Christianity and the Afterlife

By Jason David Gray

The Christian view of the afterlife has as its foundation the teaching, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth marks the beginning of the Common Era (C.E.). Christians believe Jesus to be the Christ or Messiah, literally “the anointed one”. More specifically Jesus is taken to be the son of God incarnate, whose teachings, suffering and death were meant to absolve mankind of its original sin and make possible salvation and eternal life.

As is the case in the Islamic tradition, Christians believe that Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, were created by God and lived in the Garden of Eden. The Garden was free of suffering and death. However, God forbade Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They did not follow God’s command and so were cast out of the Garden, as sinners, and made subject to death and suffering. This first or “original” sin of mankind means, according to traditional Christian theologians, that all humans are born as sinners, unworthy of God’s grace and destined to die (humans are not naturally immortal, but immortal only because of God’s grace). The life and death of Jesus Christ was meant to provide a means by which one might be absolved of this sin and achieve eternal life. Christians believe that persons have freedom of the will and they must choose to accept this gift of salvation or reject it.

There is some dispute in the Christian community about the doctrine of original sin. Although accepted by Catholics and many Protestants there are those who deny the doctrine and believe that it is possible for man to achieve moral perfection on his own (of his own free will). Under this doctrine of limited depravity, historically called “Pelagianism”, sin is freely chosen (not inherited) and the sinner is forgiven through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. However, a man is able to merit God’s grace through his own free will, without the sacrifice of Jesus.[1]

To understand the earliest Christian beliefs about the afterlife one must understand the tradition and culture in which Christianity arose. The earliest Christians were a sect within “apocalyptic Judaism”. (Obayashi, p.54) These were Jews who believed in a day of judgment in which the kingdom of God would come to earth and the righteous would be raised from the dead. The earliest Christians believed the death of Christ portended the coming of God’s kingdom. The earliest view of the resurrection held that it involved the literal bodily resurrection of the deceased. However, as Christianity spread and gentile influence (especially Greek) began to be exerted on the faith a different syncretized view of life after death began to emerge.

The platonic Greek view of afterlife was a dualistic one, with a spirit that was independent of the physical body. Elements of early Jewish tradition held that the dead went to a place called Sheol, where the mode of existence was, “dim, lethargic, and unenviable.” (Coward, p.36) But as Judaism evolved certain groups, particularly the Pharisees, came to believe in a physical resurrection of the dead.[2]  The Pharisee notion was to collide with the Greek notion as non-Jews, especially Greeks and Anatolians, became Christian converts.

There are a number of questions that arise about the Christian view of the afterlife. The first is this: What is resurrected? Of course one notion, already mentioned, was that the literal physical body of the deceased was brought back to life. Another was that some other form of body, a spiritual body, was raised from the dead. Yet another interpretation, found in the Greek Gnostic tradition, claims that the soul is a prisoner of the body and it is simply freed upon death.[3] From this welter of ideas no one did more to resolve the question than the Apostle Paul.

Paul (née Saul of Tarsus) was originally a Pharisee who persecuted Christians. However, after seeing an image of Christ while traveling to Damascus Paul converted to Christianity. After his conversion he began to actively evangelize gentiles, especially around Asia Minor and Greece, and is well known in Christianity as the Apostle Paul, even though he was not a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth.[4] It was Paul who, through his epistles to various churches, began to standardize the Christian view of resurrection.

In 1 Corinthians 15 (v.50-52) Paul writes, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption…For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” Scholars have interpreted this in different ways but clearly there will be some change between the body we currently inhabit and the one that will be resurrected. In the Greek this is new body is called the soma pneumatikon, or spiritual body. Hiroshi Obayashi believes this is the canonical notion of Christian resurrection, writing, “One has to be reborn, recreated by divine power into a spiritual being –die to the old self and be raised into a new self.” (Obayashi, p.110)

What is the spiritual body? Some believe that the spiritual body is not a body in any material sense because flesh and blood are corruptible and cannot be resurrected into the Kingdom of Heaven. However, as Terence Penelhum points out, “It does not follow from this that those who inherit the Kingdom will not have physical bodies, only that they will not have corruptible bodies. But this does not entail that it is not spatial, three-dimensional, or material.” (Coward, p.38) Some of the imagery of heaven used by Jesus implies some form of material or three-dimensional existence.[5] However, some scholars, like Paul Gooch, believe that a bodiless spirit or soul is what continues to exist after our death. This is a point of contention among theologians.  Whatever notion one holds of the resurrected body Christians are nearly unanimous in their belief that this resurrection occurs only as a result of God’s grace -the unearned love and mercy God bestows upon us.

Another question arises in the Christian tradition about the afterlife: What is the destination (or possible destinations) for those who are resurrected?  There are two nearly universally accepted destinations, and a third that is widely (though not universally) accepted. Christians believe that those who have accepted Jesus as the Son of God, and sought salvation through him (i.e., his teachings) will be destined to dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven. The New Testament does not describe heaven in as much great detail as certain other religious texts (cf. The Holy Quran). Still, there are some graphic descriptions of heaven, especially in the Book of Revelations. As an example, “And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and the Lamb…There shall be no night there; they need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light.” (Revelations 22:1, 5) One universally accepted notion among Christians is that the Kingdom of Heaven is a place of peace and eternal communion with God.

