Your Beliefs about the Afterlife: Are They Christian?

My summer reading program has essentially concluded with two recommended volumes that together cover much of the same ground. Bruce D. Chilton’s Resurrection Logic: How Jesus’ First Followers Believed God Raised Him from the Dead (Baker, 2019) was followed a year later by Bart D. Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster, 2020). Both books explore ancient notions of what happens to people after death.

People have wondered about, been afraid of, and looked forward to what happens after death since before recorded history. The very earliest textual remains, the Middle Eastern epic Gilgamesh account, tells a four-thousand-year-old story about a super-human demigod who sought, and ultimately failed, to find immortality in a life-giving herb. Along the way he encountered dead friends and family who lie without hope in the dust.

Over a thousand years after Gilgamesh visited the realm of the dead, the semi-legendary Greek author Homer similarly conceived of the afterlife as bleak and dreary in his two major works: the Iliad and the Odyssey. According to Homer, once the life breath is gone, disembodied souls with no hope of return live out an existence offering neither pain nor pleasure. Notably, however, semi-divine offspring, including Hercules, might expect to exist forever among the gods. Three other men who had angered the gods are damned to eternal torture in Hades. Starting to sound familiar?

Nearly half a century later, the great philosopher Socrates decried human concern about death. What good does it do to worry, he asked? “To be afraid of death is only another form of thinking that one is wise when one is not.” One cannot know what happens after death. Perhaps death results only in endless sleep. Or perhaps one can experience the transmigration of the soul. In any event we cannot know in advance because no one can return to tell us. So why worry? What will happen will happen.

Socrates’s student, Plato, conceived the human being as a combination of both of body and soul, the former of a temporary nature, the latter immortal. Knowing that, advised Plato, should lead one to concentrate on building up the soul at the expense of the body. Virtuous souls could expect to enter the pure realm of true reality though the material body gets left behind. Sinners can expect an eternity in Tartarus, a part of Hades reserved for the wicked.

In the fourth century, the Greek philosopher Epicurus, like Socrates, chided those who worried about death. His fatalist view conceived of death as no more than a breakdown of the body and soul into atoms which then get dispersed into the air. Many in the ancient world shared this hopeless conceptualization of death. Ancient gravestones reflect the belief that the afterlife brought only nonexistence. It is not surprising that others sought comfort in more positive teachings.

The concern over the state of the afterlife had much to do with the general concern for fair play. The age-old question of why the wicked prospered while the righteous or virtuous suffered was often answered in afterlife scenarios where justice would ultimately be served. The Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BCE) thought that souls in Hades were experiencing just that kind of justice, being punished for sinful living or rewarded for virtue. Many sinners however could expect another chance at life after a millennium of suffering.

Christian expectations of life after death were not only informed by Greco-Roman notions of postmortem reward and punishment but also on Jewish ideas of the afterlife. After all, Jesus and all of his immediate followers were Jews. The Tanakh or Old Testament is not particularly hopeful about the afterlife. One’s nefesh, or life force, simply enters Sheol, the Pit, that is, the grave. Individual resurrection or other ideas of life after death are virtually non-existent in the Biblical literature. Any predictions of life from death, especially those occurring in the prophets (e.g., Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel), are not about the individual but about the restoration of the nation of Israel twice conquered and scattered, once by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE and later by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE.

It was not until after the conquest of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE and the Greek domination of the Middle East that thoughts of individual resurrection began to surface in Jewish literature. The earliest such text is the Book of the Watchers, part of the First Book of Enoch. This 3rd-century apocalypse proved remarkably influential to the entire Jewish apocalyptic movement, including Christianity, in the following centuries.

All of the ingredients of Christian apocalyptic expectations are found in the Book of the Watchers: a final judgment, a paradise for the righteous, the destruction of the wicked, the arrival of the Son of Man. These ideas informed the later Book of Daniel, the last to be written and included in the Tanakh/Old Testament. In the Book of Daniel, written about 167 BCE, the prophet, like Enoch before him, visits the celestial realms in a dream vision where he beholds the angel Michael who speaks of “those who sleep in the dusty ground.” Some, he says, will awake “to everlasting life, and others to shame and everlasting abhorrence.” The righteous will shine like stars, a popular analogy for resurrected individuals.

Not all of the Jewish apocalyptic texts agreed on the state of the risen righteous or the fate of the wicked. The 1st-century Psalms of Solomon understood the righteous to live forever but “sinners shall be taken away to destruction and no memory of them will ever be found.”

Most Jews rejected Plato’s body and soul dichotomy. The soul was not inherently eternal. It was God and God alone who brought people back to life and often this life included a transformed body. Chilton identified five ancient Jewish conceptions of how the dead might live again:

1) 1 Enoch advances the notion that resurrected spirits are either brought to life immediately after death to await the final judgment or, as in the 1st-century BCE Book of Jubilees, are raised at the judgment itself. Both texts agree that postmortem life will take place on a transformed and restored earth.

2) As we saw above, the Book of Daniel and others envisioned postmortem life for the righteous as star-like, perhaps heavenly, owing to an ancient belief that not only did stars guide one’s fate but that there was a star in the sky representing each individual.

