TALKING ABOUT LIFE AFTER DEATH
This could be the most important chapter in the book. One of the reasons why we do not talk about dying is that we are so unsure of what, if anything, comes after it. Doubt, confusion, fear – all fill our minds as we try to grapple with this question. Is there life after death? How can we know? How can we sort out all the ideas and beliefs that different people hold? Despair, at ever being able to find the answer, may lead us either to shrug our shoulders and give up trying, or to avoid asking the question in the first place. But if we have no hope that transcends death, then we will naturally be reluctant to think about it.
There is indeed such a vast range of ideas about life after death that we encounter today, that it seems very difficult to make any choice that is more than random, or wishful thinking.
To start with, whether we like it or not, we are all profoundly influenced by the scientific materialism of our Western world. Materialism denies the possibility of life after death at all: ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead.’
If God exists, then this is not true.
Most religions, on the other hand, which include a belief in God in one form or another, include some sort of belief in life or existence after death, though the nature of these beliefs varies widely.
The Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, believe in reincarnation. Some version of this belief has become quite common in the West, though usually in a somewhat crude and shallow form. The original idea was that souls have to ascend by degrees to a state of perfection, or reabsorption into the divine being. Each life that the soul lives in, during these different incarnations, is a step up or down this ladder of perfection, depending on how well or how badly we have lived in this present life. The aim of life is to reach the point at which the soul achieves enlightenment or liberation and, therefore, does not need to go on being reincarnated. Then it merges like a drop of water into the ocean of being.
The clumsy version of this belief in Western culture is simply that at the end of one turn on the dodgems we climb into another car and go round again. Such a prospect of course is more or less appealing, depending on what sort of experience of life we have already had. Some people would be only too pleased not to have to live this life over again. It is also worth adding that in the Eastern religions, reincarnation is regarded as a punishment rather than a reward. We have to keep on enduring the sufferings of this life until our souls are purged.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam
These three religions all share some belief in life after death, though their understandings of this life, and of the qualifications for enjoying it, are different. It is fair to say that if most Western people retain any sort of belief in life after death, it is one that is derived from these faiths, in however muddled and partial a form. If the cards left with the bunches of flowers for those who have died are anything to go by, this popular faith consists of a belief that after we die we go to some place of peace and happiness, where our earthly cares and sufferings are over.
In the popular mind, not everyone qualifies for this reward: some people, like paedophiles and mass murderers, do not. In the popular mind, we ourselves, and our friends and neighbours, are good people, or good enough, and so we are heading for some sort of candy-floss existence on the other side. It must also be added that for the majority of people today the original emphasis in the world’s religions on the over-riding importance of our relationship to God has been lost.
We live today in a society that prides itself on tolerance. We accept that people have different opinions and we do not like to challenge or argue with each other about them. Yet, for an opinion to deserve respect, there must be some evidence or reason to support it. And that is where the question of life after death seems to hit a brick wall. With good reason, people often justify their ignorance or unwillingness to talk about life after death with the comment that, ‘How can we know what lies beyond death? No-one has ever come back to tell us.’ But this is to ignore the resurrection of Jesus.
The resurrection of Jesus
Christians believe that someone has indeed come back from the dead: Jesus of Nazareth, a first century prophet of Israel, and, according to his followers more than a prophet, the Son of God. In his lifetime, Jesus said a great deal about life after
death. His resurrection from the dead is proof for Christians that he knew what he was talking about.
The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is spelt out in many books, such as those listed in the Resources section at the end of this chapter.
‘Taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say that there is no single historic incident better supported than the Resurrection of Christ.’ Brooke Foss Westcott, Bishop of Durham (1825-1901)
With the hard historical evidence supporting his resurrection from the dead, let us examine what Jesus says about life after death and the hope that he offers to those who will receive it. Like any other belief or opinion, each person must accept or reject this for themselves. In doing so, we must be sure that our decision is an informed and considered one. It may surprise us and take us way beyond our expectations.
