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Life After Death – What Are The Options?

9 April 2014

Life After DeathThis Sunday we are holding an Easter Special of the Intro Course called “Life After Death?” so I thought I would jot down what I think are the 4 main different options/ideas out there at the moment for what people think happens when you die. I am sure there are more and even the ones I give have further nuances and differences within them but hopefully this will put our discussion on Sunday night in context.

An Encouragement to Doubt

My hope with this blog, and in my talk on the evening, is to provoke discussion, get us thinking and to provide a moment for us to question (even doubt!) what we believe about life after death. What do we believe? Why do we believe it? How certain are we of what we believe? What are the implications in this life of what I believe happens after this life? And as this Sunday will be the beginning of Holy Week, I want to look at whether the death and resurrection of Jesus give us any greater certainty of what happens after death.

To push the point a bit further, Tim Keller, in his New York Times Bestseller: ‘The Reason For God‘, starts the book by calling us all to doubt. He says, regarding those that doubt the existence of God,

All doubts, however sceptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs…my thesis is that if you come to recognise the beliefs on which your doubts about Christianity are based, and if you seek as much proof for those beliefs as you seek from Christians for theirs – you will discover that your doubts are not as solid as they first appeared.

My encouragement is for us to start by doubting what we believe about life after death in order for us to examine whether what we believe has any substance or is just a nice idea that we would like to be true. The idea of the  The Intro Course is to provide a relaxed environment where people can ask and discuss the big questions of life. All views, backgrounds and opinions are welcome – no question is too feisty and no question is too simple and there is no pressure for you to come away from the evening subscribing to any set of beliefs. Our aim is to give people an opportunity to discuss questions that are often neglected even though they are the biggest questions of life. And that is certainly the case with the question: “What happens when I die?”

Life After DeathOn Sunday we’ll be looking at four different views: that of the Atheist, the Eastern religions, the ‘Modern Person’ and the Christian. For each view we are going to look at the implications of the view with regards to meaning, suffering and justice. For now I simply want to list the options that I hear in every day conversation and read in the textbooks and raise a few questions about them…to start to help us doubt.

4 opinions of what happens when you die 

(1) Nothing

This is the atheist’s view and it is very simple. This life is all there is; when you die you rot, end of story! We are all here by chance and human life has simply evolved as a random collision of atoms without any guidance or help from a greater being. Nothing happens when you die.

The challenge/question I have for this view is that I have never met anyone who fully believes it or lives by it. To fully believe this is to believe that there is no greater purpose in life or death and that ideas such as love, beauty, truth and justice are all human inventions to help society progress. In and of themselves, they don’t have any objective or inherent meaning. As Keller says in chapter 8 of his book:

“Beauty and love are nothing but a neurological hardwired response to particular data…simply a biochemical response, inherited from ancestors who survived because this trait helped them survive.”

I am not sure any of us really believe that do we? And if we do believe that nothing happens when we die and that death is a natural and normal part of natural selection, why then is death so painful and why does it seem like an unwanted intruder into our world?

(2) Universalism

If people don’t believe in God they normally go for number 1, nothing happens after we die. If people do believe in God they normally go for number 2, the doctrine of universalism, which states that everyone in the end will be saved. This was first put forward by the early church father Origen in the 3rd Century and more recently Rob Bell in Love Wins in the 21st Century. There are numerous versions of this and we’ll touch on a few related ideas below. The simplest version states that no matter who you are and what you have done, God is so forgiving and loving that he will forgive you anyway. Many have a version of purgatory or ‘hell’s back door’ which means that after you die there is a certain time where you are punished for your sins but then eventually you see the light, have paid the penalty you sins deserve, are fully repentant, so God lets you into heaven. The two main versions of heaven will be spelled out later.

The challenge/question I have for this view is twofold. Firstly, as C.S Lewis so brilliantly argued in his essay The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment, if we do away with punitive justice then we are saying to people “your decisions don’t matter”. But the moment we do this we are saying “you don’t matter”. To not take someone’s actions and decisions seriously is to not take them seriously and treat them as less than human. Lewis goes on to argue that hell is God’s greatest way of saying to humanity “you matter and I take you seriously”. If everyone in the end is saved then it actually means we are treating ourselves as far less significant creatures than we really are. Secondly, and relating to this issue, what does this do for our sense of justice? If God lets everyone in in the end, then there is no justice for those like Idi Amin who, in this life, got away with their evil atrocities and were never brought to justice.

(3) Reincarnation

This view comes from both Hindu and Buddhist traditions and within each there are variations and subtleties. However, broadly speaking, living beings are seen as having an endless series of lives achieved through a continual process of reincarnation into which all are locked until they can be freed through enlightenment. Only then can one be unfettered from the cycle of life and death, and ascend into higher planes of existence outside the reach of space and time.

So how does the eternal and endless cycle of birth and rebirth of the soul happen? Through the idea of karma. Karma is the law which determines the form in which one is born in the next existence. If one has lived a good life, one builds up good karma and will be born in a higher station, or to a happier life. Good and bad are built up over the reincarnations, the balance being passed on to future lives. And this applies to all living things; humans, trees and animals are all essentially equal.

So the view is straight forward to understand and though it typically clashes with traditional western world views, it is gaining more traction in the west. So what questions/challenges are there? I think there are three big ones. Firstly, what evidence is there of such reincarnations and cycles? Secondly, what is the value of one’s life? One writer, David Burnett, said:

Everybody is believed to be reborn thousands of times through a multitude of levels and castes. In practice the value of an individual life becomes of little value. A Hindu mother consoles herself over the death of her baby saying “Never mind there are more babies”. What does it matter if a beggar dies on the street – he may be reincarnated into a better form…one reaps what one sows.

