Life After Death

What happens to us when we die? Many of us have early memories as children of a family member or friend dying and being told that the person is now in heaven. Often the idea that the individual is somehow looking down upon us was presented to us as children, conveying the idea that the person was somehow still connected to our lives. Even with this comforting childhood picture in hand, the idea of letting go of someone who is dying remains difficult and prayers for healing and recovery seem to outnumber prayers for a peaceful death. Perhaps when others die we come face-to-face with our own mortality.

Why is it that death is so scary? John Wesley wrote of the existential fear of death as the “acid test” for Christians. When that existential fear is conquered, Wesley saw that faith reigns. Indeed, he challenged his own faith based upon an episode in his life during which he was afraid of death during a storm at sea and saw others, a group of Moravians, engaged in worship with no sign of fear! Do we really think that death is “the end”? Our culture certainly acts that way in many regards but not all cultures see death the same way. In some African primal and folk religions, for example, death is not seen as a one-way barrier that we can only pass through once, and then in just one direction. Death is envisioned more as a permeable membrane where passage back and forth is possible. In such belief systems death is not “the end”, it is being forgotten by the community that signals oblivion.

The notion of “going to heaven” brought us up against the limitations of language. We usually speak of “going” somewhere, and that “somewhere” is a geophysical location in the universe; somewhere that can be given a set of coordinates or an “address” if you prefer. Surely that isn’t what we mean we speak of “going to heaven”, is it? If we argue that “heaven” is somehow a reference to the presence of God, and if we accept that God is transcendent over creation (although also immanent within in) then the idea that “heaven” is a specific location to which we “go” starts to sound a little strange. Indeed, how we view what happens at death seems to be conditioned by our own anthropology, in other words how we understand the nature of the human person. To speak of a “body” being buried while a “soul” ascends to heaven suggests a dualist understanding of the human person and brings us up against the mind-body problem (in short, how does an immaterial soul interact with a material body?).

We touched upon the idea of a “general resurrection” and realized that this brings up a conflict with the observation that the very atoms that make up a body will re-enter the earth after death and burial, and thus eventually reappear as part of another living person. If a general resurrection involves people being resurrected with something approaching their “original” bodies, then we run into this problem of shared atoms!

We spoke of the famous example of Pascal’s wager as an antidote to skepticism and recognized that just because we can’t prove something doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

The idea of somehow entering into the presence of God seemed to many to be reasonable, although we lack good language to describe this. The issue of judgment and “heaven versus hell” was touched upon only briefly, perhaps because none of us wanted to consider the less-pleasant option!

The matter is truly a huge mystery and one that is hard to grasp. Perhaps there is only one way to find out about this and maybe Wesley was correct: with faith, the existential fear of death evaporates and with that evaporation comes the sure and certain knowledge that, whatever it might mean, heaven awaits.


  1. Julian A. Davies

    I just saw a quote from Woody Allen in the January 27, 2007 Time magazine that bears on this conversation, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.”

    I didn’t think that Woody Allen was such an optimist!

  2. Rick Gaillardetz

    Nothing challenges the limits of our religious imaginations like trying to consider “life after death.” The tendency is to confuse the notion of “eternity” with “time without end.” For Christians eternity is not time without end. As one well known theologian put it, death is not jsut a matter of “changing horses” and riding off into the heavenly sunset on a new horse that will never tire. Indeed, perhaps our religious imaginations would do better to not think of eternal life so much in terms of duration (e.g., time without end) but rather in terms of intensity. That is, if we imagine our most profound experience of the love of God, then eternal life is the infinite intensification of that experience rendered eternal in death.

  3. Eric

    Hello everyone! My name is Eric and this is my first post. Brad asked me to post a comment on an argument for Christian universalism (i.e. all persons will eventually obtain salvation through Jesus Christ). Julian offered some powerful critiques of this view…I’m still thinking about a response to or even agreement with these critiques. Anyway, the argument was taken from the book, “The Evangelical Universalist” by Gregory MacDonald.

    1. Let us say that supremely worthwhile happiness is a kind such that (a) it could survive the complete disclosure of truth about the universe, and (b) one possesses it only when one is filled with love for others.

    2. Supremely worthwhile happiness cannot rest on deception or false factual beliefs (given 1.a), nor can it exist if there are people we know of but do not love (given 1.b)

    3. Love can jeopardize our happiness if those we love suffer, especially if they suffer everlastingly with no hope of salvation

    4. Therefore, to have supremely worthwhile happiness, I must be able to know about the genuine fate of those I love and remain happy.

    5. I can only know the fate of those I love and remain happy if their fate is ultimately a blessed one.

    6. Therefore, the redeemed can only have supremely worthwhile happiness if ultimately no one they love is damned eternally.

  4. The Edz

    I like the way Rick put it. It reminds me of the intensity of God’s presence in the Holy City at the end of revelation. Heaven is a place where God’s presence is so intense, there won’t even be a need for the sun when heaven joins with earth.
    The Edz

  5. Brad

    A universalist position seems to me the most consistent with God’s nature. The doctine of eternal punishment contradicts God’s love. Temporary “punishment” intended to restore one to a proper way of being could still be considered loving, but eternal punishment would serve no loving purpose. Jesus taught radical forgiveness. God forgives to an extent beyond what humans naturally do.

