Imagine a young Catholic teenager taking a religious history class in a non-Catholic Christian high school. At some point during class discussion the topic of Mary is brought up. After some time, the teacher wants to move on so he ends the discussion saying, “The idea of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is just a Catholic myth.”
In prudence the student decides not to say anything. He does, however, want to address his concerns with the teacher’s comment at some point. What can he say? Why do we, as Catholics, believe in the Assumption of Mary? Is there evidence this is more than a pious ‘myth?’
This scenario was presented to me by the concerned parent of the teenager, and I was asked for advice as to what their son could say to this teacher. The following is a fictional conversation between me and the non-Catholic teacher. It is my hope this will be beneficial to the student and his parents, as well as to other readers who may encounter such a statement from Protestant acquaintances.
In this fictional conversation I’ve anticipated challenges to this Marian dogma based on various conversations with non-Catholics I have had in the past. Though space prevents me from covering all of the potential rebuttals, some of the more common challenges are countered.
Initiating the Dialogue
Me: Why do you claim that the Catholic doctrine of the Assumption of Mary is simply a myth?
Teacher: It is not in the Bible. If there is no biblical evidence that it is true, I have no reason to believe it.
Me: Well, do you agree that Paul of Tarsus was beheaded in Rome as a martyr for the Christian faith?
Teacher: Yes, of course.
Me: But Paul’s death is not in the Bible. So why is that, too, not just a myth or a legend? Why do you accept the historical tradition of Paul’s last moments on earth but reject the historical tradition regarding the Virgin Mary? How is this not simply picking and choosing which traditions you accept and reject?
Teacher: I am not picking and choosing. There is no evidence early Christians believed in the Assumption.
Invented Legend or Authentic Tradition?
Me: If I could show you the teaching of Mary’s Assumption was believed by early Christians in the early centuries of the Church, would you accept it as true?
Teacher: No. It is simply not biblical. Even if some Christians believed it, that does not make it true. At some point, this idea was invented because of the excessive Roman Catholic reverence for Mary.
Me: While I would agree that the Assumption of Mary is not explicitly revealed in Scripture, I do think it is implicitly taught. But just as we both accept Paul and Peter were martyred in Rome as factual, even though this is only known from extra-biblical sources, as Catholics we hold there are many other significant historical realities that occurred but are not found in the Bible. The assumption of Mary is one example.
The belief in the Assumption, as well as many others, may not be known using the Bible alone but they are found in the longstanding traditions of Christianity. Certain truths were revealed by Christ and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles and have been faithfully handed down to us today through the Church. Catholics hold these traditional teachings to be divinely revealed truths. And we are supported by Paul himself who exhorts Christians to stand firm and hold fast to the traditions taught both in writing and handed down orally by those in authority in the Church (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Teacher: But this notion of Mary, a human being like us, going up into heaven is viewing her as if she is a god.
Ascension versus Assumption
Me: I think you may be confusing ascension into heaven with assumption. As Catholics, we hold that only Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, just as you do. When we use the term ascension, it is referring to one going up into heaven by His own power. Only Jesus who is God could do that. But Mary was a human being, just like us. We absolutely reject any notion that Mary was a god. However, we do hold that God took Mary into heaven body and soul at the end of her earthly life. This is what we mean by the term assumption. It was an event that occurred by God’s power. Mary’s role was passive.
And Mary’s assumption into heaven, though rare and incredibly miraculous, was not a unique event. Both Enoch and Elijah were assumed into heaven as Scripture tells us (Genesis 5:24; Hebrews 11:5; 2 Kings 2:11). So if the assumption of Mary occurred as Catholics believe, there is a biblical precedent for God choosing to act in this way.
Is There Any Biblical Evidence?
Teacher: But Scripture clearly tells us about Enoch and Elijah. Why does the Bible not tell us about Mary if this truly did happen?