3) Another popular belief was that the righteous dead would become angels. Jesus is said to have made this remark: “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30).

4) By the late 1st-century BCE, another belief took hold in the Jewish imagination: that people would rise in some recognizable form of their earthly bodies. This notion is first expressed in the apocryphal book known as 2 Maccabees. In the story of the mother and her seven sons, persecuted and executed by Greek rulers due to their unwavering Torah observance, they boldly predicted their return to life:

“After this, the third [son] was mocked. When it was demanded, he put out his tongue quickly [to be cut off], extended his hands courageously [to be cut off], and stated with dignity, ‘I have received these limbs from heaven, and I give them up for the sake of God’s laws. But I hope to recover them from God again’” (2 Macc. 7:10-11).

5) Finally, some Jews fell in line with the teachings of the Greeks and advocated the postmortem continuance of an immortal soul.

Not all Jews agreed that there even was a postmortem existence (e.g., the Sadducees). Christianity as a movement is based on the belief that at least one individual did rise from the dead. Early Christians adopted a variety of Jewish and Greek beliefs and different authors were at conflict with one another, even within the New Testament, about the nature of life after death. Notably, no Christian creed sets forth an orthodox statement about the nature of the resurrected dead, only professing that there would be a judgment and an everlasting kingdom.

A quick survey of early Christian literature will attest to the diversity of belief. In Matthew 25:31-36, Jesus speaks of the judgment in which the righteous enter the kingdom and the wicked receive eternal punishment (Ehrman argues that this punishment is actually permanent death). According to Matthew 8:10-12, however, the wicked go into the outer darkness; in Matthew 7:13-14, this is characterized as destruction. Rather than teach of a future judgment for all believers, the Gospel of Luke has Jesus reward a penitent thief on the cross with the promise of going to paradise “this day” (Luke 23:43). Revelation (7:4-9; 21:1-3) indicates that the souls of the righteous rest in heaven but will live in the new Jerusalem on earth. Their enemies, however, are tormented in fire before finally being annihilated.

What about the resurrected condition? Paul, no doubt basing his ideas on his own experience of the risen Jesus, taught that the righteous would be resurrected in “spiritual bodies,” some kind of recognizable but transformed version of one’s earthly form (1 Cor. 15:44). He specifically stated that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50). Jesus, as we saw, spoke of the resurrected as being like angels.

If the form of the resurrected Jesus is to be any guide for Christians, the gospel authors seem to have struggled with how to present the relevant details, ultimately choosing to combine ideas. All four gospels report that Jesus’s tomb was empty on the third day after his burial (Paul never mentions this). Was that meant to imply that Jesus’s earthly flesh and bones were reanimated? Matthew seemed to think so as Mary Magdalene and other women are described as holding on to Jesus’s “feet and worship him” (Mat. 28:9) after he is risen.

Luke, however, has the risen Jesus do things that flesh and bone cannot do such as change his appearance (Luke 24:16, 31a), suddenly disappear without a trace (Luke 24:31b), and then suddenly reappear without warning (Luke 24:36). Nevertheless, in an apparent effort to dissuade the reader from concluding that the risen Jesus was anything but flesh and blood, Luke has Jesus say, “Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones like you see I have” (Luke 24:39). To prove the point, Jesus eats a piece of fish (Luke 24:42-43).

The Gospel of John provides equally confusing evidence. Once again Jesus changes his appearance, leading Mary Magdalene to think he is a gardener; he will not allow her to touch him as she did in Matthew (John 20:15, 17). Jesus’s disciples do not recognize him on the beach (John 21:4). Jesus twice suddenly appears in a locked room (John 20:19, 26). But again, seemingly in order to forestall any suggestion that Jesus did not rise in the flesh, the disciple Thomas is made to demand that he “put my finger into the wounds from his nails, and put my hand into his side” (John 20:25); eight days later he is given the opportunity to do so (John 20:27).

The suggestion that Jesus did not rise in the flesh became heresy in parts of the second-century church. Bishop Ignatius of Antioch taught that not only did Jesus rise in the flesh but that everyone else would be resurrected in the flesh as well. On the other hand, the 2nd-century Christian Treatise on the Resurrection, found among the largely Gnostic Nag Hammadi library, flatly denies the resurrection of the flesh. The once canonical Third Letter to the Corinthians, forged in Paul’s name and also dating to the 2nd century, has Paul state, against his Corinthian proposition, that the flesh would indeed rise again. Tertullian of Carthage (155-240 CE) agreed, explaining that what Paul actually meant was that those who lived fleshly lives (succumbing to fleshly passions) would not be raised, not that the flesh itself would not be raised. The widely influential, 2nd-century Christian teacher Marcion of Sinope flatly rejected the claim that Jesus was ever flesh and bone since, in his opinion, Jesus came directly from the sublime world of the Father, not the crass world of matter.

What do you believe about the afterlife? Does it agree with ancient Greek, Jewish, or Christian conceptions? Is it a combination of ideas? Whatever your view, from complete skepticism to the belief that the dead immediately rise to heaven, the ancients thought of it before you did. And, like us, they simply could not agree.

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