Once you’re dead, you’re dead

Peter Brown

For mainstream Protestant Christianity, once you’re dead, you’re dead, and the living don’t have anything to do with the dead, until a coming time when one way or another we will be with our loved ones again. With traditional Catholic theology the story is slightly different, and there is some interaction, let’s say, with the dead, mainly the saints. There is a sort of logical problem with saints interacting with us in ‘real time’, considering we are all supposed to be in the afterlife together, rather than the dead being there before us, hanging around until we arrive. But all this aside, a more porous view of the divide between the living and dead is one that saturated the early church, though Peter Brown points out in his new book The Ransom of the Soul that this view took some time to develop, and that for a while competing views coexisted within the church until they solidified into doctrines of what the living could do for the dead, and vice versa.

Saint Augustine responded to a myriad of questions about the afterlife, one of them being whether offerings for the dead actually worked. Augustine’s perhaps Augustinian answer was that they probably don’t but one can do it anyway for tradition’s sake. There is a practical sense buried somewhere here, as with his comment that we should be wary of the idea that dreams tell us of the afterlife (in opposition to those early theologians who thought dreams were something of a portal – or porthole – to the afterlife). Augustine also suggested, against some, that being buried next to a saint did nothing, except perhaps remind one (the relatives of the more recently buried one presumes) that the dead need praying for. And why, considering Protestant views of the futility of praying for the dead, should one do so? According to Augustine, because the dead are, like all of us, waiting for the resurrection. The time issues come into play here too, obviously. (Is heaven in our timezone?) (As Jacques Ellul points out, much of the talk of the Kingdom of God in the Bible is to, rather than make things clear, head off questions about something we can’t comprehend.)

Here, as in his previous book, Peter Brown is concerned with money and the early church, though he points out that the earlier book was about wealth in this life, but this one is about wealth in the afterlife, if that makes sense. He explores what exactly early Christians were thinking when they, for example, gave money to the poor. Augustine in particular targeted the rich, to convince them that giving money to the poor is more beneficial than using the money for circuses and the like. Store up treasure in heaven, in other words. Although this may seem natural for contemporary Christians, it took a while, as Christianity spread, for its counter-intuitive ideas to gain traction over the deeply embedded ideas of the classical world, which included a societal hierarchy. The rich were no longer automatically favoured.

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