There is a second destination for those who are resurrected but were not believers, or who did not seek forgiveness for their sins (i.e., those who are not redeemed in God’s eyes). This destination seems to have evolved from the Jewish notion of Sheol. Terence Penelhum writes, “It evolved, as it were, into Gehenna, place of torment and burning.” (Coward, p.36) More commonly called Hell (or Hades) this destination for the unredeemed resurrected is described in some detail. The story of what occurred after the deaths of Lazarus, a poor beggar, and a rich man who had ignored Lazarus’ plight provides some of the best imagery of hell. As an example, “And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off…Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’…But Abraham said, ‘Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.”[6] (Luke 16: 23-26) In the Christian faith, much as with Islam, hell is a place of fire and torment from which there is no escape.

There is a third destination for the resurrected, a place called purgatory. However, purgatory is not universally recognized as a place of existence and there is a fairly clear division between Protestants (who do not recognize purgatory) and Catholics (who do) in this regard.[7] Purgatory is an intermediate state between heaven and hell. It is here that, “A process of cleansing and purifying takes place by way of the pain of fire…mortal sins lead on directly to hell, venial sins are dealt with differently. They are to be expurgated in purgatory so that one may be purified enough to be ready for admission to heaven.” (Obayashi, p.117) So purgatory is a way for those who committed more minor (i.e., more readily forgivable) sins to be made ready for entrance into Heaven.

The questions of what is resurrected and where a resurrected body or spirit may end up naturally gives rise to two more questions. First, who is to be resurrected? Second, when will this resurrection take place? According to the most widely accepted view in Christian theology everyone will be resurrected, Christian and non-Christian alike. And each will be judged according to their individual merits. Now for Christians this creates a problem. How does one account for the salvation of all the souls of those who died prior to the coming of Jesus? The answer that is generally accepted is that during the three days that elapsed between Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection he descended into Hell to preach to those who were unconverted. This still leaves other problems for Christianity, but the basic tenet is that all will be resurrected and that salvation comes through belief in Jesus as the Christ. [8], [9]

The final question concerning the Christian afterlife is when the resurrection and judgment of those who have died is to take place. There are two general schools of thought regarding this matter. Many believe that resurrection and judgment occur immediately upon the death of the individual. The more traditional notion is that there will be a day of judgment in the future. This judgment will take place after Christ’s return to earth and after God’s final victory over all evil (this is the apocalypse in the Christian sense). After the apocalypse the dead will all be resurrected at the same time.

Hiroshi Obayashi explains the historical reason for this division between those who believe in immediate vs. those who believe in post-apocalyptic resurrection. Obayashi writes, “The realization by the Christians after the first century of the apparent postponement of the final end resulted in toning down the overtly futuristic language. Christians understandably shifted the emphasis from the remote eschatological future to the present and immediate future that awaits one after death….Heaven is now timelessly available at any point in time, not only at the end of history.” (Obayashi, p.112) Those who hold that resurrection is not to occur until the end of history believe that we will remain in a sleep-like state until that time, or that our souls will be freed from our corrupt bodies and will be re-embodied at the end. At the present time the more popular view seems to be that resurrection is immediate.

There are subtle distinctions and a number of debates that suffuse the Christian community. However, the core accepted notions are that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, that through him our sins may be forgiven, and with that forgiveness we are able to attain eternal life. This paper has given some brief insight into the controversies among Christians (e.g., whether all persons are born sinners, or whether we are born pure and must choose sin). However, for all Christians the core tenets of the religion revolve around the teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

 


Bibliography

The Holy Bible: New King James Version. Gideons International, National Publishing Company, 1982.

Coward, Harold (ed.). Life after Death in World Religions. Maryknoll; NY: Orbis Books, 1997.

Keck, Leander E. “Death and Afterlife in the New Testament,” in Obayashi, Hiroshi (ed.). Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Obayashi, Hiroshi (ed.). Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.

_________.  “Death and Eternal Life in Christianity,” in Obayashi, Hiroshi (ed.). Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Penelhum, Terence. “Chrstianity,” in Coward, Harold (ed.). Life after Death in World Religions. Maryknoll; NY: Orbis Books, 1997.


Notes

[1] Pelagianism was ratified as a heresy by the Catholic Church at the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE, and continues to be a heresy to the present day. Several protestant sects, such as the Methodists, also consider Pelagianism to be heretical.&#8617

[2] The Pharisees were rather like lay pastors who observed the laws of the Torah and Moses scrupulously. They were usually from the lower social classes and were not priests in the Jewish temple in an official or formal capacity.&#8617

[3] According to Leander Keck Gnosticism was considered heresy until the late 19th century.&#8617

[4] In Christianity the word apostle usually is taken to refer to one of a group of twelve followers and contemporaries of Jesus. The original twelve apostles were Peter, Andrew, James (son of Zebedee), John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James (son of Alphaeus), Thaddaeus, Simon, and Judas Iscariot. However, Paul was considered the apostle to the gentiles.&#8617

[5] See John 14:2, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions…I go to prepare a place for you.” Of course this also has a metaphoric interpretation which does not require that heaven be physical in the way we would understand it (e.g., three dimensional, etc.)&#8617

[6] Abraham is the Patriarch of the Jewish people.&#8617

[7] Space does not permit a discussion of how this division between Christian sects came about. It was the result of something called the Protestant Reformation. The difference between the sects is mainly liturgical. For those interested in the subject Diarmaid MacCulloch has a respected book on the subject entitled The Reformation.&#8617

[8] Another problem one can think of is that the opportunity for salvation might be lost for someone who lived after Jesus, but in a community that had not ever been exposed to his teachings. For an attempt to resolve answers to such questions one should consult Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister E. McGrath.&#8617

[9] There is a minority view that claims that the damned will simply not be resurrected. This is in tension with the images and purpose of hell discussed in this paper. Even though it is a minority view, it is still worth mentioning.&#8617

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