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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - The Reality of Life After Death

Robert Barron - The Reality of Life After Death

Robert Barron - The Reality of Life After Death
TOPICS: Afterlife

Peace be with you. Friends, our first reading and our gospel for this weekend have a special resonance for our time I think, because they both speak clearly about life after death. Now I say it has resonance for our time, because there's coming more and more to be a dominant secularist or materialist ideology that says, "All there is the world that we can see and measure empirically. All there is matter in motion. Big Bang happened. The world came into being eventually it will pass out of being. We live for a very short time and then we die and our bodies go back into the earth. The universe itself will wind down".

That's the materialist, secularist view of the world. It might surprise you to hear this. It surprises a lot of religious people, but the view that there is nothing after this life for us was actually commonly held throughout much of the Old Testament period. You look at the text of the Old Testament, you'll find some that begin to make a sort of tentative reference of an afterlife or toward life after death. But a lot of the Old Testament, the standard view was that death is the end and we go back into the earth. When the Psalmist, for example, praise to the Lord, "Well, can dust give you praise"? The point he is making is, "Well, yeah, now that I'm alive, I can give you praise. But dust, once I'm gone, I can't give you any praise".

Well, our reading, the first reading for today is from the second book of Maccabees and it's one of the most extraordinary texts in the Old Testament because it's one of the relatively few Old Testament passages that clearly indicate the existence of life after death. And the setting is fascinating. So we're looking at the second century, BC in Israel. A time when a Hellenizing culture was trying to impose itself upon Israel. So here I'm talking about the cultural and political descendants of Alexander The Great, now moved into this part of the world, and they're trying to impose upon conquered Israel, the sort of Greek way of life.

And much of that life, we eventually took in and we've adopted their Greek philosophy and so on and so forth. But at the time it was seen by many in Israel as an affront. It was outrageous. It's interesting to me that go up and down in the centuries, you'll find conquering nations from ancient times to our own time always think they're offering something good. That's why they want to spread their empire around the world. And the ancient Greeks were no different. They wanted to Hellenize the world. But they met in Israel with strenuous resistance. It was led by this fellow Judas Maccabeus, hence the Maccabees books. Maccabeus just means the hammer.

So Judas and his brothers, Judas and his family gathered a lot of followers around them and they resisted this Hellenizing influence. They took up arms against the Greeks. Read the books of Maccabees for all the details of those battles. But that's the setting, everybody, for the story that we read in our first reading. And it's so remarkable. What's happened is this mother and seven of her sons have been captured and they're being forced to eat pork, which was against a Jewish law. The hope probably was that we get these people to give in, they'll cause others to give in. That's the usual method that conquerors use. If I can get some leaders in the society to cave in, people will follow soon.

So my guess is this woman and her sons were prominent players. And so pressure is put on them to give in. Well they don't. And what follows is a horrific tale, as one by one in the presence of their mother these sons are put to death. But the speeches they give before they die are magnificent and they're at the heart of our reading. Here's what one says. "We are ready to die, rather than to transgress the laws of our ancestors". And then another son, he puts out his hands, because the tortures are threatening to cut off his limbs. He says, "It was from heaven that I received these. For the sake of his laws, I disdain them. From Him, I hope to receive them again".

Extraordinary isn't it. He is about to die and he holds out his own hands and says, "I disdain them out of love for the law of God". But at the same time, just as He gave them to me, I trust He will give them back to me again. The last brother, just before he die says this, "It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope that God gives of being raised up again by Him". Again, this was not a common view in the Old Testament, but here we see it on vivid display. See, it's more than a story of great courage. It is that of course and we honor these people for their courage, but it's a story of great theological significance, because of the assertion of belief in life after death.

Notice please, these young men are not operating out of a sort of puritanism or a dualism or a Platonism that would say, "Sure, these bodies are fallen and I'm eager to get rid of them and I want to die so I can go up to heaven". There's no disdaining of the body in itself. In the early centuries of the Church, we have gnostic heresy, which said exactly that, that the body's a kind of prison from which the soul longs to escape. Well, that's not at all what's animating these brothers. No, no. They're offering their hands and their tongues and cut their tongues out, their limbs, their very bodies in the hope that they will receive them again.

