Hebrews 9:27 says ‘(A)nd just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment.’ (NRSV)
This is a stark, unavoidable fact. Death is an appointment we will not miss. If a person were to look back on the appointments of their life, how would they try to understand and prepare for this one? I remember not showing up to a few appointments in my lifetime; some I blew off, others I would have someone else cover for me, some I ill-prepared for, and others I was horribly nervous for and had to prepare a great deal for. But the appointment of death we will not miss, and it will be our final appointment. How should one prepare for this? Should we prepare for it?
Death is an appointment we will not miss.
Death is a tough subject to talk about for many people and for a myriad of obvious reasons. Perhaps it seems so far away, so permanent, so depressing to talk about, painful, uncomfortable, unknown, a sense of loss (especially of the comforts of this world), and perhaps many others.
What death does afford us, however, is an opportunity to find purpose, meaning, value, and hope in our current life. For if we were immortal we wouldn’t have to worry about finding any of these things because we’d have all the time in the world. A poem I reflected on while creating this post is ‘I Have a Rendezvous With Death” by Alan Seeger, himself a fascinating case study.
I would imagine how, or maybe how often, people look at death has changed over the years. In the past, death for many people was almost a daily reality. Survival was literally day-to-day. Much has changed in this regard in just the last 100 years alone as in many parts of the world today there is a distracting element of comfort for people and the reality of death is not so forward in our mindset. However, it comes regardless and sometimes like a thief in the night.
So how are we to face this? What sort of a worldview establishes a coherence that our life has meaning, ultimate meaning that is, and not just transient meaning for our brief time on Earth? I don’t wish to confound anyone here saying our life has to have ultimate meaning, it’s just the implications of a life of meaning only relevant to our time on earth is fraught with unlivable conditions. What do I mean by that?
Something we can be absolutely sure of is IF God does NOT exist, and everything ends at the grave, your life is ultimately absurd. For if it all ends at the grave, then it really doesn’t matter how a person lives their life. There are no objective moral boundaries, no moral consequences, no moral duties to uphold. Think about the stark reality of this worldview! Except for people with a ridiculous amount of narcissism who really care about their name being remembered to the world, you are a person that will not be remembered past a generation or two. And what does that matter anyway? For if God doesn’t exist you will be dead and have no hubris left!
Despite the atheism that can seem to dominate media today, and I will lump atheists into the categories of people who are naturalists, materialists, Neo-Darwinists, etc…I would suspect none of these people can live a life without purpose, meaning, value, and hope. My guess is that many of them are very happy and productive people, and probably possess some strong moral compasses as well. But they cannot live their worldview consistently because there is (if you are to follow its logical conclusions), at bottom, no hope in their worldview. At least no ultimate hope. For all ends in the grave. This is what is called nihilism and is, if a person wants to be consistent, unlivable. Again, please reflect on the implications of a worldview with no hope, no ultimate meaning.
This is what is called nihilism and is, if a person wants to be consistent, unlivable.
Now if there is life beyond the grave, this implies there are supernatural elements at work, and when we open the door up to supernatural elements, we have to open up powers that are beyond space, time, matter, and energy. What sort of Being can possess powers that are beyond space, time, matter, and energy? It might be uncomfortable for you to call this person God (perhaps like some, you have a fight to pick with God), but this power has to be beyond space, time, matter, energy, and immensely powerful in order for life to exist beyond the grave. You could call this being the greatest conceivable being. This is not “God of the gaps.”
Now does life need to exist beyond the grave? Absolutely not! So what is the point of life if this worldview is true? To live a good life (however one measures that) and then die, knowing nothing you said or did in this life truly matters? Yikes. That makes for a pretty depressing worldview. But just because something is depressing doesn’t mean it’s not true. Yet to live this worldview consistently you have to constantly remind yourself that all you do, and all that’s done to you, really doesn’t matter outside of your short life span, or maybe even a generation or two after you. So what’s the point? No wonder why so many people in the world lose hope and commit suicide who want to be consistent with this worldview. They cannot see hope so what’s the point of trying to live to an old age since none of it matters anyway.
But whether you are an atheist, agnostic (agnostics, please get in the game here, you can’t ride the bench forever!), or a theist, most people live life with hope. But hope means there must be something worth living for, something around the corner, something beyond this life, something beyond the grave. So what could it be? It seems plausible that it would have to be God. It has to be something beyond the boundaries we’ve already mentioned. Now that may not seem palatable for many people but truth doesn’t care what’s palatable to you or not. Truth just is.
