Have you ever tried to share the concept of Heaven with someone who doesn’t understand much about the Christian faith? The theology of Heaven can be a stumbling block to those who have haven’t thought much beyond caricatures of floating angels and harps in an afterlife. How can something that every reasoning adult must process be so subject to myth and misconception? Can an apologetic approach help?
So is there evidence for life after death? This journal will address biblical, historical, philosophical, and scientific evidences that support the reality of life after death as well as refute false ideas about it.
Craig Branch, Senior Editor, Areopagus Journal, Fall 2011
The Areopagus Journal dedicated 35 pages to this topic, so for the purposes of this post I will skip most of the material related to other religions and beliefs, and try to summarize what the authors and editors have to say about “the large majority position of the Christian Church from Scripture.”
We have given a fair amount of ink to the topic of Heaven in other Veracity posts, but life after death is a broader topic, and one that can be used effectively to open doors to the Christian faith. I’ll start by summarizing (by redaction) the first article in the Fall 2011 Areopagus Journal, written by John W. Cooper.
The blog text below, in italics and down to the list of Bible quotations, is entirely the writing of John W. Cooper. I have edited out quite a bit of material to fit this format, without (I hope) misrepresenting his beliefs and positions.
What the Bible Says About Life After Death
The source of Christian belief in life after death is divine revelation in Scripture, not wishful thinking, spiritual intuition, or philosophical deduction. Throughout Christian history, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and historic Protestant churches have affirmed the same general narrative. At death, the human soul or spirit is separated from the body, and exists in a mode that anticipates its eternal destiny with God or separated from him. At the return of Christ, all humans are resurrected bodily and undergo final judgment. Thereafter the blessed dwell eternally with God in the renewed heaven and earth, and the damned suffer eternal punishment with the Devil and his angels. Details of this narrative have varied. But the general picture of temporary disembodied existence followed by everlasting bodily resurrection—what N.T. Wright has called a “two-stage view of life after life”—has been the large majority position of ecumenical Christianity about the teaching of Scripture.
The Old Testament
By and large the Old Testament focuses on life in this world rather than what follows death. Its interest is the history and destiny of God’s covenant people for the sake of the nations in his worldwide kingdom. It begins with the creation of heaven, earth and humanity in Genesis and climaxes with the Lord establishing the new Jerusalem in the new heaven and earth at the end of Isaiah…. What little the Old Testament says about the afterlife of individual humans must be understood in that context. What it does say is enough to establish a two-stage scenario. The deceased exist minimally in Sheol, the underworld place of the dead. But the Lord promises to raise his people to new bodily life when he returns to establish his everlasting kingdom.
The dead do not cease to exist. The very same individuals who lived on earth—Jacob, Joseph, Samuel, Saul, David, Job, and Hezekiah—continue on in Sheol. Their existence is minimal. In general the dead are depicted as lethargic, inactive, and possibly unconscious. God is present in Sheol (Ps. 139:8), but the dead do not know him or praise him (Ps. 88:10-12, Ps. 115:17-18, Isa. 38:18). They are at rest, asleep, and forgetful of life (Job 3:13ff). In Sheol there is a “neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom” (Eccl. 9:10). However, the dead are sometimes conscious and active. Samuel appears from Sheol to prophesy that Saul will soon join him (1 Sam. 28:11-19). The victims of the king of Babylon recognize him and taunt him in Sheol (Isa. 14:9-10). God forbids contacting the dead through mediums, which assumes that people believed they could respond (Lev. 19:31, 20:6, Isa. 8:19)…. Sheol is only the first stage, however, at least for God’s people. (God might destroy the wicked, Ps. 73:27, or leave them in Sheol.)
In sum, the Old Testament as a whole eventually teaches a two-stage history of the afterlife—interim existence in Sheol and resurrection in God’s kingdom.
The New Testament
Approaching the New Testament in terms of its background and Second Temple Judaism and encounters with Greco-Roman perspectives, it seems clear that the New Testament authors adopt and build on the two-stage view that emerges from the Old Testament. This conclusion has been affirmed by the vast majority of churches throughout the history of the ecumenical Christianity. It is the “plain meaning” most obvious to non-academic Bible readers. And although many contemporary academics disagree, it is the most reasonable conclusion of Biblical scholarship.
All four Gospels emphasize the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The dead body that was taken from the cross and buried came to life again on Easter morning. Jesus assures the disciples that he is not a ghost but has flesh and bones, and he eats food (Luke 24:37-43). He invites doubting Thomas to touch his wounds (John 20:27). Jesus’ resurrection is physical and corporeal, not a spiritual resurrection or immortal soul.
Jesus’ resurrection is not unique. He is the “first fruit” of the dead (Col. 1:18). What happened to him will happen to us. Our resurrection bodies will be like his. Paul directly grounds our resurrection in Christ’s in 1 Corinthians 15 (12-28). He emphasizes the identity and continuity of the earthly and resurrection body as well as its transformation from one nature to the other (36-54). The earthly, mortal, natural body (soma psychikos) that is buried will be raised as a heavenly, immortal, glorious, spiritual body (soma pneumatikos) (42-49)…. Paul affirms bodily resurrection, not disembodied spiritual existence.
