Father Richard Barrett answers readers' questions
Having looked through the old Testament over the past year or so, I can find no reference to belief in the afterlife, except maybe implicitly in the book of Maccabees, which the Reformers don't accept in any case. Is the doctrine of the after-life something that was introduced by Jesus and therefore peculiar to the New Testament?
HOLLYWOOD HAS DEVOTED a raft of new films to the question of the after-life, notably in the struggle with internity featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, End of Days, and more sensitively and perhaps more profoundly in Bruce Willis's experiment with the sensitivity of the young to the departed in Sixth Sense.
But the laurels this year for the most graphic excursion into the after-life must go to Ridley Scott's epic Gladiator. In this movie the hero of the piece, Maximus, is ditched by Commodus, the unworthy son of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and ends up in a gladiatorial training camp. The story is punctuated not by the usual romps with shapely Roman babes but with intimate candle-lit shots of the hero at prayer. His veneration for the images of his ancestors and his family, his earnest appeal to his "Blessed Father" to vindicate him, his dedication to the hope of the after-life, all make this a very noble portrayal of the end of the pagan era and gives the modern audience some idea of the noble virtue Romans called pietas.
Everywhere we are treated with the dream of Rome, as inscribed on the
Colosseum. VI Roma radii its orbis terrae. The gladiators too are touched with immortality when they salute the crowds. moraturi vos salutant. Maximus's death in the arena where the camera cuts to visions of his wife and son in the wheaten fields of an arcadian summer somewhere in an idealised Elysium cannot fail to touch the average agnostic with the sheer simplicity and pathos of his faith that he will see them again and that with death, life is changed and not ended as we say in the Roman Mass of the Dead. The last words of the movie introduce us to the query, "I will see you again but not yet."
The conviction that we are not made for death is one that one does find in the Old Testament, but the vision of the after-life is gloomy and describes the half-life of the dead in Sheol. "1 said in the noontide of my days I must depart. for 1 am consigned to the gates of Sheol" (Is 38:10). It is only with the influence of Greek thought after the return from the Second Exile that the desire for and belief in an after-life or Elysium (the place of the blessed spirits) takes greater shape. Job of course expressed the hope of the Israelites, "I know my Redeemer lived] and in my flesh I shall see God," as we have it in Handel's Messiah. It is a tantalising hope but any more than that, it is hard to say at this point. It is really with the writing of the Septuagint that the Greek-speaking Jews begin to enflesh their hope and we find this expressed clearly, perhaps for the first time, in the Book of Wisdom (c.100BC). The matter is still uncertain, though, by the
time of Jesus and this explains the encounter with the Sadducees.
It is clear then that even in the lifetime of Jesus, belief in the after-life, or what used to be called immortality, had only recently won converts among the Jews. The Pharisees accepted it. The Sadducees found the idea distasteful but were corrected by Jesus when he was asked to respond to a question on the resurrection of the dead. His response must have been devastating at the time God is a God of the living not of the dead, referring to the ancestors of the Jewish race.
It seems to have taken time for the doctrine of the immortality of the soul to have reached maturity in synagogue Judaism. The Book of Maccabees is one of the deuterocanonical books (including Tobit, Judith, Esther, Wisdom, Ecelesiasticus, Baruch and Daniel) and is remarkable for its explicitation of this belief. Judas the Maccabean, a kind of Jewish equivalent of Maximus, sends monies to the Temple for holocausts to be offered by the priests for the souls of the troops who fell in battle. As the narrator comments, "this was an altogether fine and noble action which took full account of the resurrection" (II Macc 12:43). He goes on: "For if he had not expected the fallen to rise again it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead, whereas if he had in view the splendid recompense reserved for those who make a pious end, the thought was holy and devout" (11 Macc 12:45). No doubt here about the after-life. Of course there are some incomplete editions of our Bible which omit these books a legacy of Tippex reformers who did what no one since Marcion had done before. Consequently we can view the
Maccabeean text as an important indication that late Temple Judaism had explicitly recognised the after-life and the necessity of prayers for the souls of the departed. iic .. EEPING IN MIND the principle
of Hebrews, namely that seeds
f truth have been scattered in different times among different races, we can see now that the ancient world of Greece and Rome had this one right. As the last great representative of that tradition we have the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. They are a testament to a time when the Empire grew weary of its burdens and realised, as Chesterton has it in The Everlasting Man, that the great human endeavour to build a just kingdom on earth was foundering. In the dying embers of his life, Aurelius bequeaths us his meditations as the last prayer of that noble world -kind of torch burning brightly which is nicely described by Maximus in Gladiator: "I have seen many places and everywhere is darkness and cruelty Rome is the light."
He was referring to the law which went wherever the legions marched. Yet the ins gentiunt gave way to the lumen gentium, as articulated in that Roman masterpiece, the Easter Evullet: "What good would life have been to us/ had Christ not come as our Redeemer?" The Greek and Roman converts saw Christianity as the answer to a prayer for unending life. For where Marcus Aurelius and his world faltered and dropped the torch of human hope, that torch was picked up by the hand of a fisherman from Galilee. The Pax Romano ceded to the Pax Christiana in the very sands of the arena, on Vatican Hill where Peter's feet were hacked off and thrown to the beasts (obicere ad bestias). The new message was heard in Rome as the answer to pagan prayer the voice indeed of One from beyond the grave. Thus a natural prayer for immortality was answered by the winged feet of one who brought Good News out of an empty tomb.
Maybe Nero was right the Christians did set fire to Rome after all.