There are a number of reasons Christianity seems absurd to many people. In the third century, the pagan philosopher Porphyry blamed its speciousness on the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, the “disgusting idea that bodies will be raised fom the grave,” with bits of desiccated flesh flying through the air like a fast rewind of an Egyptian plague. He poses the case of a boatload of Christian fishermen (recalling the fact that Jesus’ followers earned their keep that way) being wrecked at sea, their bodies eaten by sea creatures, regurgitated or defecated and swirled into the ocean depths where they mingle with sand and broken shell. Will these be raised up? Does the Christian God not have better things to do–because the Greek gods certainly did.
Since Porphyry’s day the treasury of Christian doctrine has increased dramatically, largely though not exclusively on the Catholic side: entries like the Real (physical) presence of Christ in the Eucharist, forgiveness of sin, and, related to both, the stature of the priest as an avatar of Jesus. Then there’s the Assumption of Mary (proclaimed 1950) not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin (proclaimed 1854, and about her, not Him), and the doctrine of Purgatory, a tribute to why bad things happen to good people, based on a medieval credit-rating system where almost everyone had scores between 300 and 550 and had to pay back the debt in millennial installments of woe and agony. –Unless the Church intervened. And yes, still very much on the books.
Mind you, most Christians and many Catholics don’t believe these things anymore. According to a 2010 Pew Research poll, 45% of Catholics hadn’t heard of the real presence, which means that almost half of practicing Catholics have no idea what they’re practicing. To hide their embarrassment, parishes are laying on weekly “Eucharistic Adoration” opportunities, the kind of labor my birthright-Irish grandmother found intrusive to her complacent religious life, thus not likely to attract the Facebook crowd to fall on their knees. Large numbers of Catholic girls think the Church’s teaching on abortion has an opt-out provision, or varies from diocese to diocese or priest to priest. They confuse it obviously with the celibacy rules.
I’ve often thought I’d like to give a course called “What You Don’t Know That You’re Expected to Believe Anyway,” as a balance to the Church’s course in “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You, So Let’s Not Talk About It.”
Which is exactly what’s happening in the Church. Since there has to be some connection between doctrinal literacy and belief, it isn’t shocking that the Church, along with its evangelical allies, has chosen to fight the battle for relevance in the forward trenches of sexual ethics and not on behalf of positions its adherents find boring–so early-second millennium.
Of the number of women having abortions who self-identify religiously, the statistics for Catholics and Protestants are dead-even at around 32% each. For Jews, less than 2%, but for other reasons. No wonder the cunning and soon-to-be saint John Paul II started his Gospel of Life movement, a recipe for being against war, capital punishment, murder, violence, and (by cross-ranking inclusion) abortion. His sainthood will be based on changing the subject from obedience and doctrine to love and peace. (For it!) and creating the illusion that almost everything else is a mystery and a symbol–though in this he has a very long tradition to fall back on. Hating abortion is the key symbol, and has hence become the core doctrine.
With respect to traditional doctrine, the sort of thing that had to do with fighting the devil and getting your soul to heaven, Catholic Christianity has become an episode of Fawlty Towers –the one where (confronted with German tourists but trying his best to be English about it) Basil reminds his staff, “Don’t mention the War.” Likewise, in these inattentive times, when Christianity is all about loving God through hating a woman’s right to choose, it’s important not to mention eschatology: Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell, the core of Christian faith.
So I want to mention it. Eschatology. The four last things.
Let’s talk about the second, since the first is pretty obvious and the third and fourth depend on the second. They are worth talking about because this is what the Church has a right to talk about, and also because in a shruggish kind of way many Jews believe it too, and in a much more robust way Protestants and Muslims believe it. We will be judged.
Let’s say that if you don’t believe in this, no fair calling yourself a Christian, whereas whatever you think about abortion is contingent on a theological principle. Its moral character is not self-explanatory without other ideas behind it. Abortion is a real decision, made by real people in real time, with real consequences. The church can declare it is wrong, sinful and hateful to God, but without judgement, the teaching is a bit toothless, isn’t it? You see my point.
The Christian church worked itself into a corner very early. The early and medieval church couldn’t promise heaven right away because they knew that the bodies of dead Christians weren’t spared the ravages of the grave. They looked just like dead pagans and Jews after six months. The doctrine of the soul, which the church copped from various writers and cobbled together over time (it isn’t biblical, not even New Testament) and blended with Jewish ideas of “resurrection,” was a great help: Bodies die, souls fly off somewhere, but if this is true they need to be judged quickly for what they’ve done “through the body.” Through the body–whose corrupt state pretty much tells you all you need to know about human nature.
Thus was born the Two-Judgement Theology of the Western Church. We are so important to God that he has time to judge us twice. A first, or particular judgement at the moment of death, a final judgement when body and soul are recombined on the Last Day.
The Last Judgement is not an appeal process. It’s reckoned that first and last will be identical in verdict and punishment, though the soul gets a head start on the body in enduring everlasting pain. The only reason for there being two is the distance between the reality of death (now) and the uncertainty of the time of the end of the world and Christ’s coming (then, when?). The Now is dull, personal and predictable. The Then is fiery and spectacular (cf. Mk 13) and brings with it that realignment of soul and body parts that caused Porphyry to break out in fits of laughter.
If this sounds complicated, imagine the capacity of an unpaid Irish nun to explain it to a skeptical twelve year old. Scenario: “Well, Joseph, you just ask too many questions, don’t you?”
