiveness allows for difference of interpretation on such matters. Anglicans believe that the Church, the body of Christ, encompasses the living and the faithful departed. Many believe it right to ask that God’s perfect will be fulfilled in them and in us, and all can remember them before God and thank God for them.
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