Thirdly, is such a worldview liveable in the face of suffering? Are we really to deny our senses (whether pleasure or pain) in order to find Nirvana? How does the mother whose child has just died deal with her pain?

(4) Eternal Life and Eternal Judgement

This has been the traditional historical Christian position, though again there are still some variations, so let me break both of these ideas into a number of further ideas. In each case I am going to present the most extreme caricature without apology.

Eternal Life is for those that put their trust in Jesus and follow him.

  1. Eternal life as eternal spiritual bliss – The picture here is of spiritual beings and spiritual souls sitting on white fluffy clouds wearing white nighties playing golden harps…and Jesus is somewhere in all this. I think this comes from a greek platonic worldview which sees the physical as bad and the spiritual as good
  2. Eternal life as a new heavens and new earth – The picture here is of a renewed physical cosmos which has been joined again with heaven where we will have new physical bodies and enjoy doing many physical things. We will indeed sing but we will also work and play and eat and dance. This comes directly from a biblical hebrew worldview and is seen in the final chapters of the four Gospels in the Bible when Jesus is raised from death into a physical human body and appears to numerous people where he talks and eats and clarifies that he is not a ghost.  It is further clarified by Paul in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 and John in his final vision of eternity in Revelation 21.

Eternal judgement is for those who chose not to trust in Jesus and follow him.

The picture here is of us all appearing before the judgement seat of Christ where we are judged for what we have done in this life. Those who trusted in Jesus’ performance will be given eternal life as the judgement for their misdeeds was paid for by Jesus himself on the cross. Those who chose to reject God and remain unrepentant will face the judgement they deserve. How will this judgement work? There are 3 main views:

  1. Judgement as annihilation – God punishes us for our disobedience by destroying us in the fire of his judgement. This comes from the idea of conditional immortality which many theologians throughout church history have ascribed to. It states that human beings contain the potential to live forever (if they know Christ) but they are not born with inherent immortality and therefore they simply ‘cease to be’ or ‘pass out of existence’ at death.
  2. Judgement as ever increasing dehumanisation – This idea was put forward by C.S Lewis in his masterpiece The Great Divorce. The Bible talks about God’s judgement as him giving us over to our desires (Romans 1:24, 26 & 28); God’s judgement is to give us what we want. However, our desires end up enslaving and destroying us. We see a small picture of this on earth now with an untold number of psychological, sociological and ecological problems. When we get what we want, the thing we wanted often ends up destroying us and that is why burnout, stress, depression, suicide, wars, abuse of the planet, family breakdown, eating disorders, visiting of counsellors and much more is so common. We were made to worship God and reflect him (therefore being truly human) but when we worship other things we reflect them, and therefore become less and less human. We see “hell” writ small now. In this view we are not annihilated but we become less and less human by our own choice. We continually reject God, we continually choose the selfish path and that means we eventually become subhuman. We exist forever but in a God-hating subhuman form (this which explains why the judgement is continual and eternal, because our rebellion is continual and eternal). Lewis asks us to imagine the results of an increasingly self-centred and self-promoting universe that continues forever. He famously says this:

“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud. ”

  1. Judgement as eternal conscious torment – This idea comes from the lips of Jesus himself and the book of Revelation. Jesus in Mark 9, referring back to Isaiah 65-66 talks about hell as a place where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die. In Luke 16 Jesus also tells a Pharisee a story about a rich man being in eternal torment and separated from God by a great chasm because of how he lived his earthly life. The book of Revelation has numerous pictures of eternal life and darkness. Even though these pictures are probably not meant to be taken literally, they point to a reality that is literal.

The biggest challenges/questions to do with the Christian view nearly all focus on the judgement side of things. None of us (in the west at least) recoil at the idea of people being given a second chance and eternal life. However, many find they have intellectual and emotional doubts regarding the goodness of God and the fairness of his justice when we consider the idea of hell, particularly as eternal conscious torment. Our minds wander to questions such as: what about those who have already died? What about those who have never heard of Jesus? What about children? How can the punishment for a finite life be eternal? And many more…

Cross & Resurrection

And Easter?

How do the death and resurrection of Jesus play into all this? Well, here are three things I want to explore on the night about Easter regarding this question:

  1. They give us a basis for our beliefs about life after death which is not determined by what we would like to be true, or what we think might be true, but based on what has happened in history as an example and proof of what is true. I appreciate many people doubt the physical resurrection of Jesus actually happened and we’ll touch on this briefly too.
  2. They give us a worldview that we can live by in the present. The resurrection of Jesus assures me that the physical does matter, that ideas of truth and beauty and love and justice are objective realities given to us by God and demonstrated most perfectly in the death and resurrection of his Son.
  3. They help us with our doubts about the goodness of God and the fairness of his justice because he has demonstrated, at the cost of his own Son, how just he is (he had to punish sin) and just how loving and good he is (he sent his Son to die in our place). We may not be able to tie up all the loose ends but if we, in our limited understanding of justice, love and goodness, find our hearts recoil at the idea of judgement, we can trust the one who demonstrated these three things at infinite cost to himself.

So hopefully I have painted a clear picture of the options and have stimulated much thought. I hope I may have even made you begin to doubt your existing position so that you might be open to how Easter could give us a fuller answer than we already have.

I hope to see you on Sunday.

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