The particular judgement has no textual support though there is a “source” that Christians tried to introduce into the mix by making people think it was old and Jewish, called The Testament of Abraham. It probably comes from the third century CE (AD) though some scholars want it to be older. It’s an entertaining fantasy of how an aged Abraham gets visions (very Christian visions) of angels and heaven–and judgement. He meets Michael, the “captain of the angels” (archangel) who is perpetually darting back and forth between the Oak of Mamre and heaven with messages. Heaven has gates. A tiny gate for the chosen few, a big gate that seems to be an elevator door to the netherworld:
“And Abraham asked the chief-captain Michael, What is this that we behold? And the chief-captain said, These things that thou seest, holy Abraham, are the judgment and recompense. And behold the angel holding the soul in his hand, and he brought it before the judge, and the judge said to one of the angels that served him, Open me this book, and find me the sins of this soul. And opening the book he found its sins and its righteousness equally balanced, and he neither gave it to the tormentors, nor to those that were saved, but set it in the midst.”
The tale even has reality TV-emanations: Abraham witnesses the judgement of a woman who is condemned for having sex with her daughter’s husband, killing her daughter, and then claiming she remembers nothing. Boooo! said the ancient studio audience.
The later history of the “particular judgement” is bland. It includes Tertullian’s idea that the distance between death and final judgement is a waiting period for the soul, full of excruciatingly conscious thoughts about where it fell short–but leaving open the possibility of a surprise reprieve; Hippolytus’s notion that the judgement is really like sorting beads, for future reference, when God decides to make the necklace; and–of course–Augustine. Liking structure more than evidence, he decides that at death souls are sorted into bundles (four in all) ranging from blessed to damned–but unlike Tertullian, no waiting–first come first served for the unambiguously saintly or beastly, like the 4.45 PM Seniors’ Special at a Florida restaurant. But note: there is no agreement here. Not one of these writers has any idea what he’s talking about. There is no control group, there are no interviews. Not even a good text worth debating. It is belief heaped on belief.
The discussion of Judgement up through the medieval period looms large. It connected to every other important doctrine, from saints, to sacraments, to what the Church could dispense to you through its “treasury of merits”–a fund of superfluous grace achieved by holy men and women who didn’t use up all they had–and the sale of indulgences. At the Reformation, largely due to Calvin, the growth of speculation and imagery was brought under control, but the belief that souls are judged after death (Calvin said, “consciously, so that they know their fate”) was retained.
The Big Deal, of course, is not merely what happens after you die but what happens when everything explodes and the Son of Man appears in the sky to call you home. That much, at least, is biblical–the core of Christian belief in the second coming, complete with a perennial Protestant temptation to pinpoint doomsday (the Old English word dome/doom means judgement) and humiliate your opponent with statistics drawn from the Book of Revelation, which he will call Revelations.
The Last Judgement was at least “Biblical”–which means simply that the idea of it could be located in scripture. Matthew 25 contains a significant passage about separating the sheep and goats, and there is a disturbing passage in Revelation 20.11-13 about the “dead” coming before a great white throne. As to how you get there, St Paul worried that the Corinthian Christians were asking too many questions. In one piece of guesswork (1 Thessalonians, maybe his literary debut) he thinks that we will all be swept up “to meet the Lord in the air”–frightening prospect; in another, that we will need a change of clothes before the interview, and so “will be changed [into a new kind of flesh] in the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15.51-2). Either way, spectacular.
The Church fathers were limited in their guesswork by scriptural controls that didn’t apply to the “particular judgement” and the central belief that certain passages in Daniel and Isaiah could be used to prove that, at the time of judgement, the dead would be raised for the purpose of giving an account of themselves. Matthew gets so excited by the idea that (27.52-54) he has a few of the dead being raised “prematurely” at the time of the crucifixion, but then puts them on hold until the resurrection of Jesus, when they’re permitted to enter Jerusalem in their burial cloths.
And so, back to Porphyry. Why are the dead raised? To be judged. Why are they judged? Because death is not bad enough. The God of life, who made you to die, wants more from you. Wakened from a neural sleep they are roused to undergo torture or experience the pleasures of heaven–always unimpressively and unenticingly described in Christian thought.
There are no virgins, or their male equivalents, or grapes, or nonintoxicating intoxicating beverages–no Paradise in the voluptuous Middle Eastern sense, not even in the Genesis Garden of Eden sense. Nothing that would make you want to be there for a minute, let alone eternally. The “vision of God,” that later became the reason for wanting to go to heaven, was Christianized platonic faddle from the early Middle Ages. Mark Twain had it right.
Worst of all, there will be lines. Long queues extending for centuries. Maybe the angels will let women who were at least six months pregnant when they died go first. –The ones who died because they killed themselves rather than tell their parents they were pregnant will go to hell. The ones who ended their pregnancies will go to hell. The ones who died because they were told they had to deliver a child, and ended up with pulmonary insufficiency because they couldn’t sustain a pregnancy at twelve years old will go to heaven. Such is the divine mystery. Such is the will of God.
What I ask is that the Church start talking about this again: something it has taught for two millennia. Something it claims to know about because it invented it. Talk about the texts. Talk about the disagreements, the stories, the history, the imagery. Talk about how Judgement happens, what to expect. Talk about the evidence. Do not say it is a mystery of faith, like the Eucharist. If it is, then say you don’t understand it either and stop talking about it. You cannot talk convincingly about the price of “sins” like abortion if you can’t explain this.
If I convert to Islam or profess my atheism loudly enough, can I be diverted to the Wide Gate and get started on my punishment? I would prefer that.
If I feel that I’m at least as virtuous as my church-going neighbor but happen to be a Buddhist, is there room for appeal?
And before anyone says I am asking silly questions and it is all much more complicated and mysterious than I am making it: ask your friendly priest or minister to explain what he believes, what his church teaches, and then get back to me.