Did the Virgin Mary Die or Fall Asleep before Her Assumption? Is Mary in Heaven Today?

Paul Tambrino, EdD, PhD

Ask Augustine with Dr. Paul Tambrino


Ask Augustine is a weekly column where professor/author Dr. Paul Tambrino discusses various theological questions with wit, clarity and substance.

Question #34 – Did the Virgin Mary Die or Fall Asleep before Her Assumption? Is Mary in Heaven Today?

This question is a frequent source of debate. From the earliest Christian traditions surrounding Mary’s Assumption, the answer to the question of whether the Virgin Mary died, as all do, has been yes.

Misunderstanding regarding the end of Mary’s life comes from a fourth-century Greek document (the earliest extant written document describing the end of Mary’s life) whose title is commonly rendered as “The Account of St. John the Theologian of the Dormition (the falling asleep) of the Holy Mother of God.”“From the earliest Christian traditions surrounding Mary’s Assumption, the answer to the question of whether the Virgin Mary died, as all do, has been yes.”

Therefore, some conclude this is a reference to Mary having “fallen asleep” rather than dying.

The earliest Latin version of the story of the Assumption, was written a couple of centuries later.

It differs in certain details, but agrees that Mary died and Christ received her soul.  It states that the apostles entombed her body and that her body was taken up into Heaven from the tomb.

The Virgin Mary, according to these traditions, died naturally, and her soul was reunited with her body at the Assumption. These documents teach that Mary’s body remained incorrupt between her death and her Assumption.

Pope Pius XII, in his Munificentissimus Deus, (his apostolic constitution on November 1, 1950), defining the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, which cited ancient liturgical texts from both East and West, as well as the writings of the Church Fathers indicates that the “Blessed Virgin had died before her body was assumed into Heaven.”

Also, that Mary died before being assumed is clearly stated in paragraph 22 of the Pope’s 1950 declaration.

However, some poorly educated Catholics and other Christians believe that Mary did not die before being assumed.

Probably they misinterpreted, or heard others misinterpret paragraph 44 of that same declaration, in which Pius XII wrote, “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”

Obviously, when the Pope, or theologians, write, that “Jesus completed His earthly life upon the cross” they are not implying that Christ did not die.“However, some poorly educated Catholics and other Christians believe that Mary did not die before being assumed.”

So when the Pope wrote that Mary “having completed the course of her earthly life” he was not implying that Mary did not die.

This then begs another common question, is Mary in heaven? Let’s look at some facts…

Mary appears frequently in the New Testament. She was at the center of things in the crucial moments of Jesus’ life; at His: conception, birth, presentation at the temple, return to the temple at age 12, first public miracle, death upon the cross, and giving of the Holy Spirit.

As a result, R. C. Sproul and many Protestants hold that Mary was the first person to have a personal knowledge of Jesus, and thus is probably the first “Christian.”

In her Magnificat, Mary put her confidence and trust in the child Jesus who was about to begin growing in her womb.

Therefore, Protestants in holding that we are saved by faith, believe that Mary’s eternal home is with her Son, her Lord and her Savior.“Many Protestants hold that Mary was the first person to have a personal knowledge of Jesus, and thus is probably the first Christian.”

Mary’s election was a means by which the eternal election of the Son of God was historically realized.

Although Protestants believe our works have no role in our justification, we believe our works illustrate our faith, contribute to our sanctification and thus to our glorification.

Protestants believe there are degrees of rewards in Heaven; as well as degrees of punishment in Hell.

Therefore, since no one can equal Mary’s great works (including, but not limited to being God’s chosen vessel) Protestants would (or should) reasonably conclude she has been given the highest of all heavenly rewards; but without applying to her any specific heavenly titles or attributes.

Protestants absolutely believe that Mary is in heaven, but Protestants will contend that Mary’s Assumption and none of the above mentioned documents, bear the weight of Scripture.“Most Protestants do not know Mary as well as they think they do.”

That said, too often my fellow Protestants fail to realize Mary’s importance beyond that of just being another person in a Nativity set or on a Christmas card.

Most Protestants do not know Mary as well as they think they do.

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Image Credit

J.P. Filedt Kok, 2010, ‘Meester van de Amsterdamse Dood van Maria, The Death of the Virgin, Northern Netherlands, c. 1500 – 1500′, in J.P. Filedt Kok (ed.), Early Netherlandish Paintings, online coll. cat. Amsterdam. The Rijksmuseum.

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