If you go to Google and type in the phrase “what happens,” before you’ve even finished typing the second word, Google populates a list of possible searches, and the first one (and thus, most popular) is “what happens when you die” (the second option, humorously enough, is “what happens when you lose your virginity”).
Google returns about 12.5 million topics on “what happens when you die” (sadly, only about a quarter of a million on virginity). On “afterlife,” the return is about 6.2 million. For “life after death,” the number soars to 55.4 million.
As Internet search engines attest, the afterlife is a popular topic indeed.
Like most religions, Christianity has deeply-entrenched traditions on life after death. For Christianity, in fact, life after death is at the very core of its entire theology – the belief that because Jesus died for our sins and was raised on the third day, we can be forgiven of our sins and be raised to eternal life as well. While it’s true that many branches and forms of Christianity may or may not emphasize this aspect of Christian tradition, there can be no question that it was a primary characteristic of the earliest Christian church, reflected in the New Testament.
In my experience, it seems that most Christians (I might even be inclined to say “the vast majority of Christians”) believe that when you die, your soul goes to heaven. This is reflected in countless ways in society. When a loved one dies, for instance, we might talk about them looking down on us from heaven, or we might imagine them finally meeting God in heaven. Songs reflect this belief, such as MercyMe’s wildly popular song “I Can Only Imagine,” which pictures the singer’s reaction to arriving in heaven and seeing God face-to-face. We tell formulaic jokes about someone dying and going up to meet St. Peter at the gates of heaven.
Indeed, the idea of your spirit or soul going to heaven when you die is certainly one of the most common beliefs among Christians. I’m not even sure that I personally know any self-professed Christian who does not believe that when you die, your soul goes to heaven. This is a belief that I have personally held throughout my entire life. Even when I have struggled intellectually with my personal beliefs, I have never questioned that the basic concept on life after death is that you go to heaven when you die.
What, then, does the Biblical tradition have to tell us about life after death? Surely it supports this view? Many people may be surprised to discover that our modern conceptions of life after death have almost no parallels in the Biblical tradition. A few months ago, I wrote about misconceptions regarding Biblical content. I recognize now that I was remiss in not including a discussion of life after death in that essay. As I have studied this topic in recent weeks, I can only describe my reaction as “dumbfounded.” How has an idea become so deeply ingrained in Christian culture when it has no basis in the Biblical tradition, and is, in fact, contradicted by the Bible’s own theology on life after death? That analysis is beyond the scope of this essay, but I do want to look deeply at what the Bible itself says about life after death and human eternity.
Before one can understand anything in the New Testament, one must have a contextual framework from Jewish tradition. The earliest Christians, after all, were Jews working within the structure of Judaism. So was Jesus. Thus, to understand what they were talking about, we have to understand first where they were coming from.
To put it simply, the ancient Jews of the Old Testament did not believe in life after death, at least not for the average person. The ancient Jews did not have a concept of a soul or a spirit separate from the human body. The idea of a soul unbound by “the flesh” of the body originated with the ancient Greeks – who came along after most of the books of the Old Testament were written.
The Jews weren’t unique in their beliefs that the soul and body were united as one. Prior to the Greek philosophical revolution, no ancient civilization imagined a soul separate from the body. The Egyptians, for instance, certainly believed in life after death, but it wasn’t the soul that lived forever, it was the whole body. That’s why they mummified themselves and buried themselves with all their earthly possessions – possessions their physical body would need on its journey through the afterlife.
For the Jews and other ancient “pre-Greek” civilizations, body and soul, “flesh” and “spirit,” were inextricable. One did not exist without the other. Thus, for an ancient Jew, the idea that the soul would leave the body upon death and go to heaven would have been foreign and nonsensical. “Soul” and “body” were words that could be used interchangeably because they meant the same thing – they referred to the whole person, not two disparate parts of a person.
The Jews were certainly familiar with Egyptian ideas about life after death. But like so many other theological beliefs that the Jews regarded as hallmarks of paganism, the Jews rejected the Egyptian concept of the afterlife. For the ancient Jews, when a person died, they didn’t go to heaven, hell, or any other divine plane of existence. Instead, they simply went to a place called sheol in Hebrew. That word translates into English as either “grave” or “pit.” Quite simply, when you died, you went into the ground.
This is evidenced throughout the Jewish scriptures.
From Genesis, chapter 3: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
From Job, chapter 7: “As the cloud fades and vanishes, so those who go down to the grave [sheol] do not come up; they return no more to their houses, nor do their places know them anymore.”