The risen life, see here's the interesting point, the risen life they're anticipating is not a purely spiritual one, not Plato's fantasy of a disembodied existence, rather it's one that involves the body raised to a higher pitch of perfection. I think everybody, they're an awful lot of Christians who hold to something that's more platonic than biblical. What I mean is they tend to think of the afterlife as the soul escaping from the body and going up to this purely spiritual place called heaven. But see, that's not the object of Christian hope. What do we hope for? Not a disembodied, purely spiritual existence. We hope for the resurrection of the body.

Now in Christ's resurrection from the dead, we see this now on full display. But how wonderful that in this story from Maccabees it's anticipated. These seven brothers are giving voice to this very deep hope, to a truly resurrected life. Ok. Against that background, that's why the Church gave us this reading as the first reading, because we're meant now to look at our gospel in light of it. The setting is a conversation, pretty heated I imagine, between the Sadducees and Jesus. Now who are the Sadducees? Well, they were a kind of a political religious party within Judaism and they had a lot of characteristics, but one of their characteristics was they, and again, to be fair in line with the mainstream of a lot of the Old Testament tradition, they did not believe in life after death.

Well, Jesus, they can guess from His preaching, does indeed believe in the resurrection. And so they posed to Him and they probably brought their most clever people forward. It's like people today, having these political debates online and someone catches it on camera. Well it's that kind of exchange. They propose what the logicians call a Reductio ad absurdum. A reduction to the absurd. When you take your opponent's position and say, "Well look, if you hold to that and I push it now to its logical extreme, I'm going to end up with an absurdity". So the Sadducees posed this famous case. There's this woman who marries a series of seven brothers and each brother dies. Okay, so now the woman dies and they go to the afterlife. Well, whose wife is she? Who's her husband? She married all seven. Reductio ad absurdum.

If you really believe in this life after death, then how do you make sense of this kind of situation? Well, Jesus is having none of it. He declares clearly and strongly His belief in life after death, in the resurrection. And what's His first evidence? Moses, so at the very heart of the Old Testament speaks of God as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. God is not a God of dead, but of the living. So by Moses' time, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were long, long dead, and yet God has described as being the God of these three men. How's that possible unless in some sense these three men are still alive? They're still alive in the presence of God. How's He further answer the Sadducees? In the heavenly realm, people will not marry or be given in marriage.

So He just cuts the dilemma out from under its feet. But how come? Because marriage is a bad thing? Because we can't wait to get up beyond this world of bodies and sexuality and marriage and go to a higher spiritual space? No, no, no, no, because in the heavenly realm, which is an embodied realm, Jews would never think of it any other way. In heavenly realm, we will love in a manner so intense that it goes beyond even this most intense expression of love here below that we call marriage. Not that something less than marriage is on display in heaven, but rather something much greater than marriage. There'll be an intimacy with one another that's possible because we are so intimately joined to God and through God to each other. So people will not marry or be given in marriage, because something so much greater than marriage is on display in heaven.

Can I make a final point here, everybody, as I close? Something you'll hear from secularist and materialists today is, you religious people that believe in heaven, a pie in the sky when we die. You're the problem, because it's all this fantasizing about another world that leads you to ignore the injustices and suffering of this world. See that is consummate nonsense, because it's actually the contrary. See, if you're a strict materialist, so this is all there is, this life, this body, which is going to die and go back in the earth, the universe is going to fade away. Why should I particularly care about gross injustices that are halfway across the globe? Oh, there's a poor kid in Africa right now who's starving to death and it's being caused by political corruption and injustice.

All right, he's going to die. I'm going to die. We're all going to die. The universe is going to fade away. So who cares? But now turn it around. You're a religious person and you believe in life after death, you believe first of all, that, that child suffering right now in Africa, that starving child was loved into existence by God and is destined for eternal life with God. Mind you, not just his soul that escapes from his body, but he himself, body and soul is destined to live with God. Therefore, of course I am interested in what's just and right for him. Of course, I'm interested in alleviating his suffering. It's not the religious person that's indifferent.

On the contrary. And then can I just observe everybody, who were the greatest social activists in the 20th century? Those that made the biggest difference in terms of social justice? People like Martin Luther King, who believed in life after death. People like John Paul II, who believed in life after death. People like Mohandas Gandhi in India, spiritual man that believed in life after death. Don't bore me with this canard that somehow religious people are the ones indifferent to the suffering of this world. On the contrary. It's those who believe as those seven heroic brothers did in the Old Testament. Those who believe as Jesus did in life after death, that are most committed to justice here below. And God bless you.
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