So where does that leave us? Well if God exists we need to look at the evidence all around us to discern how He may have revealed Himself to us (please see Evidence section). And it would be hard to argue that if God exists He hasn’t already revealed Himself to us, insofar that we can observe a physical world around us which had to have come from somewhere, along with our own being and consciousness. As has been said already, the Apostle Paul tells us “…the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen…” (Romans 1:20, KJV)
What some people may take issue to is that God hasn’t revealed Himself to you in a way that you feel He should. And even if you were a committed Deist, at least you believe the physical universe came from God, even if you don’t believe God has any interaction with this creation. But is this really plausible? Would God make a personal choice to create humanity and sit idly by as we just destroy each other? I suppose it’s possible, but is it plausible? I’m not convinced.
Would God make a personal choice to create humanity and sit idly by as we just destroy each other?
So within the current climate, people claim all kinds of access to God. So which God is the true God? After all, we live within the current epicenter of religious pluralism. Pluralism exists for a number of reasons and one would be because people are not willing to take a stand (or even investigate for that matter) on eternal truth, as if to avoid offending someone should they try to make a truth claim. We know from our past posts that all faith systems cannot be true, predominantly because they have strong, foundational disagreements. Perhaps all of them are false, but they all can’t be true.
So in looking through the lens of the current cosmological evidence for a singularity that brought the universe into being, we are forced to exclude all pantheistic and polytheistic religions. The reason being is their faith systems see the universe as eternal and God(s) within all of space, time, and matter. So in keeping with the latest scientific evidence, that leaves us with the major theistic religions of the world, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Deism would also be included in this however we are not going to seriously entertain Deism because it seems quite implausible for a God to create the universe and not interact with His creation. At least very little evidence points in that direction. So it’s hard to include Deism into a topic of death and potential life beyond the grave when our actions/inactions wouldn’t seem to matter if God is merely a bystander, and not genuinely concerned with all that is said and done within His creation timeline.
And without going into a big explication of how Jews, Muslims, and Christians view purpose, meaning, and value, as well as eternal things (see below), we can first look at how they respond to the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. The overwhelming majority of secular and religious historians believe Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, performed great healings, thought of himself as not only being sent from God, but possessing some sort of a special relationship with God. He was crucified by Roman authorities and apparently seen by his disciples and many others alive after his death (please see Jesus of Nazareth in the Evidence section).
Now the Jews don’t deny that Jesus lived, what they do deny is that he was the Messiah, the chosen one to save Israel and re-establish the Davidic kingdom. They believe him to be a prophet, and nothing more. They believe he was crucified, and even some Jewish historians, such as the late Pinchas Lapide, actually believe that Jesus was seen alive by his disciples, and many others, after his crucifixion. (1) There is no current debate among Jews that Jesus’ tomb was not empty, for the Gospels relay a story of the Jewish priests wanting to spread a story that Jesus’ disciples stole his body from the grave. These efforts of explaining away the empty tomb (outside of a resurrected corpse) have been dealt with formidably in recent decades (see N.T. Wright’s, “The Resurrection of the Son of God”). (2)
Muslims also believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, a prophet highly regarded by God, and the person of Jesus is highly esteemed by Muslims. Yet they take the very liberal stance, despite the best historical evidence and claims from the majority of historians worldwide saying otherwise, that Jesus of Nazareth did not die on the cross. The passage goes as this, “(T)hey (being the Jews) said, ‘We killed the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, messenger of God.’ They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but the likeness of him was put on another man (and they killed that man)…” (Quran, 4:157) Now this is a profound claim, which, if false, leaves the rest of Islamic teaching open to much scrutiny. And if the Qu’ran makes these radical claims about Jesus as historical fact, despite strong evidence to the contrary, it goes a long way to damage the reliability of Islamic scripture and its teachings about God and truth.
So this brief exercise was to point out that of the most popular theistic worldviews that are backed up by the most current science of the beginning of the universe, the authenticity of Jesus Christ plays a large role in understanding what death and eternal life might mean for people on Earth. For Christ spoke of a place beyond the grave, called Heaven (Matt 5:10, John 14:1-3). He also spoke of a second place beyond the grave called Hell (Matt 5:22, 29, 10:28, Luke 12:5 are a few citations). (Please see forthcoming Heaven and Hell section)
Now certainly many people by now would want to silence me for spreading more folktales, but the inescapable fact is that we die and if you believe there is an afterlife, then surely not everybody shares in the same afterlife experience, do they? I’ve heard many people talk about living a good life and doing the best they can and then whatever awaits them in the end their conscience is clear, or whatever excuse they will use to try and not dig deeper as to the actual truth of their claim. But if an afterlife of some sort exists, surely not all of us will share in the same experience, surely all of us will not go to the same place? If we all died and went to the same place in the afterlife then what would be the good of pursuing and fulfilling any moral purpose and duties in your present life? If all are rewarded the same, who really cares how you live your present life? Does this counterfactual seem plausible? Does it seem more plausible that our moral behavior is in some way judged after this life?
