What is the Christian afterlife and why believe in it?

One of the common criticisms of the concept of the afterlife, particularly the concept of going to heaven when we die, is that it is too good to be true. In other words, it is wishful thinking based on no evidence. It is the result of cognitive dissonance in that we cannot reconcile our innate need to stay alive with our inevitable death.

Oddly enough, most concepts of the afterlife through the millennia have not been that pleasant. The Greek concept of Hades as depicted in Homer, for example, was a place where virtually everyone went when they died, but it was a sad place, not a place of torture, necessarily, but more like an eternal holding pen for whatever was left over after people’s bodies perished. It wasn’t a good place to be. Likewise, the house of the dead of Near Eastern people, such as depicted in the epic of Gilgamesh, is similar.

Hindus and Buddhists, meanwhile, believe in reincarnation (as well as a spirit world). In this case also, however, it isn’t necessarily a good thing. Many Buddhists believe they can, indeed, escape reincarnation through enlightenment.

Indigenous people in the Americas believed in a variety of afterlife concepts from haunting and resentful ghosts of the dead to living on in a delightful spirit world.

There are religions that have no concept of the afterlife. Early Jews appear to have had none. After all, God made Adam from the soil (his name literally means “soil”) and breathed life into him. All human beings are essentially God-animated soil, so when we die, the idea goes, we return to the soil. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

Later Jewish people developed a concept of resurrection, the idea that at the end of the world everyone would be given new bodies. Jesus spoke frequently about this saying “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.” John 11:25.

According to Christian belief, as given by the Gospels, especially John, therefore, people who are “in” Christ, who have “received” the Spirit, have eternal life. That is, they do not just get to live forever at some future date, but have a kind of status, now, as children of God that entitles them to dwell in his house forever (John 8:35).

To our modern minds, steeped in popular psychology, this can seem like wishful thinking. A promise of living forever is a powerful hook to pull in new believers and to make them do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, to risk their lives for the faith. This was necessary, especially in the early church but throughout its history, since evangelism was a dangerous enterprise.

It seems far more reasonable to accept that we only have this one life. We can be agnostic about it and just say we don’t know what happens after or we can choose to believe there really is nothing after. In either case, we may feel more clear eyed in believing this as if we are sober and mature adults because we have rejected believing what we want to believe.

Truth, however, doesn’t care if you want to believe it or not. How do we know whether the atheistic position is realistic or pessimistic?

In the following, I want to talk about how Jesus suggests we go about settling our beliefs as given in the Gospel of John. What he says may surprise you because ultimately he asks us to look at evidence rather than going purely on faith. After all, what is faith if it is based on nothing but words? It is weak. Jesus wanted us to have something stronger to rest our beliefs on.

First, let’s talk about what kind of afterlife Jesus promises.

Many Christians, unfortunately, misunderstand the nature of the afterlife promised in the Gospels. The common belief is that each of us has an eternal soul which, when we die, goes to heaven or the hell depending on if we’ve been a good or bad person (or possibly just a believer or not).

The Gospels present a concept of the afterlife that is rooted in the resurrection and judgement however. There is no mention of an eternal soul. (The word translated as “soul” in the New Testament is the Greek word psuche, which is better translated as lifeforce.)

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) appears to make the case for this kind of afterlife, but it isn’t clear that Jesus’ depiction is intended to be taken literally. Rather Jesus is using commonly available imagery to tell a story about the role reversal of the rich and the oppressed.

In fact, Jesus does not touch very much on the afterlife other than to point towards a resurrection and a day of judgement.

At the end of of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 23:42), as Jesus hangs upon the cross he promises on the thieves crucified with him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” This promise suggests that the thief, having been saved, will now go to be with Jesus in a place free of suffering.

In John 14, Jesus says, “There are many dwelling places in my Father’s house. Otherwise, I would have told you, because I am going away to make ready a place for you. And if I go and make ready a place for you, I will come again and take you to be with me, so that where I am you may be too.”

This suggests that Jesus is promising to come back for his disciples, not that their souls will make their way to heaven. What this dwelling place is is the subject of much debate. Is it a temporary way station on the way to God or the way back to the resurrection? Is it a permanent house in heaven? I would interpret it as Jesus’s own exaltation. In other words, he is preparing to take his disciples into himself by the Holy Spirit. I read it this way partly because Jesus promises after this to ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit to them.

This means that, when one receives the Holy Spirit, when one is “in Christ”, one is already living the life eternal. You have one foot in the afterlife as it were. One’s life becomes rooted in Christ and resurrection and everything contrary to that will burn away, if not now, then later. This is why baptism is sometimes called a kind of death. You die in baptism in order to receive new life but, until your body dies, you have to drag it around with you and deal with temptations just as Jesus did.

How is one to believe all this?

Jesus, in the same chapter, John 14, explains how: “Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me, but if you do not believe me, believe because of the miraculous deeds themselves.”

