September 13th, 2018
Christian theology has always affirmed the idea that life continues on after death. Physical death is seen not as a termination of existence, but rather as a transition from one stage to the next. It seems, however, that when one gets more specific about the subject of life after death, one realizes how much Greek philosophy and Gnosticism has infiltrated Christian thought about the afterlife. When it comes to the afterlife it seems that a common belief among Christians goes like this: When a person dies their soul leaves their body and instantly moves on to exist either in Heaven or Hell, depending on that person’s relationship with Jesus Christ. This belief, however, contains two misconceptions that do not align themselves with Scripture or orthodox Christian theology.
Firstly, the idea that the afterlife is spiritual and non-bodily does not find its roots in Christianity, but rather in Greek philosophy. The Greeks, since at least as early as Plato, saw physical existence as a lesser form of existence and yearned to be set free so that they can live in a spiritual bliss, without the constraints of physicality. Scripture, however, universally affirms the concept of a bodily resurrection. This concept most clearly expresses itself through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus leaves no body behind in the tomb because it is His own body that God raised from the dead. Afterward, He eats and drinks with some of His disciples and even allows Thomas to touch the wounds from His crucifixion. This clearly reveals the physicality of Christ’s resurrected form. Paul describes Jesus as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20, NIV). Clearly then, according to Paul, when the final resurrection takes place, we too will be raised in physical form just like Christ; Christ’s resurrection anticipates our own eventual resurrection. Shortly after, Paul states that “the body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:42, NIV). Once again, we clearly see that the body itself is raised, not just the spirit.
Secondly, the idea that Heaven or Hell come right after the point of death is also not founded upon Scripture. While both Heaven and Hell are realities in Christian belief, these places only come into play after the final resurrection and judgment. Daniel, in prophesying about the end times, states that “multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2, NIV). According to Daniel it appears that everlasting life and everlasting contempt only come after the “multitudes awake” after the final resurrection. Jesus, when talking about the separation of the sheep and the goats, states that this final judgment will only happen “when the Son of Man comes in His glory” (Matthew 25:31, NIV).
The question of what exactly then does happen right after death can only lead to speculation. Some affirm that people exist in a state of non-conscious, postmortem sleep, while some believe that there exists an intermediate place where souls are either present with the Lord (paradise) or in an opposite realm if they have rejected God. Neither of these places, however, are Heaven or Hell.
Thinking of the afterlife as a place with physicality can seem odd to those who have thought of it as a solely spiritual existence. However, we can see from the beginning of creation that the physical world is part of the created order that God described as “good”. While it is in desperate need of resurrection and restoration, there is no Scriptural indication that God will do away with it. Rather, as Christians, we can look forward to a time where spirit and body coexist in a form that is both good and imperishable.
Olson, R. E. (2002). The mosaic of Christian belief. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.