I want to be clear from a Christian perspective here that the reader understands being a good person is not what gets you to Heaven. The informed Christian knows there is nothing they can do to earn eternal life (sorry, you can’t be good enough (however one is to measure that anyway?)), as that was won for them on the cross with the death of Christ. A Christian certainly understands moral behavior will be judged and rewarded after death.
So what happens once you die? There are, at the most basic level, two possibilities…nothing or something.
So what happens to you once you die? There are, at the most basic level, two possibilities…nothing or something. Let’s play them out a little.
Option 1 is nothing happens. If you die and nothing happens, then God most likely does not exist, which won’t trouble you in the least because you are dead and no longer a sentient being. If this is true, the issue that has to be faced is why try to do anything good morally in this life? Why try to exhibit any altruistic behavior at all? Why try to progress towards anything? Why not live as completely narcissistically as possible, waving your defiant fist in the air as you take your last breath? What is the point of all of your efforts, your accomplishments, your failures, if it all ends at the grave? If we are being completely honest with ourselves I think it would be difficult to find any ultimate meaning in our life if it just ended at the grave.
As Paul quotes the Greek comic write Menander when he writes to the Christian church in Corinth: “(I)f the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.’” (1 Cor 15:32b, NRSV)
Option two: something happens. Here is where the roads can diverge into a number of possibilities and absurdities. But what this entails is something supernatural, that is to say, something beyond nature, beyond matter and time. If this is true, then naturalism and (most likely) atheism, fails. When I say atheism fails most likely and not totally is because there doesn’t have to be a God even if there are supernatural components to life. This may seem like a philosophical stretch; regardless, it would still have serious implications for evidence of some kind of a supernatural intelligence; and also something that is extremely powerful. Both of these attributes are ascribed to the traditional view of God.
So what is this ‘something’ that could happen to us after death? The Buddhist, Jew, indigenous spiritualist, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and other supernatural believer have something to say about what this might mean. Many of these beliefs could seem possible, but which one is most reasonable? If we use our cognitive faculties to discern what is most reasonable, the reasonable person will usually look to evidence to make the best-informed decision. Like we’ve mentioned before, whether we are conscious of it or not we use our cognitive faculties all the time to gather evidence to make informed decisions on all sorts of daily activities, why would important eschatological realities be any different? Granted, we may not like the result, but our likes really have no bearing on whether it’s true or not.
So let’s unpack a few of the more popular beliefs on the afterlife…
What does the Buddhist have to say about this? Even though we are not seriously entertaining Buddhism as true in this post because of the pantheistic nature of its teaching which runs contrary to the current science that the world had a beginning, Buddhism does have millions of adherents and has something to say about the afterlife. The Buddhist believes that life is a cycle that doesn’t end. It is constant birth, death, and rebirth. This is called samsara. When someone dies their energy passes into another form. The “good” Buddhist can escape this seemingly infinite cycle of rebirth and death by gaining enlightenment, or Nirvana, which is essentially the realization about the truth of life. Once Nirvana is achieved, the enlightened individual physically dies and cannot be reborn, unless they want to be reborn to help someone else achieve enlightenment.
The Buddhist believes nothing is permanent, therefore they don’t believe in anything like the eternality of souls or an eternal creator God. A Buddhist would see a creator God as within the space/time continuum, not a necessary being and therefore not the sole cause of creation, i.e. space, time, and matter. Energy is a word used to describe the substance outside the physical realm of a person once they die. Buddhists also don’t believe the universe was created; that is, it just exists and continues to, paradoxically, be created millions of times over.
The Christian believes that all humans die physically once. There is no reincarnation. From there the orthodox Christian believes that those who have put their faith in the salvation of Jesus Christ will be eternally rewarded to be in His presence in a place called Heaven. Individuals who die without accepting the salvation of Jesus Christ are also rewarded an eternal state, but without God’s presence. Many call this place Hell, or Gehenna, from the Hebrew word ge-hinnom. Both are eternal states, and if the interpretation of the Biblical data is accurate, all persons will have spiritual, yet also physical bodies in these eternal states (1 Cor 15:35-56). Heaven is not something that is gained by the meritorious works of individuals, however meritorious works matter in so far as our judgment goes. The death of Jesus Christ on the cross is what opens the door to Heaven for humanity. A seeker would then want to know why Christ had to die and how that allows us entrance into Heaven? Good question, and please see this section under the forthcoming Bible topic.