This present world
Our common lot as human beings is to be born into a world not of our own making: a world of breathtaking grandeur and complexity, from the grandeur of the sun, the moon, the stars, of the mountains and the seas, to the complexity of all forms of life, including our own minds and bodies. It is a world of great beauty and goodness: a world of flowers and sunsets, of poetry and music, of love and friendship; but also a world of great ugliness and evil – a world of genocide and destruction, of lust and greed, of corruption and abuse. We are born with both a great appetite for life, for the
opportunities and pleasures it offers us, and at the same time, a great fear of life, of the threats and sufferings that it may impose upon us, and above all, the fear of death and of the annihilation it may bring. The world presents us with a baffling mixture of good and evil, of beauty and ugliness, not only in the natural world but also in human behaviour.
God’s purpose for us
The first thing to emphasise about the Christian hope is that it encompasses much more than life after death. It does indeed embrace individual survival, but it extends beyond that to the renewal of the whole creation. For the Christian, hope is not just a pious pipe-dream but an essential part of our understanding of God, and the world, as well as God’s purposes for the world and for us. The Christian hope is that God, the designer and maker of the universe, is one day coming to put the world right, to clear up the mess that we have made of it, to do justice, destroy evil, and finally, create a new heaven and a new earth – a more perfect world in place of this one. The one through whom he will do all this is Jesus, the man whom he has sent to proclaim this good news and to initiate this work of redemption. Our confidence in this hope is based on Jesus' death and resurrection.
The Kingdom of God
The beginning of the message of Jesus is that the Kingdom of God is at hand. That means that this new order has already begun: that those who believe the Good News, who turn away from their old way of life and turn to God, can even now enjoy a foretaste of the life of the world to come, and are guaranteed to be part of that new world, when it is revealed in the fullness of time.
The miracles that Jesus performed, and which are still sometimes performed by his followers in his name, are signs of the power of God to right the things that have gone wrong, to cure suffering and disease, to conquer the forces of evil in the world, and to overcome the last enemy, which is death. A new life is already available to those who believe in and follow Jesus, and it is a life that will be eternal. What we have or have not done in the past need not be an obstacle to enjoying this new life, for in the Cross of Christ, God has forgiven and taken away our sins. Jesus has broken into this sad and suffering world that is heading for destruction, and the followers of Jesus are already on a journey that will take them out of this world and into the new world.
The life to come
In this present world, the followers of Jesus still experience suffering and the death of the body, but they do not despair or grieve over it as those who have no hope. In the New Testament, the Bible tells us that their bodies will sleep in the dust, but that their souls will go to be with Jesus in Paradise, a garden like the Garden of Eden, there to await the end of this present evil age.
Then, one day, Jesus will return. He will be clothed with the resurrection body in which he rose from the dead. Then, the followers of Jesus will also be re-clothed in resurrection bodies, citizens of the new world and of an Eternal City whose builder and maker is God.
But that is not the whole story. A different fate awaits those who refuse the offer of eternal life in Jesus Christ. People who prefer the life of this present world over the promise of the life of the world to come, who prefer to go on living life their own way instead of living it the way that God has planned, will inherit the inevitable consequences of their choices. They will lose what they have lived for in this world. They will experience remorse and regret, and in the end come only to that final destination that the Bible calls the Second Death.
Life after death
Many of us are unsure what form life after death takes. We do know that the Bible speaks of the dead in Christ being with Jesus. They still recognise one another and enjoy the company of those they love. The Bible also speaks of those who lament that they are separated from God the Father and from Jesus His Son, because they chose another way. But for everyone this is essentially a time of waiting until the final stage: the return of Jesus, the resurrection of the body, and the beginning of the new age and the new creation. Just as the body of Jesus was raised from the dead, but in a changed form, so, at the second coming of Jesus our earthly bodies will be raised from the dead, in a changed form. It is in these resurrection bodies that we shall live forever in the new world that God is preparing for those who love him. For those who accept this hope that Jesus offers, there is a future of unimaginable and unending happiness in a new and perfect world, without all the troubles and tragedies of this present world – a world full of love, joy and peace. However, there is no way in which the teaching of Jesus, and the Bible in general, can be understood to offer such a future for all. There is always the call to repentance, a sense of crisis as we face death and the life of the world to come, the need for choice and decision about what we want, here and hereafter.
