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Pope and Martyr (entered heaven in 222)
Some modern philosophers deprecate Christians because we believe in (and hope for) eternal life in heaven. They praise those stoic souls who courageously live decent lives here on earth for the sheer decency of it, though they have no thought of everlasting reward. Your bioethics professor strikes me as one of these. Nothing against the man, mind you, but I feel it my duty to immunize you from his noble sounding heresy.
First of all, we have many more indications that there is life after death than that there isn’t. Besides the teaching of every religion and the universal “instinct” of the human spirit (ancestor worship, spiritism, séances, and all that stuff), plus the hundreds of scientifically documented “near-death experiences,” there is also the testimony of the thousands of Catholic saints who have believed in this doctrine (many of whom were martyred only because of their assurance of its truth) and the teaching and resurrection of Christ. Even if these indications don’t convince someone, they still have to be faced up to. And what indications do we have to the contrary? None. No one has come back from the dead to tell us that there is no life after death. No one has even claimed to do so. Conclusion: it takes just as much (if not more) faith to believe in death after death as it does to believe in life after death.
Secondly, it is no vice to want to be happy. Happiness is a universal human desire. To try and kill this desire in order to “do good without any hope for reward, either in this world or the next,” is inhuman. Only God is perfectly happy in himself; the rest of us need God to make us happy, and we come closer to God by living in accordance with his commands.
It’s funny, this same Christian doctrine that offends so many people in modern times actually won many to the faith in ancient times. Today’s saint, in fact, was one of the many early Christians who dedicated themselves to the ministry of burying the dead. The Roman “catacombs,” the underground graveyards excavated by generations of Christians, were closely monitored and cared for by the Pope and the Christians of Rome. It was a high honor and serious responsibility to be one of the gravediggers or custodians, because Christian funerals were a solemn and important manifestation of their belief in heaven. Callistus, after being in and out of prison for years due to false accusations of financial mismanagement, was put in charge of the catacombs on the Appian Way that still bear his name. Later, he became Pope, and staunchly defended true doctrine and prudent discipline against extremists of every stripe.
You may be interested in hearing Julian the Apostate’s thoughts on the solemnity of Christian burial practices, and how the faith that they embodied won people over to the Church (Julian was a fourth-century Christian emperor who abjured the faith and tried to reinstate paganism). In a letter to a pagan priest, he identified three things used by the Christian religion to attract new adherents: “Their kindness and charity to strangers, their care of the burial of their dead, and the dignity of their carriage.”
So you see, we need not be ashamed of our belief in heaven (and hell). Both reason and history support it.