Let the Scriptures Speak
The God of the Living
[God] is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive. (Luke 20:38)
The postmodern world speaks with cool rationality about the possibility (or impossibility) of "post mortem survival." Some of us review scholastic reasoning about the immateriality of the soul, and others are fascinated with accounts of near-death experiences. New Ager folks are attracted to Eastern traditions about reincarnation. How strikingly different, in this context, is the biblical approach to life after death. Whereas we are typically drawn either to philosophical analysis or to anecdotal hints from the experience of the dying, scripture focuses entirely on the covenant relationship with God. This Sunday's readings illustrate unambiguously that biblical approach to life after death.
The excerpt from the dramatic scene of 2 Maccabees 7 (First Reading) provides a vivid example. Forced by the Seleucid tyrant Antiochus IV to violate the Torah (by eating pork) or else die with excruciating torture, all seven of the brothers die with bold rhetoric on their lips. Notice that their confidence is not something like “You can't really hurt me; I’m immortal.” The focus is entirely on their relationship with the Creator. The One who made them in the first place now sustains them, and will reward them in the resurrection of the just. The excerpt in our Sunday readings stresses one aspect of that relationship: whereas Antiochus IV (self-nicknamed “Zeus Revealed” [or “Just call me God”]) is, for the moment, king over Judea, but the Lord God is king of the world. The Maccabee brothers chose to place their confidence in their relationship with that Higher Power. The whole seventh chapter of 2 Maccabees is worth reading in its entirety; besides providing the gory details of their demise, the narrative presents the powerful words of Mother Maccabee, who reflects that the One who created their lives in her womb is also the Lord of the cosmos, who will surely show his justice by renewing their lives after this horrible death.
Some two centuries after the time of the Maccabees, the Sadducees challenge Jesus on this matter of life after death. The Sadducees, the chief religious authorities among their people at the time, had a very conservative approach to Scripture. They held only to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Torah. The Prophets and the Writings did not figure in their thought or practice. Since they found no clear teaching on life after death or resurrection in the Torah, they did not subscribe to those Pharisaic doctrines.
Knowing that Jesus did indeed hold for life with God after death, they try to catch him on this point. Attempting to show the belief in the resurrection of the dead is inconsistent with the Torah, they pose the case of a woman who has a series of seven husbands, all of them brothers who marry her when a previous brother dies. This is all done in good order according to the Torah prescription (Deuteronomy 25:5-6) that when a man dies without a son, his brother should marry the deceased one’s wife, in order to raise up a son who will continue his brother's name. Asserting that resurrection would present the intolerable situation of seven brothers with the same wife, they think to expose the folly of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead; it is not, in their minds, compatible with the Torah.
In response, Jesus moves right to their own proving ground, the Torah, to the passage about the bush in Exodus 3, and draws some implications from the fact that the Lord identifies himself as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Since it would be meaningless for God to declare himself in relationship with persons who have no existence, then Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must still exist with respect to God. With that rejoinder, Jesus has beaten the Sadducees on their own turf, showing that even their limited canon of Scripture—the five books of the Torah—points to the resurrection of the dead.
All of this reminds us that, even if we are encouraged by reasonings about the immateriality of the soul or the hints implied in near-death accounts, finally our faith in life after death rests on our trust in a permanent covenant relationship with a loving Creator. That puts our hope in life after death in the right place—not in speculations about the structure of human nature but in the revelation about the nature of God.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University