  6. Rob R

    Brad asked me at first to defend the position that in the afterlife, God will seperate the damned from the saved. Of course then Brad told me I had to defend the position that God will punish people eternally in the afterlife. I agreed to do the first but the second is significantly different. As I believe that I have indicated, I am not confident that the idea of punishment as a response to injustice is inherently bad. It is tragic, but the tragedy is the responsibility of the person who commited the transgression, not of God who succesfully made the person free and responsible. But I don’t know that I will defend that at the moment, but I will defend the first challenge brad made. I may also offer some critiques of Eric’s and Profesor Gaillardetz’s posts in later posts.

    There is only a little bit to be said that we haven’t already said in group. I think the reasonable possibility of damnation and even everlasting damnation is linked to the nature of our free will. I believe God has given us free will for four reasons. God gave us free will as part of an expression of his image as God has libertarian freedom in much of his thinking and acting (though it is not necessarily moral freedom). Secondly, as an extension of that first reason, God gave us free will so that we may express a specific part of his image, his creativity. The third reason is that free will makes possible a specific quality of concsiousness that God wanted us to have, a concsiousness which has a life of great awareness of possibilities to explore in thought and action and this feeds into our sense of awe and wonder. Finally, and most commonly recognized, God gave us free will so that we may have a specific type of love and the loving relationships. I do not buy the arguement that God had to make us free or we’d just be like robots and that if God didn’t make us free in love, our loving relationship would be like divine rape. I believe an omnipotent God could have made creatures who weren’t free but loved God and there’d be nothing wrong with that. But God simply wanted for us to have a quality of love for him that could only be achieved with libertarian freedom, a freedom that also entails real responsibility.

    I believe that the nature of this freedom as far as love and morality is concerned is that it is part of a maturing process. God want’s a love from us that arises out of self determination, that is a love that was not necessariy, but once we have responded to God freely and we have lived with integrity with that love, it is no longer necessary to remain free with respect to that love. I do not believe that in heaven, the faithful will be psycologically capable of ceasing to love God as freedom in love will have fulfilled it’s purpose. On the other hand, it will not be consistent with the kind of love that God wants from us to take those people who have lived freely rejecting God’s love and refusing to respond in love for God to forcebly change their minds, hence, if God did not create concsiousness, to end, they may eternally reject God and hence they will be put away.

    In this picture, it is not damnation that is inconsistent with God’s love but the refusal of damnation that is actually inconsistent with God’s love that does not desire to coerce the wills of the unwilling.

  7. Rob R

    For Eric’s formal arguement, I would not say that it is in it’s strongest form here as it appears he writes of supreme happiness for those of us alive today. I don’t think we should have supremely worthwhile happiness when there is so much that is tragically wrong (morally or otherwise) with many whom we are charged to love. It is more important to be loving than to be happy and sometimes it is an either/or ordeal as the suffering or the moral disgracefulness of those we love should grieve us.

    Eric’s arguement would have more strength as applied to eschatological fullfillment when evil and suffering are vanquished and we are supposed to come into an age where the faithful will have supremely fulfilling happiness.

    This arguement is founded on the two greatest commandments, that we are to love God with all our being and we are to love our neighbor as our selves. How can we be happy if some who were our neighbors, friends and reletives are damned for eternity because they rejected God’s grace. I think this is a strong arguement for universalism and I have sympathies for it as arguements along a similar line are also used against the concept of reprobation (gauranteed damnation that exists prior to the person’s existence) which I hate. This excellent arguement was in fact developed by a universalist, Thomas Talbott. To make the arguement way too short, (but long enough for this discussion) I will say that nobdy would accept reprobation for themselves hence, following the second greatest commandment, we should not accept it for our neighbors either, and the grief over the reprobation of others as if it were our own would surely keep us from loving God with our whole hearts.

    There is a reason why an arguement geared against reprobation does not necessarily spill into an arguement for universalism. In my love for myself, which is the model for my love for my neighbor, I recognize that I am responsible for my response to God’s grace as God has made it completely accessable to me. I am responsible to respond and accept God’s salvation from damnation. If I accept this responsibility for myself, then naturally, I should accept it for those that I am charged to love. As a matter of fact, If I don’t reinforce the recognition of that personal responsibility to others, then I am acting in an unloving way Because to love someone including yourself is to act responsibly for your well being as well as the well being of others and to encourage them to act for the sake of their well being.

    So if we have a responsibility to respond to God’s grace and therefore accept that responsibility in others, what about after they reject it. Naturally grief should be the response of the loving. But should that grief be eternal if their rebellion is eternal? To get technical, the second law applies to the living, to our neighbors. Is that enough, to accept that the second law doesn’t apply to those who are seperated from us in hell? Perhaps not. But if they rejected the love of God and our love which should have been united with the love of God on earth in concern for their souls and whole well being, is scorned to the end, surely even though our response should be grief, God can heal us of these wounds that were neither ultimately inflicted by him nor ourselves in as far as we were obedient to God in carrying his messege of grace and forgiveness.

    I don’t expect that this definitely answers the problem with damnation but I think it goes a certain way. But this concern that Eric has pointed out continues to make me question the reality of the tragedy of eternal damnation or even of it’s rationality. Though I recognize that there is considerable reason to question it, I currently believe that eternal damnation is a part of the description of the afterlife and represents the best understanding of scriptures on the topic and I don’t believe that the concerns of the universalists have shown eternal damnation to be definitely and irrevably problematic and irrational. The arguements are strong, but they have not been strong enough to sway me.

Thanks for visiting!