Who’s Right About the Afterlife?

Question: The MidEasterners believe when they die and go to heaven that for every man there will be 7 vestal virgins while the Christians believe that we will be re-united with our deceased loved ones. Someone has to be wrong. I don’t know if someone has to be right. A response please.

Consider that in the gospels Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a great pearl, a handful of yeast and a mustard seed. Does this mean that heaven is, literally, a mustard seed? Of course not. These metaphors help us look toward something that it is beyond what we can imagine. Our descriptions – whether of harp players in choir robes perched on fluffy white clouds (today’s popular conception) or of the sensual paradise detailed in some Muslim writings (to which your question alludes) – are products of the writers’ cultural and religious traditions. They are our best efforts to describe something so wonderful that it is beyond description. Metaphors will never do justice to what it really means to be united with God. Catholic teaching puts it in more abstract terms: heaven is “the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1024) and “the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1026), including loved ones who have gone before us. Abstract language sometimes needs to be fleshed out in vivid imagery that helps us picture what we are striving for. For further discussion, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1023-1029.

Neela Kale is a writer and catechetical minister based in the Archdiocese of Portland. She served with the Incarnate Word Missionaries in Mexico and earned a Master of Divinity at the Jesuit School of Theology. Some of her best theological reflection happens on two wheels as she rides her bike around the hills of western Oregon.