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Yes, an atheist can die and then get to heaven

September 29, 2013

Pope Francis caused a bit of a stir when he suggested that even atheists can get to heaven. The media went crazy. Surely they didn’t think the Pope wasn’t a Catholic?       (Err…. it’s straightforward Catholic teaching, by the way…. )

Readings: Amos 6: 1, 4-7           1 Timothy 6: 11-16                Luke 9: 16-30

[You can listen to this homily at ]


This weekend we remember it’s Harvest time, so the hymns we are singing reflect our thanks for God’s creation; and under the altar there are symbols of the harvest – bread and grapes – a reminder that everything we have is a gift from God.

Remembering and thanking God are central to today’s readings. They tell us that the way we achieve our ambition of getting to heaven can be simply summed up as ‘Honour God by having a simple lifestyle and helping the needy.’

If we foolishly choose to neglect or reject God’s message we are told in no uncertain terms today that we do so at our own peril.

So what happens to those people who choose to ignore God’s message in this life? Are they destined for annihilation after they die?

To start to answer these questions we need to realise that the Jews who were not as confident about the prospect of life after death as are we Christians. They believed that when they died they would go to Sheol.

Sheol was seen as a very long way from their God in heaven, and it was completely separated from heaven. The Jews believed that the dead were doomed to be trapped forever in Sheol in a kind of suspended animation. So one of the thing that would have been new to His listeners was that Jesus was teaching that it was possible for a human being to get to heaven; but that those not ready for heaven could still find themselves in Sheol. That’s what Abraham means when he says, “a great gulf has been fixed” between Lazarus, who is in heaven with the saints, and the selfish rich man who is isolated and helpless, trapped in Sheol.

Through His passion and death Our Lord was to go on to completely change this Jewish understanding of death. Now, we Christians know that when Jesus chose to sacrifice His own life, He defeated evil, breaking the hold that death had over humanity. And as a result Sheol was changed. By overcoming death, the countless souls were no longer helplessly trapped in Sheol for ever more. They could move on, through spiritual cleansing, given the opportunity of freedom by Jesus. It was during the three days after the Crucifixion that Our Lord ‘descended to the dead’, as we proclaim in the Apostles Creed [1] –  he went to Sheol to break its people free and open up to them the prospect of reaching heaven.

In the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Jesus is describing two people from very different backgrounds, one in heaven and one trapped in Sheol. But why does the rich Man seems to be having a harder time of it?

Let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being wealthy. Whether they are rich or poor, it’s how people use what they have that has the biggest consequences for them.

The key to this story is the bad attitude the Rich Man had towards God. And where did that bad attitude come from? He was corrupted by his great wealth. He forgot about God and led an immoral, wasteful life. Jesus warns us that ignoring the needy is immoral because it is ignoring God’s commandments to help the poor.

Sheol is often translated into our English word ‘hell’. That carries with it all sorts of mediaeval images of eternal punishment, fire and torture. But the Catholic explanation of hell we use today is that it is not so much a place as a spiritual state. It remains, nevertheless, a horrible, frightening condition – being separated from God through our own stupid arrogance.


But surely God is merciful? Surely, if someone has spent their life putting off God, surely when they die and see that there is indeed life after death, surely that person will realise the error of their ways and ask for God’s forgiveness?


Yes, God forgiveness is always there for us.


But there could be a problem. What if a person is too arrogant to even recognise their sins or too proud to receive forgiveness? Or what if that person, although forgiven, wants to make up for their past sins?


A big problem could be that for someone who has spent their life ignoring God, why should they think any differently after dying? The real danger is that because of their ingrained attitude towards God they will continue to deny God. Continue to keep themselves distant from God. They will still be in a spiritual desert.


You can see precisely this in the behaviour and attitudes of the Rich Man in Sheol. He shouts to Abraham. He wants Lazarus to be ordered to run an errand for him. So the bad attitude is still there. Self-centred, ordering people about.


To be fair, the Rich Man is beginning to mellow a bit. In his self-inflicted misery in Sheol he doesn’t ask for a large glass of the fine wine. A drop of water will do. He’s beginning to explore the virtue of humility. And there are also the first signs that he is beginning to show some care for other people. He starts with those closest to him, his own brothers.


But then, still, the bad attitude is there again – he wants Lazarus to be sent on another errand back to warn his brother that there is indeed life after death and they need to mend their greedy, selfish ways. Abraham tells him that it would be a waste of time. What would happen if Lazarus went back? He would be treated with contempt.


Can you see what Jesus is telling us in this story? That after death there is a process of self-reflection; a process of coming to a recognition of our sins; a process of reconciliation with others. This is what we call purgation – a driving out of sin. Purgatory. It is the reason we can pray for the dead, to help them spiritually as they go through this purifying process, to make them completely fit to be in the presence of God in heaven.


For some, purgatory will a big, big task. For others, who have led good faithful lives, they will be well on the way, developing good attitudes towards God, developing a personal relationship with God that honours Him through worship, thanksgiving and good works. AND GOOD WORKS! And what does this mean to us, here today, what are good works? Well, we have a couple of parishioners asking for sponsorship to run a half marathon for charity. That ‘good works’. And if your circumstances are different, if you are older, or perhaps have a very busy work schedule, you might just give someone a supportive phone call. Like someone who phoned a young woman who was distraught and abandoned after her married boyfriend got her pregnant and told her to have an abortion. It was Pope Francis who phoned that lady recently (and he offered to baptise her baby). That’s good works.


This is the challenge for us so-called ‘practising Christians’ that we hear in today’s readings. To take our harvest thanksgiving out from church and to put it into practice in the world out there, beyond the church gates where the poor and needy are to be found. For it is by serving our neighbours we can change the bad attitudes we may have towards others and in the process improve our attitude towards God, making us fit for heaven.

[1] See CCC 631

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