Believe in what deeds? Those written in the Bible? No.

He continues, “I tell you the solemn truth, the person who believes in me will perform the miraculous deeds that I am doing, and will perform greater deeds than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”

This is a pretty big promise. It is sometimes debated whether he is only promising this to his disciples gathered with him or if this is a general promise to all Christians. The former would be easier because it is clear that when people ask for things in Jesus’ name, they don’t always happen. People’s loved ones die despite numerous people asking in his name that they live. Yet, he says “the person,” not “one of you”. That suggests anyone.

Some people latch onto the words “so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” as a qualifier, meaning that only certain actions that glorify the Son in the Father will be done. The words don’t quite have that causal connection, however. It seems to be saying that the miraculous deeds will be done so that the Father is glorified in the Son. In other words, the cause and effect is the other direction.

Others focus on the words “the person who believes in me”. In other words, if what you ask doesn’t happen, it is because you lacked faith. That can seem a rough thing to throw at a person who’s loved one is dying. If only you believed more, you could have saved them. Nevertheless, Jesus repeatedly rebukes his disciples for not having enough faith, while in many cases of miraculous healing, he tells the healed person that their faith has made them well. So it make sense that faith is a critical ingredient in the performance of miraculous deeds.

While Jesus points to a person’s faith as the cause of their healing, it seems as if two things are required: faith and proximity to Jesus. This may be why he says “because I am going to the Father” because, once he ascends, this healing power comes through the Holy Spirit acting in his disciples, not physical proximity to Jesus himself.

In the book of Acts 19:11-15 there is a story of Jewish exorcists trying to cast out demons in the name of Jesus. “The spirit replied, ‘I know about Jesus and I am acquainted with Paul, but who are you?’ Then the man who was possessed by the evil spirit jumped on them and beat them all into submission. He prevailed against them so that they fled from that house naked and wounded.”

This suggests that these exorcists, trying to act in the name of Jesus, failed because they either didn’t have the required faith that Paul possessed or they hadn’t received the Holy Spirit (probably both). They were merely acting for their own self-interest.

It isn’t clear if there are other qualifiers to what Jesus says about doing miraculous deeds. It seems as if he would refuse to do anything that is contrary to his will or commands for certain. Yet, in many cases, it is a mystery why prayer and supplication fails.

Then again, that is not the point. It isn’t that we get what we want but that we have miraculous deeds to convince us of the truth of his words.

Jesus is suggesting that those who struggle to believe the words alone can rest their faith on miraculous deeds; theirs or others’. In order for that to make sense today, those deeds still have to be happening.

Thus, the promise of the afterlife in John, the promise of rebirth and renewal of the whole world, is one that can be believed because one witnesses miraculous deeds happening in the name of Jesus then and now.

In other words, Jesus does not say, “take my word on faith” as many critics would have you believe. Rather, he says, “you can take my word on faith, but, if you don’t, then look at the evidence”.

It is easy to be skeptical of any claim of the miraculous, but there are some clear examples that are unexplained by science. It is only by strictly adhering to scientism, believing science because of the words it uses rather than evidence, that one rejects these out of hand.

Jesus implies also with the story of the rich man and Lazarus that unrepentant people will not accept any kind of testimony, even that of someone come back from the dead, meaning himself. Repentance is essential before one can believe, even one’s own eyes. This suggests that being unrepentant is a kind of resistance to the truth. One is deceiving oneself because it is more comfortable to do so.

Whether you accept something as miraculous or not depends a great deal on the circumstances, the evidence. Some stories are clearly legends, but others are plausible. A good example is the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano, which left behind physical evidence.

In the 8th century, a priest in Lanciano, Italy was experiencing doubts about the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. In the middle of saying Mass, he said the words of consecration (“This is my body,” “This is my blood) and saw the bread and wine transform into real human flesh and blood. The blood coagulated into five globules (later believed to be representative of the five wounds of Christ). Word of the miracle quickly spread, the local archbishop launched an investigation, and the Church approved the miracle.

The flesh is still preserved to this day. Professor of anatomy Odoardo Linoli conducted a scientific analysis of the flesh in 1971 and concluded that the flesh was cardiac tissue, the blood appeared to be fresh blood (as opposed to blood that was 1200 years old), and there was no trace of preservatives.

You can visit the miraculous flesh and blood in the Church of San Francesco in Lanciano, Italy.

The common belief is that we must accept religious claims on faith alone but that is not so. We were never asked to trust in words alone.

That doesn’t mean we should accept every miraculous claim. There are many con artists, magicians, and scammers out there of course. A genuine miracle glorifies God in Jesus Christ. It does not enrich anyone with wealth or power. Most miracles are very mundane, but it seems to me that if the miraculous does not occur at all then Christian faith is meaningless and one might as well embrace some non-miraculous religion like Zen.

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