From Psalm, chapter 6: “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in the grave [sheol] who can give you praise?”
From Ecclesiastes, chapter 9: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave [sheol], to which you are going.”
The word sheol appears no fewer than 65 times in the Old Testament. Sometimes it refers simply to Jews dying and going into the grave. Sometimes it is used polemically against Jewish enemies in a sense of threatening them with death. Sometimes it is used pleadingly when a person is asking God to rescue them from death and physical destruction (“O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me…you brought my soul up from the grave [sheol]” – Psalm 30:2-3a).
What is clear from the Old Testament is that when people die, they go into the ground. In Jewish tradition, only the greatest of the greats among prophets were given the blessing of going to heaven to be with God for eternity. Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind is a primary example, and note that in the Elijah story, Elijah doesn’t actually die – his still-living body is taken up to heaven. The reason for that is clear: if he had died, he would have been dead (in sheol) and therefore couldn’t have gone to heaven!
Despite this tradition within the most ancient forms of Judaism, the Jews did, of course, eventually develop an afterlife theology. As best as can be reconstructed from the available texts, this seems to have begun developing in widespread fashion in the middle of the 2nd century, B.C.E. It was during that era, around 160 B.C.E., that the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes laid siege to Jerusalem and began offering swine on the altar of God inside the Temple. This act was referred to in the book of Daniel (and later mentioned by Jesus in the Gospels) as the “desolating sacrilege” or, in the more poetic words of the King James, the “abomination of desolation.”
In response to this, the Jews revolted, led by a powerful Jewish family known to history as the Maccabees. They succeeded in defeating Antiochus and subsequently set up a Jewish dynasty known as the Hasmoneans, who ruled independently for the next 120 years. That dynasty ended only when Herod the Great came to power in Judea, but even Herod legitimized his own claim to the throne by marrying a Hasmonean princess.
It was during that time of upheaval, revolt, and war that the Jews seem to have begun developing afterlife theology on a widespread basis. Antiochus IV Epiphanes waged a campaign of terror and violence against the Jews. Jews were slaughtered by the thousands for refusing to worship the Greek gods. One story tells of two women who circumcised their children in the Jewish fashion and were punished by first having their children murdered, then parading the women through town with the children strapped to their breasts as though nursing, and ending with the killing of the women themselves by being thrown from the city wall. Another account says: “There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery” (2 Maccabees, chapter 5).
In the end, of course, the Jews were vindicated. The Maccabees overthrew the violent oppression of the Greco-Syrian Antiochus IV Epiphanes. But what about all those innocent martyrs who died during the occupation? Surely God could not just abandon them to the grave (sheol)?
Thus, the idea of a general resurrection was born in Jewish theology. God would right all the wrongs. God would perform what scholar J.D. Crossan calls “the Great Divine Cleanup” of the world. A great new prophet – called “messiah” or “son of humanity” in Jewish scriptures – would arise to lead the Jews into an eternal earthly kingdom of God’s divine justice; a kingdom of peace and equality opposed to the violent, oppressive kingdoms of the world. When this happened, part of that earthly transformation would include the resurrection of the dead – the vindication of the martyrs.
This resurrection would, by definition, be a bodily resurrection. The dead would physically rise from their graves into newness of life.
THE NEW TESTAMENT
The preceding is the historical context in which the writers of the New Testament, and Jesus himself, lived and worked. This was their religious and theological background.
Ultimately, they did not stray very far from it.
One criticism frequently aimed at the Bible is that it is inconsistent on a variety of theological topics. One topic, however, that the Bible is very consistent on is the topic academics call “eschatology.” That’s just a fancy word that refers to metaphysical ideas about the ultimate destiny of humankind and the end of the world.
In the Gospels, Jesus is frequently found discussing various eschatological topics. True to his Jewish context, Jesus sees the end of the world as God’s “Great Divine Cleanup.” For Jesus, however, this eschatological event has already begun. The kingdom of God – also called the kingdom of heaven – is already present here on the earth. In the Gospel of Matthew alone, there are no fewer than 31 references to Jesus’ vision of “the kingdom of heaven.” The first comes in Matthew’s third chapter, where John the Baptist says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” In Matthew’s vision, it was Jesus who brought the reality of heaven’s kingdom to earth.
