ST ANDREW’S OCCASIONAL PAPERS
LIFE AFTER DEATH
Note: There are widely divergent views over some details of this topic, which are held by different groups of sincere Christians. Therefore one cannot be too dogmatic. I have tried to present what I believe the Bible teaches as simply and non-controversially as I can, but you may not always agree!
- Is there life after death?
Many groups of people, both ancient and modern, who, sadly, have no knowledge of Christianity, have an instinctive belief in some form of life after this earthly life is over. Certainly the injustices experienced by many during their years on earth seem to call for some further stage where those who have suffered may be comforted and those who have caused the suffering will be punished.
In the Old Testament we find rather a dismal picture that the dead – consigned to Sheol (the place of the dead) – have a very shadowy existence, “No one remembers you [God] when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave?” (Psalm 6:5). Yet from time to time the light breaks through, as in the magnificent words of Job, “I know that my Redeemer lives… And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (Job 19:25,26) – words immortalised in Handel’s Messiah.
In the New Testament the whole picture changes, simply because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul is so convinced of the centrality of this event that he can say, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). In other words, if there is no resurrection there is no Christianity – it’s as simple as that.
So life after death is an essential part of our Christian belief.
- The resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But how do we know the Jesus Christ did rise from the dead? How do we know that this central plank of the Christian faith will bear the weight that is put upon it?
So how do we know the truth of any event at which we were not personally present – whether in the history of preceding centuries or even of yesterday? Surely we have to believe in the testimony of eyewitnesses. Now no-one may have seen the stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb actually roll back and our Lord step forth, because even the guards (Matthew 27:65) were rendered unconscious (Matthew 28:4), but there were plenty of folk who met Jesus after He had risen.
Most of these meetings were with the disciples. Now one might argue that they were hoping to see Jesus and so they could have claimed to have met Him to bolster their story. But the disciples were a dispirited bunch who had fled from the scene of Jesus’ arrest (Matthew 26:56) and even denied any knowledge of Him (John 18:27). These were frightened, disappointed men who had to be comforted and strengthened by Jesus before they could be ready for the empowering of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2) and the challenge of witnessing to their Lord. Only a real contact with a risen Lord can explain the change in these men and give authenticity to their words.
St. Paul supports the witness of the disciples, not only by his own experiences on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-6) but also by his account of the resurrection to the Christians at Corinth, which includes a meeting with some 500 believers, most of whom were still alive when Paul wrote in about AD55 (1 Corinthians 15:6). It needed some tremendous event to turn the fiery Pharisee (Philippians 3:5) who persecuted Christians (Acts 9:1,2) into a pioneering missionary who travelled through much of the known world preaching the gospel of Christ. And this tremendous event was the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.
So life after death is supported by the overwhelming evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The earlier part of the Bible seems to suggest that all those who die, the “righteous” and the “unrighteous” alike, go down into the shadowy existence of Sheol, for in Genesis 37:35, even the patriarch Jacob expected this fate. However in later times the idea of a division into two parts took over. This is exemplified in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus which Jesus told (Luke 16:19-31). Here we find the beggar, Lazarus, comforted by Abraham while the rich man is “in agony in this fire.”
Now it is risky to base any doctrine upon the details of a story, especially if these are really incidental to the main point – that people will “not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” However there can be no doubt that Jesus clearly recognised a division. To the repentant thief on the cross beside His own, He said, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Yet He spoke of others being “Thrown outside into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12).
So if there is this division someone must decide who goes where. This must be God for no one else is in a position to make an accurate assessment of any man, and Jesus knew that this would be His responsibility for He said, “The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). Peter confirmed this, saying that “He is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). But in the mystery of the Trinity it matters little whether God the Father or God the Son is the judge because They act in perfect harmony. Moreover we can be sure that Their judgment is correct for “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).
As to the basis on which the judgment is made – we will return to that later.
The judgment will result in one of two verdicts for each and every human being. Each person will be condemned to hell or welcomed into heaven.
So life after death involves a process of judgment for all.
- What is hell?
(It would seem better to deal with the unpleasant first!)
Have you ever had a day when everything seemed to go wrong: the weather was not what you wanted; something important did not arrive by e-mail or post; when you had a row with someone near to you; etc. etc. At the end of the day you might well be tempted to say, “Well that was a hell of a day!”
This could well be a picture of hell, an existence where everything goes wrong, where evil is unrelieved. In particular an existence devoid of any trace of goodness, where God is absent.
It is hard to imagine such a place, perhaps earlier ideas of fire and torture may just be a simpler picture which we more sophisticated folk shy away from.
Is there any escape? In His story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus spe aks of a “great chasm” that cannot be crossed (Luke 16:26). There seems to be no way out.
Now there is a great debate among scholars as to whether hell continues for ever or whether the picture of fire implies that eventually all is burnt away and hell and those in it cease to exist (with perhaps a longer stay for those who have done the greater evil). It is impossible for us to know but it does seem to me that it would be the last act of a merciful God to those who finish in hell for them to be annihilated.
But whatever the detail, hell is the most awful place imaginable – or perhaps beyond our present imagination – but only by the mercy of God are any saved from that fearful destination.
So life after death involves a recognition of the hell of the absence of God.
- What is heaven?
Now imagine the exact opposite of the scene described at the start of the last section. The weather is perfect, the postman brings the parcel you have been waiting for, you are at peace with all around you, and, most importantly, you feel totally at peace with God and sense His presence all around you. Could you well not say, “What a heavenly day” ?
The most important thing about heaven is that it is God’s “Home,” and that we, as God’s children (1 John 3:1) by redemption, are welcomed into that home to be with Him for ever. There is plenty of room (John 14:2) and Jesus Himself will make us welcome (John 14:3). Heaven is a place where “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4) and “Nothing impure will ever enter it” (Revelation 21:27).
Beyond these wonderful hints it is not wise to go. If heaven is where a loving God dwells and if we are welcome there, the details can be left until we arrive – without “luggage” because everything we shall ever need will be provided for us.
So life after death involves a recognition of the heaven of the presence of God.
- What will we be like?
“We will all be changed” – so says St. Paul (1 Corinthians 15:51). The main change will be that all the evil and sin which so disfigures our present life will be removed. We must have some knowledge of who we were otherwise there would be no point in being “saved” in this life. However we must be changed to suit a new life in a new environment. Paul (in 1 Corinthians 15) uses the analogy of the plant and the seed to show both total change and yet development. Others, (non-Biblically) think of the change from caterpillar to butterfly.
Again beyond these wonderful hints it is not wise to go.
So life after death involves our transformation into someone who is ready for life in our Father’s home.
- How can we make sure of our destiny?
Although our knowledge of heaven and hell is very limited, there can be no doubt that heaven is infinitely preferable to hell. There is no third choice. Jesus spoke of two roads (Matthew 7:13,14) and we must choose, here and now, the one along which we shall travel.
Perhaps the most well known verse in the whole Bible sets this out so clearly, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The choice is clear “perish” or “have eternal life” – and the basis of the choice “believe in Him.” Simple faith in Jesus puts us on the narrow way which leads to heaven, so if you have not already taken the step of faith, why not do so now?
Some folk are concerned about those who have never had the opportunity to make this step of faith, either because they have never had the good news of Jesus explained to them, or because they were too young, or too ill to be able to understand. What will happen to them? All that we can say in answer to that question is that they are in the hands of a loving God and, as was said earlier, “Will not the judge of all the earth do right.”
A happy life after death depends upon faith (in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord) before death.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. © 1973,1978,1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder and Stoughton, a member of the Hodder Headline Group. All rights reserved.