The death of Jesus Christ on the cross is what opens the door to Heaven for humanity.
The Christian does believe that moral behavior matters. After all, our moral duties are linked to God’s divine commands. Christians believe their moral judgment is suspended until the second coming of Christ, but their moral behavior and efforts are not a condition on gaining Heaven, or Hell for that matter. It is solely the acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior whereby the Christian is saved. It is by this grace, this sacrificial act of love of Christ on the cross, which the Christian accepts or rejects. It should be noted that nobody, no physical or angelic being, is completely annihilated in Christian theology. While the power of the devil is destroyed, even the devil himself is not annihilated. The Christian believes in an eternal, creator God of the universe.
The Jew believes, similar to the Christian, in the bodily resurrection of all believers on the judgment day, when Messiah comes. Jews believe Messiah is yet to come while Christians hold that Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth. The Jew holding to the Biblical data believes this afterlife location to be a place called Sheol. Sheol is open to all people, and it is our efforts, not our beliefs, that reward us entrance. It is subterranean (Deut 32:22, Isa 14:9, Pss 63:10, 86:13, 88:7). It is a place of darkness and dust from which there is no return (Job 7:9, 17:13-16). The dead in Sheol continue an existence that is the opposite of true life, without joy or peace, strength, or activity, and this is true of the “good” and the “bad” (Ps 89:49, Ezek 32:17-32, Eccl 9:10). There is also no praise or remembrance of God in Sheol (Pss 6:6, 88:13, 94:17,115:17, Job 26:6, 28:22, Isa 38:18) despite still being under His dominion (Ps 139:8, Prov 15:11, Job 26:6).
The Jew does not believe people are saved by the work of Christ on the cross, for they believe Christ to be merely a prophet-type, not Messiah. The concept of hell is not Jewish. Jewish thought on the afterlife outside of the Biblical data of the Old Testament is very diverse, with some strands being similar to the Buddhist idea of reincarnation. The Jew does believe in an eternal, creator God of the universe.
The Muslim also believes in an eternal, creator God of the universe. This God, Allah, decides when people die and rewards people with entrance into Jannah, or Paradise, if the Muslim performs more good deeds than bad. The alternative for the Muslim who has not performed enough good deeds is Jahannam, or Hell, a place of eternal physical and spiritual punishment.
Muslims believe that all people reside in their graves until Yawm al-din, or the Day of Judgment. It is then that all people are raised from the dead and judged on their earthly lives. This is called the resurrection of the body. The belief in life after death is core to Islamic doctrine as many Muslims, similar to Christianity, see this earthly life as preparing themselves for eternal life.
Muslims understand Allah’s divine commands to be rooted in the Five Pillars of Islam. These pillars are Shahadah (a declaration of faith and belief in one God, Allah), Salah (praying five times a day at specific times), Zakah (donating a percentage of one’s wealth to charity), Sawm (fasting during the month of Ramadan), and Hajj (a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca)).
But how would we know if we were ever good enough or had done enough?
In considering some of these beliefs of the afterlife a person can see a few similarities between them, but also stark contrasts. A perplexing issue for the individual who thinks they warrant entrance to a heaven-like place is how can one ever be sure you were good enough in this life to gain entrance? I remember growing up in the Catholic church where good works were firmly established and promoted among the believers. Many of these humble folks really believed they would gain heaven by being good and doing good works such as helping someone in need, feeding the poor, donating time, etc… But how would we ever know if we were good enough or had done enough? I could never pin that down. I know I’m far from a perfect person but I view myself as a decent person. Will that get me to this heaven-like afterlife? And, at least from a Christian perspective, if our meritorious conduct gains us access to heaven, why did Christ die on the cross? These are just a few of the questions I had to contemplate on my faith journey. An aspect that certainly seemed compelling is that my moral behavior matters, not just relevantly, but ultimately, and that I will be held accountable for this behavior.
In closing, there is much to discern here for the seeker of truth. The hourglass was tipped as soon as you came out of the womb. Time is of the essence and you are striving right now in your daily life. But what are you striving toward? Does it have any eternal worth or is your striving towards worldly aspirations, relative to your brief existence on Earth? My prayer for you is that whatever currently occupies the bulk of your time in this life, you take a look at how transient it is and begin to focus on the appointment none of us will miss. It is my prayer you are preparing for that one.
(1). Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection: A Jewish Perspective. (Augsburg Fortress Publishing House, 1982)
(2). N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN. 2003)