I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious theories of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God.Thomas Edison
Whatever our age, sex, or religion, we all seem compelled to ask that question of questions: What happens when I die? The pyramids of Egypt, the mausoleums of Asia, the catacombs of Rome: all these monuments pay tribute to our perennial fascination with—and fear of—what awaits us on the other side of the grave.
After experiencing the pain of the loss of a loved one, we often feel an even greater concern about what follows after death. Is my husband happy? Is my child scared? Does my mom know I miss her? Is my friend at least no longer in pain?
Over the last century more and more people have found it increasingly difficult to believe in the afterlife. Some view it as a primitive superstition; others see it as heavenly “pie-in-the-sky.” After all, who can really say what awaits us on the other side?
Indeed, many today find the concept of an afterlife so strange and “out there” that we forget that the vast majority of people who have ever lived on this planet have believed in it.1
Eastern vs. Western Perspectives
Not every culture has answered this question in the same exact manner. In his defense before the court of ancient Athens, Socrates suggested that one of two things happens when we die. Either we lose ourselves in an eternal sleep, or we move on to a higher realm of existence.2
His greatest pupil, Plato, added two more perennial elements to the discussion of the afterlife: 1) after we die we are judged for our deeds, and 2) based on those deeds, we return to the world in a different body, either human or animal.3
Generally speaking, Eastern cultures have followed Plato’s two points. Hinduism and Buddhism teach that our deeds build up for us in a balance sheet. On the basis of that sheet (karma), we return to life in an inferior or superior form: a process known as reincarnation or the transmigration of souls.4 In keeping with Socrates’s first suggestion, Eastern religions teach that the endpoint of this cycle of incarnations is the merging of the individual soul with a greater One Soul.
In Western (or Semitic) religions, it is believed that each of us has but one life, one death, and one judgment. When we die, we are judged (Plato’s first point). But once we are judged, we move directly to another realm distinct from that of the earth (Socrates’s second suggestion).
Philosophers, poets, and priests have speculated about the nature of the afterlife for the last five thousand years. And yet, as modern men and women, many of us share a desire for more concrete proof. Enter Raymond Moody’s best-selling book, Life After Life, which pushed the subject of the afterlife into the realms of science.5
Moody interviewed scores of patients who died on the operating table and then were revived. Though none of these people knew each other, Moody found that the stories they told of what they had experienced during the period when they were pronounced clinically dead were remarkably similar.
Nearly all experienced themselves floating outside of their body and then moving through a tunnel toward a great light. Most saw their dead relatives, and most had an encounter with God, who often gave them the choice to return to life.
The similarity of the stories was amazing enough, but many of the stories included further information of an empirical, testable kind.
Many patients told Moody that while they were floating disembodied above the operating table, they heard what the doctors and nurses were saying to each other. By checking with the hospital, Moody confirmed that the medical staff had indeed spoken the words that were overheard by a clinically dead patient.
Christianity and the Resurrected Body
From the earliest tribal cultures to our modern technological age, belief in the immortality of the soul has persisted.
Of all religions, Christianity has been perhaps the most vocal in asserting that each person’s unique personality lives on after death. And yet, ironically, a large percentage of those who call themselves Christians are unaware that what the church actually teaches is quite different from the simple immortality of the soul.
Many Christians imagine that in heaven they will exist as disembodied, angelic spirits. In contrast, the Bible and the Nicene Creed teach that human beings in heaven will each be clothed for eternity in resurrected bodies.6
According to the Christian tradition, God first made the angels, who are purely spiritual, and then the beasts, which are purely physical. Then he created mankind, the great amphibians of the universe. Humans are not half physical and half spiritual, not a soul trapped inside a body (as Plato believed), but an enfleshed soul: 100 percent body and 100 percent soul. After death, in the Christian understanding, both the soul and the body will be redeemed and perfected.
Christians believe that three days after his death, Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead in a bodily form. However, they do not believe that he merely “came back to life.” The Christian tradition teaches that he went through death and came out on the other side.
That is, heaven is not merely an extension of our earthly life.7 When we die, we die to our old, creaturely life. When we rise, we are reborn to a new and indestructible life—a type of life that was first seen in the resurrected Christ.
The biblical writer known as the Apostle Paul describes the resurrected body in his first letter to the church of Corinth.8 In his letter to the Romans he states that all creation awaits the day when the children of God will, like the Son of God, be resurrected into a new, eternal life.9
What is your belief and hope for the afterlife?
- While there have always been those who have not believed in an eternal soul and who believe that when we die we cease to exist, historically these people have always been in the minority.
- “Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good, for one of two things: either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness [sleep], or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.” Plato, “Socrates’ Comments on His Death,” Apology, trans. by Benjamin Jowett. Available at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html.
- See the “Myth of Er” in Book X of Plato's The Republic (New York: Penguin Classics, 2012).
- Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw, “The Theory of Karma,” Buddhist Studies: Buddha Darma Education Association & BuddhaNet, http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/karma.htm.
- Life After Life: The Official Online Presence of Raymond A. Moody, M.D., Ph.D., http://www.lifeafterlife.com/.
- “Nicene Creed, 325 A.D.,” Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, http://carm.org/nicene-creed.
- For stories similar to Life After Life, but focused on a person’s experience of heaven itself, see Todd Burpo, Heaven is for Real (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010) or Don Piper, 90 Minutes in Heaven (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2004).
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 1984, 1 Corinthians 15:35-57.
- Ibid., Romans 8:19.
- Photo Credit: Petar Paunchev / Shutterstock.com.