Has a mystery been solved?
Whether it's Saint Paul describing a man going to the "third heaven," or near-death experiencers describing the immediate ascension into various heavenly realms -- or saints and others who have appeared in apparition to the living (or sent us "signs") after earthly death -- there is compelling evidence that immediately upon physical demise, the soul departs for its place in the afterworld. The Blessed Mother even once said this: the soul departs from the body.
Yet, we have this in the Creed: "And I believe in the resurrection of the body (dead)." The Old Roman version even used the expression "resurrection of the flesh," and the Athanasian Creed says "all men have to rise again with their bodies." Early Church fathers likewise taught that the flesh will be raised. This, many believe, will happen only after Christ returns at the time of time.
Until then, the soul is asleep, in sort of a coma or limbo, it would seem.
There is even the expression in prayers during Mass that mention those who have passed on and are "asleep" in the Lord.
While many in the early Church said the actual physical body ascends, the Catechism softens that, mentioning the parable of Lazarus (who along with the rich man was immediately in a place in the afterlife) as well as Jesus' promise to the thief that he would be "in paradise" that very day (not in a sleep state). The Catechism says that upon death, the faithful who have received Christ's Baptism "will be in Heaven, in the heavenly Kingdom and celestial paradise." It uses both terms: Heaven and paradise!
At other points, however, it uses those terms interchangeably.
After a universal judgment, teaches our Catechism, "the righteous will reign forever with Christ, glorified in body and soul." Perhaps Cyril of Jerusalem said it best when he intoned that "this body shall be raised, not remaining weak as it is now, but this same body shall be raised. By putting on incorruption, it shall be altered, as iron blending with fire becomes fire -- or rather, in a manner the Lord Who raises us knows." Said Saint Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2), "I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago-- whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows-- such a man was caught up to the third heaven." Even he wasn't sure.
In Scripture it's said when we die we are given just this: a "glorified" body. Is this the body of energy and luminosity -- of light, like a physical body but also unlike a physical body, for it is now immortal -- that we assume upon earthly death? How can both be right? How can we hear from deceased humans -- especially saints -- if at death we fall into a preternatural slumber? And how can the body resurrect, if it has -- for example -- been cremated?
Well, God can do anything, of course (as Saint Augustine, in discussing this issue, said). In a book called The Message -- about a Christian who alleged passed over to the other side a number of times while in a long coma -- is a possible answer to the additional question of: how it could be that so many describe paradise upon death and yet await entry into Heaven?
In the book, Lance Richardson of Idaho, who fell into a comatose state on Christmas Day, 1998, stated that during his extended journeys he was immediately in a glorious place, a dimension called "paradise," but that God is in "Heaven": a higher place that souls in paradise could not yet enter, and that it will be at the end of time that souls proceed from paradise to their final place in Heaven.
The colors were incredible, the joy was palpable, the air was filled with love and light -- with purity -- but, said Richardson, "though the abode was heavenly, it was a realm where spirits awaited their resurrections. Heaven was a place where God personally resided, a realm where resurrected beings could live." When he sought to confirm his beliefs to a soul there -- that he was not in Heaven itself -- the soul supposedly answered, "No, this is Paradise. It is a realm of absolute peace, a Zion, for those spirits who have lived righteous lives. You are right. God does not reside here. That is where Heaven is." In fact, a good number of those who have reported similar experiences have described seeing distant cities of light or sacred areas they were not allowed yet to enter.
And it comports with Scripture, the idea of different levels of "heaven." Meanwhile, the mention of Zion is in apparent agreement with the Catechism, which quotes the viaticum: "May you live in peace this day, may your home be with God in Zion."
Of course, those who are not righteous go elsewhere: hell or purgatory. Richardson mentioned the place for the unrighteous. But back to the good destinations:
Is "paradise" -- mentioned by Christ from the Cross -- perhaps the first "heaven"?
The Catechism says that indeed "each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith." It also says, "Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of Heaven -- through purification or immediately -- or immediate and everlasting damnation."
It all gets a bit dizzying. Is it a matter of semantics --"paradise" and "Heaven"? Are the different levels lumped together? Those who die in God's Grace, says the Church, and are perfectly purified, "live forever with Christ." No "sleeping" is mentioned.
We called another man who had a well-know near-death experience, James Wilbur Chauncey (author of Eyewitness To Heaven), and asked what he thought of it all. He told us that what Richardson (and thousands of others) have claimed happens at death is right in line what he understood from his experience way back a half century before, in the 1940s. Said Chauncey: "There's paradise and Heaven. The people are in paradise and don't go to Heaven until the Second Coming of Jesus. You get there later after you're married to Jesus, after things occur on earth. We're all married to Jesus after the resurrection. Then we move over across the river over to where Jesus is."
That seems to be seen as in line with what the Church teaches.
We'll go with what the Church says, knowing that we will all find out for sure one day.