The Time of the Resurrection
Paul concludes 1 Corinthians 15 by locating the resurrection “at the end, when Christ hands the kingdom to the father” (23-24), “at the last trumpet” (52). He reiterates this point in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, Philippians 3:20-21, and Romans 8:21-23, where he correlates the redemption of our bodies with the redemption of the whole creation. In Acts 24:15 he refers to a future resurrection of the righteous and wicked. Other New Testament writers agree. John 5:28-29 teaches a future resurrection to judgment, and John 6:39, 40, 44, 54 and 11:24 locate the resurrection “at the last day.” Revelation 20:5 speaks of a first resurrection of the martyrs and a second resurrection of everyone else after a thousand years, after which the final judgment takes place (12-13). Although Christians disagree on the nature and scope of the first resurrection, a final general resurrection is beyond dispute. Whatever the variations of terminology and detail, the consistent testimony of the New Testament writers affirms a final, general, bodily resurrection at the end of this age, when Christ returns. There is no text that locates the resurrection of individuals immediately when they die, although they are immediately “with the Lord.”
Existence Between Death and Resurrection
If the resurrection is future, what happens to the dead in the meantime? Jesus is the pioneer through death—the first fruit. He was neither immediately resurrected nor nonexistent between his death and resurrection. He was in Paradise while his body was in the grave, welcoming the crucified thief (Luke 23:43). Thus he established the two-stage sequence as a pattern for believers. The first stage has traditionally been called the intermediate state between bodily existence in this life and the life to come.
Paul likewise anticipates immediate fellowship with the Lord when he dies…. It is indisputable that Paul believes he can exist without his body. He eagerly anticipates fellowship with the Lord without it…. Acts 23:6-8 supports the conclusion that Paul embraced the two-stage view.
Finally, the Transfiguration of Jesus involves the presence of Moses and Elijah (Matt. 17, Mark 9, Luke 9), which implies that they exist even though the resurrection has not occurred. Jesus also refers to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as alive to God although the resurrection is future (Luke 20:38, 27-38; also Matt. 22; Mark 12). Both these texts entail that the dead exist between this life and the resurrection.
Activity or Soul Sleep
…it is a fallacy to infer unconsciousness from the metaphor of death as sleep…. Christian theologians have also inferred a conscious and active intermediate state from those texts, such as 2 Corinthians 5, Philippians 1, and Luke 23:43, which affirm our presence with the Lord immediately after death. The reason is that throughout Scripture, being in God’s presence means a reciprocal relationship, which rules out unconscious inactivity. Romans 8:38-39 states that death cannot separate us from God’s love in Christ, and love likewise implies a reciprocal relationship. Hebrews 12:26 refers to the spirits of righteous man made perfect (in the heavenly Jerusalem, awaiting resurrection), which implies activity because righteousness and perfection are active, not passive properties. Jesus says that if we have eternal life, we will not die [spiritually] even though we die [physically], which entails unbroken fellowship with him.
In sum, although certainty is impossible, there is significant textual basis for conscious and active existence between death and resurrection, which seriously undermines soul sleep. Beyond a few generalities, however, Scripture discloses no details of what it is like to be dead.
The two-stage view of the ecumenical Christian tradition turns out to be the most tenable. It emerges from the Old Testament view of Sheol and future resurrection and becomes the basis for the New Testament consensus through Second Temple Judaism, especially the Pharisees and rabbis. It is the only position consistent with a coherent interpretation of all the relevant New Testament texts. Some texts speak only of resurrection or only of the intermediate disembodied fellowship with Christ, or of death as sleep. Alternatives to the traditional two-stage account can be constructed by isolating or conjoining only some of these texts, but taken as a whole the Bible teaches that at death humans appear before God, some remain in fellowship with him, all are resurrected at the return of Christ, all are judged, and all spend eternity either with him or with the devil and his angels.
From the Bible: Texts on Life After Death
For I know that my Redeemer lives, And He shall stand at last on the earth; And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God,
Job 19:25-26 (NKJV)
Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it.
Ecclesiastes 12:7 (NKJV)
But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” And when the multitudes heard this, they were astonished at His teaching.
Matthew 22:31-33 (NKJV)
Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Luke 23:42-43 (NKJV)
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures,
… But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.
…Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?”
1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 20-22, 50-55 (NKJV)
So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.
1 Corinthians 5:6-8 (NKJV)
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.
Philippians 1:21-24 (NKJV)
But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NKJV)
In our next post, we’ll look at philosophical and historical cases that support the idea of life after death.
As an aside, you’ll notice I bolded the word ‘today‘ in Luke 23:42-43 above. I was raised in a Presbyterian Church where we recited the Apostles Creed, including the words that Jesus “descended into Hell.” Here are some thoughts from Christianity Today, John Piper, and J. Vernon McGee (who mentored Dick Woodward) on the controversy surrounding these words. Does my childhood rendition of the Apostles Creed need editing—or might I just have to think more carefully about what I had been taught to say? What do you think?
HT: Yvonne Brendley, Craig Branch, John W. Cooper