The Assumption of Mary
The “Assumption of Mary” is one of Catholicism’s newest dogmas. Proclaimed by Pope Pius XII in 1950, in the papal bull Munificentissimus Deus, it is one of the most ambiguous, changeable, and confusing teachings of Catholicism. In fact, nobody can say exactly what Mary’s condition or circumstances were prior to her “assumption.” Soon after the introduction of this new doctrine, serious disagreement arose between Mariologists and Pius XII over whether or not Mary died, was resurrected, and then ascended to heaven, or simply ascended to heaven without dying. In spite of the Catholic claim that the pope speaks with “infallibility,” there is not yet consensus concerning the details of this dogma. Therefore, its advocates have taken the liberty of adjusting the details to better fit their developing ideas and traditions, and to make it more attractive to believers.
Although you may find many versions of Mary’s alleged assumption into heaven, one common idea, supported by Catholic tradition, is represented by the following description:
One day, when Mary, according to her custom, had gone to “the holy tomb of our Lord” to burn incense and pray, the archangel Gabriel announces her approaching death, and informs her that, in answer to her request, she shall “go to the heavenly places to her Son, into the true and everlasting life.” On her return home she prays, and all the Apostles—those who are already dead and those still alive—are gathered to her bedside at Bethlehem.... [T]he Apostles, carrying the couch on which “the Lady, the mother of God,” lay, are borne on a cloud to Jerusalem. Here Christ appears to her, and in answer to her request, declares: “Rejoice and be glad, for all grace is given to thee by My Father in heaven, and by Me, and by the Holy Ghost....” Then, while the Apostles sing a hymn, Mary falls asleep. She is laid in a tomb in Gethsemane; for three days an angel-choir is heard glorifying God, and when they are silent, all know that “her spotless and precious body has been transferred to Paradise” (Hastings, 1906, 1:683).
Many Catholics believe that Mary died before going to heaven (see “Did Mary Die?,” 1997, p. 11), but others consider her death an open question (see Mischewski, 2005). They have advocated that
Concerning Mary’s death the dogma is non-committal. It only says: “when the course of her earthly life was completed.”... As it stands now both opinions are acceptable and accepted: Mary’s death, resurrection and glorification as well as glorification at the end of her life without death (Roten, 2006, emp. added).
This doctrine is so “flexible” that it can work either way. However, this produces a dilemma since it is said that
the Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, clearly and repeatedly refers to the death of the Virgin Mary. In no less than seven separate paragraphs this Apostolic Constitution refers, in one way or another, to the death of the Virgin Mary (Conte, 2006).
It is interesting that, according to some Catholics, the declaration of a supposedly infallible pope can be interpreted in two completely opposite ways. So, who has the final word concerning this and other Catholic topics? Who can say, with any degree of confidence, what one should believe?
The very fact that interpretations of this doctrine are so “flexible” makes it unreliable and incredible. In contrast, the Bible is very clear about those who left behind their earthly existence without experiencing death. Enoch “was taken away so that he did not see death” (Hebrews 11:5; cf. Genesis 5:24). Of Elijah, the Bible says that a “chariot of fire” took him without him seeing death (2 Kings 2:11). Equally clear details are given about Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Acts 1:9). There is neither ambiguity nor the slightest hint that these historical facts are open to various interpretations.
A second reason why we should reject this Catholic dogma is its opposition to statements of Christ Himself. Speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus said: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man” (John 3:13, emp. added). This includes everyone who has died, as well as those who were taken by the Lord and did not taste death. Again, Jesus taught that those who die go to a place called hades—a place of waiting for the Final Judgment (Revelation 20:13-15) that is independent from heaven and hell (Luke 16:19-23). In John 14:3, Jesus promised His disciples, “And if I go [to heaven] and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” When the time comes for His return, Jesus will keep His promise and open the doors of heaven for all those who have obeyed Him (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). But, since He has not yet returned, we conclude from the Scriptures that none of His disciples have been taken to heaven, not even Mary.
A third reason why we should reject the dogma of Mary’s assumption is its opposition to other related biblical doctrines. Concerning the Second Coming of Christ, Paul wrote that the resurrection of the dead will occur “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52, emp. added). In contrast, the doctrine of Mary’s assumption into heaven implies that she has already undergone a transformation of her body into a glorious state. It should be obvious that it is impossible to reconcile the Catholic tradition of Mary’s assumption with the biblical doctrine of resurrection.
A fourth reason to reject this doctrine is that the New Testament does not record the ascension of Mary. Some Catholics have proposed that it is implied by the Bible since Mary’s death is not recorded. This reasoning fails to acknowledge that the Bible does not record the deaths of many people, including John, Mark, Paul, and even Pilate. Does this mean that these people (and many others whose deaths are not recorded in the Bible) ascended to heaven? To argue in this way is to argue from the silence of Scripture. To establish a historical, biblical truth, we should turn our attention from what the Bible writers did not record, to what they did record.
By the time the New Testament books were written, the alleged Assumption of Mary would have occurred. However, not one New Testament writer gives even a hint of this event’s occurrence. If this doctrine is so important (as Catholicism claims), why was it excluded from the New Testament? If Jesus promised that the apostles were going to be guided into all truth and were going to declare all of the truth of God (John 16:13), why did they not record this “significant truth” about Mary? If the Bible records the “ascensions” of Enoch and Elijah, why does it not also record Mary’s? The simple answer is that the “Assumption of Mary” never occurred; it was created by minds focused on traditions, not truth.
The papal bull of 1950 further declared that “if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined [the “Assumption of Mary”—MP], let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith” (Munificentissimus Deus, 45, emp. added). But if this dogma is so important—to the point that those who do not believe it are condemned—how do Catholic clergy and theologians explain the fact that most mainstream Catholics lived for approximately 1,400 years in ignorance of this dogma? Were the Catholics, including the popes, who lived before its declaration by Pius XII (1950), saved in their ignorance of the “Assumption”? If they did not need this “truth” for salvation prior to 1950, why do they need it now?
There is no doubt that Mary was a special woman, but just like every other human being, she lived in a world regulated by an established principle that affects all of us: “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27, emp. added). Mary, at the end of her earthly journey, crossed the path from life to death and met all those who “sleep” in Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). Like them, and us, she is waiting for the Final Judgment, when the doors of heaven will open for all those who have done the will of the Father (Matthew 25:31-46).
Conte, Ronald L. (2006), “A Summary of the Doctrine of the Dormition,” [On-line], URL: http://www.catholicplanet.com/CMA/dormition-summary.htm.
Hastings, James, ed. (1906), A Dictionary of Christ and the Apostles (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons).
Mischewski, Dean (2005), “The Assumption of Mary into Heaven,” [On-line], URL: http://homepages.paradise.net.nz/mischedj/ct_assumption.html.
“Did Mary Die?” (1997), Catholic News, August 13, [On-line], URL: http://www.catholic.org.sg/cn/wordpress/?p=1791&page=1.
Munificentissimus Deus (1950), [On-line], URL: http://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/P12MUNIF.HTM.
Roten, Johann (2006), “What about Mary’s Death?,” [On-line], URL: http://www.catholicweb.com/media_index.cfm?fuseaction=view_article&partnerid=48&article_id=2768.