The Good News
The Good News is that we do not have to wait, even now there is a way out of the perplexities and dilemmas of this present world. There is the possibility of a new birth into a new life. The failures and shortcomings of our former lives are forgiven and left behind. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the way has been opened for us to have a future entirely different from our past, both here and now and in the world to come.
The importance of talking about life after death
What could be more important than the question of our eternal destiny? Is there such a thing at all? If so, is it good or bad? It is astonishing how little thought we seem to give to these questions, and how little they feature in our conversations.
It is important to talk about all this long before the approach of death itself. Indeed, the best place to sort it out as best we can is at the beginning of life, not at the end of it. The conclusions that we draw, and the faith by which we live, will make an immeasurable difference to the way in which we live our lives, as well as to the way in which we die.
It is difficult to say when the first intimations of mortality strike us; there is no rule. For some it may be in childhood.
My own experience was that when I was nine years old, lying in bed one night, I felt my heart beating and realised that one day my heart would stop and I would be dead. I panicked and pushed the thought away.
I did not talk about this to anyone at the time. Looking back, I should have talked to my father, a man of steadfast faith. For other people, the awful awareness of mortality may not strike them until later, but whenever it dawns on us that we are mortal, we need to talk about it with whoever might seem to be able to help. It is only by talking about it that some of our doubts and confusions about life after death will be clarified, some of our fears relieved, and some of our questions answered so that, whenever death actually comes, we can face it with as much faith and hope as mortals can expect to enjoy.
Sharing the Good News
It is also important for Christian believers to talk to their friends and families about life after death, both in order to share with them the good news of God’s plan and of Jesus' offer of eternal life, but also in order to warn them of the consequences of rejecting this offer.
The things of this world are transient; the things of the world to come are eternal. What are 70 or 80 years in this world compared to eternity in the world to come? It is important that we live the whole of our earthly lives with an eternal perspective, starting when we are young, lest, in the search for and the enjoyment of this world’s passing pleasures and achievements, we miss what is the most important thing of all: eternal life with God in his Kingdom.
Finally, in this life, we walk by faith and not by sight.
Here by way of encouragement are words from an old Christian hymn:
My knowledge of that life is small, The eye of faith is dim;
But 'tis enough that Christ knows all, And I shall be with him.
Questions to help us talk to others about life after death
How do you feel about dying? What is the story of you and God?
Do you expect any experience of life after death?
The list of resources below will guide you to places where you can find out more about Jesus and about the new life that he came to bring. The best resource, however, is a local church, a local fellowship of believers who love Jesus and believe in the Bible, in which all this is revealed.
Concerning the life of Jesus:
The Bible: in particular, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Books about the evidence for resurrection of Jesus:
Morrison, Frank, Who Moved the Stone? (Authentic Media)– a classic.
Craig, William Lane, The Son Rises (Wipf and Stock, 2000) Habermas, Gary The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregel Publications, 2004)
Books about the Christian hope:
Wright, Tom Surprised by Hope (SPCK, 2011)
Down, Martin The Christian Hope: a Guide to Life after
Death (Rehoboth Media, 2016)
New Testament texts specifically about the life of theworld to come:
The hope of everlasting life:
John 3:16, John 5:24-30, John 6:35-40, John 10:27-29,
John 11:25-27, 1 Corinthians 15:1-26
What happens when we die:
Luke 23:42-43, Luke 16:19-31, John 14:1-6
Matthew 7:13-14, John 3:17-21
The return of Jesus:
Matthew 24:29-31, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
The Last Judgement:
The New Creation:
1 Corinthians 15:35-57, 2 Corinthians 4:16 – 5:10,
Revelation 21:1 – 22:21.