What do we know about the afterlife?
When I was a kid I remember my mom reading me a children’s book about heaven. It sounded so incredible, so much better than this earthly life. I was super excited to go there someday. When she finished the book I said “Wow Mom! I can’t wait to die!” My mom was a little taken-aback by this comment from her 7 year old and said “Well B, we don’t want you to be afraid of death, but you shouldn’t wish your life away either. God wants you to enjoy this life now.”
As I grew up there were times I doubted the existence of heaven as something too good to be true, something we tell children so they’re not afraid of dying. I had friends say it’s a fairy tale. But I also had experiences of the supernatural that made the spiritual realm undeniable to me. And in a strange way, it’s comforting to know the debate about the afterlife is not new to the past hundred years. It’s a debate that’s been going on thousands of years. And in Jesus’ time it was a distinguishing belief between various branches of Judaism.
In the first century were several movements within Judaism. The ones most similar to Jesus were the Pharisees, which is why the Gospel writers go out of their way to tell us what makes Jesus different from Pharisees. The Pharisees studied Torah meticulously and understood Scripture as the center of their tradition. They also believed in the resurrection—that at the end of time God would raise the dead. Another sect in first century Judaism were the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the upper echelon of Jewish society. They maintained the Temple and fulfilled various political and social functions. They understood the Temple as the center of their tradition. And the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection.
In this Gospel story we just read, Jesus is debating all kinds of people in the Temple and the Sadducees question Jesus about the afterlife. This is something Jesus would’ve agreed with the Pharisees about. The question the Sadducees ask, about a hypothetical woman who has seven husbands, isn’t really a sincere question—it’s a riddle to stump Jesus. But Jesus isn’t just interpreting what Scripture says about the afterlife. He clearly has answers that come from beyond, a deep wisdom about life’s great mysteries. He explains that human structures like marriage don’t exist beyond this world. Then he also uses Scripture to make his point, citing Moses’ encounter with God as an example. After explaining this, the scribes (and probably the Pharisees) say, ‘Teacher you have spoken well’ [and after that] they no longer dared to ask him another question” (Luke 22:39-40).
I think it’s important to understand that the debate about the afterlife is something that’s been going on for thousands of years. The idea there isn’t an afterlife isn’t something 20th century atheists came up with. It’s a debate that’s been going on for eons, probably dating back to when humans first started burying our dead 100,000 years ago. And it was obviously a debate going on in first century Judah.
There was also a debate about what type of afterlife exists. In Jesus’ time most Jews believed in the general resurrection at the end of time. Meaning that when you died you would be dead until the end of time when God would raise you up on the Last Day for judgement. This idea seems different from earlier concepts of Sheol, as described in the Psalms a thousand years earlier. Sheol seems to be a shadowy half-life existence, a concept similar to Greek mythology’s Underworld. The idea of general resurrection became popular for Jews at the time of the exile in Babylon, where they may have picked up the idea from Zoroastrians in Persia.
Then there’s the idea of the immediate afterlife which was also common in the ancient world, and is probably what most of us think of when we think of the afterlife. This idea is present in some of Jesus’ parables, and seems to be supported here when Jesus says that to God Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive. And when he tells the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
In addition to the Last Day vs. immediate afterlife debate, there’s also various interpretations about who goes to the afterlife. Some biblical texts support the idea that God’s gonna send some people to heaven and some people to hell. Other passages speak of universal restoration where all people are saved—every knee shall bow, every tongue confess. Other texts speak of the Second Death, where apparently those who don’t get into heaven are annihilated and do not exist anymore.
There’s plenty of other things theologians argue about, like whether the afterlife is a spiritual realm or a transformation of this physical one. Theologians have always debated these things. Differentiating what Jesus might mean when he says the Kingdom of God vs. Eternal Life vs. Paradise vs. a New Heaven and a New Earth. I could go on. We’re really gleaning what we can from passages like this one, and trying to make sense of something the Bible doesn’t really talk a lot about.
The Bible, instead of discussing the afterlife in detail, seems very focused on life here in this world. It’s as if God is telling us to just trust everything’s gonna be alright. And instead of worrying about death—focus on living the best life you can now.
But that doesn’t stop us from wondering. What do others say about the afterlife? Some religions teach about reincarnation, something that doesn’t contradict the Bible, but isn’t mentioned in it either. But seeing how little the Bible talks about this stuff, who knows? Others talk about nirvana, oneness with the whole, the death of your ego but not your true self. As humans we can’t help wondering about what lies beyond this world.
One of the most fascinating things to me is modern near-death-experiences in which people have physically died and been resuscitated thanks to modern medical technology. These people often report wonderful memories of their time in a beautiful ultra-real plane of existence. They report that in it they felt more alive than they ever did on earth. People who have NDEs (near death experiences) often come back transformed by the experience, more mature and wise; and more interested in learning about religion and spirituality and the mysteries of science, consciousness, and existence.
One such person is Dr. Eben Alexander. He was a neurosurgeon who was pretty sure there was no God or afterlife. Until a rare illness left him in a coma and braindead for six days. During which he experienced incredible worlds beyond this earth. Eventually he returned to full health, which was a medical miracle in itself. He’s written several books called “Proof of Heaven,” “The Map of Heaven,” and “Living in a Mindful Universe”. Another man named Howard Storm was a declared atheist who had an NDE and when he came back to life he became a pastor! The book he wrote is called “My Descent into Death”. There are thousands of more stories about people who died and were brought back. Many of them believe we are on the verge of science and spirituality cooperating together to make great discoveries about this universe.
Personally I’m fascinated by these stories and I don’t think we talk about them enough. There’s a lot for us to learn, and people who’ve had glimpses of the other side offer hope and wisdom from beyond this world. People who’ve had NDEs come back with a knowledge that the world’s great religions have taught all along. Things like there is life after death, and this earthly life is an incredible gift too. Things like the core of reality is love, and we get to experience it here too. Things like we don’t have to worry about what happens at death, but are incredibly loved and cared for, when we die and when we walk this earth.
And a fascinating thing is that someone like Eben Alexander who had a tremendous heavenly experience—says one of the most important things he learned is a new understanding of how to live in the here and now. Kinda like Jesus always focusing on how we should interact with each other and how to bring love into this physical reality. Kinda like what my mom told me after we read that book when I was a kid, that God wants us to enjoy this life too—to live, to learn, and to love.
We’re called to follow Jesus in the life we live now and to manifest love in this existence. Rather than wait to learn how to love in the Great Beyond, we’re called to do that here (where loving others can be a lot more challenging). We may not know exactly what the afterlife holds. But we do know Jesus’ promise of eternal life. And that somehow through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection we are set free from whatever separates us from God. And we know the God of love, who raised Jesus from the dead. And who’s promise to all of us is that we too will experience life everlasting. Thanks be to God! Amen.