"Big Four" Highlights


Life After Death Explained

Catholic author tells us what to expect and how to prepare

Catholics don’t hear many homilies about what happens after death, and a lot of crazy theories have popped up to replace the truths of judgment, heaven, hell and purgatory. To set the record straight, James Papandrea has written a brief and readable guide, What Really Happens After We Die (Sophia). We asked the author three simple questions.

Book cover for What Really Happens after Death

How do we teach the truth about life after death in today’s terms?

Papandrea: The first thing we can do is call out the pagan and even occult influences that try to sway popular culture toward gnostic or pagan assumptions. All notions of people becoming angels or friendly ghosts, and all practices of communicating with the dead in any way that implies they will provide information or power – seances, tarot cards, astrology, etc. – should be called out as false and misleading. Even science fiction stories that imply that the human person can be reduced to a mind that could be stored in a computer or transferred from one body to another should be called out as false. Not that we can’t enjoy science fiction, but we should use it to teach what we know to be true and what the Church really teaches, by pointing out the contrast with popular assumptions.

We should also call out the implied motivations behind these false assumptions. For example, the idea that we can be reincarnated, or that our minds can be transferred into new bodies, all come from a vague hope that a person can ignore God in this life and get another chance in a next life. All these things distract us from focusing on God and things that tempt us to believe we can have some version of salvation without Jesus Christ.

The Church has clear teachings on the subject, and if we don’t talk about them enough it’s probably because it’s not politically correct to say that salvation through Jesus Christ and his Church is normative for humanity. In other words, if you believe, as Jesus taught, that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one comes to the Father but through him (Jn 14:6), it’s going to be difficult to say that in a public secular conversation without being labeled as narrow-minded. But as it is with many things, if we preach the faith by our lifestyle – in this case by actively engaging in the corporal works of mercy – and if we make it clear to all who will listen that we do it because the human body is an essential part of every person, and that God intends to redeem us as whole people, bodies included, that would get the conversation started. 

Some in the Church say today that heaven is not ‘a place’. But how would you explain that in heaven there are bodies of Jesus and Mary?

Papandrea: When people say that heaven is not a place, they mean that it is not a place within the three-dimensional universe that we know. You can’t get into a rocket ship and fly there. But here is where science fiction might help us, if we think of heaven as another universe, or another dimension. The Kingdom of Heaven is a place, in the sense that we will go there, and exist there with our resurrected bodies in a created environment. Heaven is still part of creation, since everything that is not God himself is created, but it is outside of time as we know it. Yet it does have space and dimension, since the resurrected body will have mass and dimension. And so bodies can exist there, and the resurrected body will be the individual’s interface with the environment and with other people, just as it is now. And in fact, there will be more than just God there to interact with – there will be things to do – all centered around the worship of God – and things to enjoy, and people to interact with. Heaven will not be boring! And as you say, both Jesus and Mary exist there already in their resurrected bodies.

Always remember that to reduce the afterlife to something that is spiritual only is to reduce it to something that is disembodied. That would be what we call docetic or gnostic, and it would be an implicit rejection of the Incarnation, in which Jesus took on a human body, so that our human bodies can be redeemed.

How should a father explain to his kids what happened to their beloved grandma?

Papandrea: First, I would focus on the idea of heaven as a reunion, and even as a party. Start by telling your child that Jesus taught that heaven is like a big party. Then, if possible, you might ask the child to think back to happy memories with the loved one who has passed on. Was it at Christmastime or Thanksgiving? Heaven will be like that, but never having to lose a loved one again. Grandma has gone on to the party ahead of us, but when we get there, we will see her again. Also remember that young children cannot do much abstract reasoning, so you have to avoid metaphors or analogies. You need to be as concrete as possible, and as literal as possible, and not venture into anything that requires them to connect the dots in their heads. And it’s perfectly okay to say that there is a lot we don’t know about heaven, but what we do know is that everyone who was sick will be healthy forever. Everyone who was sad will be happy forever. Those who were mad at each other will love each other again. And all of our questions will be answered when we are ready to join the party.

For more information, visit Sophia Institute Press.