Outside of the Gospels, the various writers of the New Testament continued this vision of God’s kingdom here on earth, and they began to imagine God’s “Great Divine Cleanup” as being an action that would occur in two stages. The first stage had already happened. The kingdom of God had come with Jesus. Now, it is up to Christians to live within that kingdom by emulating Christ. The second stage would come when God consummated the kingdom – when God finished the work, as it were. Jesus would return in a Second Coming and the world would be transformed from a human world of violence and oppression into a Godly world of justice and equality.
This theology forms the entire basis of the book of Revelation, where Jesus – called “the Lamb” – defeats the powers of the world and inaugurates a “new Jerusalem,” which descends down to earth out of heaven. For the writer of Revelation, eternity is here on earth in a world transformed by God through Christ.
Part of this transformation includes the Jewish idea of the resurrection of the dead. Paul talks about this explicitly and in depth in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.” In other words, if Christ has not been raised, then neither will anyone else be raised. The dead are still dead. They have no hope. Paul goes on to say:
As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.Christ was raised first, as the “first fruits” of the general resurrection. At his second coming (and not upon their own deaths), the dead in Christ will also be raised. After that, the end of time comes, when Jesus turns everything over to God.
Paul speaks explicitly about this in 1 Thessalonians as well. He starts off saying: “We do not want you to be uninformed…about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
Paul’s congregation in Thessaloniki was concerned about their members who had died. What would happen to them? Paul tells them that since they are Christians, they have a hope that others do not share. He goes on to say: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”
In other words, God will save those who have died. They are not lost to the grave. But how exactly will this happen? Paul tells us.
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.Thus, when Jesus returns at the Second Coming to consummate God’s kingdom on earth, the dead will rise first to meet him. This is the “hope for the dead” that Paul gave to the congregation at Thessaloniki. Paul’s hope wasn’t that the souls of the dead go to heaven. His vision was that the dead will be raised at Jesus’ Second Coming.
After the dead are raised, then, according to Paul, “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
So the dead will rise first. Then those still living will meet Jesus in the air as he descends. Then all will live eternally with Christ on a transformed earth.
Some have read this passage to support the notion of eternity in heaven. Those still alive will be “caught up in the clouds” to meet Jesus “in the air.” Surely this implies an ascension into heaven? Yet Paul explicitly says that this will happen when Christ is “descending” to the earth. Christians are simply rising up to meet Jesus in the air, then to descend along with him to live on the divinely transformed earth.
This fits, in fact, with a known historical practice for receiving dignitaries. First, take note that cemeteries in the ancient world sat outside the city limits. Tuck that in the back of your mind.
In ancient Rome, when the emperor or some other important figure visited a city of the empire, the custom was for the population to exit the city walls and meet him on the road. That was proper etiquette. You didn’t sit inside the city waiting for the dignitary to arrive; you met him outside.
Thus, a visiting dignitary to a Roman city would first be greeted by the dead (the cemeteries were outside the city walls), then by the population who came out to greet him on the road. Following that, everyone, dignitary and populace, would continue back into the city.
This is the ancient model Paul surely had in mind when he described Jesus’ Second Coming to the Thessalonians. As Jesus descended in his Second Coming, he would first be met by the dead. Then the living would rise (leave the earth/city walls) to meet him. Then all would return to consummate God’s kingdom.
All of this is perfectly in line with Jewish theology about the “Great Divine Cleanup” and the general resurrection. The dead are dead. In death, they await resurrection at the end of time when God will right all the wrongs.
The point in all this, by now, should be fairly clear. The Bible makes clear and explicit its ideas about life after death. The afterlife does not being when you die. When you die, you are simply dead. In the grave (sheol). Dust to dust. The afterlife begins when God, through Jesus, consummates the “Great Divine Cleanup” of the world, a process that has already begun through Jesus’ earthly life. It will be finished when Jesus returns in the Second Coming to rule over God’s transformed earth, and it is at that time that the dead will be raised and thus the “afterlife” will begin for those who have died.
There is simply nothing in all of the Biblical tradition, both Jewish scriptures and Christian scriptures, to indicate that souls ascend to heaven upon the death of the body. The dead are dead. Their hope is in Jesus’ Second Coming and the inauguration of the general resurrection. This is a consistent and explicit theology throughout the New Testament, and consistent with the Jewish context of the Old Testament.
The idea that the soul goes to heaven (or some other plane of existence) upon death, while the body decays in the earthly ground, is certainly a perfectly valid metaphysical belief. A lot of people across many religions share it. In fact, it may very well be 100% true.
But when a Christian accepts this belief, they do so at the expense, and even in contradiction of, the clear theology of afterlife found in the Biblical tradition.