It isn’t every afternoon at Gordon College that a group of students gather in the Ken Olsen Science Center to discuss what happens to humans when we die. But for Carol Zaleski, a professor of world religions at Smith College, discussing purgatory, hell and heaven are a normal part of her academic life. Professor Zaleski came to campus yesterday as part of the Faith Seeking Understanding (FSU) lecture series and delivered a talk on “The World to Come: The Afterlife in Christian Thought.” The FSU lecture series seeks to expose students to a broad array of Christian thinking, often encouraging them to consider important questions and issues from the perspectives of various traditions within the historical Church.
Zaleski's lecture centered around four major problems Christians run into when thinking about the afterlife. The first was “immortality—Christians shouldn’t dwell on it.” The second, “heaven—our imagination can’t grasp it,” followed by “hell—love can’t bear it,” and finally, “purgatory—Christians don’t agree about it.” Drawing from C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein, Zaleski argued that thinking about immortality is not the same as thinking about extreme longevity—simply trying to avoid death for as long as possible. “It is wrong to speak about death as a serene transition,” Zaleski argued, “because it is a transformation. But it is also wrong to think of it as annihilation—there is a principle of continuity between this life and the next.”
Professor Zaleski focused the majority of her talk on introducing her audience to the concept of purgatory. “Purgatory can be thought of as the fire that purifies and liberates,” she said, reflecting Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 3. While not uncontroversial, Zaleski also suggested the audience think about how the idea of purgatory knits together communities in the common practices of praying on behalf of and caring for the deceased. She observed that in ancient and medieval Christian art, the image of the Resurrection was primarily that of Christ breaking down the doors of death and freeing Adam into new life. “I want to show images that will help us think about some of these questions,” Zaleski said as she clicked through slides of icons and paintings. “These images show us that Christ has conquered death by dying—that, in his words, ‘I did not create you to be a prisoner of Hell.’”
Professor Zaleski’s talk prompted audience questions about the nature of time and purgatory, how the Christian vision of the afterlife is different from other world religions, and if there is Christian teaching on the annihilation of souls rather than an eternal punishment in hell. Zaleski answered questions and posed her own. She smiled in response to an audience member wondering about the age of people in heaven, “That’s a great question; I think that’s an ongoing conversation, an ongoing topic of discussion among scholars.”
Zaleski certainly prompted reflection on new questions for the group gathered together yesterday. She concluded the session asking a question with us: “What does it mean when in the biblical text Jesus tells the thief on the cross, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’?” Everyone in the room left pondering, not only purgatory, but how thinking about these questions affects our daily walk as followers of Christ.
Story by Hillary Sherratt ’12, a Pike Scholar from Rowley, Massachusetts, and student writer for the Office of College Communications.
Image by Gregory Kroup (1909-1969), from Commonweal Magazine.