Is There an Afterlife?

Harpists floating on clouds, chubby babies with pigeon wings, disembodied eternal beings floating around making music while Hitler gets tortured by a pitchfork-wielding goat demon below…is this the afterlife? 

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The picture of heaven in the Bible is a lot more earth-like. It says the hope for a future beyond death is resurrection: a physical life on a physical earth. Jesus often talks about the resurrection of the dead that’s to come on the day when God finally removes evil, suffering and death from the world. These things are a stain on the physical world, but God will not give up on creation. Our clothes get stained, but we don’t become nudists.  

Death is an uncomfortable subject. It’s painful and it hurts, but we will all be forced to confront it at some point. The Bible gives us some perspective on what happens to us when our bodies die, but it’s still mysterious. The only people who go to be with God in heaven during the Old Testament are Enoch and Elijah, who are both alive when they go! On the cross, Jesus makes a promise to a dying criminal who expresses his trust in Jesus. Jesus promises him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Finally, in the book of Revelation, a scene is described where the souls of martyred Christians ask God for justice on earth and in response are told to wait and are given rest. The peace and reconciliation with God that Jesus achieves for us on the cross surpass death and give us hope for eternal life with God even whilst our bodies lie in the ground.

Those resurrected to life might be said to be ‘in heaven. This language is misleading because tradition and false assumptions have let us believe it will never be on earth. Heaven is the place where God’s presence is fully known, which currently isn’t earth because of the presence of evil, but when evil and suffering are removed, heaven and earth will be joined together, and God will live fully with us. Those raised to judgment will experience what Christians call ‘hell’. This isn’t Satan’s own kingdom; it’s his punishment. People won’t be given over to sadistic demons; they’ll be given over to the judgment of a just God. What, exactly, will be experienced in this judgment is mysterious, but the little the Bible does say is that it will be eternal and terrible to experience. 

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One misconception people have about Christian afterlife is that heaven is for good people and hell is for bad people. We tend to judge someone as good or bad by comparing them to other people, but when we compare with God’s standards of perfect love and unfailing wisdom, everyone falls short. A world freed from suffering wouldn’t be free long if the standards drop to include anyone who’ll reproduce sin and suffering (which is everyone who isn’t God). Jesus is the judge who’ll raise some to eternal life and some to judgment. If His measure for goodness is God Himself, how can we hope to receive life rather than judgment? 

The answer can’t be to simply “do better”. We’ve already broken His laws and we lack the self-control and discipline to perfectly reflect the character of God by our own willpower and effort. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to those who trust in Him, so they can have this ongoing, life-giving connection. The Holy Spirit applies the death and resurrection of Jesus to Christians’ lives which allows evil and sin to die with Jesus on the cross and replaces it with the life of Jesus. This transforms us into people who will one day be free from the failings that create suffering and who are able to perfectly demonstrate the character of the loving God. Christians don’t have a place in the resurrection as a reward for trying to behave themselves. They receive their place, because their sin has died with Jesus, and they’ve been turned into people who reflect His goodness.  

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