Catholic News Service photo
Michelangelo presents image of Christ giving judgment at the second coming. The artist's "Last Judgment" covers the altar wall of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.
Catholic News Service photo
Michelangelo presents image of Christ giving judgment at the second coming. The artist's "Last Judgment" covers the altar wall of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.
A curious crowd packed a chapel and spilled into a hallway at a Northwest Portland synagogue on a mild February evening. They yearned to hear more about the afterlife.

A rabbi, a priest and a minister walked in and, no joke, shed light on the complex subject.

"When we die the soul doesn't simply merge with God and lose its identity," Msgr. Patrick Brennan told the rapt congregation, made up of Jews and Christians. "It retains its identity and uniqueness, but it is incomplete and only becomes complete when it is reunited with the body, because that is what God created."

Msgr. Brennan, pastor of St. Mary's Cathedral in Portland, appeared with Rabbi Michael Cahana of Congregation Beth Israel and the Rev. William Lupfer of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. The three convene each year to address theological topics from their unique perspectives. In past sessions, they have discussed ethics, art and sin.  

Msgr. Brennan explained the Christian notion of resurrection of the body. Like Judaism, he said, the earliest Christians did not think of a division between body and soul; that came later with Greek influence. According to the oldest tradition, the body and soul together make us a human person, Msgr. Brennan said. But the body that will be reunited with the soul at the end times is not the body we have now, but a "new creation." That line emitted some relieved laughs from listeners, many of whom were in their 60s and 70s.

"It's a completely new body, but it's you," the monsignor said, explaining that the Christian belief in a glorified body comes from what is know about the resurrected Jesus, who was himself, but also different.

Msgr. Brennan said Christians must be sure not to let their minds drift only to heaven, but must remember their responsibilities in the here and now. Life on earth is not a prelude, he told the crowd, but is the first part of a continuum that "begins at birth and continues into eternity."

He concluded that what makes sense to him, and what accords with Catholic teaching, is that heaven can be defined as a greater capacity to love, since it is unification with God, who is love.

"Heaven is loving as God loves," he said, "and that's loving with no strings attached."

Rabbi Cahana, speaking in the synagogue he leads, admitted that the afterlife is a difficult topic in the Jewish tradition. There are many strands of thought.  

"This is a subject Jews don't talk about a lot," the rabbi said. "Our focus in Judaism really is on this world now. What are we going to do to make this a better place? Not for future reward, but because it is good. We are following what God wants us to do."

But in a few places, scripture mentions Sheol, which seems to be a place where people go after death but are not aware. Still other texts make it seem that those who have died will have awareness with the arrival of the messianic age. The Book of Daniel, one of the latest texts in the Hebrew canon, clearly says that some who rest in the earth will wake to everlasting life while others will wake to doom. Then there are others who go to Gehenna and return to bliss, having been purified like metal plunged into a refiner's fire.   

Jews, unlike Christians, do not believe in an individual judgment at the time of death, but some hold to the idea of resurrection and judgment at the end times.

"It is not about belief, but really about repentance, recognizing your sin and changing the way you lead your life," Rabbi Cahana told the group.

It makes sense to the rabbi that, at the end, humans might just return to the purest form of God's image.

Rev. Lupfer said resurrection was viewed from different angles during the time when the New Testament was coming together. Those varied ideas affect modern understanding. For Mark, resurrection had to do with betrayal and forgiveness. For Like, it's the experience of Eucharist. For Matthew, resurrection is linked to making disciples of people once seen as ritually impure. For John, it seems to be associated with "living in the embrace of the beloved community," Rev. Lupfer said.

For Paul, he added, resurrection is the experience of losing the ego in the Body of Christ. In First Thessalonians, Paul speaks of the end times not just as judgement, but as coming back together. In Paul's understanding, God reconstitutes creation in Jesus, so that we become new selves, in Christ and with Christ in us.

"Resurrection is about God reclaiming creation," Rev. Lupfer said.

From all angles, resurrection and the afterlife seem to be shared, not individual.   

"It's not about me alone with sweet Jesus," he explained. "It's a communal experience."