As a youth minister in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I often fielded questions from young people about what happens after we die. Whether the youth came to me because a family member or friend died, or because he/she was simply pondering the meaning of life and life-after-death, the question was usually the same: will my loved one be in heaven when I get there? These days, in our national crisis of hatred and violence, the questions are more complicated and fear-driven than ever, but they are basically the same: what happens to people after they die?
As the mother of young children, it is easy to think that the right thing to say is, “Grandma is in heaven now,” or “Fluffy the Cat went to pet heaven.” And the things that we are compelled to say emotionally do not always line up with theological understandings that have been developed over time studying the Bible, the Church Fathers and Mothers, and more contemporary theologians. But the question of what happens after we die surpasses time, ethnicity, culture, and creed.
As Christians, our understanding is that something happens after we die; and as Episcopalians, The Book of Common Prayer asserts that “God will raise us from death in the fullness of our being, that we may live with Christ in the communion of saints.” For a biblical understanding of what happens after we die, we can look to 1 Corinthians, chapter 15; we find St. Paul’s apologetic for how we know that we have been raised with Christ: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ,” (1 Cor. 15:20-22). It is a necessary part of the equation: God became human to redeem humanity fully; therefore humanity will be fully redeemed when Jesus comes again.
It is easy for us to say to those who writhing in the pain of losing a loved one, “Fear not! They are in heaven with God!” However, when we do this, we buy into the idea that our bodies can be separated from our souls, hearts, minds. This was a very common theological argument in the Medieval period when the Roman church developed the idea of purgatory—a place where a soul went to be purified after death. After death a soul went to heaven to be with God, to the eternal fires of hell, or to purgatory to be purified.
The challenge for Christians in understanding the importance of the bodily resurrection lies not with the dead, but with those who remain alive. We who have lost people we love are seeking comfort in the wake of grief; we are the ones who want to know with full assurance that our loved ones are not simply dead, but that their faith has saved them, and their works through that faith will not go unnoticed. And so we look for the answer that makes us feel better about this loss, this death. We look for ways to be comforted right now.
The bodily resurrection is where our hope as Christians remains. Once again, The Book of Common Prayer answers the question of hope: “The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purposes for the world.” It is the hope of Christians to be faithful to God until the Second Coming of Christ, when he will “come to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end,” as the Nicene Creed states.
The most obvious way to understand what we, as Episcopalians, believe to be true of what happens after we die lies in the understanding of lex orandi, lex credendi—the law of prayer is the law of belief. When we look to our Prayer Book, when we understand how to pray in those moments of deepest sadness and deepest joy, we find all the answers that we are looking for. From the Committal in “Burial of the Dead: Rite Two”:
Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord; And let light perpetual shine upon him.
May his soul, and all the souls of the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
We rest in God’s peace and light until the day when Jesus Christ returns, “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever,” (1 Thess. 4:16-17).
Because we have died with him, we will be raised with him—all of us, not just our souls, hearts, minds; but our whole beings will be raised to meet Christ in all his glory at the last day. Because Jesus came down from heaven to be fully human, we will be raised in our fullness to be with him.
 BCP, 862.
 BCP, 861.
The Rev. Alina S. Williams is the Chaplain of the Upper School at Parish Episcopal School