Me: As Catholics, we hold that everything in the Bible is inspired by God without error, and everything written is what God wanted written – nothing more and nothing less. We also recognize the Assumption of Mary is not clearly stated in the Bible. It is, however, revealed through Sacred Tradition.
So why did God not explicitly include this event in his written word? I do not know the answer to this. But not understanding does not shake my faith. I strongly believe this teaching comes from a divine authority – Christ’s Church. And I also know that in this life, there will be many unanswered questions since God’s ways are not our ways.
But consider this. We know from the Bible that Mary was with Jesus in his last moments on the cross. Jesus entrusted her into the care of the Apostle John. We see Mary again at Pentecost. Then the Bible is silent about her. Where did she live? What did she do? She would have been an incredible witness to her Son’s divinity. But even though there seems to be Biblical silence about her life, this does not mean nothing significant occurred. Would you agree?
Teacher: I agree not every miracle in biblical times was recorded in the Bible, just as not every detail of the lives of well-known Christians like Mary were written down. But something as miraculous as Mary’s Assumption should have somehow found its way into the Bible if it is something we are to believe.
Me: Well, I do believe there is evidence in the Bible. It is just implicit.
The Biblical Evidence
First, when we consider Mary’s life after Pentecost, even though the bible is mute about her last days, we can infer the Apostle John was faithful to our Lord’s request and cared for Mary until the end of her earthly life. Knowing how much John loved our Lord, he would have loved Mary, Jesus’ mother, tremendously. So if anyone were to make any references to what happened to Mary, we should not be surprised if we found John doing this.
As Catholics we believe John gives us some clues about what happened to Mary in the last book he wrote.
Mary Queen of Heaven
In Revelation, John writes about a vision of heaven he experienced. If we read the end of chapter 11 and the beginning of chapter 12, we find an important description of the first thing John sees as heaven opens. John tells us he sees the ark of God’s covenant (11:19). Since we might think he was referring to the golden box made by Moses, John describes the ark. And what he describes is not a thing but a woman.
John says the woman is radiant and the moon is at her feet. She is a queen with a crown. She then gives birth to a male child who, by the description, is clearly Jesus. Then in this context, we can ask ourselves about the identity of the woman. While there are aspects of her that could represent the Church or Israel, there are also strong reasons to hold this woman must be the mother of Jesus – the Virgin Mary (12:1-6). And how is it John sees Mary in heaven? John vividly describes her physical body in glory, and this is consistent with our Catholic belief of Mary’s assumption. God took Mary into heaven body and soul.
Teacher: That just seems to be a stretch. I do not agree that the woman in Revelation is Mary. But even if I give you that, it does not make sense. Why God would assume Mary into heaven? Enoch had faith and pleased God. Elijah was a great and holy prophet. Mary was a poor, simple girl, and while she was chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus, it seems to me this idea of her assumption is just another way to keep her on a pedestal to justify the honor Catholics give her.
Why Not Mary?
Me: But Mary was faithful and obedient to God. She loved Jesus as we do but also in a uniquely profound way – with the love of a mother. And because she was such a great witness of faith, true charity and docility throughout her life, it is prophesied that all generations would always give her the greatest honor (Luke 1:38, 45, 48). Understanding these truths about Mary, it is not any more difficult for me to believe that Mary was taken into heaven just as God took Enoch.
While it is true not everyone with great faith has been assumed into heaven, it seems fitting that God would choose to assume Mary. Not only was she a model disciple but she was the mother of Jesus – the Incarnate God. God the Son would have loved and honored her in a special way. What a wonderful way for God to demonstrate his love by taking his mother Mary into heaven body and soul to prevent her from experiencing bodily corruption. And what son would not gladly desire this incredible gift for his own mother if it were possible?
But we should also remember that God has promised on the Last Day, all will experience a bodily resurrection. The bodies of all the righteous will be glorified. By giving Mary this gift in advance, God reminds us of the promise he makes to us and this gives us great hope.
