5 biblical perspectives on death and the afterlife
In keeping with our November remembrance of those who have died, this month we will survey several biblical perspectives on death and the afterlife. In a book as large and diverse as the Bible, we can expect to find a great variety of ideas on such a significant topic.
1. Enjoy life while you can. The Book of Ecclesiastes offers us a refreshing and perhaps unexpected take on human life: enjoy it while you can! Grappling with the fleeting nature of human life, the wise and down-to-earth author of this interesting book (who does not appear to have believed in a meaningful afterlife — see Ecclesiastes 9:4–5) has a simple recipe for enjoying life as much as possible: enjoy good food and drink, spend time with friends, and find satisfaction in your work. In the end, death will come to us all, and we simply must accept it. (You may be surprised to find out that “life is short and then you die” is actually a biblical concept!) The fact that the Book of Ecclesiastes is inspired, canonical Scripture should comfort us with the assurance that uncertainty about life, death, and what comes after death is natural. Being human isn’t easy; facing our own mortality is one reason why.
2. We don’t want life to end. In Genesis 3, the rebellion of Adam and Eve against God leads to a litany of punishments and dire words, including the familiar mantra: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (3:19). Theologians debate whether or not death was part of God’s original plan for human beings, but Scripture is clear that the human experience of death as an abrupt end to life and a painful separation is not something that God wants for us (see Wisdom 1:13). On one hand, death is natural, but on the other, it is horrifying and incomprehensible. The death and resurrection of Jesus will definitively address this distressing reality that is a defining part of human existence.
You are dust, and to dust you shall return.
3. There is life after death. Ancient Israelites did not believe in an afterlife. Instead they believed in an ongoing shadowy existence in the place of the dead (known as “Sheol”). But there was no joy in Sheol, no real sense of self or others. Sheol was neither reward nor punishment, and it certainly was not union with God (see Psalm 6:6). However, as the centuries passed and Israel remained in covenant relationship with God, belief in the resurrection of the dead and a meaningful afterlife began to take shape in the hearts and minds of God’s people. There was no grand revelation of this truth. Over time, it simply began to make sense that a life-giving God would continue to give life, that innocent suffering would not have the last word, that the way we live our lives has eternal significance, and that love never ends. Indeed, by the time of Jesus, many Jews (such as Jesus himself — see Luke 20:27–40; John 11:25) believed in the resurrection of the dead and an afterlife of either union with or separation from God (see Matthew 25:31–46).
4. Death is the ultimate surrender. The death of Jesus transformed the world. This tells us that death can be a powerful experience; it can actually wield power and bring about change. But how? The death of Jesus was the ultimate gift of self. Jesus did not hold back anything in his love for God and human beings. His utterance, “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42) in the Garden of Gethsemane and his living out of that declaration was the ultimate surrender; it transformed his death with its potent self-giving love. This death not only saves us; it also sets an example for us in our own deaths. Our lives are full of opportunities to surrender, to give ourselves to God, to lay down our lives for the sake of others. These moments are, in a sense, preparation for our own deaths — the ultimate surrender of our whole selves to God.
Not my will but yours be done.
5. We carry in our bodies the dying of Jesus. This notion from the letters of St. Paul (see 2 Corinthians 4:10) is one of many ways that the New Testament confidently proclaims that those who believe in Christ share in his death. Those who follow Christ follow him all the way to the cross. Those who live with him die with him. And, St. Paul also declares, those who die with him will live with him (see Romans 6:8). What greater honor is there than to be one with Christ crucified? This is how we share in his life, death, and resurrection. This is how we share in the love he has for the world. Death brings life. This is the great paradox of our faith.