Teacher: I am not really convinced as this all seems like weak evidence. And you have not said anything to make me believe this is not simply a myth invented by the popes. It seems if the early Christians knew about this, they would have believed it and there would be evidence for it.
The Negative Evidence – Absence of Relics
Me: There is evidence the early Christians believed in the Assumption of Mary. One of the strongest proofs to me is the question of her relics.
First of all, it’s well-known the early Christians had great reverence for the relics of the faithful departed. There is abundant evidence that veneration of relics was an accepted and widespread practice by the middle of the second century.
A document called The Martyrdom of Polycarp, from around AD 155, gives us an account of a holy and pious bishop, held in high esteem by the Christians, who was killed for the faith. This document describes how immediately following his death, the Christians gathered his bodily relics. It also reveals this Christian practice was well-known even to the non-Christians.
In addition to guarding and honoring relics, the early Christians had great respect for the holy men and women who had died. They even marked their burial sites when possible. Once Christian persecutions ended in the fourth century, many churches were built over the tombs of these Saints to house these relics. These churches and shrines became pilgrimage sites where people could honor their Christian heroes. This practice has continued since.
But knowing how widespread the veneration of relics has always been in the Church, it is significant that throughout the past 2,000 years, no Christian has ever claimed to have any bodily relics of the Virgin Mary. Archaeologists have found tombs for Mary in Ephesus and Jerusalem, but no evidence that either tomb was ever used. And neither city has ever claimed to have any bodily relics.
Mary – Conceived Without Sin
Despite a strong devotion to Mary among Christians in the early Church, it is shocking there is an absence of relics. If the Catholic belief of Mary’s Assumption is false and Mary’s body remained on earth decaying in a grave, you would expect to find at least someone claiming to have possession of her bodily remains. And this would have been potentially very lucrative as such relics would have drawn huge numbers of pilgrims to that city. But this is not the case. This claim has never been made.
For me this is incredibly powerful evidence in favor of Mary’s Assumption. There are no relics of her body because God took her into heaven body and soul. This truth was known even by the early Christians.
Documented Evidence From the Early Church
Earlier I mentioned I would show you some evidence that the belief in the Assumption of Mary was something believed by the early Christians. The absence of relics is strong testimony to me. Allow me to show you some documents to corroborate this claim.
As early as the third and fourth centuries, we find various books very popular among the laity. Their authors are unknown and they were not held as inspired. But these are important because they tell us about various well-known pious traditions.
Some of these books give accounts of Mary’s life and death, including her Assumption into heaven. As examples, there was the Liber Requeie Mariae (The Book of Mary’s Repose), there were the Six Books Dormition Narratives, the De Obitu S. Dominae and the De Transitu Virginis. The Church was well aware of these books. Eventually she declared some of the contents of these books to be erroneous. However, there was never any condemnation made regarding the belief in Mary’s Assumption. And this claim is clearly made in the third and fourth centuries.
We also have early Church Fathers such as Gregory of Tours, John of Damascus and Modestus of Jerusalem writing about the truths of Mary’s Assumption beginning in the 500’s. We see widespread liturgical celebrations of Mary’s Assumption firmly established by the 600’s in the East and by the 800’s in the West. And while there were a handful of Christians who raised doubts about the Assumption in the 700’s-800’s, there is never any documented condemnation or outright rejection of the belief in the Assumption of Mary. The first rejection of the Assumption by a Christian doesn’t occur until the Reformation in the 1500’s. It was only then that this belief was outright denied.
So for me, there are many reasons to believe in the Assumption of Mary. Belief in the Assumption is not contrary to the Bible. We can find implicit evidence in John’s writings to support it. There is documented evidence those in the early centuries did believe in Mary’s Assumption. And no city or church has ever claimed to possess relics of Mary’s body despite the widespread practice of venerating relics among the earliest Christians. In this context, it seems to me the claim that the Assumption of Mary as ‘merely a Catholic myth’ is not only unfair, it is an unsubstantiated claim as well.